Who we are / What binds us together

Sermon for the Feast of All Saints

Delivered at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in St. Joe’s, MI.

Ephesians 1:11-23

Most of us know what it’s like to be in the middle of a conflict.

At first, we might be in a little bit of denial about the whole thing. We say, “Meh, it’s no big deal.” We go for a walk, get a snack, maybe take a nap, and wake up feeling right as rain.

But sometimes, that’s not enough. We wake up and we’re still feeling mad about it. This is a good thing because anger, even though it doesn’t feel pleasant, is our brain’s way of telling us that something is important to us. For example, it’s easy to just let it go when some hothead cuts you off in traffic, but harder when your teenager tells you they want to drop out of high school. Anger is a healthy thing when it reminds us about what’s important, but not so healthy when it festers so long that it turns into resentment and contempt.

In order to stop that from happening, we need to sit down and have those difficult conversations about what really matters. We have to listen to each other’s point of view and try to negotiate a compromise. If that works, great! If not, it can leave feeling pretty hopeless. We throw our hands up and go, “Ugh! I guess that’s it. The yogurt has hit the fan and we’re all headed for Hades in a handbasket. Whaddyagunna do?”

And that, I think, is a very interesting question, if we ask it honestly. What are you going to do? That question, when asked honestly, leads us past the surface level of conflict, opens us up to new possibilities, and reminds us of what is most important: The mystery of who we really are and the reality that binds us together at the deepest level of our existence.

That mystery, that reality, is what the author of the epistle to the Ephesians is talking about in the Scripture reading we just heard.

At the end of the first century, the Church in Ephesus was in a pretty rough place. Only a few decades after its founding, it was already engulfed in a controversy that threatened to tear the community apart from the inside. The controversial issue, in that time and place, was the question of whether a person could really be a Christian without first becoming Jewish. It helps to remember that, at that point in history, Judaism and Christianity were not yet separate religions. Christianity started as a renewal movement within Judaism and only later took on a separate identity of its own.

On one side, conservatives were saying, “Listen! Jesus was Jewish. All of his apostles were Jewish. The Bible clearly states that the Jews are God’s chosen people. Therefore, if a person really wants to be a follower of the way of Jesus, they first have to convert to Judaism and follow the ways of the Torah.”

On the other side, the liberals were saying, “No way! Jesus was an enlightened being. He had no patience for your backward traditions. Therefore, we are going to purge the Church of all that superstitious nonsense and have a truly progressive spirituality.”

(By the way, does any of this sound familiar to anyone who has watched the news lately? It should. Two thousand years later, and we are still having the same fight.)

Enter the author of the Epistle to the Ephesians. This person, writing in the name of their mentor St. Paul, is trying to help the Christians in Ephesus figure out how to be the Church for the long haul. In the first generation after Jesus’ earthly ministry, it seemed to the Church like the end of days was imminent, so they didn’t put much thought into creating an institution that would help people follow Jesus for thousands of years to come. They sincerely believed, at that time, that sustainability was a non-issue. As time wore on, however, it slowly dawned on these Christians that they were going to have to hunker down and figure out a way to live as the people of Jesus in a world that wanted nothing to do with him. So, for the first time, these Christians are asking questions about how to live together as people from different social classes, ethnic groups, languages, ages, and genders. And all of this was happening at the same time as Christians everywhere were being excommunicated from traditional Jewish communities and actively persecuted by the Roman government. Needless to say, it was a very contentious and complicated time to be a Christian. (Much like today.)

In the moment of this letter, the author of Ephesians writes to that Church in the midst of apparent hopelessness, appealing to the deeper truth of who they really are and what really binds them together. The author tells them that they have an “inheritance,” a “destiny,” and “hope” that come from their faith in God. According to the passage we read tonight, the same divine energy that raised Christ from death to new life is now at work in the hearts, minds, and bodies of those who follow the way of Jesus.

In some mysterious way that transcends rational understanding, the very lifeblood of Jesus now flows in our veins and we have become his hands and feet on this Earth. We are, all of us, essentially one person, and that person is not you or me, but Jesus Christ himself. Later in the epistle to the Ephesians, the author writes, concerning the controversy that was tearing their Church apart, “[Christ] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” (Eph 2:14 NRSV)

Jesus Christ is who we are. All other identifying factors are secondary to that one truth.

The modern theologian who expressed this truth more beautifully than anyone was a French Jesuit priest named Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

Fr. Teilhard, writing in the early twentieth century, lived his faith in a time that was every bit as fraught and contentious as the first century. He was a stretcher-bearer on the front lines of World War I. He was, in addition to his vocation as a priest, a paleontologist in a time when the Roman Catholic Church wasn’t yet sure what to think about the writings of Charles Darwin.

For Teilhard, there was no conflict between faith and science. He saw the whole history of the cosmos, from the Big Bang to the formation of stars and planets, from the evolution of life to the emergence of human beings, all 13.8 billion years of cosmic history, as a single story of God’s creation and salvation.

Teilhard’s hope and vision was that, one day, all things would be part of the Body of Christ. By “all things,” he really did mean ALL. THINGS. When Teilhard imagined the Body of Christ, he wasn’t just thinking about all Christians, all humans, or all of planet Earth. He was thinking about the entire universe as the Body of Christ.

The Vatican of that time wasn’t quite ready for a cosmic vision as big as Teilhard’s. They censured his work and forbade him from teaching theology. Teilhard, as a good Jesuit, obeyed the order but continued to write in private. He entrusted his papers to a friend, who published them after his death.

Writing in his private journal, Teilhard struggled with the Vatican’s resistance to his ideas. He looked to God for assurance and prayed, “O God, if in my life I have not been wrong, allow me to die on Easter Sunday.” Shortly after writing that prayer, Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin passed away on April 10, 1955… Easter Sunday.

I think Fr. Teilhard was right, and I think the author of the epistle to the Ephesians would agree with me. God is in the business of reconciliation, but not assimilation. God seeks unification, but without uniformity. We are one, not because of any shared ethnicity, nationality, party, class, or gender, but because God has made us one in Christ. The very lifeblood of the risen Christ flows in our veins, just as it has in all the saints of history, and still does in the atoms of the most distant galaxy. That is the faith that will give us the wisdom and the strength to navigate the many conflicts of our time as faithfully as the Ephesian Christians did in theirs. That is the truth about who we really are and the glue that will bind us together, both now and forevermore.

Amen.

Newness of Life

Easter Vigil sermon.

The text is Romans 6:3-11

Dearly beloved, we gather together this evening to celebrate the mystery of resurrection.

The resurrection of Christ is the central event of the Christian faith. In the season of Easter, we remember how the disciples, in some way that defies rational explanation, experienced Jesus as alive after his crucifixion and death. Many historians over the past two millennia, secular and religious alike, have debated the evidence about what really happened on Easter. What they all agree on, however, is that something significant happened that set Christianity apart from other Messianic Jewish movements of the time (of which there were many) and that the unanimous agreement among the earliest Christians was that Jesus had risen from the dead.

