Delivered April 26th for the
First Congregational United Church of Christ
Awaken, heart and mind and body
you who think you are a passing,
a glimmering, a wink in time only.
Awaken to the shimmer of stardust within you,
that moment when God said “BE”,
and you actually began,
swimming up through an explosive outpouring
not just foam on the void’s beach,
not just a tiny exhale from the galaxy’s center
the flooding, swelling, pregnant light
that is creation
that is also,
if you listen prayerfully
into the space between the words,
a deep and abiding communion.
There is a change happening in Christianity-a change that is awkward and exciting, un-nerving and sweet, and it is touching every aspect of what it means to be a Christian today. It has many names and textures. Sometimes called the Emergent Church movement, Transformational Christianity, Creation Spirituality, Unitive or Non-dual Christianity, this new shift in the energy of religion and faith is absolutely fascinating to a comparative religionist like myself.
Like any shift in a major religion, the ripples of change are uneven and tentative. I can say they are impacting every element of our faith, from where we worship to what music is selected and played, from opening up the pulpit to new voices each Sunday to ways of doing social action that emphasize listening to native cultures instead of imposing our own ideas. It affects the models of what our children actually need from religion and touches how we minister to those at the end of their life journeys.
Today, I’m inviting you to taste a little bit of Emergent Church theology. Like any new dish, it may make your nose wrinkle up or you might find yourself holding up your plate for more. The important thing is, come to the table. Be willing to open your mind and heart. See any resistance in yourself if this theology is not what you were raised with. Notice if my words deeply resonate with your life experiences. And remember, you are in good company. For Jesus himself had to put himself at a distance from his Jewish roots to see a way back into deep communion with God. He primarily taught in the outdoors, moving around, mixing with life in a way that was dynamic and vital, responding to it all from a conviction of his one-ness with God. Let us take our guide, our guru, our savior seriously. So we begin with three readings from our unique time and place in history:
“It’s amazing. It’s as if all God is saying is, “All I want are some living icons out there who will communicate who I am, what I’m about and what is happening in God.” Henceforth, all true morality is simply “the imitation of God.” Watch what God does and do the same thing! It’s not a “those who do it right get to go to heaven thing”, as much as it is a “those who live like Me are in heaven NOW” thing.
Fr. Richard Rohr
(Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality)
“This is the worst ambiguity: the impression that one can be grossly unfaithful to life, to experience, to love, to other people, to one’s own deepest self, and yet be “saved” by an act of stubborn conformity, by the will to be correct. In the end, this seem to me to be fatally like the very act by which one is lost: the determination to be “right” at all costs, by dint of hardening one’s core around an arbitrary choice of a fixed position.”
Fr. Thomas Merton
(A Year with Thomas Merton)
“...Buddha has reminded me and all of us Christians that any kind of religious life or church membership must be based on one’s own personal experience. It is not enough to say “amen” to a creed, or obey carefully a law, or attend regularly a liturgy. The required personal experience may be mediated through a community or church, but is has to be one’s own. Without such a personal, mystical happening, one cannot authentically and honestly call oneself religious.”
Paul F. Knitter
(Without Buddha I could not be a Christian)
And again, these words again from our own scriptural tradition:
1 John 3:2: “My dear people, we are already the children of God; it is only what is in the future that has not yet been revealed and then all we know (when we awaken) is that we shall be like him.”
John 17:23 “I in them and you in me, that they may be brought into complete unity.”
Logion 77, Gospel of Thomas
“I am the light
shining upon all things.
I am in the sum of everything,
for everything has come forth from me,
and towards me everything unfolds.
Split a piece of wood,
and there I am.
Pick up a stone
and you will find me there.”
I chose the readings from scripture that you heard today because they help us polish a lens that, once upon a time, was widely used in Christianity. It is the way of looking at the Christian story that is not salvational, as in Jesus died for our sins, but rather, sees Jesus as an Ihidaya, a “unifed one” who came to share that revelation with us all. Ihidaya was a term used in his culture and language to identify him, and it has the same taste as saying “whole” or even “awake.”
