February 13, 2022, 6th Sunday After the Epiphany
Jeremiah 17:5-10, Psalm 1, 1 Cor 15:12-20, & Luke 6:17-26
The Rev. Amy Newell-Large
In Luke’s version of the Beatitudes we witness Jesus with the apostles coming down into the crowd to teach. The crowd is huge, and diverse. Some people need healing from physical ailments, others have been troubled by unclean spirits, some people just wanted to touch Jesus knowing his power could heal whatever is dis-ease is in their lives. To me, this is a very human crowd, and anyone could have been there. No one is perfect, no one is without need of some kind of healing, no one has had a life without suffering. We can all see ourselves in the crowd- listening to Jesus to heal the suffering in our bodies, hearts, minds, and spirits.
Jesus brings us to the tension of life in the beatitudes of Luke. Unlike in Matthew, Luke’s version not only contains the blessed, but also woes. Our lives are not static, one dimensional, or universal. We are contextual, particular, dynamic and multifaceted. So when I read Jesus telling us who is blessed and who will face woe, I can relate to every situation across the board. Poor and rich? Yep. Hungry and full? Sometimes both in one hour. Weeping and laughing? Sometimes at the same time and it’s not pretty. Some people I get along with and others I don’t, sometimes they are in the same room. We are not in these situations forever. Jesus invites us to recognize the tension in our lives, across our lives, and consider God’s place in this moment.
Jesus tells us: Whatever you’re going through, you are human. You are here because you know suffering and you imagine no-suffering. But if you develop an attachment to one way of being or another, you will continue to suffer because things will change.
Impermanence. This is an important Buddhist teaching. Zen Master Norman Fischer, writes, “As far as classical Buddhism is concerned, impermanence is the number one inescapable fact of life... To understand impermanence at the deepest possible level (we all understand it at superficial levels), and to merge with it fully, is the whole of the Buddhist path. The Buddha’s final words express this: Impermanence is inescapable.” Nothing can be grasped or held onto. Dogen, founder of Soto Zen said, “Impermanence is Buddha Nature. Permanence is the mind that discriminates the wholesomeness and unwholesomeness of all things.” For Dogen, permanence is practice- the mindfulness we bring to the world that we live in. This is important for us as Christians to know that our hearts focused on Jesus will open our mind to discerning the world around us that we may be Christ’s hands and feet in the world, live with love. The tangible nature of our being and our commitment to being Christian matters how we navigate the tensions of this human life. And the constant flow of impermanence, the movement of the Spirit, calls us to dwell with God- inescapable, impermanent.
And, “impermanence is Buddha Nature” helps frame the complexity of the Beatitudes by showing me that in the dynamics of the ebbs and flows of life it is all God. That reality is cosmic- vast and always propelled by the movement of the Spirit. The trap I may fall into of thinking “I need to be this and this kind of person, or do this and this kind of work” does not actually impact God’s relationship with me- because no matter if I’m rich or poor, laughing or crying, even no matter if I am making peace or disagreeing with my coworkers- God is with me.
In this way I look to Jeremiah, “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord.” Faith is the path that we walk when we follow Jesus and embrace the impermanence that reveals God, and the permanence that reveals God. That this too shall pass reveals God in each moment, regardless of what is happening in that moment. And the only way I can witness God revealed is in my human life- this life of Amy- is the only way I will know God. I cannot know God as Cameron! Trust in God, being grounded in our faith is the practice of being Christian.
My Christian path, as Jesus preached, is not a spiritual practice defined by achieving spiritual bliss. And thank goodness! Because Jesus was human and showed us that precisely in this suffering, messy, complex human existence we know God. My Christian faith trusts that in the tensions of my own life God reveals Godself. The situations of my life will pass, but my faith will remain.
Liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez writes, “my intention is…in the words of Ignatius of Loyola, ‘to find God in all things.’ But the fact is that the attitude of finding God in all things can be acquired only if we can activate a contemplative dimension in our lives.” He continues, “Prayer is an expression of faith and trust in the Lord; it is an act that is particular to and characteristic of the believer.” My faith, practiced and nurtured in prayer, cultivates my finding God in all things in the way that only I can do!