Tonight, I will not presume to settle this longstanding debate about the historical facts. Such questions matter deeply, but I leave the resolution of factual questions to archaeologists, historians, and biblical scholars better equipped and better educated than myself. Christian faith in the resurrection is about more than just picking sides between competing sets of alternative facts.

Resurrection, as I said at the beginning, is a mystery. As such, it is more than an historical event that happened once upon a time in Jerusalem; it is an eternal event that is always happening, in every time and place. That is why I say that we have gathered to celebrate the mystery of resurrection, and not merely commemorate it.

When we celebrate something, we give honor to an event that is also an ongoing reality. When we gather together for a birthday or an anniversary, we don’t just remember a birth or a wedding, we celebrate the ongoing reality of a person or a marriage. The Church does the same thing in our celebration of the mystery of Christ’s resurrection. 

St. Paul elucidates this aspect of celebration in the passage we read tonight from his Letter to the Romans. Paul writes:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

For Paul, the mystery of the resurrection is an eternal event, in which we all participate. The ritual that makes this eternal event real to us is the Sacrament of Baptism. In Baptism, Paul says, we come to participate consciously in the death and resurrection of Christ. The significance of this conscious participation is primarily ethical, according to Paul. He says, “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.”

Paul’s presentation of death and resurrection in Baptism is akin to philosopher John Hick’s description of the spiritual journey as “the transformation of human existence from self-centeredness to Reality-centeredness.” According to both Hick and Paul, the spiritual journey of death and resurrection is a paradigm shift of Copernican proportions, in which our fragile egos come to realize that they are not, in fact, the center of the universe. In the mystery of death and resurrection, we come to embrace the reality that our true selves are rooted and grounded in the sacred energy that is eternally giving birth to the cosmos. Our individual selves are temporary manifestations of that energy, like waves on the surface of an infinitely vast ocean. Our true life, as it were, “is hidden with Christ in God”(Colossians 3:3), and this eternal life is one over which death has no final victory.

Dearly beloved, the mystery of resurrection is not limited to a single event in first-century Judea, but has been unfolding from the beginning of time until now, and I have every reason to trust that it will continue to do so in perpetuity. Furthermore, the mystery of resurrection is not limited to Christians, humans, or even planet Earth, but is active in all corners of the universe simultaneously. 

I do not ask you to tonight to put blind faith in these statements, simply because they have been spoken from a pulpit. I invite you to examine the facts for yourselves.

Approximately sixty-six million years ago, an asteroid more than six miles wide slammed into Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. The impact made a crater 110 miles wide and twelve miles deep, deposited a layer of iridium in soil around the planet, and set off our planet’s fifth mass extinction. Seventy-five percent of all life on the planet, including the dinosaurs, were wiped out by the environmental devastation unleashed by this impact.

There can be no debate about the profound destructiveness of this event, but there is a wonderful and creative aspect to the story that is often overlooked. During the time of the dinosaurs, mammals were small in size and few in number. Tiny shrew-like rodents huddled together in underground burrows in order to avoid the gargantuan lizards that dominated Earth’s surface. 

Unlike the reptiles, natural selection had gifted these little mammals with a powerful new tool in their brains, called “the limbic system.” The limbic system is the part of our brains where emotions are produced. It governs our social relationships and allows us to make more complex judgment calls than the basic survival instincts of our brain stem. Because of the limbic system, mammals were able to care for their young andform bonded family groups. Those little rodents were more to us than just vermin infesting the forest floor; they were our great-great-great grandparents.

When the dust finally settled after the asteroid impact that killed the dinosaurs, our mammalian ancestors cautiously emerged from their underground dens and began to explore the surface the Earth. In time, they evolved into primates with a highly developed neocortex (that’s the computer part of our brains) and, eventually, into humans. 

So, the asteroid impact that caused the death of the dinosaurs also led to the evolution of new forms of life. Because of our cuddly mammalian ancestors and their beautiful little limbic systems, this cataclysmic extinction event opened the door for deeper expressions of love than had ever existed before on planet Earth. And you, the people sitting in these pews tonight, are the direct descendants of those brave and loving creatures. 

Here, in the very fabric of our planet, we discover the mystery of resurrection at work on a timescale that predates the human by millions of years. There is also, in this discovery, a profound harmonization between the scientific story of nature and the biblical story of creation. Dr. Francis Collins writes, “God has now given us the intelligence and the opportunity to discover [God’s] methods… For me scientific discovery is also an occasion of worship” (Time Magazine, August 7, 2005).

Turning from the Christian story of Easter and the scientific story of creation, we can also findthe great mystery of resurrection at work in our lives today. In every life, it is said, a little rain (and not a few asteroids) must fall. Each of us endures moments (or seasons) of crisis, in which we die a little (or a lot) to one way of being and rise to another. Perhaps a job or a relationship has not turned out as expected; perhaps a diagnosis or accident has derailed one’s plans for the future; perhaps a person or community, in whom one had trusted, has utterly betrayed that trust. Even happy events, like weddings and graduations, can be occasions of death for one’s former way of life.

Like most parents, I can remember that there was once a time before I had children, but I no longer have any emotional access to that memory. Since becoming a father, my energy, my time, and (Lord knows) my money are no longer my own. Adapting Paul’s words to my present circumstances, I can definitively testify that the luxury of my formerly child-free life has been “buried with Christ by baptism into death,” but I can also testify that the experience of parenthood has opened my heart to greater depths of love and raised me to “newness of life” in ways that I could never have imagined. In my life as a father, and in my life as a Christian, I must come to admit that I am no longer the center of my own little world. Instead, I am but a speck of dust in company with my fellow specks, orbiting around a much greater center of our being. My self-centeredness has died and been resurrected as wonder and love on a cosmic scale.

This Easter, I invite you to consider the many deaths and resurrections you have endured in your life. I invite you to ask yourself: What are the cataclysms and crises that brought an end to an old way of life for you? What helped you make it through those days? What new insights and perspectives did you gain from those crises that you continue to carry to this day? Finally, looking at the present challenges in your life or the world around you, what new possibilities might be emerging from just below the surface?

As you ask yourself these questions, I pray that the answers you find and the meaning you create will lead you to “newness of life” in the mystery of resurrection. Whoever you are, whatever your personal beliefs or faith tradition may be, and in whatever way is most meaningful to you, may you journey alongside us Christians in the spirit of our Easter proclamation: “Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!”

Becoming Love

Sermon I gave for Memorial Day weekend at People’s Church (Unitarian Universalist) in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

A friend asked me this week, “What do you tell yourself when you are fearful of your own mortality and the fragility of your own life?” This is one of those questions that people ask you when they find out you’re a minister. (I suppose it’s an occupational hazard.) It’s an important question that gets at the heart of what drives people to religion and spirituality in our culture. 

