Spiritual Resilience in Quarantine

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter    John 14:1-14  

Let-Not-Your-Heart-8198B1Let not your hearts be troubled.

Jesus said: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Well, I say, “Easier said than done, Jesus!” Don’t get me wrong; I’m not arguing with Jesus; I know he’s absolutely right in teaching us that we don’t have to be troubled, even in the direst circumstances. But I must confess that my heart is indeed very troubled. And just telling myself – or even Jesus telling me – “don’t feel bad; don’t worry,” just doesn’t cut it.

As we enter our ninth week of sheltering in place, with no end yet in sight, we have a multitude of issues confronting us. This epidemic is affecting all parts of our lives: how we do work, how we do school, how we shop, how we vacation (or not), how we do church. We worry about the unemployment rate and the precarious state of the economy. We often hear that we’ll never go back to the way things were, but we don’t know what that means.

Then there’s the threat of the virus itself. The number of those infected is staggering; the number of dead is heartbreaking. Predictions by the Center for Disease Control and other reputable experts are not encouraging. While no one knows when this will end, pandemics in the past have typically lasted between 12 and 36 months. One former epidemic intelligence service officer in the division of viral diseases at the CDC said, “My expectation is that COVID-19 will continue to be a threat for a good part of 2020, and that we’ll start to see the page turn in 2021.”

That should make us feel a little better, knowing that people who know what they’re doing are on the job and looking out for our welfare. Unfortunately, not everyone is looking after our welfare. The number of people refusing to comply with social distancing and other safety precautions is very disheartening, as is the politicization of it. Protesters, saying that having to wear a mask is a violation of their civil rights may have the right to protest. But they put the rest of us at risk by doing so. So do the ones claiming that the epidemic is a hoax. States and communities prematurely opening up will have an adverse effect on everyone else trying to stay safe.

7b4d5cdb-48c5-499c-9feb-57bff8752c95And if this all wasn’t bad enough, along comes the news about the shooting in Georgia of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man, shot as he was jogging near his home. That was back in February. But it wasn’t until last week that the two men – seen on a video taken at the scene – were arrested and charged with murder and aggravated assault. So, yeah, my heart is troubled.

Of course, there are good things happening these days. We live in California, for heaven’s sake. The weather is beautiful. We’ve got family and friends and a church community. I picked up our new kitty, Miley,  from the SPCA yesterday and we’re enjoying watching her explore the apartment and assess us as her new staff. In so many ways, life is good. Still, there is a lot that can weigh heavily on our hearts. We feel grief for our old way of life, even as we hope for a better one to come. We feel anger at injustices, magnified now in this crisis. We feel anxious about what the future might bring. We don’t have to deny any of our emotions. Even when Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”

But we’re not going to ignore Jesus either. Do you think he didn’t know what was going on in the hearts of the disciples as Good Friday loomed before them? His instruction to unburden their hearts wasn’t given in a vacuum. He knew his friends were hurting. This section of John’s gospel is from the four chapters in John called the Farewell Discourse given by Jesus the night before his crucifixion. The disciples were understandably devastated. In saying “Do not let your hearts be troubled” Jesus didn’t ignore their feelings, which is why we have to read the rest of the passage in order to find help for our times of grief, fear, and anxiety.   

You might be thinking, “Wait a minute. Good Friday was over a month ago. It’s Easter; why are we going back over the crucifixion?” That’s a good question. And there is a reason. During the seven weeks of Easter, the gospel readings for the first three weeks were resurrection appearance stories. But the readings for the four weeks after that are all about how to go about life with untroubled hearts, all about  Jesus teaching us about living in intimacy with God, how to be spiritually resilient in the face of difficulties.

3 Promises and a Problem

There’s an old model of preaching that says every good sermon should have 3 points and a poem. Diverting from that model just a bit, my sermon today could be called 3 promises and a problem (with thanks to Bruce Epperly’s blog, The Adventurous Lectionary).

