SLIDE 3: GROUND INTO THE DUST
Israel was a conquered, occupied people. They were being ground into the dust under the weight of Roman oppression. Taxes were driving small farmers off the land. The poor were sinking into hopelessness. The tax collectors had milked all of the charity out of the system so that the blind, the lame, the disabled were destitute and in despair.
SLIDE 4: BARTIMAEUS
Bartimaeus was a blind beggar of Jericho sitting outside the City gate along with countless others hoping for some alms that might buy him a crust of bread. Day after day he sat in despair taking whatever scraps of mercy that might be cast his way. And then one day he heard about a miracle working Rabbi in the Galilee. A teacher who told his listeners to have hope, because the Commonwealth of God was in the midst of them. God was near, and stories of miraculous healings and feedings swirled around this Rabbi. One account told that he had fed a large crowd of 5,000 people. Bartimaues took note.
Then one day he overheard some passers-by mention that this miracle working Rabbi was coming to Jericho, and the blind beggar resolved he would try to get this Jesus’ attention. He sat up attentive to the sounds around him. At first there was simply more traffic than usual at the gate, but then he perceived there was a large crowd moving together into the City. He asked someone near him what was happening. “It’s Jesus of Nazareth,” came the reply.
SLIDE 5: SON OF DAVID, JESUS, HAVE MERCY
With that Bartimaeus jumped up and began crying out, “Son of David, Jesus! Mercy, have mercy on me!” But the people around him only told him to shut up! But this was the blind man’s only hope, so undeterred Bartimaeus continued, “Son of David! Mercy, have mercy on me!” Jesus heard him, stopped in his tracks, and asked the crowd to bring the blind beggar to him.
SLIDE 6: TAKE HEART
People in the crowd told Bartimaeus to “take heart,” for Jesus was calling to him. Take heart, in the midst of depression and despair, Jesus inspired hope. The blind beggar regained his sight. Jesus brought hope into the darkness of despair, and hope is perhaps the most important gift we can give to one another.
SLIDE 7: THINKING POSITIVELY CAN LEAD TO POSITIVE MEDICAL OUTCOMES
This Tuesday, I go back to see an orthopedist about my knees and my hip. As I am getting ready for that appointment I am struck by an article written by Dr. Charles Raison, CNNHealth’s Mental Health expert and an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University. He writes: “Although the universe does not appear to be obligated to deliver 100% of our fondest hopes and dreams, it turns out that thinking positively really can lead to positive medical outcomes.”
The latest example of this effect comes from a recently published study that examines whether one’s expectations of one’s health status actually affects future health. Researchers at Duke University asked several thousand patients undergoing a cardiac diagnostic procedure what they thought about their likely future health and then followed these patients for 15 years to see what happened to them. A great strength of this study is that in addition to asking about specific health expectations, the researchers collected information on almost every imaginable factor that might also influence cardiovascular health so that the specific effect of these expectations could be isolated and explored.
SLIDE 8: OPTIMISTIC PATIENTS WERE HALF AS LIKELY TO DIE
The researchers found that the most optimistic patients were only about half as likely to die from heart disease as the most pessimistic patients. Of course, it’s easier to be optimistic about your future if your disease is not as bad, if you are not as depressed, etc. (Of course pessimism and depression may be linked.) Taking these factors into account weakened the association between positive expectations and enhanced survival, but the effect remained large — as large, in fact, as the effect of our most powerful medications. Hope is serious medicine.
SLIDE 9: HOPE SPECIFIC TO THE ILLNESS AT HAND
The practical implications of these findings — along with many similar results from earlier studies — are staggering. When disease strikes we should work on ways to develop and nurture a sense of hope for the future. And not just general hope, but hope that is specific to the illness at hand. And in fact, if our hope reaches beyond what the evidence suggests is going to happen to us, so much the better. We should look upon this as a therapeutic strategy, and if we find it difficult we should remind ourselves that other therapeutic modalities — such as surgery or chemotherapy — are at least, if not more difficult.
SLIDE 10: SO EASY TO GIVE IN TO DESPAIR
It can be so easy to give in to despair, especially when we are in pain, either physical or mental. Pain is debilitating. It drains life of joy and it can send us into the spiritual darkness of “life sucks and then you die.” These past three months I have had days when hope seemed like more than I could muster.
SLIDE 11: THEN I THINK OF BOBBY KATES
But then I think of our mutual friend Bobby Kates. Now, some of you are new enough to our community of faith, that you haven’t met Bobby. Two summers ago he came to United Church as a seminary student to spend a month getting practical experience in ministry. He preached. He visited. He led a Bible Study, and people came to really like and respect Bobby. Then he went back to Brite Divinity School in Dallas to finish his studies.
