Like most people, when I was in my twenties, I was focused on trying to figure out my life. I struggled to figure out what I was going to do to make a living, what I valued and what was important to me. Along with some friends of mine I found my way into practicing a form of Buddhism that focused on chanting. The idea was that the chanting had a harmonic resonance with the universe and would literally align one’s entire being, like a magnetic field aligning electrons, with the spiritual pulse of creation. One chanted every day with an intention held in one’s mind, something that one wanted. My chanting was grounded in the hope of finding a deeper relationship with the divine and aligning my life with the creator. I suppose, then, that it was really no surprise when one day while chanting, I realized that I was not a Buddhist, but a Christian. At the time this was actually a startling realization because I thought I had left Christianity behind when I was 15. I thought that Christianity was too narrow minded, too legalistic, too judgmental. But in my thoughts that morning I was ruminating on how much I appreciated Christmas and Easter, and not just as family time, but because I had also started going to midnight mass on Christmas Eve and Easter morning services. It’s true that I had no desire to go to church on a regular Sunday. In fact the idea of stepping foot in a church on a Sunday morning filled me with trepidation and fear, fear that they’d “get” me and before long I’d be a narrow minded judgmental person too.
Eventually I realized that this form of Buddhism was in some ways just as legalistic as my perception of Christianity because it taught that if one ever stopped chanting one’s life would fall apart and one would live in chaos. I was just as afraid to stop chanting as I was of entering a church on Sunday morning. But eventually I found my way back into church. It helped immensely that I found a church that invited questions and was open to ideas and exploring faith. It has also helped that becoming part of a faith community and worshiping on Sunday mornings anchored me in a tradition that had a long history, that had roots, which then formed roots in me and gave me the foundation I needed to navigate the complex nature of life as a person of faith.
Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, is addressing this idea, that we become more ourselves when we become more like Christ. The primary aim in life, Paul writes, is to know Christ.
Paul, before he became a Christian, was an educated Hebrew, a Pharisee. He was wealthy and had high standing in his community. He was all the things that Jesus addresses when he calls the Pharisees out for their hypocrisy, their strutting around as if they are perfect but failing to be faithful to God because of their judgmental self righteousness, of their rigid attitudes for who belongs and who does not.
And then Paul had an epiphany and he changed completely from that narrow minded Pharisee to a follower of Jesus, striving to love as Jesus loved. Loving those on the fringes of society as much as he loved his closest friends. He spent the rest of his life living the teachings of Jesus – going out into the world to serve others. He tended to the sick, fed the hungry, clothed the naked, loved the marginalized, and taught entire communities how to do the same. His letters to the churches in Rome, Ephesus, Philippi, and Corinth are profound teachings on how to live in community as followers of Jesus, how to love as Jesus loved, how to reveal the love of God in human flesh. He taught communities how to listen deeply to God.
The rise in violence over the last decade, and especially the last couple of years, from mass shootings to terrorism, to murders, human trafficking, the world crisis caused by displaced persons who have no country to call home, the intense rise in natural disasters from hurricanes, tornados, and earthquakes leaving entire islands and countries devastated and perhaps to never recover, and the cruel and violent language people use to speak to one another across the spectrum of social media and even in person – this rise in violence speaks to a world that has lost its moorings.
Karen Armstrong, a world religions scholar, once wrote about a phenomenon that happened about four thousand years ago, which caused all the world religions of that era: Judaism, Buddhism, Confusionism, and Hinduism, to almost simultaneously develop the concept of the Golden Rule, do unto others as you would done to you. This concept changed the course of human relationships, rooting humankind in the idea that our purpose in life, however one understands the Word of God made flesh, is to love one another. It raised to awareness that the Word of God, which was with God from before time, speaks into the human condition, into all the world religions, guiding human beings to treat each other with love and respect, everyone equally. This higher calling asks that human beings change, like Paul, from living a narrowly defined life to a life that embraces all people equally. As Christians we understand this as the teachings of Jesus, who we also know as the Word of God made flesh.
As your spiritual leader, your priest and Rector, I am convinced that the only way we are going to truly find our purpose in the world today is to practice actively listening to God and making room for God to speak to us and guide us. I have every confidence that if we stop and listen intentionally, offering space for silence, that God will enter that silence and lead us.
Recently with the Vestry and then with the Renaissance Strategy Task Force, I led us in some silent prayer and guided meditation. These ancient prayer forms are designed to help us make room for God’s presence in our lives and to awaken our antenna, our capacity to listen and to recognize God speaking to us now.
How will we know if the ideas we have, and the pulls we feel, are of God and not just of our own limited sense of direction? How will we know if we moving out of a Christmas and Easter service only experience and into a life transforming every day experience?
The mystics and other Christian teachers, including Paul, tell us we will know it is God speaking if the direction we discern is one that pushes us out of our comfort zone, out into the community, out into the world to learn and grow and build relationships with others.
We will know this because that is how God always works. This is how God worked through Jesus and it is how Jesus worked through Paul and it is how the Holy Spirit works through us. Its how the Word of God spoke into the world thousands of years ago and caused a seismic shift in self awareness and the awareness of others. It’s what we’ve reflecting on all year in the Gospel of Matthew. And especially what we hear in Matthew 7: In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.
a reflection on the readings for Proper 22A: Philippians 3:4-14