Year C, Proper 8
June 30, 2013
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“No one who has once grasped the plow and continues to look backward is fit for the kingdom.”
I spent last week on retreat with twenty-two priests from across the country. Spending time with priests, you hear a lot about church life; what works, what doesn’t, what is downright scary. Truly, I am so, so, so grateful to be able to serve the Church of the Resurrection, to share a life in Christ with all of you. You are a brave and dedicated parish, and as we are learning, courage and dedication always take sacrifice. I know not everyone is thrilled with how the parking lot looks, and I am not talking about the sinkholes. I happen to think it is a beautiful still life of the kingdom of God, but not everyone shares that opinion. And yet, yet, collectively we are doing what we need to do; you all know what a gift this place is and you are sharing it. It has required sacrifice and trying new things on. And, at least in part through our radical hospitality to the needful, our numbers here are growing, rapidly. Things are changing and change is not always comfortable. And you all have shown up and continue to show up. Bravo. You, we are doing God’s work here, together, and I am so proud of this community and I am so glad to be in your midst. I want to thank you all for being you. Individually, sure, you have been a gathering of people that have been very easy to fall in love with, but even more so, thank you for being yourselves collectively. This is good church.
Second, I really want to thank you for last week. I was on a retreat called CREDO, which is put on by the Church Pension Fund to address clergy wellness. It is a bit mercenary… the pension fund has found that unwell priests not only don’t serve the church very well or long, they are also very expensive: living more sickly lives, dying earlier, or simply causing a ruckus when their financial and/or emotional lives fall apart. To prevent further disaster, a curriculum and a modality of practice was developed to address clergy wellness in several important areas: spiritual, emotional, physical, vocational (career related), financial and leadership. This led to the creation of a model of practice, embodied in the formation of a rule of life. It was fantastic, even, potentially, life changing. The rule I am working on is private for now, but if you see me riding my bike on church business, or if my pace slows a bit, or if my door is closed more often, that is probably what I am working on. Thank you all for the time and the support in getting there. Please know, that assuming the vestry agrees, Windy, the girls and I are in it for the long haul here, and the work of CREDO will help make this ministry sustainable. Thanks.
One that I will share that I am working on, that this past week reminded me of, can be summed up in a single word: mindfulness. Mindfullness is a, if not the key to the spiritual life, and Jesus speaks to this very directly in our lection from St. Luke’s gospel today.
Mindfulness is about paying attention, being conscious of where we are, of what we are doing and when we are doing it. So much of the retreat dealt with being mindful, paying holy attention to the important, but maybe not urgent corners of our lives. For some it is personal finance. For others it is that nagging weight around the middle or being too busy all the time or the amount they drink. Our lives can get away from us very quickly, and they can also get away from us in teeny-tiny, incremental steps over years and years. I like to talk about baby steps to the kingdom. We can take baby steps in other directions, too. A sure-fire cure, if there is such a thing, is cultivating in ourselves habits of mindfulness to bring holy attention to bear on our lives.
In St. Luke’s gospel today, Jesus brings to the fore two mindfulness problem areas that plague all of us: where we are, and when we are. When we become mindful of truly where we are and when we are there, God in Christ is right there with us.
When the Samaritan village did not receive Jesus, James and John asked, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” This is a less than mindful response, and on several levels. Obviously destroying a village for being inhospitable is not a sign of mindful consideration. Further, there are specifics in this story that are apropos. Jewish law considered the Samaritans untouchables, so that the hospitality of Samaritans was not freely offered to Jews was in no way surprising. Most important is perhaps that the rejection was not just out of hand. St. Luke tells us that Christ’s face was already set on Jerusalem, not on the Samaritan village before Him. Jesus and his friends had in effect already bypassed the village in their minds, they were already somewhere else. Savior or not, we’ve all entertained someone who was distracted by somewhere else than where they actually are. It is no fun for anyone.
That is important. The only place that you ever can be right where you are, right? Well, sort of. How many times have you been driving somewhere and when you arrive, you can’t even remember the trip? Or you sit daydreaming in your office about sitting on a beach, or the top of a mountain or anywhere but in front of that computer? I can relate. Or you go somewhere you’d rather not be, so you go in body only? Right? The problem is, we are only ever where we actually are. We need to remain in the real world, remain with the actual way things are, not a world of hoped for outcomes, of fantasy and longing… Where we are in the world actually matters. This is what Jesus says to his disciples in rebuking them. “Stay with me, boys,” he says, “let’s just move on to the next village.”
Some years ago I had the privilege of attending a day long retreat offered by the great Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Han. It was a funny scene, such a revered teacher, yet humble and to see such a small maroon robed monk sitting high on a dais in the midst of the grandeur of Harvard’s Memorial Chapel, all the while speaking simple truths, it was almost too much. In any case, he taught lots of things, including a walking meditation that we then practiced. It was easy. Take a step, and as your foot rested on the ground, think, “I have arrived.” Repeat with each step. Do it for 20 minutes. It is a simple walking meditation, and can even smell a little new age-ey, but truly it was profound. With each step there you are, there, truly, and no where else. And there I was with a bunch of over-privileged, mostly white folks walking around Harvard Yard practicing really being in Harvard Yard. As I said, almost too much.
But as important as where you are is when you are. As Jesus walked along the road with friends and followers, one said, “‘I will follow you Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’” Jesus is saying, “be mindful of what you are doing when you are doing it. Don’t pay attention to the past, but rather, pay attention to now, this very present moment.
We live right now, only right now. Yesterday is gone, forever. It cannot be relived. And tomorrow is not here. Most likely it will come, most likely the sun will come out tomorrow, but it has not happened yet and it should not concern us too much. The past readily descends into Nostalgia. The Future just as easily degrades to Fantasy. Both are toxic to the life of the spirit because neither are real. God in Christ with the Holy Spirit reside only in the real, the eternal and actual world that only exists as it happens. Otherwise it is just in our minds.
One of the theologians I most appreciate is an 18th century French Jesuit named Jean-Pierre de Caussade. De Caussade testifies powerfully about now, writing, “The events of every moment bear the impress of the will of God… It is right, therefore, to bless it, to treat it as a kind of sacrament which by its own virtue sanctifies those souls which place no obstacles in its way.” His book Abandonment to Divine Providence leads us to this notion of the “sacrament of the present moment,” because really and truly, the only place we can eternally and/or actually encounter God is right here, right now, in this present moment. We do not meet God in our memories, nor in our dreams of the future, but in the gift of the very moment you are inhabiting now. And now. And Now! And nowhere else.
You may have heard the story of the old monk who wore a watch that instead of hands had the word “Now” written on its face. When a novice would ask, “Sir, what time is it?” he would reply, “Now.” Of course it is. The sacrament of the present moment. Not only can we only meet God in this present moment, if we can truly be where we are when we are there, we will encounter God. Union happens now. Now that is a powerful invitation to Christian mindfulness, a powerful way to grasp the plow that is your life that your hand is already upon.
Now I am going to leave you hanging. To try to teach practices of mindfulness from the pulpit is folly, it takes much longer, and a very different setting to do that, but we will do it, we will begin some conscientious work on Mindfulness in our adult ed in the coming months. I am going to put together a series reviewing various practices to cultivate mindfulness. Until then, be mindful on occasion as you walk about that with each step you have actually arrived, somewhere, and that is the only place you and God could possibly be: in that very moment. AMEN