SLIDE 12: AFTER GRADUATION DIAGNOSED WITH CANCER
Late this spring just after graduation Bobby was diagnosed with cancer. By July he knew he had “Diffused Large B Cell Lymphoma,” a very deadly cancer. In July Bobby entered Parkland Medical Center in Dallas, where he began his first round of Chemo treatments.
Allow me to share his Facebook post from July 24: “Just received a call from Parkland. I have ‘Diffused Large B Cell Lymphoma.’ This is not great, but not totally bad either. I am being admitted into Parkland Monday morning to stay for a week or so and begin intense chemotherapy and possible radiation therapy. I am not sure whether I will be able to surf the web there or not. I have no idea how I will feel. I have no idea if they allow visitors during this week or not. But you can ask if you are so inclined. This type of cancer is very deadly unless they attack it with Chemo very early. Hopefully we are in time.”
SLIDE 13: FINISHED CHEMO AND NEXT DAY STOOD FOR ORDINATION EXAM
I have faith. I want to be with you all for at leat five or ten more years, plus I want to be ordained and have a church to love and hopefully nourish. Its sort of what I expected since this form of Lymphoma is a major killer of long time HIV survivors. The survival rate is not that great, but then again its not that bad if the cancer is aggressively attacked immediately. Hopefully we are not too late.
Two more rounds of Chemo treatments later on September 18th Bobby finished a week of Chemo in time to go before the Commission on Ministry of the Southwest Conference, the very next day after leaving the hospital, September 19, to defend his portfolio and request ordination – and he was approved! But then Bobby posted on September 21st: “Not great news. This is not over. I have another CT Scan scheduled, ASAP. At which time my Oncologists will determine whether I have to start a 4th Chemo Treatment on the 2nd of October.”
SLIDE 14: APPROVED AT ECCLESIASTICAL COUNCIL
On October 2nd Bobby began another round of Chemo treatment and then appeared before an Ecclesiastical Council on Saturday October 17th, where he was approved for ordination pending a call. This is what hope looks like in the flesh. No promises just putting one foot in front of the other in faith despite pain and nausea to embrace his goal to be called as a pastor in the United Church of Christ. Hope is powerful. I cannot imagine someone enduring all that Bobby has endured this year without hope.
SLIDE 15: CANCER SURVIVOR AS SHEPHERD
And I cannot predict what will happen with Bobby. Last night he emailed me to say he has a fifth and a sixth round of Chemo scheduled. It is amazing the Chemo hasn’t killed him, but Bobby has hope. Hope is a promise not an assurance. It is my prayer for Bobby that we will find a church willing to reach out to someone who has been very ill, a congregation willing to be shepherded by a cancer survivor who is hope in the flesh. For I believe that Bobby can help a congregation to aspire to greater faithfulness, sharing the gospel of hope with the larger community around them – a hope that heals.
SLIDE 16: HOPE DOES NOT DISAPPOINT US
I do not know all of the challenges in your lives. I know some of them. And whatever your struggle may be, whether it is health, family relations, job, finances, take heart. Be encouraged. Have faith, and whatever you do do not lose hope. Hope heals. Hope makes life possible. Hope is the energy of faith.
Friends hope will not disappoint us, for in the hope of Jesus we are sustained, healed and saved. Remember hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they see? But if we hope for what we cannot yet see, we wait for it patiently! Hope!
SLIDE 3: YOU’RE FIRED
“You’re fired!” Donald Trump would shout as he eliminated contestants in the television reality show “The Apprentice.” Donald Trump portrayed a tough mean spirited business leader, who demanded much and gave little to those working for him. His model of leadership was certainly self-serving, I would say almost the exact opposite of the leadership modeled by Jesus. He built a fortune by borrowing money and filing for bankruptcy, again self-serving in the extreme.
SLIDE 4: PHARMACEUTICAL PRICE GOUGING
The “Trump kind” of self-serving leadership seems to have permeated our entire culture. We read about CEO’s who take billions of dollars out of their companies in compensation, while downgrading employee benefits and raiding the pension funds of employees. Or we read about pharmaceutical CEO Martin Shkreli who acquired the patent on the Aids Drug Daraprim and then turned around and raised the price 5,000%. A pill costs about one dollar to produce, and he raised the price to $750 per dose.
