At the Feet of the Master



a reflection on Luke 10:48 – 42

We’ve been talking this season about spiritual practice: all the things we ordinary humans can do to open ourselves to the divine presence that is always in us and with us, always longing to heal and transform our lives, our relationships, our communities, our world.

As we’ve moved through this season together, we’ve been exploring different kinds of spiritual practices, both here in worship and in our 9 o’clock practice hour: praying in silence; praying with sacred texts; praying with our imaginations so that the Spirit might open our hearts. I hope that you’ve picked up a spiritual practice to try out during this season.

But now that we’re halfway through the season of Lent, I think it’s the right time to talk about what is possibly the most important spiritual practice of all, the practice that makes all the others possible: the spiritual practice of letting something go. All the spiritual teachings in the world are not going to help us–even a personal invitation from the spiritual master himself is not going to help us–if we keep ourselves too busy to show up for him. Thanks for coming over, Martha says to Jesus this morning. But you know, I really don’t have time for this stuff!

Sound familiar? On the surface, it looks perfectly logical. After all, somebody has to clean the house and cook the meals and welcome the guests, right?

But Jesus isn’t buying it. Possibly because Jesus himself has wrestled with his own demons, his own resistance, out there in the desert, he knows how to recognize resistance when he sees it in his friends.

“One thing only is needed,” Jesus warns. “And Mary has chosen it—it will not be taken from her.”

Mary has chosen to let go–to let go–of the never-ending household chores and take a retreat day instead: sitting at the feet of the master, absorbing the spiritual lessons he has come to impart.

What Mary knows, and what Jesus knows, is that the busy work of our lives–our home lives, our church lives–will always be there. It literally has no end! And that busy work will not transform our consciousness. And that transformation of human consciousness is why Jesus is here. I believe it’s why we’re here on earth, and why we’re here every Sunday morning.

Beloved, the stakes could not be higher than they are right now. Only a transformation of human consciousness will allow us, as a species, to change our ways in time to save the world we love. A transformation of human consciousness that takes us from a mind of separation and division and returns us to a mind of sacred union with God and with all creation. I would not be standing here this morning unless I believed that Christian tradition actually offers us a way—a spiritual path—to bring about this transformation of consciousness.

And I wouldn’t ask you to be here, either. The stakes are far too high for us to waste our time with any tradition that does not heal our relationship with God, with one another, and with all of creation.

And yet, here we are. Halfway through the season of Lent, arguing, like Martha, that we are too busy. That our to-do lists are more important than our spiritual transformation.

You can almost see Jesus shaking his head, with compassion, and sorrow. It’s your choice, he says. What will it be? Here I am.

I’ve been hearing from a lot of you over the past few weeks, about the spiritual practices you want to take up, and about how hard it is to actually do them. And I will confess that it’s hard for me, too. I have enough Martha in me that I struggle every day to make time for the spiritual practices I know are essential for me.

The mind of Martha, the mind of Martha in us– this is what spiritual teachers call the egoic mind. This mind always tries to convince us that we are indispensable; that God cannot possibly take care of the world, or our loved ones, unless we are there to supervise. The egoic mind loves to feel needed and important. And its job is to distract us from the inner work that will free us to actually answer God’s real call.

And God — for better or worse — has gifted us with free will. God will not force us to change our ways. We are free every day to choose, to practice, the path of transformation. We are also free to choose, just as our friend Martha chooses, to be too busy. Too distracted by our many tasks: taking care of loved ones, making a living, putting food on the table. It’s not that these things are trivial, of course. It’s hard to imagine Jesus, of all people, saying that feeding others, or offering hospitality, is unimportant. As you will recall, Jesus himself was a pretty busy guy — feeding, healing, teaching desperate, hungry crowds wherever he goes.

And yet Jesus urges his followers to do as he does: to regularly step away from the clamoring crowds and sit in silence, in solitude. Even for 40 days! Because to neglect the practice of silence is to ignore God’s call to us. To neglect the practice of stillness is to refuse God’s transformative work in us. Martha, Martha, Jesus says. The stakes are simply too high.   

