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Don't repeat the mistake on page 847 of The Prayer Book . Here is what God really requires from the chosen people:
A series of essays in the Episcopal Church
The Big Bang, The Baptism of Jesus, and the new Creation
Sermon by Joseph Summers given on January 9, 2011 at the Church of the Incarnation
(Readings for the day: Isaiah 42:1-9, Acts 10:34-43, Matthew 3:13-17)
I want to talk today about the Big Bang, the baptism of Jesus, and the new Creation.
One of the things that got me thinking about the Big Bang was Ann Lamott's new novel Imperfect Birds, which I began reading when I was in the hospital last week. In it one of the young people is studying physics and they say that mass, that is the stuff that we and all created things are made of, is energy slowed down. I checked this out with Marshal who teaches physics and he said that's basically right.
I'm not sure why I find this so moving. I think maybe it makes me feel better about things slowing down--because I love the physical world. It also struck me again just how miraculous everything is in terms of this amazing mystery we find ourselves living in. I don't necessarily believe in miracles that violate the laws of nature but that's not saying much because nature itself seems incredibly miraculous. For me, the idea that in the big bang something infinitesimally small could grow into a massive universe in less than a second seems even more miraculous than the idea that God created the world in seven days. There is clearly so much miraculous power in this whole thing we call life and creation that it tells me I'm a fool when I fall into thinking life is pretty fixed and all we can do it adapt to it. Lastly, if God is the source of all energy, and that's part of my understanding of God, than I'm moved by how creation itself is an expression of God ---slowed down.
Now for the authors of the synoptic gospels the baptism of Jesus was something like the spiritual equivalent of the big bang. In the Hebrew understanding there was a shell over the world that kept the waters above the sky separated from the earth. What we hear in the story of the baptism of Jesus is that this shell is cracked open as God's love shines down on Jesus and proclaims Jesus to be beloved.
We're still feeling the reverberations of this big bang and it's trajectory continues to transform us and our world. It was Isaiah's experience of seeing the heavenly throne room which permanently influenced his understanding of what should be happening on earth in terms of visions like the peaceable kingdom. Here it is Jesus' experience of God's light that allows Jesus to re-imagine our world and to begin a process of re-creating it. When you read how imaginative Jesus was in his relationship to ideas and institutions and traditions that most people never questioned, it's almost like watching Neo, in the movie "The Matrix," when he develops the capacity to transcend the matrix and make it's energy do what he wants it to do. Today, the main connection I want to make is the connection between experiencing heaven, the practices that help us experience it, and the practices that grow out of it. These are connections I'm hoping to continue to explore this epiphany.
Being Grounded in Heaven
The "Kingdom of heaven", is the word Matthew uses for the same reality that Mark and Luke call the "Kingdom of God", that John's gospel speaks of as the experience of "eternal life", and that Paul describes as "being in Christ." That we have at least four different names in the New Testament to describe this experience makes their testimony all the more persuasive because it means that they are not just imitating each other--they each choosing the terms that they think will best describe this reality. Others subsequently have used other words to describe it such as the Quakers who describe it as the experience of "the inner light."
Now if Jesus is the main model for our practice than Christianity is about a practice that helps us experience heaven and then impels us to be artists of the new creation--heaven on earth-- "thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."
Recently I saw the HBO series based on the novel "Pillars of the Earth." "Pillars of the earth" is the idea that the great medieval Cathedrals were like pillars of light that enabled heaven's light to hold up the earth. If you go into any of those glorious medieval cathedrals and experience the wonderful way light shines in and through them you can indeed understand how and why people would have felt that they allowed them to root their lives in heaven.
One of the things I'm feeling more and more strongly these days is that we are each called to be like to be pillars of light, channels of the light of the new creation. This is part of where the practice of inner silence, mediation, and contemplative prayer are becoming increasingly important for me because through those practices I find myself transformed by heavenly light, the light that infuses even the darkness.
When we can experience inner silence, when all the crap that swirls around in us so much of the time has a chance to settle down, then there's a chance for us to experience the light of God, the light of Creation.