I say, “in our culture,” because this is not the only question that has driven the spiritual quest in every place and time. The ancient Hebrews, for example, had no concept of an afterlife. Their primary religious question was not, “What will happen to me when I die?” but “What will happen to our people now?” The reward they conceived for obedience to the Torah of their ancestors was not a blissful afterlife for individuals in heaven, but a prosperous life for their community on Earth. Individual mortality was a given for them, but the survival of their people was of paramount importance. 

The Jewish concept of an afterlife developed over time and took several different forms before the beginning of the Common Era. Later Christian formulations evolved from those forms. Both traditions, to this day, maintain multiple views and opinions on the subject of the afterlife. 

Other spiritual traditions have their own opinions about what happens to people when they die. Hinduism and Buddhism, for instance, both espouse a belief that people in the West call “reincarnation” (though a Tibetan Buddhist friend tells me that his tradition prefers to call it “rebirth”).

Some (though certainly not all) who claim no religious affiliation take a “that’s it” approach to the end of a person’s physical existence. “The body dies,” they say, “and then that’s it.Nothing else comes next.”

I will not be so bold as to attempt to resolve this important question for all of you today. One of the beautiful things about Unitarian Universalist communities is the theological diversity that exists among your membership. It would be a sacrilege to insult that diversity by imposing one particular interpretation above all others. What I purpose to do instead, in this sermon today, is to take an “at least” approach to questions about the afterlife. Whatever else life after death may (or may not) be, it is “at least” as much as what we know through science.

Let’s start with the following assertion: Reality is relational. At every conceivable level. Community is everything and everything is community.

This is a fact. We know this from our study of the universe. 

At the macroscopic level, planets and stars are drawn together by gravitational attraction to form solar systems and galaxies. 

At the microscopic level, we can observe those same gravitational forces drawing electrons, protons, and neutrons together to form atoms. Atoms bond to form molecules. Molecules form cells. Cells form organisms. Organisms form ecosystems.

At the level of human observation, gravity is the arm that Earth uses to hold us all close to her heart. 

Human beings and other animals experience a similar force of attraction that draws us together into families and communities for the purposes of survival and reproduction. When we experience this attraction to one another, and the conscious choice we bring to that attraction, we don’t call it gravity; we call it love.

In politics and economics, our choices to honor “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” and respect “the interdependent web of all existence” are themselves acts of love. To quote the present-day prophet Cornel West, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” 

Even the individual “I” that I think of as “me” is, in truth, a community. My consciousness is an emergent property of the electrochemical relations between the cells of my body.Biologists refer to this as “the neural network.” The atoms that presently comprise my body were forged billions of years ago in the furnace of a long-dead star. The stars are my ancestors and are part of me today. As Carl Sagan was so fond of telling his audience, “We are star stuff.” After my biological life is over, the atoms of my body will disperse and go on to become part of someone else. From the cellular, to the social, to the solar levels, and everywhere in between, reality is relational.

The relational nature of reality is the story I’m telling myself” about life after death. Whatever else the afterlife might (or might not) mean, it means at least as much as this. How then do these thoughts about the relational nature of reality help us in our spiritual reflections about life after death?

First of all, I think the relational nature of reality gives us a way to get past the seemingly insurmountable differences we find between various theories of the afterlife. If reality is relational, then relationship is the ultimate source from which all beings derive their existence. If reality is relational, then equitable relationships (with ourselves, each other, and the planet) are the highest and most sacred goal that human beings could pursue. Terms like “most sacred” and “source of all being” are titles that people in some religions would apply to their concept of “God.” My favorite passage in the sacred texts of my own Christian tradition is 1 John 4:16, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” This passage takes on new depths of meaning for me when I hold the phrase “God is love” next to “reality is relational.” A person need not be religious or believe in a personal deity to see the value in this interpretation.

When I die, my body will be recycled back into Earth. I will still be giving new life to other organisms long after I am gone. Those organisms too will eventually die and pass the gift of life to others, just as it was passed to us. The physical and chemical elements that currently empower my neural network will eventually disperse and enter into new relationships with other beings. The “I” that think of as “me” will one day become part of someone else. On that day, relationship will be all that is left of me. On that day, I will become love.

When I imagine death and reality in this relational way, I can see how people in some spiritual traditions could say that the dead have been “reborn” or “resurrected.” If the dead have indeed “become love,” I can understand how some might say that they now have “eternal life” with God and the saints. I can also see how it makes sense to believe that an individual’s personal identity ceases to exist when their brain and body stop functioning. When we imagine reality as relational, we gain the power to resolve the conflict between differing interpretations and religious traditions. We gain the power to hold all of them (and more) together in a unified and interrelated whole.

The second gift that relational nature of reality offers us is the power to have faith without superstition. A person need not believe in a personal God or an immortal soul to accept that reality is relational. If reality is relational, a naturalistic worldview need not necessitate the cynical belief that life is meaningless or hopeless. Indeed, a naturalist who understands the relational nature of reality may find it easier to grow a meaningful and hopeful life than a traditional theist who maintains belief in “God” and “soul” as isolated monads. Even the most ardent atheist can say a heartfelt “Amen!” to the Unitarian Universalist principles of “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” and “respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part.”

This understanding of the relational nature of reality offers much to us, but it also asks much from us. It asks that we let go of our egocentric and anthropocentric ways of thinking and living. It asks that we stop centering ourselves in conversations and focus our attention on serving the common good. It asks us rememberthat the way we treat ourselves, our fellow humans, and ourplanet has more spiritual value than any religious dogma or spiritual platitude ever could. In the words of Jesus of Nazareth, the only way to truly love God is by loving your neighbor as yourself. The relational nature of reality asks us to “become love” while we are still alive and have the power of intentional choice. This, in the end, is the kind of life that matters most.

On this Memorial Day weekend, the people of this congregation have gathered to remember those who have come before us, those who have died, those who have “become love” in our midst. May our good memories of these people inspire us to become the hands and feet of love while we still have breath in our lungs. May our bad memories of these complex and imperfect people guide us to honor their legacy by doing better than they did. May we learn from their successes and failures. May we, by our own moral choices, claim our place in the cosmic network of relationships until that day when our biological functions cease and we ourselves “become love.”

Coloring Outside the Lines

As the pages of our calendars turn over to 2019, we come once again to that season of enthusiasm and idealism, when people in this culture customarily make resolutions for the coming year. We resolve to improve our lives in some major or minor way: to quit smoking or lose weight, to seek out a new job or new place to live, to develop our spiritual lives by prayer and study, or to attend church more regularly. All of these are helpful ideas and positive ambitions for making the most of the life God has given us.