7160652549_3b117436c0_cPromise #1 comes right away in verses 2-4, so often read at funerals and memorial services: “In God’s house there are many dwelling places; otherwise, how could I have told you that I was going to prepare a place for you?” Other translations say ‘many mansions’ or ‘many rooms.’ But mansions, rooms, dwelling places – it doesn’t matter; the place is not necessarily a ‘place’ at all; it means being in the intimate presence of God. The promise here is of a future life in God’s presence.

But the “dwelling place” is also wherever God is present: everywhere and in every challenging situation. God is just as real in the here and now world of pandemic as it will be when we die. So this vision of God’s presence encourages action, not passivity, in responding to the real problems of our real world. The promise is of an absolutely divine future – which then enables us to experience eternal life in the here and now. We can face anything because of our trust in God’s everlasting love.

Old_vine_cabernetPromise #2 is in verse 10: “Believe that I am in God and God is in me . . .” Jesus is speaking of the spiritual unity between himself and the Creator of the universe. Look at Jesus and you’ll see the heart of God dwelling in Jesus in his deepest self.

This statement has existential implications for us. It should remind us of the next chapter, where Jesus speaks of the divine connectivity of vines and branches. Because we’re intimately connected to the vine, we can receive and manifest divine love in and through our lives. Later, in chapter 17, he continues to talk about the interconnectedness of divine and human presence and activity and prayed: “that all may be one, as you are in me and I in you; I pray that they may be one in us . . . that they may be one, as we are one – I in them, you in me.” We are intimately related to God in Christ.

Which brings us to Promise #3 in verse 12: “You will do the works I do – and greater works besides.” Now this is puzzling; Jesus is pretty vague here. Does he mean we can heal the sick and raise the dead and defy the ordinary limits placed on human life? Does he mean that we can forget about physical distancing and open up our churches, confident that we and our neighbors will be immune from the virus? Now that would be great, wouldn’t it? But we know that would be irresponsible.

Jesus doesn’t specify what he means by “greater works.” But given the vision of the commonwealth of God presented by Jesus, we do know that we can do greater acts of hospitality, spiritual nurture, and healing. We do have power when we align ourselves with the way of Christ, maintaining our connection to the vine, and letting God’s vision guide us in every moment. The lack of specificity is actually helpful, because in not fully defining “greater works,” we’re free to push our limits both as individuals and as a congregation, even while we are sheltering in place.

I Am the WayIf ‘I am the Way’ is the answer, what is the question?

The problem comes verse 6: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father but through me.” Those of you who will be reading my book will hear this story again because it was one of the defining moments in my decision to pursue a doctorate in how Christians relate to people of other faiths. I was at a funeral and I happened to sit next to my friend, Kitty. When the gospel was read, including this verse, it felt like a blow to my heart. Kitty is Jewish, and hearing the “good news” through her ears was disorienting, disturbing and unacceptable. This verse is one of the passages used to promote the exclusivism of Christianity, that there’s just one way to heaven – Jesus, that our religion is right and all the others are wrong.

But this is not what Jesus was talking about. Diana Eck, director of the Pluralism Project at Harvard University has a good take on this. She asks,

“If ‘I am the Way’ is the answer, what exactly was the question? I once asked a class of 150 religion students to state it. Nobody remembered the question, but most everyone knew the answer. However ‘I am the Way’ is not the answer to any question one might wish to ask. It is the pastoral response to an anxious question.

“It was poor uncertain Thomas who asked the question that night, as John tells it, the last night Jesus spent with his disciples. After having washed their feet, he spoke to them in words of farewell: ‘I’m going where you cannot follow, not just now. I’m going to God’s house of many rooms to prepare a place for you, and you know the way where I am going’

“And what did Thomas ask him? Did he ask, ‘Lord, are Hindus to have a room in God’s heavenly household?’ Did he ask, ‘Will Buddhists make it across the sea of sorrow on the raft of the Dharma? When the prophet Mohammed comes 600 years from now, will he hear God’s word?’ No, on that night of uncomprehending uncertainty, he asked, ‘we don’t know where you’re going; how can we know the way?’ And Jesus answered, ‘I’m the Way.’ It was a pastoral answer, not a polemical one. It was an expression of comfort, not condemnation.”