Or consider Valeant Pharmaceutical’s purchase to the rights to a pair of life-saving heart drugs, Nitropress and Isuprel. The same day, their list prices rose by 525% and 212%. Neither of the drugs was improved as a result of costly investment in lab work or human testing. Nor was manufacture of the medicines shifted to an expensive new plant. The only change was the drugs’ ownership.
Valeant spokesperson Laurie Little defended the price increases by saying, “Our duty is to our shareholders and to maximize the value of our company.” Again we are witnessing self-serving leadership.
SLIDE 5: SERVANT LEADERSHIP
While servant leadership is a timeless concept going all the way back to Jesus himself the phrase “servant leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in The Servant as Leader, an essay that he first published in 1970. As Greenleaf wrote: “The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions… The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps other people develop and perform as highly as possible.”
Jesus was a servant leader. He led by example. He sought to enhance the lives of others. He empowered others to teach, feed, heal and lead. How different Jesus was from most of the models of leadership we see in our culture today.
SLIDE 6: ROMAN EMPIRE LEADERSHIP BASED ON FEAR
Jesus was offering an alternative to the kind of leadership in the Roman Empire based on fear. Even the Roman army was run on fear. If a military unit did not perform with adequate courage, they were “decimated.” The unit was lined up and every tenth man was executed – talk about motivation. Crucifixion was practiced as a form of execution to maximize pain and public humiliation and to incite fear in the subject peoples – sort of like Trump’s, “You’re fired.” The Romans were brutal and cruel, and that is how they ruled the world. The way of Jesus was to lead with love and compassion. He brought people to the Sharing Table, where they could be fed, healed and affirmed.
SLIDE 7: INSTITUTION AS SERVANT LEADER
Robert Greenleaf also recognized that organizations as well as individuals could be servant-leaders. Indeed, he had great faith that servant-leader organizations could change the world. In his second major essay, The Institution as Servant, Greenleaf articulated what is often called the “credo.” There he wrote: “This is my thesis: caring for persons, the more able and the less able serving each other, is the rock upon which a good society is built. Whereas, until recently, caring was largely person to person, now most of it is mediated through institutions – often large, complex, powerful, impersonal; not always competent; sometimes corrupt. If a better society is to be built, one that is more just and more loving, one that provides greater creative opportunity for its people, then the most open course is to raise both the capacity to serve and the very performance of organizations as servants of existing major institutions by new regenerative forces operating within them.”
SLIDE 8: SELF-SERVING CHURCHES
Now we could point fingers at government, corporations and a whole host of not for profit NGO’s that have become self-serving institutions, and you could name them also. But let us first be honest and forthright about our churches. Too often, rather than functioning as servant leaders our churches become self-serving. We have a great temptation to become religious clubs dedicated to serving the needs of our members, rather than becoming communities of faith, who are dedicated to reaching out to the needs of others and transforming the society in which we live through mission, service and prophetic witness. It is not enough to perform charity for those who have been run over or left out by the rest of the institutions of our society.
SLIDE 9: UNITED CHURCH SUPPORTS CHARITY
Now certainly we help to support the Huntsville Assistance Program and FOODline and other agencies that seek to alleviate the suffering of the poor. We support NAMI in its outreach to the mentally ill and their families. We support Alix Morehouse in her efforts to take food, water and now as the weather grows colder, warm clothes and blankets to the homeless camps.
SLIDE 10: CHURCH CAN ALSO SPEAK PROPHETICALLY
And as a transformative institution we are called upon to prophetically speak truth to the powerful who have gutted the funding for Medicaid, closed almost all of our hospitals for the mentally ill, have refused to adequately fund our government, closed parks and driver’s license facilities in the poorest counties with the highest percentage of African Americans registered to vote, have increased taxes on the poor, taken money from the educational trust fund, while refusing to ask the wealthy to contribute their fair share. An institution that is a servant leader dares to speak truth to power.
SLIDE 11: JESUS DIED SPEAKING TRUTH TO POWER
Sadly so often our churches afraid we might alienate some of our donor base keep our mouths shut, rather than providing leadership for social change. Jesus would be deeply disappointed. He was tortured and executed, because he dared to speak truth to power. When the church is following the way of Jesus, we have the courage to become advocates for social justice.