In the gospels, it is Mary, the mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene who are presented as models of the power of contemplation. When an angel comes to the young Mary and says "Hail O Favored One, the Lord is with you," Mary doesn't freak out. She doesn't say "No! No! No! No! No!" She doesn't try to go find some kind of psychiatrist or medication. Even though it says she was greatly troubled by this it says she simply "considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be". Then when her cousin Elizabeth sees her and breaks out into prophecy saying "Why has the Mother of my lord come to me?" ( Something that would be a little freaky for your older cousin to say to you.) Mary is able to be right there with her and claim the power and the glory growing in her "My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit has rejoiced in God by Savior." When the shepherds come and say that the heavenly host came to them and told them about Jesus' birth, the scriptures says Mary "Kept all these things, pondering them in her heart." When Simeon encounters the baby Jesus and Mary when they are headed into the temple and prophecies that that Jesus will be one who reveals "the thoughts out of many hearts", he then also says to Mary "a sword will also pierce through your own soul(heart)."
"Considered in her mind"… "pondered these things in her heart" "My soul magnifies the Lord"… what are we hearing is that Mary is the embodiment of a contemplative, one who is able to let things be: "Let it be to me according to thy word." "Thy will be done."
This capacity to let things be, to be open to what is, enables Mary to give birth to the New Creation. And in this Mary is clearly a model for Jesus as he testified to, when in the midst of walking towards his death, Jesus calls on people to recognize Mary's greatness. While Jesus was carrying his cross someone cries out "Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that you suckled," somehow claiming Mary is great simply because she was his biological mother. Jesus corrects them saying "No. Blessed are those who hear the word of God and believe." Mary's greatness is her ability to listen and believe and act.
I'm not going to go into this further now, but it's clearly no accident that Jesus' mother and Mary Magdalene were among the only ones who stayed present to Jesus through his crucifixion and who were then the first to experience the resurrection. The gospels suggest this was fundamentally related to their capacity to be contemplative, to listen, to be attentive, to not be afraid, to hear the new creation.
The Taize movement, which has had such a profound impact on the church since World War II, began with three simple vows one of which was: "Practice inner silence in all things and you will dwell in Christ." Thankfully, they've been able to communicate something of their experience of being in Christ in songs like "Taste and see the goodness of the lord" or "East this bread, drink this cup, come to me and never be hungry. Eat this bread, drink this cup, trust in me and you shall have life."
As we begin this season of Epiphany, this season in which we celebrate the revelation of the light of God, I'm hoping all of us can really take seriously this idea of how important it is for us to ground ourselves in our experience of the light of God, the light that infuses the darkness, wherever and however we experience it, which is likely to be quite different for each of us. And, if we don't experience the light of God, like those three wise kings who followed the star, to go on whatever journey we need to go on to be able to experience it, because the experience of this light is part of the key to our becoming artists of the new creation.
When I say artists of the new creation I'm talking about a way of practicing heaven on earth that transforms the world and helps to create a new heavens and a new earth. To give a sense of the fundamental re-orientation I am talking about I want to briefly focus on three fundamental areas of our lives, time, money, relationships.
Time and the New Creation:
Time in our society is generally experiences as chronos. Time outside of us, marching in a lock stop, unwavering, indifferent and merciless, often our enemy. Time over us. Time after us. Time fragmenting us. Got it?
But in heaven time is about kairos, seasons. Time is about a movement within us that is in harmony with the movement outside of us. Time is about a space, an opportunity to be, an opportunity to love and to be loved.
For the slaves who came out of Egypt time seems to have been their number one concern, the number one issue in terms of being free, or not being free. Through the practice of trust they create a world where time is their friend, their comforter, the great healer. They began their day at sundown with rest and food and time for renewal. They ended their week with the Lord's day, the Sabbath day. Sabbath-time was time for rest, renewal, individual and collective healing, not only for themselves but also their animals and the land. Then every fifty years they practiced the year of the Lord, the time of the Jubilee, two years of Sabbath time, a time in which all debts are forgiven, all slaves freed, the land redistributed, and the earth and its' creatures given two years to recover from the strains of life without working.
For Jesus this vision of the time of the lord, Jubilee time, becomes a vision for a way of living all the time, hour by hour practicing being awake, giving ourselves, participating in the healing and renewal of all.
How radical is it that former slaves would be able to re-create time itself? How radical would it be if we did? This is part of where meditation, contemplative prayer, and chanting are becoming increasingly important to me because they slow time down. In my normal life thirty minutes seems like nothing, but when you are sitting in silence it's a great amount of time. Within that short space of time chronos time can be transformed into kairos time, human time, time rooted in creation, the seasons, and ourselves and our bodies. We cannot be artists of the new creation if we are not experiencing it and we can't experience the new creation, unless we take time to experience it.