In light of the promises of the rest of the passage and of the entire Farewell Discourse, that makes so much more sense. When we interpret John 14:6 inclusively, then it becomes our fourth promise: God is with us on the way wherever we are – in our grief, anxiety and fear, as well as in our times of joy.

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How to Build Our Spiritual Resilience

As we seek to build our spiritual resilience in this trying time,
Jesus promises:

 

  • that because our eternal future is secure, we are free to live fully in God’s grace now, no matter what the circumstances;
  • that because we are intertwined like branches on a grapevine with God, we have access to spiritual resources that we cannot even imagine;
  • we can put these into service for the good of the world; 
  • following the Way of Jesus, we are assured of Holy Presence in whatever we do.

Still, to be honest, I need to practice living into this Way, especially when my heart is heavy. And for that good news, we can again hear Jesus, on Easter evening, coming into the locked room saying “Peace be with you.” And then breathing on the disciples, filling them with the Holy Spirit.

866110617_14d583e540_cBreathe!

We should be especially thankful for our breath in this pandemic time, as one of the symptoms of COVID-19 is shortness of breath or difficulty breathing. Breath is crucial for our physical existence. It’s also the key to living into our relationship with the Holy One.

Breathing deeply, intentionally aware of each breath, is a sure way into the Way. For many, it’s helpful to have a mantra or a phrase to go along with your breath. It could be anything. One I particularly like is (on the exhale) ‘there is nothing’ and (on the in breath) ‘only you.’ Another one can be said on both inhale and exhale: ‘toward the One.’ Some people like the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” 

Or as St. Paul said in Galatians: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”

I’ve even used some of my 5-word Easter messages as mantras:

Be not afraid (exhale). Possibilities abound (inhale).

Emmaus is nowhere (exhale). Emmaus is everywhere (inhale).

And this one I just discovered from Breath Prayers for Anxious Times:
True Vine and Gardener (inhale), I abide in You (exhale).

Another resource is How to Trade Stress for Peace through Breath Prayers: Stress Relief from an Ancient Spiritual Discipline

You can choose one (or more) that’s meaningful for you. I invite you to try it the next time you are in one of those heart-troubling times or when your anxiety is keeping you awake. “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Jesus has given us the roadmap for our spiritual resilience. No longer easier said than done, although it does take practice. Thankfully, our salvation isn’t dependent on practice makes perfect. But the practice is one sure way into the heart of God – and peace in our hearts as well.

Amen

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JOHN 14:1-14
Jesus said: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith in me as well. In God’s house there are many dwelling places; otherwise, how could I have told you that I was going to prepare a place for you? I am indeed going to prepare a place for you, and then I will come back to take you with me, that where I am there you may be as well. You know the way that leads to where I am going.”

Thomas replied, “But we don’t know where you’re going. How can we know the way?”

Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Abba also. From now on, you do know and have seen God.”

Philip said, “Rabbi, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”

Jesus replied, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and still you don’t know me?

Whoever has seen me has seen God. How can you say, ‘Show us your Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in God and God is in me? The words I speak are not spoken of myself; it is God, living in me, who is accomplishing the works of God. Believe me that I am in God and God is in me, or else believe because of the works I do. The truth of the matter is, anyone who has faith in me will do the works I do – and greater works besides. Why? Because I go to God, and whatever you ask in my name I will do, so that God may be glorified in me. Anything you ask in my name I will do.