SLIDE 12: COACHING TO DEVELOP SERVANT LEADERSHIP
I want to mention how coaching in this congregation will move us toward the goal of servant leadership. The primary purposes of engaging a congregation coach is to help us to mentor new leadership in the life of our congregation, and to insure a smooth transition of leadership in the future. Servant leaders look for the hidden talents in all members of the community, bring out the best in others, and helps followers to learn from failures, equips others, and raise up successors. The objective is to achieve goals as part of a wider vision, the old leadership model puts goals first before people, if people get in the way of those goals then they have to go. The goal is still important, it is just recognizing that you cannot reach a goal without other people owning and working toward the vision. As we engage with our congregational coach we will seek to understand who we are at our best, embrace the vision of United Church as a Servant Leader organization, and become a permission giving community that frees people to give the best of their gifts in service to others.
SLIDE 13: HUMBLE LEADERSHIP
True leadership requires humility. As Harry Truman said, “It is amazing what you can get done, if you do not care, who gets the credit.” Or in the words of Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu: “A leader is best when people barely know she exists, when her work is done, her aim fulfilled, they will say: “We did it ourselves!”
SLIDE 14: WE DON’T HAVE TO WAIT FOR WASHINGTON OR MONTGOMERY– WE CAN START HERE!
I am not sure how best to change our political system that seems so broken. But maybe we begin here and now in our life together as a congregation. If we can make the principles of Servant Leadership work in our life together, and if as a congregation we can seek to become a Servant Leader organization, perhaps we can provide a model for changing our larger society.
“For you have observed how politicians and corporate rulers throw their weight around, and how when people get a little power how quickly it goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great among you must become humble. Whoever wants to be first among you must be a servant.”
What Must I Do?
SLIDE 3: GO SELL WHAT YOU OWN
The story of Jesus and the rich young ruler has been considered difficult by some New Testament commentators. I mean after all Jesus says, “Go sell whatever you own and give it to the poor. And come follow me.” Was Jesus saying that in order to follow him, we have to sell all of our possessions and take a vow of poverty? Wow, who among us is willing to give up our homes, our cars, our clothes, or our well stocked refrigerators?
SLIDE 4: A CAMEL THROUGH THE EYE OF A NEEDLE?
Even Jesus’ disciples thought maybe he was out of his mind. So for good measure Jesus added: “You can’t imagine how difficult it is for people who have it all to let go in order to enter the Commonwealth of God. I’d say it’s easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than for the rich to get into God’s kingdom.”
“Then who has any chance at all,” we might wonder with Jesus’ disciples?
And then Jesus says to us, “No chance at all if you think you can pull it off by yourself. Every chance in the world if you let God do it.” What does Jesus mean? On the surface, he doesn’t make any sense. So this morning let’s take a few minutes to explore, “what must we do?”
SLIDE 5: DIFFERENT ANSWERS FOR DIFFERENT PEOPLE
First, let’s acknowledge that several people in the gospels ask Jesus a similar question: Nicodemus, the Woman at the Well, the rich young ruler, the unnamed Pharisees, disciples of John the Baptist. In each case Jesus gave a different answer.
To the woman at the well Jesus said, “Go call your husband. For you have to drink of the living water of truth, the truth about your life, if you want to connect with the divine.”
To the rich young ruler he said, “Your money and possessions are standing between you and God. What do you think you have to do?”
To the Pharisees he said, “You have substituted obsessive compulsive rule keeping for a genuine relationship with the divine.”
To the Disciples of John the Baptist he said, “Don’t keep looking to the future, for the Commonwealth of God is here and now. God isn’t about punishment, God is calling us to love in the present moment.”
SLIDE 6: STOP, BREATHE, EMBRACE THE JOY OF GOD’S PRESENCE HERE AND NOW
So Jesus didn’t necessarily have a one size fits all answer for everyone. Instead he tried to discern the spiritual longings and hungers of each person’s heart in order to help them find their way into the life of the spirit. So what must we do? Well, if our money and our possessions are standing between ourselves and God, maybe we need to down size and simplify. If we are obsessed with rules, maybe we can learn the way of no rules and become free. If we don’t like the truth about ourselves, maybe we can look in the mirror and begin to claim ourselves as much beloved children of God. If we are collecting good deeds to try to get into heaven, maybe we can let go of our “do-gooding” and rely upon God’s grace. If we are putting our faith in a punishing God, maybe we can embrace a divine presence that forgives all no exceptions. And if we are focused on pie in the sky in the sweet bye and bye, maybe we can just stop, breathe and take in the joy of God’s presence in the here and now.
SLIDE 7: FOR EVERYTHING THERE IS A SEASON
If you have been reading with us Rabbi Rami’s book Perennial Wisdom for the Spiritually Independent you may already have discovered some helpful wisdom to answer the question, “What Must We Do?” Allow me to offer some insight into the wisdom of the spiritual independent by beginning with the famous poem from Ecclesiastes (Rabbi Rami’s translation):
Everything in this world has its moment,
Moments of birthing and moments of dying;
moments of planting and moments of reaping.