My job, always, is to reflect back to you, as honestly as I can, what I see when I look into your eyes. Some days, that’s easy and fun: when I see excitement and joy in your eyes, I get to say, “I see how you light up when you talk about this new idea that’s calling you. How can this church help you say a holy yes to that call?” Other days, I see you looking weary at the mention of your weekday job, or at the mention of a task you do here at church, or a committee (or three) that you lead here at church. At those times, it’s my job to say, “It looks like this is not bringing you joy. I wonder if it’s time to let it go. I wonder if you need to make some time to sit at the feet of the master, in silence, and let God whisper in your ear.”

Here’s the good news. When we stop acting out of obligation and guilt, when we let go of our need to be busy, and needed, then make time to nurture the unique gifts that God is calling us to offer the world.

Beloved, remember that Jesus himself gives up food and water and friends and all kinds of good work–Jesus let go of important, healing work he could be doing–to go into the wilderness of silence for 40 days. We have 20 days left in this season of Lent. And I wonder what it would take for us to answer the call of the master this season. What will it take for you to answer the call of your own soul? Will you give up something that is draining your soul’s life? Will you give up the excuse of busyness?

As Jesus knows, and as his good friend Mary knows, this is the way human consciousness is transformed. Person by person, heart by heart, mind by mind. Daily, slowly, we are called to put on the Mind of Christ. Daily, slowly, one by one, as we are transformed, so is the consciousness, the collective mind, of the human race, transformed. Out of separation and into oneness. Out of fear and into love. Out of greed and into care for all creation. The stakes could not possibly be higher than they are right now. Everything depends now upon the path we might yet choose. May we choose bravely, and well. Amen.


The Other Nine

A Meditation on Luke 17:11-19

for the Third Sunday in Lent

I have to confess that of all the commentaries I’ve ever read on this particular scripture, my favorite comes from Kate Braestrup, chaplain for the Maine Warden service. In her book, Here if You Need Me, she writes about reading this story aloud to her kids when she was in seminary. As Jesus entered a village, she reads aloud. Ten lepers approached him. At this point, the kids really perk up: finally, something exciting is actually going to happen in the Bible. What will happen to Jesus when he meets ten leopards? Will he run? Will they eat him?

Needless to say, the kids are a little disappointed when Kate explains that they were lepers, not leopards. But I still think this is a pretty exciting story. An amazing story, in fact: almost as amazing as leopards. First of all, this group of ten men who call out to Jesus, desperate for help, includes not only Jews but at least one Samaritan—a tribe of people with whom Jews almost never associated. In Jesus’ time, there was bad, bad blood between Samaritans and Jews. But these weren’t ordinary, everyday Samaritans and Jews. They were lepers, in a day when leprosy cast you out from your community: in addition to being physically afflicted, people with leprosy were considered ritually unclean. Which meant that they were cast out from their religious communities. I wonder if we can even imagine this: What might it feel like to come down with an illness, and then, because of this illness, to be thrown out of our religious community—at the very moment we need God, and our community, the most. It’s hard to even imagine, isn’t it?

But this is where we find our friends this morning. And it turns out that in their outcast status, they have found a common bond and formed a mixed company of Samaritans and Jews. Which is almost as surprising as ten leopards!

But that’s not all. Seeing Jesus in the distance, these people call out to him in desperation, begging to be healed. And just like that, Jesus complies. Go and show yourselves to the priests, he says. This instruction was not just for show. The priests, in this case, are the equivalent of health officers who would have to pronounce these men clean before they would be allowed to return to their community. Imagine for a minute that you are one of these men, suddenly cured of the disease that has separated you from everyone you love. Imagine how anxious you’d be to rush back to your family and friends! Who could blame them for running, for rushing, back to the bright, busy communal life from which they have been excluded—for God only knows how long—because of their disease?

And not only that. Who could blame them for not wanting to hang out too long on that holy, terrifying threshold where God’s love arrives to heal us—even though we’ve done nothing at all to earn or deserve that amazing grace?

Who among us can really stand to hold still in that place…so open, so vulnerable, so utterly dependent on the love of God…and really let ourselves be filled, and healed, and changed beyond recognition?