There inevitably comes a moment, however, usually by the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday (March 6 this year), when we discover that our resolve has failed us: that gym membership, though paid for in advance, goes unused; the prayer book and Bible continue to gather dust on the bookshelf; we discover, much to our surprise, that the treadmill makes for a wonderful sweater dryer and that we are now on a first-name basis with the drive-thru workers at Dunkin Donuts. We can hear Jesus saying to us what he said to his apostles in Matthew 26:41: “the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

Additionally, we encounter circumstances beyond our control that interfere with our best-laid plans: an old knee injury flares up, preventing us from running that marathon; the expected promotion or transfer is not forthcoming; a child or spouse floors us with a stunning announcement: “I have cancer,” “I’m pregnant,” or “I’m gay.” In these moments, we feel more keenly the message of Proverbs 16:9: “The human mind plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps.”

We can take some comfort in knowing that we are not the first drivers on life’s road to encounter detours, speed bumps, and U-turns. No epic novel has ever centered on characters who always make right decisions or events that always go according to plan. Conflicts and mishaps are not distractions from the plot, but the very elements that make these stories worth reading. So it is in the story of life. It was the late, great John Lennon who sang, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

The good news for us, when we find ourselves in circumstances that are less than ideal, is that the God we believe in is not far away, sitting up on some cloud in heaven, waiting for you to figure it out or get your act together. The God of the Christian faith gets the divine hands dirty by taking on human flesh and dwelling among us in the person of Jesus Christ. Christ is born in a stable, meaning that God is intimately present and actively involved with your life in this world, with all its messes, smells, unexpected plot-twists, and failures.

The gospel for today’s Feast of the Epiphany gives us a tangible image of the infant Jesus “scribbling outside the lines” in the coloring book of our lives. There are many misconceptions of the famous “wise men from the East” we heard about in today’s reading. With all due respect to the Epiphany hymn, “We three kings of orient are,” the only true words in that sentence are “we,” “of,” and “are.” The biblical text does not say that there were three of them, but only that they brought three different kinds of gifts: “gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” The term “orient” refers accurately to the direction of East, but not necessarily to the regions of China or India. The label of “kings” comes not from St. Matthew’s gospel, but from the prophecy in Isaiah 60, our first reading, which says, “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” Isaiah tells us further that “the wealth of the nations shall come to you… They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” The identifying phrase from Matthew’s gospel, “wise men from the East,” most likely refers to Zoroastrian astrologers from the region of present-day Iran or Iraq.

The presence of Zoroastrian sages in today’s gospel signifies the reality that God’s work in the world is not limited to one particular time, place, or people. “Truth,” according to St. Augustine of Hippo, “belongs to [the] Lord, wherever it is found.” For Christians, the realization that all truth is God’s truth does not invalidate or relativize our faith, but frees us to approach other religions with openness and curiosity, rather than criticism and judgment.

The astrologers’ following of the star is not a tacit endorsement of horoscopes, but yet another example of God leading people to Christ via paths that are unconventional and surprising. The path of the astrologer draws meaning from careful observation of the universe. Speaking in contemporary terms, one could suggest that this passage opens to Christians the study of science and philosophy as avenues through which the divine glory can be more fully understood by the world.

The wise men from the East represent for us all the ways that God colors outside the lines. Their presence in this story shakes us out of our narrow conceit to consider the possibility that unexpected or inconvenient events might be the very ways in which God is presently at work in our lives. Such twists and turns might not be distractions from the plot, but the main arc of the story itself.

There is a wise man within each of us. If our hearts and minds are open, we can join their caravan and follow the star to the horizon where heaven and earth meet. There is also something of King Herod within each of us. If we so choose, we can remain behind with him: barricaded inside a palace of our own making, plotting and scheming to neutralize all challenges to our ego as if they were threats to existence itself.

The way of Herod leads nowhere, as it never requires us to set foot outside our comfort zones. The way of the wise men, on the other hand, leads us to that deepest place within us, where Christ is being born today. The way of the wise men is not easily discerned or followed, for it requires of us that we embrace those parts of ourselves or our lives that feel most strange or foreign. When our internal resolve and external circumstances fail us, the wise men show us how to go “home by another way.” They lead us, by all sorts of twists and turns, to that inner house where we plop down on the floor next to the Christ child, who teaches us how to scribble outside the lines in the coloring book of our life.

The divine Word who “became flesh and lived among us” is not interested in defending our possessions, positions, or plans, but works tirelessly for the recovery of our true essence as God’s beloved children.

Brothers and sisters, my prayer for all of us this morning is not that we would have the strength or know-how to overcome life’s obstacles by force of will, but that God would bless us with enough weakness and foolishness to walk the winding way of wisdom until it leads us to that place within us where Jesus lives.

One of Us

sermon – what if god was one of us?

When Rev. Rachel invited me to speak this morning, she jokingly said that I could be her “token Christian” and talk about Jesus. So, that’s what I intend to do today.

In a Unitarian Universalist context, it would be easy to talk about Jesus as a teacher of wisdom or the leader of a movement, but I decided to take a slightly more interesting path and talk about one of the distinctive theological principles of the Christian spiritual tradition: the divinity of Christ.

Before I jump into this subject, I think a certain disclaimer is in order. Something I have long admired about you, my Unitarian Universalist friends, is the way that you create a safe haven for so many people who struggle with and/or experience exclusion from other religious communities. This “love beyond belief” is an amazing gift that you offer to the interfaith community, and I heartily thank you for it. The fact is not lost on me that many who find their way to a Unitarian Universalist congregation come as religious refugees from Christianity, the very tradition I represent here today. I stand before you with a sorrowful awareness that Christians have deeply wounded some of you in the name of Jesus. Speaking as a Christian, I am ashamed and angry at these injustices that continue to be heaped upon others in the name of my religion. The greatest threat to Christianity in the world today is not Islam, secular humanism, or Communism, but Christians who refuse to practice the principle of unconditional love taught by our Lord and Savior.

For many of you, it is entirely possible that the path of healing is dependent on this faith community, where the acceptance of traditional Christian dogma is not a requirement for membership. I want to reassure you, at the outset of this talk, that this cherished aspect of your church is not about to change. I am not here this morning to convert or convince anyone toward any doctrinal position, Christian or otherwise. What I intend to do today is explore one way that the Christian spiritual tradition might be able to provide useful tools in the joint, interfaith cause of justice and compassion in this world. I hope these words of mine will be helpful to people from any or no religious background, including Unitarian Universalism.

In the song we just listened to, Joan Osborne asks a significant question: “What if God was one of us?” This is the very question Christians have been asking for almost two thousand years. Since the beginning of our movement, we have sought to take the idea of the Divine out of the heavens and give it flesh and blood on earth. In the theological language of our tradition, we call this attempt the mystery of the Incarnation.