Moments of killing and moments of healing;
moments of demolition and moments of building.
Moments of weeping and moments of laughing;
moments of mourning and moments of dancing.
Moments of scattering stones and
moments of gathering stones;
moments of embracing and moments of distance.
Moments of seeking and moments of losing;
moments of clinging and moments of releasing.
Moments of tearing and moments of mending;
moments of silence and moments of talking.
Moments of loving and moments of hating;
moments of warring and moments of peacemaking.
SLIDE 8: NOW IS THE ONLY MOMENT WE HAVE
This is the poem of the awakened sage. This is the realization toward which we are all moving. Everything has its place, it’s purpose, and its time. Everything is ripening and falling away. Nothing is discarded and nothing is kept. Everything is allowed to come in its time. You are never closer or farther away from “now,” because “now” is the only time in which realization can happen.
SLIDE 9: TRUST RATHER THAN CONTROL
When we trust what is rather than seek to control what is, everything happens in its season; everything ripens as it must in its own time. There is nothing we need do to make things right. Things are as they are because they cannot be other than they are, and this is true of us as well. And so we can come to rest in the presence of God.
SLIDE 10: LETTING GRAVITY DO WHAT IT MUST
Rest in this sense is what the Chinese call wei wu wei, non-coercive action. This is the quality of swimming with the current and cutting with the grain. The rest isn’t non-doing, but doing in harmony with Reality as it presents itself moment to moment. . . Too many of us turn spiritual practice into serious work, when in fact it is nothing more than letting gravity do what it must.
SLIDE 11: EARNING OUR WAY INTO THE DIVINE PRESENCE
And so we return to the question of the rich young ruler: “What do I have to do to get into heaven?” And Jesus says, there is nothing you can do. There is nothing you have to do, it is all grace. But for those who want to earn a place in the Kingdom of God this is not good news. They don’t like the answer that living life in gratitude with open hands of generosity loving God and life is enough. For they want to measure out exactly what they have to do, in part because they want to be able to limit the claims that life can make upon them. They want to know, when they have done enough, so that nothing more can be asked of them.
SLIDE 12: ACCEPT THAT YOU ARE ACCEPTED
Once we cross the threshold of trying to measure out our salvation and simply accept our need for gratitude then life is changed forever. Sort of like the observation of the great theologian Paul Tillich:
“You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!” If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement. And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing but acceptance.
SLIDE 13: THERE IS ALWAYS SOME NEW GOOD WE CAN DO
If there is nothing we can do, what is the next step on our spiritual journeys? There is no arriving on our spiritual journeys. There is only this step and the next. Awakening to God isn’t the end of the journey, just another turn in the road. Keep walking. There may be nothing new to learn, but there is always some new good we can do.
United Church, Huntsville October 12, 2015 Psalm 25: 4-12; Matthew 6:5-7
GOD AT THE CENTER by the Rev. June Boutwell – Conference Minister
Will you pray with me? Holy and Loving God, may we be attentive to your word in this hour and listen with ears wide open. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing and acceptable in your sight, our Path and our Redeemer. Amen. In looking at my calendar, I realize that I was with you in the pulpit in October of 2014 to talk about United Church of Christ identity. Some of you will remember my standard greeting paragraphs but it is important to remember that not all those present this morning were present with us last year. So it is with great delight and pleasure that I join you this morning for the privilege of bringing the Word to you in worship and to greet you in the name of the Southeast Conference United Church of Christ and on behalf of this fellowship of 52 churches and 3 new church starts located in Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi, and the Florida panhandle. The UCC is a Christian denomination within the United States with just over 5,000 congregations and about 1 million members and organized into 35 regional ministry groups called Conferences. I am essentially the executive minister and pastor to the churches and pastors of the Southeast Conference. I also want to thank you for being a Five for Five congregation and partners in Our Churches Wider Mission giving and supporting many other ministries of the Southeast Conference.
