Into the River

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a call to spiritual practice for the season of Epiphany

Last Sunday, as we continued our journey through this season of Epiphany, we looked together at the gospel story in which Herod, enraged at the news that the Christ child has been born, sets out to destroy that child. And I suggested that one of the most helpful ways to read this, or any, Bible story is to read it as a spiritual teaching tale: an allegory about the state of human consciousness and what it takes to upgrade that consciousness from the mind of Herod to the mind of Christ. Last week, we saw in Herod the embodiment of what spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle calls the “pain body”; the embodiment of our default, unevolved state of consciousness. This morning, as Jesus makes his very first appearance in the gospel story, he shows us a path to an upgraded state of consciousness. If we read this morning’s gospel story as a teaching tale about the work of spiritual transformation, Jesus shows us how it’s done. 

As I mentioned earlier, churches all over the world today are reading this text from the gospel of Matthew, in which the very first thing Jesus does is head for the river. Imagine all the other things Jesus might have done for his big entrance: greeting, preaching, teaching, healing, story telling. But Jesus does none of these. Before Jesus does anything else, he walks straight into the river. 

I think this is a very important and revealing first act. As I mentioned earlier, in Christian tradition, the river is a symbol for the very presence of God flowing through the body of the world; a presence that is always offering to transform us. Seen through this lens, our scripture becomes a teaching tale about the importance of this deep spiritual transformation — even for Jesus. Before Jesus can do anything else, says our teaching tale, he must enter all the way into the river of the Divine Presence and let that Presence transform him. Now, this is confusing to John the Baptist. John seems to believe that transformation is only for people who have gone astray! Not so, Jesus says as he steps into the water. Every human being — even Jesus! — needs a practice of spiritual transformation in order to become who God is calling us to be. As Anne Lamott likes to say, God loves us exactly as we are, and…God loves us too much to let us stay that way. Follow me, says Jesus. Then he takes off his sandals and goes all in. 

Now, if wading into the Willamette or the frozen Volga this morning will help you mark your commitment to a daily spiritual practice this year, then by all means, go ahead and get your feet wet. But if we read this text on a merely literal level and simply follow Jesus into the river of baptism, then the  evolution of human consciousness goes nowhere. Baptism alone, whether we wade into a river or get sprinkled from a font, is not going to bring about the evolution of human consciousness. Centuries of bloody church history should be enough to tell us that something more than baptism is required of us.

But if baptism is a symbol — a beautiful outward sign — of our commitment to an inward,  transformative spiritual process, then this becomes another kind of story. If this baptism story symbolizes Jesus’ commitment to a lifelong transformative spiritual practice, then it’s very clear what Jesus is asking us to do, and why.

Or tradition imagines the divine presence as a river flowing through the body of the world. And that river of divine presence is always offering to transform us.  The catch is that the divine presence cannot transform us without our consent. As far as we know, God is so gentle, so respectful of our own God-given free will, that God will not force us to evolve. Even when our current state of consciousness is destroying ourselves, our communities, and the planet, God will not force us to change. I will confess that most days, I’m not at all sure that giving us humans free will was such a great idea. But this seems to be exactly what we have: free will to either take up the spiritual practices that can bring about our evolution, or not.

What Jesus seems to be showing us this morning is that the river of the divine presence is right here, offering to transform us. But we must consent to that transformation by taking up a spiritual practice by which we surrender to that divine presence again and again, day after day. The Christ of God asks nothing less of us than the evolution of human consciousness: out of the mind of Herod and into the mind of Christ. And this requires spiritual practice. It requires us to wade into the divine presence every day, surrendering our ego, and consenting to let that presence to change us. All the world’s spiritual traditions tell us that this surrender of the ego, this consensual surrender of the egoic mind, is the only practice that brings about the evolution of human consciousness. And the stakes could not possibly be higher. 

Maybe you have heard of Father Thomas Keating, who in modern times revived the ancient practice of Christian meditation. When Father Keating taught what he called Centering Prayer, he sometimes asked his students to imagine the divine presence as a river, and then to imagine that when we are sitting in meditation, we are sitting at the very bottom of that river.

Want to try it? I invite you to close your eyes if you like, and picture yourself sitting calmly at the bottom of a river. Don’t worry. You have a really long straw or a long snorkel that lets you breathe. Or, if you’re a Harry Potter fan, you may prefer to chew on some gillyweed!  Either way, imagine that you are breathing easily as you sit on the sandy bottom of that river. Your only job here is to invite that river –the river of God’s presence–to enter soul. It turns out that this is the crucial the inner gesture of Christian meditation: to turn our attention to the divine presence and invite it in to transform us. That’s it. Every time we turn our attention away from our habitual parade of thoughts and toward the divine presence, we loosen the grip of the egoic mind–the Herod mind– and its endless string of thoughts and stories. When thoughts arise, as they will, don’t worry. Simply picture those thoughts as boats floating by on the river above you. The way this practice works is that we make a deal with ourselves. The deal is that as soon as we notice that we are having a thought,  we simply let it go and return our attention to the divine presence. I invite you to give this a try here in the silence…

As many times as your attention wanders to a thought, simply let the thought drift by on the river and turn your attention back to the divine river itself. You may be able to feel this action, this gesture of attention, as a subtle opening around your heart. Whatever happens, do not swim up to the surface and climb onto the boat! Simply let the boat pass and return your attention to the river. That’s the practice. If you’d like to learn more about this practice, you’ll find resources on the back of the green calendar in your bulletin.   

We have all seen the transformative power of a river. Drop by drop, it carves away stone. Year by year, it carves the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. Day by day, moment of consent by moment of conscious consent, the river of divine presence transforms human consciousness, person by person. 

Follow me, says the Christ of God as he heads for the river this morning. Follow me all the way in, says the Christ as the water laps at his knees. Come and be changed by the river! he calls. And we’ll see if God may yet be able to transform us. Follow me all the way in, says the Christ of God. And we’ll  see what God may yet be able to do with this beautiful, broken, always-holy world.

May we find the courage to answer the call. Amen.