Listen to this roster of names, this list of thinkers from our early Christian church:
Clement of Alexandria,
Theophilus of Antioch,
Hyppolytus of Rome,
Athanasius of Alexandria,
Gregory of Nyssa,
Augustine of Hippo,
Cyril of Alexandria,
Gregory of Nanianzus, and
Basil of Ceasarea
These men all quite specifically affirm, in their own words of course, an idea that “God became man so man could become God.” Most of these writers and teachers were active before the Council of Nicea, and were chronologically closer to the Jesus Event than the dualistic and Platonic Philosophy-influenced theologians of later centuries. If we look closely at this earlier theology, we can see that early Christians did not believe our salvation came from the death of Jesus, but rather, from the way he lived his life and kept his heart open, seeing his unity with God even unto death.
So why do we miss this message so much today? Don’t be embarrassed—it’s because by about 400 CE, the Christian orthodoxy was more concerned with teaching us to be “righteous people” rather than humans in union with God. In a moment, you’ll see glimmers of how simply “righteous people” are much more easily organized and controlled.
The later Protestant movement itself tended to strongly err on the side of law rather than personal experience. But the heart of deep communion and non-dual teachings are still tucked into the Synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of John if you have “ears that hear”. I’d like to show you, using a few lines from Matthew 10:40-42. It goes like this:
He that receiveth you receiveth me, and he that receiveth me receiveth him that sent me. He that receiveth a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet's reward; and he that receiveth a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man's reward. And whosoever shall give to drink unto one of these little ones a cup of cold water only in the name of a disciple, verily I say unto you, he shall in no wise lose his reward.
Let’s take a few moments with each part of this reading.
First, its important to see that there is a deep communion that runs through these three sentences. The first and primary connection we need to acknowledge is that between Jesus and his Abba, a union of mind and heart and body that was experiential and central to the way Jesus lived and taught. It was not a relationship that he had learned about from others or only from his own religious tradition. It was not a relationship based on creeds or “the right way to do things.” It was not practiced at the knee of a temporal Guru or Rabbi as far as we know. It was his own inner conviction of his continuous connection with the very Source of reality that fueled his existence and his teachings. Jesus chose to characterize the unnamed God of Israel as Abba, Daddy, as family, as the loins from which he took his shape, his breath, his mind and heart. Listen to some of the ways this is expressed in the writing that came after this wisdom teacher’s departure from the earth:
1. “I and my Father are one” (John 10: 30).
2. “I in them and you in me, that they may be brought into complete unity.” (John 17:23)
3. Yeshua says,
“If your spiritual guides say to you,
“Look, the divine Realm is
in the sky,”
well, then, the birds
will get there ahead of you.
If they say,
“It is in the sea,”
then the fish will precede you.
No, divine Reality exists
inside and around you.
Only when you have come to know
your true Self will you be fully known—
realizing at last that you
are a child of the Living One.
If, however, you never come to know who you
you are a poverty-stricken being
and it is your ‘self’
which lies impoverished.”
(Logion 3, Gospel of Thomas)
When you begin to see the God that Jesus experienced, suddenly the entire scriptural tradition tilts just a little bit. Instead of being the only child of God, you can begin to see how Jesus is calling us—all of us-- into communion as well, the same kind of communion he experienced with his Abba.
When we read the next line of the scripture I have selected today, which goes: “ He that receiveth a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet's reward” two important issues jump out. First, notice we are inclining our ear to the prophet, not God. And second, there is a “reward” in such behavior, but it is the reward of a prophet.
What does this mean? What is the reward of a prophet?
First, it’s important to comprehend that sometimes we listen to the words and see the behaviors of a prophet, but these things are not God. And Prophets, speaking in God’s behalf, usually have some sort of agenda for those listening to them. Sometimes it is an agenda formed by their unique time and place in history and geography, and sometimes it is about staying to the letter of the law or of new ways of coming into relationship with God. The important thing to understand is, when we hear a prophet we are not hearing the voice of God. We only become experiencers of another’s direct or not-so-direct experience. We are, in essence, once removed from God or our Source. The prophet may try to call us back to that one-to-one communication, but he or she cannot do it for us.