I have been so excited to know about and see the progress of the labyrinth. I have had a contemplative practice in my own prayer life for over 30 years. Practices, sometimes known as spiritual disciplines, are not a strong part of most Protestant churches. But I have found that these kind of mindful practices can be very meaningful for youth and adults. I have guided people through the practice of walking the labyrinth for many years. Both camps that I was associated with in the UCC had labyrinths onsite. Interestingly enough, both of those camp labyrinths were composed of stones from the site—one in Maine from the foundation stones of the original cabins when they were torn down to build newer, more comfortable space and the other in California where the stones cleared away when installing the challenge course were used by young adults who laid out and built the labyrinth as a way to honor the foundation of that camp and to provide a different kind of experience than being on the high ropes course. I know you have been doing a lot of education about labyrinths over the course of the last months. And at the risk of repeating information, I do want to talk a little bit about the labyrinth as an aid to our life journey. The oldest known labyrinth is the Mogor Labyrinth in Galicia, Spain. It is dated about 2000 years before the birth of Jesus.
Labyrinths have long been used within the Christian tradition to symbolize a journey – a quest for spiritual enlightenment, a search for grace, even a surrogate for the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. But the Labyrinth is more than a pattern in the floor. It is an archetype, a divine imprint, found in all religious traditions, even in cultures that long predate Christianity. It is interesting that the earliest labyrinths are found in Europe, North Africa, India, and the North American Southwest. Anthropologists have no good theory about why this particular form of art and ritual emerged in so many cultures at about the same time but I would guess that there is something encoded in our understanding of the order of life that draws us to this form. The first examples of this form are a seven circuit path. As one who has experienced other religious teachings, it is interesting to me that in Hindu belief, there are seven chakras or nexus points where the life force flows within the non-physical self (what we might understand as the soul or cosmic connection). But often the labyrinths we use today follow an eleven circuit path. The most famous of these larger labyrinths is found in the Chartes Cathedral in France.
The eleven circuit path came about as scribes in the middle ages used the labyrinth design in borders. As they tried to make the design element proportional, they added more circuits which allowed the easier division of the labyrinth into quadrants and made the cross at the inherent to the design more evident. This pattern actually mirrors natural patterns in nature giving a sense of order and proportion. The proliferation of these kind of labyrinths in European cathedrals were designed with that order and proportion in mind on the belief that if that order and proportion were replicated in a sacred space, God would feel at home and come to dwell in that space. The labyrinth became a ritual space for initiation and enacting the journey from death and damnation in the world to dying to the world and finding God at the center and being redeemed and given new life as one returned to a sinful world. In fact, the major European cathedrals often used their labyrinths as a substitute for a pilgrimage to Jerusalem as mentioned before.
Another ritual was its use as a rite of redemption when one had sinned. Often during Lent, people would travel the path on their knees as a sign of their contrition. Initiates to the Christian faith would be instructed to walk the path with a tripedium step as a sign of one’s sinful nature. The tripedium consists of two steps forward and one step back. It was a mirror of how humans fail to stay on a consistently faithful path to the Divine. I have often used this as a form of practice during Lent. The motion and notion that this entails can have a profound effect on one’s understanding of how one’s life is lived out and a keen awareness of how we often fall short. There are no rules to the labyrinth. It has only one path, so you have no decisions to make. You don’t have to think about where you’re going, so the left brain – that part of your mind that likes to worry about the future and decide where you’re going next – can go off and take a nap. And in fact, other than sleep, our world doesn’t offer many such opportunities. Which may be why many health centers, retirement communities, and hospitals have begun to install labyrinths on their campuses. Medical professionals know that positive patient feelings and attitudes contribute to better health and faster recovery rates. Because labyrinth walking promotes relaxation, deeper breathing, and a release of stress, the Medical Center of Central Georgia uses theirs in cardiac rehab.
In giving the dedication speech on October 9, 200, Dr. Dan Johnston said: The labyrinth’s path has a beginning and an end that are one and the same. In the walking, exploration of a labyrinth we always end up where we started, but as acknowledged by the English poet T.S. Eliot, “… the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” Walking a labyrinth offers us the opportunity for reflection and meditation and the chance to become more aware of where we are in life, perhaps, an opportunity to come to “know” ourselves for the first time. At California Pacific Medical Center, surgeons sometimes walk the labyrinth to calm themselves before an operation. And Mid-Columbia Medical Center in Oregon uses its labyrinth to complement the use of chemotherapy and radiation in cancer treatment. In fact, research conducted at Harvard Medical School’s Mind/Body Medical Institute found that focused walking meditations are highly efficient at reducing anxiety, lowering breathing and heart rates, moderating incidents of chronic pain and insomnia, and lowering elevated blood pressure even more effectively than drugs. Some doctors find that cancer patients benefit from meditative labyrinth walking to center themselves before treatment, and to relax after receiving treatment. And even in cases where outer healing fails, inner healing can still take place. Hospices are beginning to use labyrinths for stress reduction, relaxation and stillness, in programs dealing with AIDS and cancer, in relieving grief or loss. A labyrinth has no walls, so nothing will stop you from walking straight to the center; but the deepest magic of the labyrinth really comes from exploring the whole path, allowing it to take you where it wants, when it wants. It’s not a maze – there are no false endings or wrong turns – but the path has its own Alice-in-Wonderland-logic: when it seems like you’re closest to the center, you’re the farthest away, and when it seems like you’re farthest away, you’re almost there.
