Monday, June 18, 2012

Sermon for June 17, 2012

Five Ideas That Can Change Your Life: Only This Moment
Jump Into Experience While You Are Still Alive

This is the story of The Mustard Seed Medicine . . .

Once upon a time there lived a young mother. She had a son whom she loved above all else in the world. She loved him when he was happy and cooperative and she loved him when he was grumpy and whiney. She even loved him when he had tantrums.

There came a time when the young boy became very ill. Doctors and healers were not able to cure him, and he died. The young mother was beside herself with grief. She picked up the boy's body and wrapped it in blankets, carrying it about the village asking everyone she met if they knew how to bring her son back to life. One kind friend suggested that she visit the Enlightened One, who would surely be able to help her. The young mother approached the Buddha, carrying her son's body and weeping. “Please help me! Please tell me how to bring my son back to life.”

The Buddha looked at her and felt great compassion. “I can help you,” he said. “But first you must bring me some mustard seed from a home where no loved one has ever died, no parent or grandparent, no brother or sister, no child or much-loved friend.” Sensing hope for the first time since her son had died, the young mother set out to find some mustard seed.

The first place the young mother visited was the house next door. When the neighbor came to the door, the young mother asked for a handful of mustard seed. As the neighbor was about to hand her some mustard seed, the young mother remembered to ask if anyone from the household had ever died. The neighbor said, “Don't you remember? My father died a year ago, and we were sad for a long time. We still miss him.” Dejected, the young mother went away without taking the mustard seed.
When she visited a second house and asked for mustard seed, that neighbor reminded her that a beloved niece had died in that house five years ago. Sadly, the young mother went away without any mustard seed.

So she proceeded from house to house, visiting every home in the village. At each stop, the family spoke of a nephew, a mother, a grandparent, or a beloved child who had died. Each family told a tale of grief and loss. When she had visited the last house in the village, it became clear to the young mother that what the Buddha had asked her to do was impossible. She was overcome with sadness and could not go any further. She found a tree at the edge of the village and sat down to cry.

She cried for hours. . . .

Over time, though, a strange peace came over her. She thought about all the stories she had heard that day, of loved ones who had died and of families who had experienced terrible sadness. She realized that she was not alone in experiencing the death of someone she loved. She was not alone in her grief and her sadness. The next day she returned to the Buddha. When she told him of her search for the mustard seed that could not be found, he nodded. “Our lives in this world are not permanent. Each one of us must die, some at a young age and some older. All of us will know times of great happiness and times of deep sorrow. Do not try to keep yourself free from these human experiences. Try instead to be kind and compassionate to all beings, enjoying all the gifts that life brings.”

As time passed, The woman became a comforter of all who experienced sadness and death. Even though she always missed her son, she learned to accept his death and to take comfort in knowing that she was not alone in her grief.

We all have struggles. We all bear the ravages of grief and the toll of sickness in our bodies and in our relationships. For the Buddhist, pain is inevitable. Growing old. Illness. Dying.   Even love is full of pain.

Most religions deal with the question of human finitude. If we are all going to die, then how do we keep on living? How can humans be saved from pain? The Buddha asked: What might happen if we stop struggling against the pain in our life? For Chinese Taoism, the sacred principle behind the universe is like a river. You can choose to swim against the current or you can choose to be saved by simply going with the flow. For Ancient Judaism, the answer was to turn to community and guarantee the survival of the tribe. Through keeping covenant, Jews are saved as a people for a prosperous and reproductive life here on earth. The basic problem with human nature, as Islam sees it, is injustice.  The Prophet Mohammad’s world was torn apart by blood feuds between rival clans, threatening his people’s security and prosperity. Muhammad’s revelation demanded that every person submit to God alone, leaving behind vengeance killings and other injustices in favor of a single consistent sacred law, regardless of that persons social station or tribal affiliation. For Islam, salvation is achieved when the just society is established.