And Jesus seeks to help us remove any barrier to seeing God, whatever our context may be. When we are poor, hungry, depressed and hated we often view ourselves as unworthy of God’s revelation and love. To this Jesus offers comfort and a pastoral word of blessing. Yet, if we are rich, well-fed, euphoric, and honored we may also miss God’s revelation for our preoccupation with ourselves. To those situations Jesus offers a pause to invite God into our view.
We cannot focus on one place where God will be in our lives or when we will achieve a blissful faith and perfect life. The disciples' life (to which we are all called) is of embracing the tension and complexity- honestly naming when we have separated ourselves from God and one another (or in other words, honestly confessing our sins) and also tenderly accepting the grace of God and claiming our belovedness.
“Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord.” In the particularities of my life, I can know God beyond the permanent, but only through the permanent. The practice is: not holding too tightly to what my mind has created as “God” and being open to God beyond this moment and precisely in this moment. Impermanent, and intimate.
I have been in a place of messiness and depression recently. Having entered my last semester at seminary I feel pressure about what comes next, and who will want to hire me, where will my ministry be a good fit, and even am I worthy of this ministry call. My negative self-talk has been feasting on my fears, and it especially gorges itself on comparing myself to my colleagues (many of whom have jobs already lined up). When I read Jeremiah, “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord.” I felt the weight of the harm I have been inflicting upon myself. Why have I been letting myself talk to me like this? I anticipated that this semester I would need to guard my mental health. Job searching is really stressful for me and I have a tendency to wrap my sense of self-worth up in it too. In the Gospel Jesus shows me his depth of compassion for my human journey- again, my messy, afraid, judgmental, and… beautiful human journey. In the midst of this, he calls me to the path of faith. To trust God, claim my own belovedness, and take heart in the impermanence. The movement of the Spirit transcends my fear and clinging to what I think “should” be happening at this point in my life and Jesus preaches that this too shall pass, and in each moment passing God is with me, my practice is to see God, to merge with God.
We cannot avoid the messiness, I cannot avoid my self-critical habits, but if I ignore that pain I shut out the possibility of knowing God in that pain. When I am present to the pain, honest about the tension of feeling unworthy and also feeling joy in the work I do, then I can be present to God in all of that! And also, I can trust that it will all pass. The negative thoughts, these too shall pass and they will pass with God-with-me and God will be there into the next moment and the one after that.
My suffering is a reality of being human, the preciousness of my particular life and the permanence of practicing faith in this life helps me break down barriers to seeing God revealed. “Impermanence is Buddha Nature” helps me open to God’s revelation in the fleetingness of my pain, and the movement of the Spirit that carries me through and forward into whatever God’s surprises may bring. And through Jesus maybe I can remove the barriers in my seeing, and find God in all things.
As I continue in this very human journey, I have been turning to the Hsin Hsin Ming, a long Zen poem. It points out to me that when I try to hold to specifics (rich, poor, happy, sad) I miss God because I am too focused on staying comfortable, or getting to a safe, certain point. Rather, the path of faith is to notice my attachment (to knowing what comes next for example) and aversion (to uncertainty), and see God beyond that, opening to divine movement within the impermanence of life. While I won’t share the Hsin Hsin Ming, I have my own words as a take off/adaptation of the opening verse to resonate with the heart of the tension Jesus preaches and invites a trust in the path of faith to know God in all things- impermanent and intimate.
I invite you to turn inward. Maybe close your eyes, maybe take a few deep breaths. Notice within yourself any place where tension arises. Perhaps you are seated but feeling antsy, or perhaps you’re anxious about the future… Whatever arises, just notice it with a non-judgmental tenderness. Be present to tension and be gentle with yourself. Open your ears to hear these words:
The way of faith is not difficult for those not attached to preferences, when either rich or poor, happy or sad arises God is undisguised. When neither “rich” nor “poor” arises, all is clear as Godself revealed. If you wish to see the truth, trust God in “this too shall pass”. To separate or value one state of being over another is a disease of the thinking mind. When the meaning of things is uncertain the hearts’ openness can see God without barriers, deep peace prevails. Amen.