#sideshotsaturday

 

 

 

#sideshotsaturday

 

Sermon for Pentecost 2: The String on Which We Hang Our Beads

Pentecost 2       May 29, 2016

Back in the summer of 2001 – before 9/11, before I decided to leave Buffalo – I went on vacation for a week at the Omega Institute. Omega is an educational retreat center in the Hudson Valley, about 100 miles north of New York City (17 miles from Woodstock). Their catalogue describes them as being “at the forefront of human development, nurturing dialogues on the integration of modern medicine and natural healing; designing programs that connect science, spirituality, and creativity; and laying the groundwork for new traditions and lifestyles.” Or as one participant called it: “guru camp.”

The 5-day class that I signed up for was led by Niles Goldstein, a young rabbi who had founded The New Shul (synagogue) in NYC in 1999. As I look back on it, I see that New Shul is kind of a cross between First United and Middle Circle. Their website describes them as “a progressive, independent, creative community in Greenwich Village exploring meaningful ways to experience Jewish life and ritual in the 21st century.” Goldstein, who describes himself as a gonzo rabbi, incorporates teachings not only from all sects of Judaism, but also from other world religions. I didn’t know it then but I’d had my first taste of interspirituality.

I got my second taste that weekend in a 2-day workshop with Huston Smith, the great scholar, writer, and practitioner of world religions. Smith has not only studied and taught, but actually practiced Hindu Vedanta, Zen Buddhism, and Sufi Islam for more than ten years each—all the while remaining a member of the Methodist Church. At that time, I was deeply interested in knowing how that worked: how could I (could I?) remain a Christian while exploring and even accepting aspects of other religious traditions? At the workshop, after we’d been captivated by stories of Smith’s experiences, someone asked the question that was on my mind: “Why are you still a Christian?” His answer, which has stayed with me over the years and has informed my ministry as a preacher, teacher, and worship leader, was “Christianity is the string on which I hang my beads.”

I later learned that Smith is an adherent of perennial philosophy, which holds that while the outward features of the world’s religions are diverse and often contradictory, the in-ward features point to a single transcendent unity. It’s believed that perennial philosophy is very old, experienced in the very earliest faith expressions of humankind, as well as in the great religions of the world. But if in God the religions converge above, below they are different. While the religions may be the same in the spiritual sense, in practicality, unity among them is not possible or even to be desired. As Mahatma Gandhi said: Our innermost prayer should be a Hindu should be a better Hindu, a Muslim a better Muslim, a Christian a better Christian.”

Although references to perennial philosophy go back to the 15th century, it was popular-ized by writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley in his book The Perennial Philosophy, published in 1957. And it lives on today. Rabbi Rami Shapiro, one of our presenters at our InterSpiritual Wisdom conference, has written a book called Perennial Wisdom for the Spiritually Independent, in which he says, “There is only one reality (call it, among other names, God, Mother, Tao, Allah, Dharmakaya, Brahman, or Great Spirit) that is the source and substance of all creation.” But you might say that, for both Rabbi Niles and Rabbi Rami, Judaism is the string on which they hang their beads.

I’ve been thinking about all this as we approach our fourth Summer of Pluralism. As in perennial philosophy, interspirituality recognizes that there are many approaches to the spiritual journey. There is no advocacy for a rejection of the individual traditions or for the creation of a new superspirituality. So, for us, Christianity can still be our string.

But what kind of Christianity? We’ve undertaken an unusually difficult thing: putting our interfaith encounters right smack dab in the middle of our worship service, making it as welcoming and inclusive as possible to those of other or no faiths, while still remaining true to who we are as Christians. And this is not always easy.

Take, for instance, our Bible. There are some passages that are just plain offensive in an interfaith context. Such as the passage from Galatians, our second reading today: “I’m astonished that you have so soon turned away from the One who called you by the grace of Christ, and have turned to a different gospel. If anyone preaches a different gospel, one not in accord with the gospel we delivered to you, let them be cursed!”