The New Creation and Money: In our world money is something to be pursued and ideally accumulated. This means that though we live in a world where there is enough to sustain all, because a few have far more than they need many go without what one needs to sustain oneself and ones children in a healthy way. Ours is a world of radical inequality.
As with time the new creation in terms of money begins with trust.
For those coming out of slavery in Egypt this trust was expressed in tithing. Tithing is about a different kind of giving, not the kind of charity where you give out of what you don't need, but giving as a practice of trust and sacrifice, giving the community the first fruits of your labor before you know just how it's all going to turn out, giving before you are sure there is going to be enough for you.
Tithing is about learning to live below your means so you can give to others. It's the opposite of trying to live over your means to make up for any ways you feel you or your children are deprived, which seems to have been the practice of most of us baby boomers.
Tithing is a practice that stabs at the very heart of scarcity mentalities and the lie that there's not enough for everyone. It stabs at the very heart of the lie of victim mentalities that say: "I deserve more than others, or everyone owes me, because of this or that thing that happened in the past."
Tithing is part of transforming the world of accumulating wealth into the world of giving and receiving. It is about transforming the world of radical inequality into the miracle of the loaves and fishes where each give according to their ability and each receive according to their needs. It's about the practice of daily bread, taking what you need but not more than that, so that others can have their daily bread.
Tithing is an important first step towards not having our lives controlled by our love of money, or fears about not having enough of it. From there Jesus and Francis and Dorothy Day and others have challenged us to go even further--to discover the "perfect joy" that comes from giving all of who you are, and all that you have, to others.
The New Creation and Relationships:
Ultimately, our lives and world are all about relationships. Either our practices help us be in better relationship with others, or they don't.
The fundamental challenge of our religious tradition is to transform the I-it world into the I-Thou World, to transform the world in which we are encouraged to treat others or ourselves as objects, a means to an end, into a world where everyone is treated as sacred, an end in themselves, into a world in which all experience themselves as human beings, subjects not objects, co-creators of the world, working with God in the ongoing creation, redemption and healing of the world.
Approaching relationships as spiritual practice is perhaps the most fruitful spiritual practice, but its also among the most challenging. I loved hearing the Dali Lama's secretary talk about how when he was a monk he might have to wait weeks to have the opportunity to practice unconditional love, but that now that he's a husband and a father he's given those opportunities all the time throughout the day.
So much of the twisting that happens to us, or that we do to others, has to do with not practicing I-thou relationship, not practicing the giving and receiving of mutual relationships, not practicing the non-attachment necessary if we are going to let others blossom for who they are, rather than looking to them to fulfill or complete us.
It seems to get all that much more fraught with challenge when relationships are sexual relationships. They seem to bring us to our greatest level of vulnerability and present us with the challenge of living out the paradox of really rooting ourselves in our desires while simultaneously giving ourselves to meet the desire of others.
I'm excited that our next retreat is going to be on relationships as spiritual practice because its so clear that most of us are thirsting for the new creation in our most important relationships.
Artists of the New Creation
In the story of the baptism of Jesus and the impact that the revelation of his belovedness had on Jesus, we hear the challenge for us to experience and to claim our belovedness and to become artists of the new creation, the new heavens and new earth that Jesus pointed towards in the beatitudes.
Our world, the very building blocks of human culture, concepts like time and money, relationships, and ourselves, including our bodies, minds, hearts, and experience, are meant to be our medium, the stuff we work with to create our art.
But we can't be artists of the new creation if we are controlled by fear. We can't be artists of the new creation if we don't also experience the new creation. We can't be artists of the new creation if we are too arrogant, but we also can't be artists of the new creation if we are too humble, if our humility won't let us accept the great things that can happen through us.
For Jesus God is not a force outside of us that needs to be pleased or appeased. God is a dynamic creating reality living in us, loving through us, yearning to make all things new. May we like Jesus open ourselves to the experience of being beloved, of being bathed in the light and song of the new creation, and then live the life of the beloved through helping to create a new heavens and a new earth wherever we are and wherever we go. For if we are willing God is able and if we are ready God has already gone ahead to prepare a way for us. Amen
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