So what is the reward of listening to prophet? The prophet can be one through whom societal change is sometimes made. Through such a voice and vision, we may begin to assess our laws and traditions, re-evaluate our spiritual path or renew it in older and well-tilled ground. The prophet asks us to question, evaluate, reason and take action. The more charismatic the prophet, or his ability to tap the “energy of his age”, the broader these changes may be in society at large. For the prophet, however, this message can difficult and sometimes deadly to deliver. We so love our sense of ground, of knowing we are in the “right”, that we are honoring the traditions we have been taught. Jesus was sent to the cross for being, primarily, a successful prophet.
But what does this mean for us? I believe that Jesus is cautioning us—if you listen to prophets and make the mistake that they are the end-all and be-all of God, one element of basic faith is missing. That element is understanding this basic point: heeding the prophet is not the same thing as the direct experience of God by the individual.
When the Powers That Be arrive to silence the prophet, often he or she will face that communal backlash alone. Remember how Jesus himself was deserted by his disciples when he was taken into custody and executed? He was the focus, the prophetic voice, the teacher, but he could not directly give his followers the heart-in-heart experience of Abba that might have allowed them to stand with him. While he lived and taught among them, he could not give them, “Ina-ina urha shrara wayaii” which means, “When the small “I” is continuous with the larger “I”, then (you) walk a path filled with life energy” or, as it has been awkwardly translated into our more familiar liturgical language, “I AM the way, the truth and the life...” (John 14:6)
That gnosis, that deep communion with I AM is something that cannot be given from teacher to student, but rather, can only be pointed at indirectly in the actions of living, in parable and formless contemplation and in metaphor. Only at Pentecost did that unique, living message descend into the hearts and minds of Jesus’ disciples—finally, they directly experienced everything that Jesus had tried so hard to convey during his lifetime. So the prophet’s reward is partial, no matter how powerful the message or the messenger.
Next, we are told that “he that receiveth a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man's reward.” Here, the remove from the direct experience of God is even more keenly felt—the righteous man has between him and God the laws, traditions, priests, scripture, words of prophets, church buildings and all the societal injunctions that allow him to evaluate how “right-minded” or “right-actioned” he or his fellow men or women are. This is not the prophet, who, out of the pure experience of God moves to create change or send a warning to his place and time, or teach a spiritual path out of the power of an individual relationship with the divine. Rather, this is a person who is in an unrealized bondage to rules, tradition and simple etiquette.
And the reward of those who “receive” such righteous men and women? I think they never have the space in their lives to stand back and really evaluate their society like the prophet, nor do they “live, move or have their being” in God, the gift Jesus was trying so very hard to give to us all. They are grounded in a reality that can shift and change with the times, with styles, with politics both secular and religious. Often their way in the world is narrowed further by their own sense of entitlement and their fear of doing things differently because change could be wrong.
Those who heed the righteous participate in these rewards—they may feel very included in community, may share the sense that they are grounded and saved because they are doing things “the right way.” But question the community or change or remove the rules and traditions, and they will stand flustered and often angry. They have not realized that dogmas and creeds and rules and traditions are not the same as knowing, as Jesus did, that God is Abba, Daddy, the flesh of our flesh, the blood of our blood, the ruach (or breath of spirit) of our own breath, the deep communion that can never be taken from us, ever. They have built their theological understanding on sand.
And then, we hear these words: “And whosoever shall give to drink unto one of these little ones a cup of cold water only in the name of a disciple, verily I say unto you, he shall in no wise lose his reward.”