Every walk is a different experience. No matter where you go, there you are. The people you meet in life you will meet in the labyrinth–the ones who slow you down, the children who are annoying in their exuberance, those who stay too long and take up space in the center. Walking at dawn, walking at night, walking alone or with several other people. Or walking with just one other person. You get a sense of connection and yet not connection – like the proverbial ships passing in the night. You are close to the other person, then you are far apart. You are on your own path; you are on the same path. Walking in tandem with someone on an adjacent path and then turning in different directions; meeting another going the opposite direction–what a great gift that we have in that time with another no matter how brief. And there are those who will tell you that the presence of the spirit of each of those who walk the labyrinth will linger in that space akin to being within the great cloud of witnesses. For anyone who tends to think metaphorically, the experience is rife with possibility. Maybe you’ll walk faster than the people in front of you; feel free to pass around them. Or maybe you’ll take their presence as a reminder to slow down in life, to pace yourself. But one of the most powerful concepts of the labyrinth is that it is not a maze with entrapping intersections and dead ends and the need to retrace one’s steps to get back on the right path. Instead a labyrinth is what is known as a unicursal path. There is only one path to the center and one cannot stray from the path nor fail to complete the journey.
I used the portion of Psalm 25 this morning because it encapsulates our understanding of the path that leads to God. We ask God to be merciful and to forget our transgressions. We ask God to show us the path and ask that we be given the grace to stay that path. We can cut across the lines and run straight to the center but that is not the full path to God. And we can leave the path or give up out of boredom or anxiety before we complete that symbolic journey, but God never abandons us not matter who we are or where we are on life’s journey. The labyrinth becomes a place where the divine and the human heart can meet. It will take patience and perseverance to make the whole journey but we are assured that we will succeed because the labyrinth does not mislead. It is true to the path even as God is true. God know the design of your life and knows your journey. The labyrinth reminds us that life is continually unfolding and that we can never walk the same path twice. Life changes and so does our experience even if the path is a familiar one. We are continually meeting God on the journey and we are continually encountering God no matter how hard we try to get away. Does it bring Jonah to mind? The labyrinth is a way to connect with God, with the Christ Spirit in each of us. It is how God meets us even when we have no words. Like life sometimes we are closer to God and sometimes farther away. But the labyrinth, like our own prayer life, is about private experience. It is a time of immersing ourselves in sacred space and listening rather than talking. It is a time to hear that still small voice of the Still Speaking God speaking directly to us and to our heart of hearts. Often we approach prayer as a time to share our news with God—our hurts, our griefs, our concerns, our anger, our sadness, our despair. Or it is a time to ask God for divine security. Many of us learned to ask for that in our bedtime prayers as children. “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep.” And the eventual purpose of that prayer is to assure us that even in death we are in relationship with God. Or we parade all that God has done for us as we say grace over the abundance before us and perhaps spare a thought for those not so richly blessed. But how often do we surrender our lives to God in silent obedience. How often do we listen for the word God may have for us. It is only in the silence and the making of intentional space for that listening that we can find God’s purpose and blessing for our lives. So the labyrinth can be that room where we go to say only what is needful and then to listen for the response, even when we have no words. Rev. Lee Stokes Hilton, previously on the pastoral staff of Christ Church in Summit, New Jersey which is dually affiliated with the UCC and the American Baptists, shared a wonderful story in a sermon. Then last fall, I was at Kiawah, one of the barrier islands off the coast of South Carolina. It was early Sunday morning, and a beautiful day, so I decided to take a walk on the beach. I turned to head north along the shoreline, and I noticed a woman some 50 feet ahead of me, standing absolutely still, facing the ocean. As I drew nearer to her, I saw that she was standing in the middle of a design she had drawn in the sand. It was a labyrinth. I knew I shouldn’t interrupt her, but the opportunity was too good, so I stopped and asked her how she drew it. “Oh, it’s easy,” she said as she moved over to a clear place on the beach next to her web.ukonline.co.uk/conker/artscentre/artroom-labyrinth.htm.