I don’t know about you, but I know how hard it is for me to truly receive the love, the healing, the grace, that God is always offering.

I, for one, can’t blame those men for rushing away.

What’s astonishing, I think, is that under the circumstances, even one of these men makes a u-turn and walks back to Jesus. One man turns around to prostrate himself in thanksgiving; to speak out loud, in public, the miracle of his gratefulness—his great fullness—and his joy.

And I’m pretty sure that this man’s life was never the same.

Lying there on that mysterious threshold where the holy pours into the body of the world, this one man becomes, in his very flesh, the embodiment of thanksgiving, which I want to define as our willingness to give thanks by speaking out loud about the gifts God has given us and dedicating a portion of that gift back to its source. I’ll say that again. Thanksgiving is an act—a spiritual practice—by which we give thanks to God by naming out loud the gifts God has given us, and dedicating a portion of those gifts back to their source, so that more and more people may be included in the divine flow of abundance and healing and grace.  

“Were not ten made clean?” Jesus asks, “What about the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Jesus is worried about those other nine. Jesus is worried about whether they, and we, are willing to fully embody the gratefulness we say we feel. Not because Jesus needs to hear it. I don’t believe for a minute that Jesus needs to feed his ego with other people’s tales of gratitude.

I believe Jesus wants us to speak our gratefulness out loud not because he needs to hear it, but because we need to do it.

I want to be clear that this can be very a difficult practice. According to this story, nine out of ten people, are not able do it! But Jesus wants us to take up this practice because this discipline of speaking our gratefulness out loud changes us. It opens us to the stream of abundant blessing that is already flowing from the heart of God, and invites others to open themselves to that stream as well.

In his extraordinary book,Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer, Brother David Steindl-Rast suggests that every prayer is, in one way or another, a form of thanksgiving. He also points out that thanksgiving always has two components: the thanks, and the giving. In other words, full participation in the flow of the divine life requires not only that we open ourselves to receive God’s abundant gifts, but that we continue that flow of abundance by giving something in return. This man, who has received the gift of healing for his body, returns to Jesus and throws his healed body—he throws the gift!—at Jesus’ feet. The story doesn’t say that the other men weren’t grateful. What it does say is that if these other nine men were grateful, they kept their gratefulness private: they didn’t go out of their way to speak their thanks aloud in public, or to return a portion of their gift to its Source. What Jesus teaches here is that gratefulness is meant to be more than a state of mind, more than a prayer whispered in the privacy of our own hearts. What Jesus suggests is that gratefulness is meant to be spoken out loud: we are called to DO something about it.

Seen in this light, gratefulness becomes a communal spiritual practice. A practice we undertake together in order to open ourselves to the presence of God. And like any kind of practice, it is likely to stretch us beyond our present comfort zone, into new places where God is longing to meet and transform us.

This Lenten season at First Congregational, we’re talking a lot about spiritual practice. And I want to offer us an opportunity to take up gratefulness as shared, communal, spiritual practice. Because I believe that what Jesus teaches us is that there is no spiritual practice that is more important, or more powerful. So here’s the invitation. Starting next week,we’ll take some time here in worship to speak our gratefulness out loud. If you receive a blessing during the week, you’re invited to name that blessing out loud: a birthday, an anniversary, a clean-and-sober milestone—you’ll be invited to tell us about it. You’ll also be invited, if you wish, to make a monetary gift in any amount. We’ll call these gratefulness gifts, and we’ll make sure this money goes to support folks in the wider community who are in need of blessing, and hope. In this way, we’ll do as Jesus asks and return a portion of our many gifts to their Source, so that we may become a channel of God’s blessing for the world.

Here’s what that one man, that Samaritan, has to say to us: When we are in need, and sometimes desperate need–of companionship, of support, of healing—it is an extraordinary gift to call out to God, and to our community, and to know that we will be heard.

And…it is an equally important gift, at the most joyful moments of our lives, to be able to call out to God, and to our community, and to know our joy will be shared. And that that through the gifts of our gratefulness, that joy will grow. Thanks be to God.