Christians also deal with human finitude. Christianity taught that because of human sin, human life is hard and short. The fix is accepting the atoning work of Christ, enjoying abundant life here on earth and eternal life in the hereafter. Jesus will return, gather the faithful and bring them to Heaven. We hear it in our reading from 1 Thessalonians. Paul writes to a little church in modern-day Greece. The members of the church have been persecuted for their faith. Paul has reports that they are losing their way. So he writes a letter to encourage them. Towards the end of the letter he says:
And now, dear brothers and sisters, we want you to know what will happen to the believers who have died so you will not grieve like people who have no hope . . . We tell you this directly from the Lord: We who are still living when the Lord returns will not meet him ahead of those who have died.  For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a commanding shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet call of God. First, the Christians who have died will rise from their graves. Then, together with them, we who are still alive and remain on the earth will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Then we will be with the Lord forever.                    1 Thessalonians 4:13-17
Christianity has spawned many movements of people who wait out the final return of the Lord. In America, some of them were Utopian communities. Others, like the Adventists, are still with us today. They all play on a theme that has been with us for a long time. Jesus will return and reward the virtuous for their courage. Jesus will also punishing evil-doers, with a clear separation between saints and sinners. A future moment will come when all tears will be wiped away, sorrow forgotten, joy restored, and the faithful will live in the light of God forever. We hear this theme in spirituals, the music of the enslaved, exiled African community longing for freedom in a foreign land. We hear it in Ozark Mountain hymns like “I’ll fly away,” written by a man who dreamed of soaring away from the cotton fields of Oklahoma.

But wait a minute. I’m not a persecuted Christian. In fact, I am blessed. By pure luck, I’m a straight, white, married man enjoying the privileges of the dominant culture. I don’t know much about persecution and slavery. Here’s what I do know. I know pain. I know loneliness and depression. I know grief. I’ve sat with and listened to a hundred people who grieve from the depths of their being. I’ve witnessed prejudice against my children. I’ve seen hatred against my and gay and lesbian friends who are treated as second class citizens. And in the midst of it all, I must say, I am not going to wait for heaven for it all to get better. I want to know salvation NOW. I want my world to experience healing NOW. I want tears to be wiped away NOW, sorrow comforted NOW, love’s joy restored NOW.

Barbara Brown Taylor, the Episcopalian priest and author, puts it this way: “In the Bible, human beings experience God’s salvation when peace ends war, when food follows famine, when health supplants sickness and freedom trumps oppression . . . Salvation is a word for the divine spaciousness that comes to human beings in all the right places where their lives are at risk, regardless of how they got there or whether they know God’s name.” She continues saying, “Few of us can choose our circumstances, but we can choose how we respond to them. To be saved is not only to recognize an alternative to the deadliness pressing down upon us but also to be able to act upon it.”

A spirituality disconnected from real life and real suffering is vanity. And vanity is a luxury that Christians can no longer afford in today’s world.

That’s why I love this poem by the mystic Kabir. He lived around the year 1500 CE. Kabir was a Muslim who tried to reconcile Sufi Islam with Hinduism. He wanted people to leave aside the Qur'an and Vedas, and people’s entrenched assumptions, so they could follow the simple way of oneness with God. Here is one of his poems, translated by Robert Bly.
Friend, hope for the guest while you are alive.
Jump into experience while you are alive!
Think . . . and think . . . while you are alive.
What you call salvation belongs to the time before death.
If you don’t break your ropes while you are alive,
Do you think ghosts will do it after?
The idea that the soul will rejoin with the ecstatic just because the body is rotten—
That is all fantasy.
What is found now is found then.
If you find nothing now,
You will simply end up with an apartment in the City of Death.
If you make love with the divine now,
In the next life you will have the face of satisfied desire.
So plunge into the truth, find out who the Teacher is.
Believe in the Great Sound!
Kabir says this:
When the Guest is being searched for,
It is the intensity of the longing for the Guest that does all the work.
Look at me, and you will see a slave of that intensity
Did you hear what Kabir suggest? Jump into experience while you are still alive. If we don’t break our ropes NOW, how will it happen later? Don’t wait for some future healing of our mistakes and bad decisions. Don’t let pain paralyze us into inaction. What is found now is found later.

Without even being aware of it, we can easily slip into living life as if it were a rehearsal for the real thing. We only have this moment. You know where I get glimpses and little reminders of the reality of NOW? For me, it’s in the simplest treasures: A supporting hand upon my shoulder or a loving brush of my cheek; the softest whisper of truth spoken in adoration; the early morning orchestra of music from the birds outside my window; the refreshment of the breeze, the contagious laughter of those we love;  the pain of loss; the miracle of healing; the unstoppable toil for a better world; the constant reminders of how precious each moment truly is; the moments when I experience kindness and compassion.

Jump into experience while you are still alive.
Break the ropes
Plunge into truth
Fall into love.
Cry YES! To the immensity of life.
Say YES! To sharing the power of beauty.

As we become present to ourselves and God and others, we begin a journey without end. All we are asked to do is start down that road.

Roger Housden, Ten Poems To Change Your Life, pp. 53-62.

Ernest Best, The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians, Blacks NT Commentary.

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