For Christians, Jesus Christ is more than just an historic teacher and leader. Whether or not we take literally the biblical claims about his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus is, for Christians, the eternally living embodiment of the Divine. Christians call him “God incarnate,” which literally translates as “God in-the-flesh.”

One of the most well-known titles for Jesus in the Bible and early Church is Son of God. This Messianic title, far from being a commentary on the historical Jesus’ parentage, is a statement about who Jesus is and what he reveals to us. Christians call Jesus the “Son of God” in the same way that others might look at a child and see reflections of the parent in that child’s face or personality. When I look at my seven-year-old’s features, I see my father-in-law staring back at me. When I hear my nine-year-old shout, “Look at me!” during a performance, I say to myself, “She is her mother’s daughter!” In the same way, Christians look into the loving eyes of Jesus and understand what God must be like. That is why we call him the Son of God.

This, I think, is the unique contribution that Christianity can make to interfaith dialogue: We find God in a person. Other religions encounter the Divine in sacred books and rituals. The prophet Muhammad (pboh) was the vessel through which the Qur’an was revealed; the Buddha taught the Eightfold Path; Lao Tzu wrote the Tao Te Ching. But Christianity is unique among the world’s religions insofar as we believe that Jesus Christ was not simply God’s messenger, but also the message itself.

Why is it important that Christians find God in a person? It’s important because you relate differently to a person than you do to a text or ritual. You can agree or disagree with a text; you can observe a ritual or not; but a person must be loved in an intimate way. I married my wife in a ritual; I abide by the limits set by the rules of monogamy; but the real substance of our marriage is in the love that is shared between us, as persons.

It is the same for Christians in our spirituality: we look into the eyes of a person and find there the embodiment of everything that is good and true. We look at Jesus of Nazareth and find in him the meaning of life.

One does not need to be a Christian, or even believe in God, to benefit from this kind of spiritual practice. Jesus himself never criticized someone for their theology, but thanked them for their trust. In the words of Jesus himself, the true measure of our faith is not in our religious observance, but in the way we treat one another.

Jesus’ followers once asked him,

Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?

And Jesus said to them, in Matthew 25:40 (look it up): “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Later in the New Testament, Jesus’ biological brother James, a bishop in the early Church, said to his congregation:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead… Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith (James 2:14-17, 18b NRSV).

Christians believe the meaning of life was revealed through a person, therefore real people out to matter to us; Christians believe God took on material flesh, therefore matter ought to matter to us. Jesus taught us that the way we treat one another is a reflection of the way we treat God, therefore we are honor-bound to show our neighbors the kind of respect and sacredness we would show to God’s own self.

I would invite you this morning to turn to the person next to you, whether that person is your spouse, or a stranger, or anything in between. Look deeply into that person’s eyes. Try to imagine in that person what the early Christians saw in Jesus Christ. See in your neighbor’s eyes the meaning of life itself. Try to see in them everything that is good, or noble, or true. Continuing to look into that person’s eyes, hear in your ears the great wisdom of Jesus: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:39).”

Friends, this is the great contribution that Christianity can make to the world around us, whether people follow the Christian religion or not: that God (or the meaning of life) can be found in people. Each of us carries a spark of the Divine within us, and therefore deserves to be treated with respect, dignity, and compassion.

As a Christian, I look at the seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism and find in them a helpful guide for living the faith that Jesus taught:

The inherent worth and dignity of every person;

Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;

Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;

A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;

The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;

The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;

Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Whether or not you consider yourself a Christian, I hope that you are able to leave this place today and find in the eyes of your fellow human beings the source of goodness, truth, and meaning for life. I hope that our time together today has inspired you to treat your fellow “strangers on the bus” with all the respect and dignity they deserve. And finally, if you can accept the term (in whatever way makes sense to you), I hope you have found the faith to answer Joan Osborne’s question in the affirmative: “Yes, God is one of us.”

A Growing Thing

You and I live in a society that values “progress”, especially when it happens quickly, in ways that are big and visible. Every night on TV, we see commercials for some new product that promises to make our lives longer, happier, wealthier, and more secure. If only we would buy what they are selling: if we would drink a certain beverage or apply a certain cream, if we would invest in a certain company or drive a certain car, we would instantly find the kind of deep and lasting joy we observe on the faces of the individuals in the advertisement.

Of course, most adults develop over time the critical thinking skills necessary to see through the lies these companies are selling us. There is no such thing as a beer that makes us more appealing to a potential mate or a vacation that will truly take our minds off the troubles waiting for us at home. Every political candidate, regardless of party affiliation, will be able to deliver only a partial fulfillment of those grand campaign promises.

We know all this, but that knowledge doesn’t stop us from expecting the world from the next product, service, or candidate who comes along, promising the world. There persists within our hearts a selfish drive that screams, in the words of the classic rock band Queen: “I want it ALL, and I want it NOW!”

We like things that are big and fast.

I find it odd and confusing that our society, which runs on this urge for instant gratification of desire, claims to be a “Christian” society (or at least a society that was founded on “Christian values”). When I read about the words and deeds of Jesus Christ, as passed down to us in the Scriptures, I see our Lord and Savior valuing things that are directly opposed to the things that American culture tempts me to value. Today’s reading from the gospel according to St. Mark gives us a fine example of Jesus’ values in action.

In today’s gospel, Jesus uses one of his best and most well-known teaching techniques: the parable. Parables are short, simple stories that communicate spiritual truths by comparing them to physical objects and events. To explain it another way: a parable describes that which we cannot see by virtue of what we can see. Today, we heard two such parables from Jesus.

In both parables, the spiritual reality Jesus is describing is “the kingdom of God” (a.k.a. “the kingdom of heaven” in St. Matthew’s gospel). This is one of those oft-misunderstood phrases that Jesus frequently uses. 21st century westerners tend to associate “the kingdom of God/heaven” with the afterlife. We tend to think that “the kingdom of heaven” is the place where people go when they die, but this is not how Jesus uses that phrase.

For Jesus, the kingdom of heaven is not “pie in the sky”, but a present reality on earth. Think about human kingdoms: the term “kingdom” describes the geographic territory where a monarch possesses authority. Those who live in the United Kingdom are subjects under the authority of Queen Elizabeth II; those who live in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia are subjects under the authority of King Salman. In the same way, we baptized citizens of the kingdom of heaven are subjects under the authority of God. The kingdom of God, then, is any place where God is allowed to be in charge. The kingdom of God exists wherever God’s people can be found. The late biblical scholar Marcus J. Borg sums it up beautifully when he says that the kingdom of God is “what life in this world would be like if God were king and the domination systems of this world were not.” The kingdom of God is Jesus’ vision for this world.

