(This sermon was given at Village Church in Cummington, MA, on February 16, 2014. Like many small, old churches in New England, it cannot afford to heat its sanctuary in the winter, so the congregation gathers in the vestry or parish hall for worship. This allows us the magnificence of circle worship, which is much more suitable for this congregation that doesn’t top twenty in the winter and is often closer to ten. It also means that the sermon can be interactive…MUST be interactive. And thus, this sermon “on paper” is very much different than the one that we (minister & congregation) co-created together.)
There is an old story of Kisa Gotami, who lived in the time of the Buddha, whose only child died young. Her sorrow was great, her grieving long and public, as she went house to house with the body of her dead child, pleading for medicine to save him. An old sage felt compassion for her and encouraged her to approach the Buddha, that he would have the right remedy for her. The Buddha met with her and told her that he would be glad to help, but first she must find a mustard seed from the home of a family where no mother or father or son or daughter has died.
Perhaps you have already guessed the outcome of such a fruitless search: Kisa Gotami, fueled by the prospect of having her child back, went from house to house. Each door was opened and each household more than willing to share its mustard seeds, but none were able to say that they had not experienced death.
Devastated and hopeless, she sat down and watched the lights of the city – they flickered and then were extinguished. Then the darkness of the night was everywhere. In the flickering of these lights, and their eventual, inevitable extinguishing, she saw human lives, she saw her child’s life, she saw her own. The stillness revealed to her her own selfishness, illuminated how death is common to all, and that in this valley of desolation, there was a path to those who surrender such selfishness. It was at this point that she decided to follow the path of the dharma, the teaching of the Buddha, and to take refuge in its wisdom.
Of course, this is a story, a parable, and one thatmay or may not have taken place. But just because it may not be historically factual does not make it untrue. In fact, some things that are factually inaccurate may be far truer than anything pure empirical evidence may offer up. For instance, the common understanding of the word, “myth” reveals that it may be a powerful story, but it is something that did not actually happen. However, for scholars, myths are actually the opposite: they speak a wider and deeper truth about a culture than any one story or historical fact might reveal. For instance, it becomes ever more clear that the myth of the American Dream – you can make it if you try – is patently false. Yet there is some deeper truth about America related to that myth – the elusive wish for an egalitarian society.
In the story of Kisa Gotami, I hear echoes of another parable that involves a seed, this one from the Gospel of John in the Christian tradition:
24 Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. John 12:24-26
We have seed here in the form of a grain, which is a seed, just a very specific seed.
What other echoes or commonalities do our first story and this brief parable share? [congregation engages and offers their ideas]
I hear death in both of them. In the secular world, the beginnings of life (seeds) are supposed to be opposite the endings of life (death). Yet we know this is not true, that in fact, life and death are of the same stuff.
I hear pain in both of these. Kisa Gotami is wracked by grief. In the parable of the wheat grain, the seed itself is destroyed that something else might come to life. Grains of wheat are not sentient, but that destruction, if you were the grain of wheat, would be rather painful. Think of it in this way, as Cynthia Occelli describes it:
For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.
I hear commentary on selfishness in both of these. In the Buddhist story, Kisa Gotami is saturated with a grief that persuades her to focus on herself and her own losses. The Buddha instructs her to connect with others and in so doing, she discovers the universal nature of grief. In seeing universal suffering, she is able to let go of her self-centered suffering and find not only compassion, but eventual enlightenment. This is not unlike what Jesus’ says: that giving up one’s own path to follow his leads to God’s honoring. Though dedicated theologians would argue that Buddha’s enlightenment is not the same as Christian’s salvation, I think for our purposes here, they are mostly talking in the same ballpark.
I have been pondering and mulling over and cogitating and bringing my heart to bear on this mighty seedy church. Not a day goes by that I don’t consider something that relates to Village Church – really, you have entered my heart and gotten under my skin.
I think you all are seeds. I think you all are gardeners as well. But I think you all are seeds and I want to spend some time this morning considering yourselves as such and the process through which you as seeds are going and growing.
As I have meditated on Village Church, I have found it helpful to view what is happening here, what has happened here, and what is to happen here, through the lens of Margaret Benefiel’s framework for spiritual transformation. Dr. Margaret Benefiel is a professor at the school I will be attending starting in the fall. I took an intensive course with her this past January. The title of that course was Seeing Things Whole.
She describes a multi-phase process through which we go. There are five phases – two in the first half of the spiritual journey and three in the second half. The first two phases are Awakening and Transition. Awakening starts with a new awareness of spiritual reality and includes adopting spiritual practices, seeking connection with others on spiritual quests, and catching glimpses of sacredness in everyday life. The Transition phase is kind of like when the honeymoon is over and the socks left on the floor are no longer cute, but annoying. Those spiritual practices aren’t “working” anymore or in the same ways, leading to dissatisfaction. A sense of isolation and confusion can rise up, along with their buddy, “Frustration,” which can lead to questioning the very spiritual path that you not so long ago hopped onto.