Often, in Bible studies, this line is used to justify the idea of a kind transference of energy in this passage...from God to Jesus, from Jesus or prophet to disciple from disciple to us, and finally from us to those we touch...a kind of energetic apostolic succession in other words. It’s sort of like holding hands, and having one person touch an electric fence...the energy will travel to the last person on the chain. But we have learned in this day and age of information and energy transfer, the signal or message degrades over time and distance except where? Well...The Source, the beginning place, or in our language of Sunday morning, IN God. It does not mean that the gesture of aid, this offering a cup of water, is not “good” or “righteous”, it simply is not the same thing as giving the cup to the child because in that child’s eyes, you saw God up-close and personal. You gave it in the name of a disciple, and it’s far down the line from God to Jesus to a disciple to a disciple’s bare name.
The reward of doing anything in a disciple’s name is even more watered down than heeding the prophet or being a righteous person—now we are acting at an even further remove from the Source of our being. We are not supported by the community as with the righteous person, nor are we heeding the voice of God through an intermediary like a prophet, we are using the disciple’s name as a fetish in its least positive sense. This is the lowest kind of religious magic.
And why is this critical idea of being close to the Source, to God, so important for us to see here? Because I believe the further we get from God, the less likely we will be changed and transformed. And if we are not transformed, then we have missed the entire point of religious practice.
It is the prophet who is changed the most internally, not those who listen to him or her. Those listening to the prophet may help to change their world, or may rise or perish with the prophet, but when the prophet is gone, the world will generally continue to bumble along, and the listeners will have lost their pipeline to the Source. Communion with God is mediated through another’s experience and words, and the mediation itself is impermanent and not deeply part of ourselves.
The righteous person cannot be lastingly changed by creeds and dogmas and traditions because they are imposed from outside of him or her and are impermanent at their core. Time, culture, science, literary study---these all affect them. Communion with God is a thing hidden from the merely righteous person; it is shrouded in legalism and etiquette and is deeply relativistic.
The do-gooders in the disciple’s name cannot be transformed simply by making their actions holy by invoking an apostle’s name. If they miss God in the child, right there, directly, they’ve missed a chance to enter into communion at the level of the physical world which is something Jesus was trying to teach. The Kingdom is around you and within you! They have missed the very energy of relationship. Communion with God is pushed into mere temporal action, with the use of a verbal fetish and a kind of religious magic.
Jesus seems to be calling us into a much more intimate way of being in communion with God than invoking names, being righteous or listening to prophets. This brings us full circle to the first line of our scripture today: “He that receiveth you receiveth me.” There is no reward mentioned here, no ulterior motive, no following of rules or changing the world. It is pure communion. When we live, move and have our being out of that Source, then we are not part of a transmission line; we are continuous with Jesus who understood he was continuous with God. We are inside the circle, and not a line leading from point A to point B. There is no degradation of the signal, no loss of meaning and presence. This is the only way we can be transformed or rather, reawaken to the understanding that we are, like Jesus, the children of God, living at the Source, the Beginning Place, and out of the pure unbridled and joyful energy of God.
Next time you take communion, I’d like you to try this:
1. Don’t just eat the bread and drink the wine because a prophet told his disciples it would help them remember his bodily or spiritual presence.
2. Don’t just eat the bread and drink the wine because our tradition claims it is the central rite of the Christian faith and a way to prove we here are “righteous”.
3. Don’t just eat the bread and drink the wine because you heard that it was something the disciples continued to do after Jesus was gone, and doing the same thing will mean something “magical” will happen to you.
Rather, look your servers in the eye.
1. See God lovingly serving through human hands (which is the manifestation or incarnation of the energy of God)
2. Recognize the gifts of creation (which is our God made manifest in grain and sunshine and water and grapes and human hands)
3. Wonder at youself, you who will accept bread and wine with perfect clarity and joy, taking it all inside of you, as you.
This kind of communion is the very presence of God (Abba) receiving from God (the son) through the creative energy of God (the holy spirit). This is the trinity in its most profound guise, and we participate in it, rather than just standing back and being entertained. This is how Jesus hoped we could learn to live at the Source as he did, ourselves becoming Ihidaya, single ones, unified ones, whole ones, timeless and forever ripe.