Looking then at Jesus’ parables of the kingdom of God, let’s see what spiritual realities he is trying to communicate to us:

The physical image Jesus offers is that of crops growing in a field. This image would have been quite commonplace to his listeners in a first-century agrarian society, as it would also be for any farmers or gardeners among us today. This is important for two reasons: First, the banality of this image is part of the point. When people ask Jesus about the nature of God’s work in the world, he points to a very boring and ordinary thing. By doing this, Jesus seems to be telling us that the place where we can find God is right in front of us, in the everyday stuff of life. God is in the plants in your garden; God is in the person sweeping the floor; God is in the parent dealing with a rambunctious teenager; God is in the bread and wine on your dinner table.

The second reason why Jesus’ image of crops is important is that it demonstrates how God’s work in the world is a living and growing thing. Jesus says,

“The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.”

This is an important truth for people who say things like, “If you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself.” Even those of us who are people of faith can sometimes fall into the trap of acting like “practical atheists”. A practical atheist, according to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is someone who philosophically believes in God, but lives their life as if God didn’t exist. In this world where so much needs to get done, it is easy to trick ourselves into thinking that everything depends on us. Jesus, on the other hand, is leading us in this parable to do our part in life’s process and then trust the living force of God to handle the rest. St. Paul communicated the same point, using a similar image, in his first letter to the Corinthians. He was addressing a conflict in the church between factions who preferred their current pastor or the previous one. To this, Paul says:

“What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.”

In stressful moments, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that everything depends on us. Jesus takes this opportunity to remind us that there is more at work in the world than the forces of entropy and chaos. God’s hand is visible within and behind the most ordinary things. Jesus says elsewhere, in his Sermon on the Mount:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

“Now Barrett,” you might say in response, “These are lovely sentiments, but we live in the real world. I read the news headlines every day and find little encouragement that God is alive and active in the world today. How can I have confidence that this is so?”

Well, Jesus has a response for that as well. It’s in the very next parable we read in today’s gospel. He says, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth;”

God’s work in the world, Jesus says, is not some big or flashy thing; it starts small, but doesn’t stay that way. Jesus continues, “yet when [the seed] is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

God is at work in the world in all the little, ordinary ways. God is busy making this place into a home where even the smallest and most insignificant creatures have room to live and thrive. We can choose to look at things like practical atheists, pretending that everything depends on us, or we can look at the world with the eyes of faith, as Jesus invites us to do. We can choose to trust that God is alive and at work in our lives and in the world around us. We can look at all those little and ordinary things and see evidence that we are not alone, that we are loved, and that God’s eternal purpose is working itself out.

This good news is critical for those of us who worry about the fate of our world or the Church today. Does our blood pressure go up every time we check the headlines? Are we worried about the future of our little congregation or denomination? Jesus invites us to “let go and let God.”

Shortly after I first moved to Kalamazoo five years ago to take up the pastorate at North Presbyterian Church, I got to sit down with my esteemed predecessor, the Rev. Bob Rasmussen, over lunch one day. As a young, ambitious clergyman, I had all kinds of big ideas for the congregation. I had plans for growing the church, increasing organizational efficiency, and improving our outreach to the community. But then I was humbled over lunch with Pastor Bob.

The first thing I asked him was this: “Bob, as one who served this church faithfully for many years, what do you think is the thing they most need?” I expected some kind of technical response from a fellow professional in my field, but what he actually said floored and humbled me.

In response to my question about what the Church needs most, Pastor Bob said, “Just the Gospel.”

Those are words that I have carried with me ever since. I still frequently fall into the trap of thinking that my big ideas are the solution to the big problems I find in the Church or the world, but when I still my anxious heart, I can hear the wisdom of Jesus speaking through the words of Pastor Bob Rasmussen: “Just the Gospel.”

What God’s world and Christ’s Church needs most is the reminder that we are not alone, that we are loved, and that God is working the divine purpose out in the little and ordinary things around us.

In these parables today, Jesus invites us to stop telling God how big our problems are and start telling our problems how big God is.

Our task is to stay rooted in Scripture, Sacrament, and prayer, trusting God to continue building God’s kingdom within and around us until the whole universe is reunited in an unending hymn of praise. As St. Paul wrote in his letters to the Philippians and the Ephesians: “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”

“Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”

By Shakko (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Pranking the Devil

The biggest mistake contemporary believers often make when reflecting on the mysteries of the Christian faith is to relate to them, either as mere historical events that took place in the distant past, or else as mythical fables that never really took place at all.

This mistake keeps us tangled in the weeds of history, arguing about things that may or may not have happened as they are written and handed down to us today. Viewed through such a myopic lens, the Bible becomes either an infallible textbook in competition with the findings of modern science, or else a highly questionable compendium of ancient thought. The Sacraments become mere memorials that mark us as adherents to a particular religious tradition. The Church itself becomes just another dated institution, devoted to a particular set of dogmas and morals, and having no existence outside the buildings and budgets sustained by its members. Theologically, the imprisonment of the mysteries of the faith in cells of history or mythology leaves people of faith with no real choice except empty secularism, on the one hand, or radical fundamentalism, on the other. Either way, the dismissal of the Easter mystery causes us to miss out on the eternal power Christ’s resurrection has to transform our lives today, for this world and the next.

St. Paul shows us the way out of this intellectual quagmire in tonight’s reading from his epistle to the Romans. He asks the Roman Christians, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?”

This is a brilliant question. Implied in it is the conviction that the death of Christ is not an historical event, but a present reality. The word baptize, used by Paul in this text, comes from the Greek word baptizo, which means “to immerse” as one would soak dishes in a sink or a baby in a bathtub. What Paul says here is that the Sacrament of Baptism, more than just a memorial of past events, “soaks” us in the ever-present reality of Christ’s death on the cross. The scattered fragments of our lives and deaths are gathered together and joined into one, through Christ’s life and death, in Baptism. This is an important truth to consider because it gets at the central mystery of the Christian faith and illuminates the central predicament of every human life on earth.

We humans live in a state of detachment from the world around us. When we are born on this planet, each of us begins the long process of dissociating our identity from our mothers and families. The goal of all childhood is to grow up and leave the nest in which we were raised. With the increased privilege of adulthood comes increased responsibility, and with that an increasing sense of isolation and loneliness.

We earn the right to become masters of our own destiny, only to discover early on that we are actually poor masters, indeed. We find ourselves driven by unconscious impulses in our own minds: rage, lust, gluttony, greed, envy, vanity, and arrogance. And then we discover that we are simultaneously trapped by those very same unconscious forces at work in the world around us. These forces lead to the inevitable breakdown in our relationships. We go on living lives of “quiet desperation” in isolation from one another, failing to understand what is truly going on within ourselves. St. Paul right names the cause of our predicament when he tells us that we are “enslaved to sin.”

Sin is something of a loaded term in today’s society, as it has been for millennia. Religious people are often quick to use that term when pointing out the faults of others, so the rest of the world has learned to tune out the message whenever “sin” is mentioned.