In the second half of the journey, there are three phases. When they are presented on paper, it looks like this is a linear process, but it is not. There is not always forward momentum and there is a spiral nature to all things spiritual, a near guarantee that any quality or skill or attitude you learn and feel you have mastered, in the spiritual realm, you can be nearly guaranteed of a new opportunity to re-learn it. So it goes with these phases.
The next phases are Recovery, then comes Dark Night, and lastly: Dawn. In the Recovery phase, this is discovering new ways to relate to Ultimate Reality, however you understand that to be (God, Source, Great Spirit, etc.). In this new relationship, one might even say more mature relationship, we experience similar tasks as in Awakening (new practices, connecting with others on a spiritual path, renewed awareness of the sacred around us), as well as something essential: there is a new understanding that spiritual is not for personal gain, such as comfort, but for personal transformation. With this comes renewed joy – not fleeting happiness, but the more rooted joy.
Just because one knows that spirituality means personal transformation, it does not mean it comes or comes easily. In fact, there are obstacles. Spiritual practices don’t always yield transformation. For instance, I can sit on a meditation cushion for ten-plus years, and my mind does not quiet down. This is when we are in the Dark Night phases, where deeper core questions emerge, even deeper isolation, and more – not fewer – blockages to progress are manifest. This phase can be filled with despair and a sense that there are only walls, no doors, no windows, to allow egress.
Thankfully, according to Benefiel’s framework for spiritual transformation, there is a fifth phase: Dawn. There is no guarantee that any one of us will get there or if we get there, that we will stay for long. In this Dawn spiritual practices move beyond rote and well up from an authentic place within. Instead of a sense of connectedness with others on a spiritual path, the overwhelming feeling is connection with the universe and a sense of alignment with a transcendent power. Through this, new ways of making meaning emerge.
So a quick review: First half of the journey is awakening and transition. The second half is recovery, dark night, and dawn. And I’m pretty darn sure it repeats itself, spirals around, so that dawn moves into dark night or maybe all the way back to transition, and then hopefully forward, though it’s not always clear at what pace – it’s different for each of us, with some mixture of luck, pluck, and grace coming to bare.
Benefiel believes this is how it works not only for individuals, but also for organizations. I’m not going to drag you all through those five phases as they relate to some generic organization because this is a sermon, not a lecture. But I think she is onto something here because I have used this five-phase framework to understand Village Church during the time I have been with you and I have found it helpful.
So here, within our circle, on these brightly colored papers, are the five phases. I wonder if any resonate with you and your experience at Village Church – where it has been? Where it is now? [congregation engages and offers their ideas]
I trace my entrance into the life of Village Church during the bridge between the first half of the journey and the second half, or the stepping stones between the Transition phase to the Recovery phase.
- For instance, having UU co-ministry has meant that there has been an adoption of new practices not only worship, but how the professional ministry’s time is structured (not just for Sunday worship, but time was dedicated to pastoral care and to visioning/discernment work).
- By engaging many levels of people in the discernment process, a sense of connection and reconnection remerged. This included strengthening ties to like-minded people who were not previously attracted to the church, but are attracted to the new energy.
- This congregation’s most unusual gift is its music offering, which has been recast in sacred terms and understood as sacred work: music ministry and music mission. This music ministry allows the church to intersect with a wide swath of secular folks who help to co-create the church’s mission.
These qualities – adoption of new practices, senses of connection and reconnection, and seeing the sacred with new awareness – belong to the Recovery phase of spiritual transformation. If we understand those things in this way, then we must pay attention to what else this framework for spiritual transformation has to tell us. For the journey does not end with recovery. In fact, this is only the middle phase.
Do you remember what comes after Recovery? Dark Night. I remind you of this not to be a Debbie Downer, a buzzkill, or to harsh your mellow. I do it as anticipatory guidance, as a rather non-specific, but still true, roadmap for what lays ahead: obstacles, frustrations, feelings of stagnation or isolation.
I say this to you not to discourage you. In fact, quite the opposite. I say this to you not out of condescension or arrogant comeuppance, but out of love. I say this to you so you might not be surprised, or more accurately, thrown off course. I say this to you that you might know and in knowing, recognize, and in recognizing, find comfort, not fear, for if you experience a dark night, no matter how hard, there is a dawn, and it may be available to you.
I say this to you so you might, just like in the hymn we are about to sing, build a land were you bind up the broken and the oil of gladness dissolves all mourning, where you bring the good tiding to all the afflicted and all those who mourn, bringing them garlands instead of ashes. Building a land, or a people, or a church – all of it true.
I say to you, sisters and brothers, you who are anointed and called, come build a land that you may then create peace, where justice shall roll down like waters and peace like an everflowing stream.
I say this to you now because there are only just so many more opportunities I have to say it to you.
Malcolm Romain / istockphoto