This is one of the texts used to warn Christians who accept the validity of other religions. But what is this “different gospel” that was so offensive to Paul? Well, it turns out that it was all about the big intrafaith question of Paul’s day: did Gentile converts have to follow Jewish law, e.g. circumcision, adherence to the purity code, eating with Gentiles? There are several places where we find evidence of Paul butting heads with Peter and James and other leaders of the Jerusalem church over this issue and of Peter’s waffling on it. At one point, Peter’s mind had been changed by his vision in which a voice from heaven told him, “Don’t call anything unclean that God has made clean.” And later, visiting the home of Cornelius, he said, “Even though it’s against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile, God has shown me that I shouldn’t call anyone impure or unclean.”

But then later, in Galatians we learn that Peter regressed. Paul says that “certain men came from James” – that is, leaders of the Jerusalem church, teaching that Gentile converts had to obey Jewish law. And Peter gave in to them and drew back away from the Gentiles.

Paul uses the harshest language in response: “When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face.” He also used harsh language for anyone who would try to narrow the gospel down to a strictly Jewish sect. His gospel was about expanding the message to include Gentiles and all people.

Paul eventually won this argument and Christianity became a global religion. The “different” gospel that Paul anathematizes in Galatians is one that restricts, narrows, or limits the love of God to an exclusive few – in his time and place, those who wanted to force Gentiles to live like Jews.

So, by examining Paul’s words in their context we see that his anger was not directed at other religions – not even Judaism. What he didn’t want was the gospel being hindered by rules that determined who was in and who was out.

I had an experience just this morning of this freedom of this gospel. I’ve just begun attending meditation with a Sufi group. As you might remember, Sufism is the mystic branch of Islam. But it is Islam. They read from the Qur’an, pray in Arabic, and follow the basic tenets of Islam. Islam is the string on which they hang their beads. But when I asked if there were any practices or gatherings that would be inappropriate for me, as a non-Muslim, in which to participate, the answer was no. I was welcome to be part of everything. The purpose of the prayers, the meditations, the teachings was to be close to God. Simply that. If that not gospel, I don’t know what is.

So this is what we want to convey, not only in our Summer of Pluralism, but every time we meet – the transcendent unity of the hearts of all people who long to be near the heart of God. We do so as Christians, but as Christians who have learned from Paul, that the gospel cannot be restricted. Could it be that some of the beliefs and practices that have defined Christianity for so long may not be required for someone who is sincerely seeking closeness with God? Can a Christian community be open to such a wide-open inclusivity? What does our Christian string look like in the midst of this diversity and inclusivity?

That’s what we’ll be looking at this summer – how to be an interspiritual Christian church. How to speak of one reality, called, among other names, God, Mother, Tao, Allah, Brahman, Dharmakaya, Great Spirit – while at the same time praying, as Gandhi recommended, to be better Christians.

It’s going to be an adventure. But the gospel is the same. The love of God that exists in transcendent unity also exists within every person. The Divine Presence is as near to us as our breath. We can feel close to God because we already are. This is the gospel of Christ that we proclaim.

Amen

Galatians 1: 1-12
From Paul, appointed to be an apostle, not through human agency but through Jesus Christ, and through Abba God, who raised Christ from the dead—and from all the sisters and brothers who are here with us,

To the churches of Galatia:

Grace and peace to you from God our Creator and our Savior Jesus Christ, whose self-sacrifice for our sins rescued us from this present wicked world, in accordance with the will of our God and creator, to whom be the glory forever and ever! I am astonished that you have so soon turned away from the One who called you by the grace of Christ, and have turned to a different gospel—one which is really not “good news” at all. Some who wish to alter the Good News of Christ must have confused you. For if we—or even angels from heaven—should preach to you a different gospel, one not in accord with the gospel we delivered to you, let us—or them—be cursed! We’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if any preach a gospel to you that is contrary to the one you received, let them be cursed!

Who am I trying to please now—people or God? Is it human approval I am seeking? If I still wanted that, I wouldn’t be what I am—a servant of Christ! I assure you, my sisters and brothers: the gospel I proclaim to you is no mere human invention. I didn’t receive it from any person, nor was I schooled in it. It came by revelation from Jesus Christ.