With that in mind, I intend to be very careful about how I use the term sin in this message. Put simply, sin is our address; it is where we live. Sin describes the state of broken relationships between each one of us and our neighbors around us, between our conscious thoughts and our unconscious motivations, and between our souls and our Creator. There is not a person in this room whose life is unaffected by this breakdown in relationships. We did not choose it, we do not want it, but we cannot get free of it. As St. Paul tells us, the present reality is that each and every one of us is “enslaved to sin.”

But this is not the whole story. Even though we find ourselves in a state of broken relationships, we also sense within ourselves a deep connection with each of these things. Our very existence depends upon our relationship with one another, our inner thoughts, nature, and God. The fact that we are aware of our predicament is the first step toward resolving it.

The Church teaches that God has become one with our human nature in Jesus Christ. The gap between divinity and humanity was first crossed at Christmas and continues throughout Jesus’ life on earth. Jesus opens eyes that are blind, ears that are deaf, and tongues whose songs of praise have never been heard. To the hungry, Jesus offers bread. To the lonely, Jesus offers welcome. To the guilty, Jesus offers amnesty. To the oppressed, Jesus offers freedom. To those who are dead, Jesus speaks wonderful words of life. All of these things Jesus did in his thirty-odd years on earth, and he does them still in our lives today.

One would think that people so bereft of the inner and outer necessities of life would gladly welcome such gifts from the Source of Life himself, but the stories of Holy Week demonstrate that this is not so. The revelation of pure divinity in a human life exposed the lies and the futility of our emotional programs for happiness that we construct for ourselves. Rather than risk the journey into freedom that God offers in Christ, the powers of this world reacted with swift vengeance to silence the voice of God-in-the-flesh. We learn again each Passion Sunday and Good Friday how this world-system treats those who challenge its power. Better a familiar slavery, they say, than an unknown freedom. The death of Christ on the cross was the sad-but-inevitable result of his life on earth. Yahweh told Moses at Sinai that no human could see the face of God and live, but our forebears declared the opposite to Jesus at Golgotha: that no God would be allowed to expose the true face of humanity and live. If this were any other story, it would end there as a cautionary tale about the fate of those who dare to challenge the way things are, but this is not just any other story; this is the Gospel.

What happens next makes highly appropriate the coincidence that Easter Sunday should happen to fall upon April Fools’ Day this year. The ancient fathers and mothers of the Church were fond of portraying the events of Holy Week and Easter as Christ’s elaborate practical joke on the devil. They chuckled as they told the story of how Christ tricked the devil into killing him and then sprang his trap, destroying death from the inside out, like a Trojan Horse that was ushered into the bowels of hell itself. St. John Chrysostom writes:

“Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.”

Easter is Christ’s April Fools’ prank on the devil. Just as Good Friday revealed how brutal we are, Easter Sunday reveals how we ridiculous we are. God, faced with human evil, is as patient, loving, and resolute as a mother faced with her toddler’s tantrum. Just as there is nothing a preschooler can do to lose his mother’s affection, so there is nothing we can do to out-sin the love of God.

Friends, this is good news for us as we begin our annual Easter celebration. Despite our best efforts, we have utterly failed in our effort to silence the voice of Love in the face of Jesus Christ. We did our worst, but all of it together was not enough to stifle the power of God’s love. Despite our best efforts, we are still loved. In the words of the ancient Easter Troparion:

 “Christ is risen from the dead,
trampling down death by death,
and, upon those in the tomb,
bestowing life.”

Friends, these are not simply historical events that we remember tonight, nor are they mere mythology to stir our imaginations to good behavior. As Father Randall is fond of reminding us: “Christianity is not a religion about being good so Daddy will love you.” No, the mystery of Easter is a present reality in our lives today. As St. Paul told the Roman Christians, so he tells us today, “if we have been united with [Christ] in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

Baptism, like all the Sacraments, is a mystery that unites the scattered fragments of our lives to the one life of Christ. In Baptism, our old lives of sin are buried and we are raised to the new life that God intends for us. In Baptism, God’s love in Christ is made real to us. In Baptism, even our deaths take on meaning because they are vanquished by Christ’s victory over death in his resurrection.

Living as a Christian in the world today, I continually find that Jesus Christ gives me access to a dimension of reality that is not available to me through other, more rational means. Encountering the Scriptures, the Sacraments, and the Church as unfathomable mysteries, I have discovered time and again that they are means of grace through which God continues to speak to me, day after day. In those all-too-frequent seasons when I labor under the burden of doubt or despair, it is you, the people of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, who call me back with laughter and tears, with words of encouragement and challenge, to the one life of the risen Christ who still dwells in our midst.

Friends, I thank you for this gift and ask your fervent prayers for me, and I offer mine for you, as we journey together toward the discovery of all God offers us in Christ, both now and for eternity. Amen.

Checking Privilege Mindfully

It was my great honor to be invited by my dear friend, Rev. Rachel Lonberg, to preach this week at People’s Church (Unitarian Universalist) in Kalamazoo. The language and flow of this sermon are quite different from my usual practice, as I was speaking in a multi-faith context. I welcome the creative opportunity to express my values in a different way. Enjoy!

Breath is a funny thing. It happens all the time, whether we think about it or not. Our body simply knows how to do it. Most of the time, we take it for granted, even though it’s even more essential to life than food or water (or even iPhones or Facebook). But do we ever really pay attention to it?

I’d like to invite you to join me in a little experiment for a moment.

Try to sit up straight, as comfortably as you can, with your feet flat on the ground. Close your eyes if you like, but it’s not strictly necessary. Now, just pay attention to your breathing.

Don’t try to control or force it. This is not about deep breathing; just the regular rhythm that’s happening all the time. Imagine yourself riding your breath, as if you were a surfer on the ocean.

Notice the feeling of the air as it passes through your nostrils. Notice the movement of your chest or shoulders as the air fills your lungs. Notice the expanding of your abdomen as your diaphragm draws the atmosphere into your body.

Now, let’s just sit with that for a bit. Just keep riding the unconscious rhythm of your breathing.

After a while, you will probably begin to notice other things as well: little noises in the room, twitches or pains in your body, thoughts popping in and out of your head. These are all perfectly normal. Don’t judge them. Just keep gently bringing your attention back to the rhythm of your breathing. Let everything just happen. Don’t try to empty your mind or stop yourself from thinking. Just let the thoughts come and go. Imagine you’re sitting by the side of a river, just watching the boats go by, and each thought, sensation, or noise is just another little boat. Just watch it go by while your attention is on the river itself, and the river is your breath.

Just sit with that awareness for this moment.

When you’re ready, you can open your eyes again (if you had them closed). What did you notice about yourself during this exercise?

Some people describe themselves as feeling more relaxed peaceful. Some notice little irritations or discomfort in their bodies or environment. I often notice, just after opening my eyes again, that lights and colors seem brighter or more vivid than they did before.

What do you think would happen within you if you were to practice this for five minutes a day or longer, maybe even working up to twenty minutes?

A lot of research has gone into that very question over the past two decades. Many self-help books have been written about mindfulness or meditation. Studies have demonstrated that those who practice this exercise on a regular basis report decreased stress, anxiety, and emotional reactivity. At the same time, they report an increase in memory, focus, and cognitive flexibility. Therapists who practice mindfulness report an improvement in their counseling abilities.

I think all of these things are very good and true, but I also think there is a deeper significance to mindfulness practice that goes beyond the findings of clinical psychologists. Mindfulness, I think, brings us into a greater awareness of reality in the here and now.

The goal of mindfulness, as I understand it, is not to stop our thoughts and feelings, but to stop our identification with our thoughts and feelings. In an age where Twitter has reduced people to seething balls of opinions, mindfulness brings us back to the awareness that we are more than the sum of our thoughts. Our True Self, if you will, has roots that go much deeper than the surface of our Ego. Mindfulness brings us into conscious awareness of that True Self.

Philosopher of religion John Hick points out that all the religious and spiritual traditions of the world bring their practitioners on a similar journey. This journey is conceived and expressed in different ways: Salvation, Enlightenment, Liberation, Recovery.

What they all have in common is that they present us with a problem and a solution. The journey on which they take us, according to Hick, is a journey from a self-centered way of living to a reality-centered way of living.

I would extend Hick’s observation beyond the bounds of traditional religious practice as well. We can see the same kind of journey taking place in the late medieval and early modern ages with the advent of the Scientific Revolution.

Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, in 1543 CE, published a manuscript On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres. In this book, Copernicus set forth this radical idea that the sun was the center of the solar system, while the earth and other planets revolved around it. Now, this theory was not original to Copernicus; it had been formulated before by many different astronomers around the world. However, it was Copernicus who rediscovered the idea of a heliocentric solar system for Western Europe.

The Copernican model challenged the prevailing orthodox view at that time, which declared unequivocally that the earth was stationary, while everything else in the universe revolved around it. Copernicus’ views were ridiculed and rejected by powerful religious and political forces. These supposedly heretical ideas called into question the power of a social system that was upheld by politics and religion. The thing that caused Copernicus’ detractors to tremble in fear was the thought that they might not be the center of the universe, after all.

The Copernican Revolution and subsequent development of the Scientific Method represent the gradual eclipse of traditional doctrine by rational observation in the matters of the physical sciences. Reason has not replaced religion entirely, but has caused it to adapt and grow in new ways.

If we take John Hick’s model of spirituality as a journey from self-centered thinking to reality-centered thinking, we can accept the Copernican Revolution as a scientifically ‘religious’ event. We can also understand it in terms of mindfulness practice.

Mindfulness practice brings us to the awareness that we are more than the sum of our thoughts. It shows us that we are not the center of the universe, but merely parts of a whole.

On the one hand, such a realization is threatening to any who identify themselves by their power, possessions, or privilege. On the other hand, it also has the potential to be profoundly liberating to those who are willing to open their minds.

Just think of the images that have been beamed back to Earth from the Hubble Space Telescope for the past three decades. These photographs are like sacred icons to me. In those galaxies and nebulae, I see a beauty that is so vast and so ancient that I seem like a speck of dust or a wisp of smoke in comparison. On the other hand, I realize that the same cosmic order that gave rise to that beauty exists also in the atoms of my own body. I am as much a part of them as they are of me. Together, we are the universe. Observing those images with my eyes and contemplating them with my brain, I feel both small and great at the same time. No matter what happens to me in this life, the beauty of the cosmic order will remain untouched and continue to give rise to new forms in the future. That is my basis for faith, hope, and love, and it feels like freedom.

There is freedom to be found in the practice of mindfulness, but it is far from obvious to those who persist in identifying with their egocentric thoughts and emotions. The past century has brought us an increasing (though still incomplete) awareness of the diversity and dignity of creation. This awareness has inspired some among us to stand up for equality and the rights of our fellow beings. The struggle for women’s suffrage and civil rights have given rise to movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter today.

We have made some progress, but our work has still just begun. Just as in Copernicus’ time, powerful forces are reacting strongly against the advancement of equality. As some step out and speak out for equality, there are others who decry their message as “a War on Christmas… a War on Traditional Marriage… a War on America… A War on White People… A War on Men…”

Those who have benefitted from an unfair distribution of power and resources are afraid that their loss of privileged status is an attack on their very identity and existence. In mindfulness terms, they are continuing to identify with socially constructed categories like race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, culture, sexual orientation, or religion.

I say “they” but I really should say “we” because I stand before you today as a beneficiary of almost every possible category of privilege that can be identified. I am a white, middle-class, straight, cis-gendered, male, American, and Christian human being. The political and economic structures of this country were set up by people who look like me and for people who look like me. I receive an unfair amount of privilege over and against my fellow human beings, simply because I was lucky enough to be born this way. I speak this morning to anyone who shares my privilege in any of the categories I just named. Even as members of the species homo sapiens, we occupy a privileged position of power over the other species and environments of this planet. The United States espouses the philosophical ideals of equality, but too often fails to live up to them in practice. Our privilege is a crime against humanity and, in the language of the Christian religious tradition, a sin against God.

While we are not personally culpable for the misdeeds of past generations, we are nevertheless responsible for doing our part to reshape the present for the sake of future generations. The task before us is to “check our privilege” in our dealings and interactions with those who do not possess a fair share of power and resources at the table. Our threefold mission, like Copernicus, is to let go of false-yet-convenient models of the past, to realize that we are not the center of the universe, and to take our place as parts of a great and beautiful whole. We can never hope to make anything “great again” because reality itself has never ceased to be great, and never will be. Its greatness is simply there, to be observed. All we have to do is open our eyes, ears, hearts, and minds to become aware of it.

I believe that mindfulness meditation, like we have just practiced, is one tool that we can use in cultivating this awareness of our inherent greatness. We can check our privilege, not by flagellating ourselves in guilt for the sins of the past, but by being fully present in this moment with our fellow beings. We can check our privilege by showing up, being still, looking compassionately into one another’s eyes, and listening attentively to the pain that has been caused by centuries of oppression.

Over a century ago, the members of People’s Church did just that as they sat and listened to Sojourner Truth preach from the pulpit of this congregation. By practicing mindful awareness today, we will find ourselves once again in the great company of prophets like Nicolaus Copernicus and Sojourner Truth, that great communion of saints who have made the journey from self-centered living to reality-centered living. We cannot change the mistakes of the past, but we can check our privilege by practicing mindful awareness today and so lay the foundation for a better tomorrow.

May it be so. Amen.