She picked up a stick and began to draw as she talked. “You start with a cross and four points,” she said. “You connect the top of the cross to the first point, then the right arm of the cross loops back over to the second point. The left arm of the cross loops clockwise around to the third point, and finally, the bottom of the cross connects all the way around to the fourth point. “It’s a small labyrinth,” she added, “but a good one for the beach.” I moved on and let her finish her meditation; but when I approached that spot on my return, I realized no one had walked that labyrinth she drew for me. So I walked it, and when I got to the center, I faced the ocean and inhaled deeply of the warm sea air. As I walked out and back to my condo, I felt lighter and more
refreshed than I had in days. So the real message of the labyrinth is this: make of it what you wish. Become a part of human history…people all over the world have been walking these patterns for more than 3000 years. Like life, the labyrinth has its twists and turns, but it’s a great way to straighten out those tangled thoughts. Just have the experience. Go through the turns – slowly or quickly – and allow it to relax, inspire, or frustrate you in whatever way seems appropriate. As likely as not, you’ll find both relaxation and clarity.
Enfolded by Love — Leveling the Playing Field
SLIDE 3: JESUS’ SYMPATHY FOR PROSTITUES
The Law of Divorce greatly favored men in the time of Jesus. A man could divorce his wife for the slightest cause, while a woman was saddled with her husband almost no matter how unfeeling or cruel he might be. Also a woman had no property rights or rights to her children in the marriage, and in a world where there were no jobs for women, an abandoned wife might have to turn to prostitution in order to feed herself. This may also explain Jesus’ sympathy for the prostitutes.
SLIDE 4: JESUS SOUGHT TO LEVEL THE PLAYING FIELD
Jesus sought to level the playing field by preventing women from being dumped. Jesus teaching is not as relevant today, but God is still speaking demanding that woman should have justice with equal pay and property rights, and children should not be denied access to their parents when there is divorce.
SLIDE 5: CHILDREN MATTER
Another way in our scripture Jesus was leveling the playing field was in welcoming children into his ministry. In the Ancient World children did not count. Given the number of children who died of child-hood diseases, infants and young children were not expected to live and therefore had no status within society. Only when a child had attained an age, where it looked like they might survive to adulthood were they accorded any significance in the life of the community.
For Jesus the Common wealth of God turned the world upside down. “These children are at the very center of life in the kingdom. Mark this: ‘Unless you accept God’s kingdom in the simplicity of a child, you’ll never get in.’” Jesus was always leveling the playing field. If you would be greatest in the commonwealth of God you must become as the least, the servant of all. For the first will the last and the last will be first.
SLIDE 6: ARE YOU PREACHING AGAINST GAYS BUT NOT DIVORCE?
John Barber was sharing with me that the new director of social concerns for the Southern Baptist denomination was taking his audience of ministers to task. He pointed out that 50 years ago, divorce as a “no-no” in Southern Baptist Circles. Then all of sudden there were so many divorced Baptists, that pastors stopped preaching about the evils of divorce. So the director of social concerns made the point, if you have been preaching about the evils of homosexuality, and you have not said anything about divorce in the last 20 years then you are being hypocritical.
Again we are talking about leveling the playing field. And so this morning I would like to explore a couple of other areas, where I think Jesus might want to suggest that as followers of the way we might work to help level the playing field.
SLIDE 7: REPUDIATION OF THE DOCTRINE OF DISCOVERY
The Discovery doctrine is a concept of public international law expounded by the United States Supreme Court in a series of decisions, most notably Johnson v. M’Intosh in 1823. Chief Justice John Marshall justified the way in which colonial powers laid claim to lands belonging to foreign sovereign native nations during the Age of Discovery. Under this doctrine, title to native lands lay with the government whose subjects travelled to and occupied a territory whose inhabitants were not subjects of a European Christian monarch. The doctrine has been primarily used to support decisions invalidating or ignoring aboriginal possession of land in favor of colonial or post-colonial governments.
SLIDE 8: CITY OF SHERRILL VS ONEIDA NATION
And in case we should think this Doctrine of Discovery is an historical anachronism, the doctrine has been cited by the U.S. Supreme Court as recently as 2005, in the City of Sherrill, New York verses the Oneida Nation. The Court ruled that ownership of the land occupied by the Native American Peoples became vested in the European Nation at the time of “Discovery” and has since passed to the original states and then to the United States. The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues has noted that the Doctrine of Discovery is socially unjust, racist and in violation of basic and fundamental human rights. I don’t think we can reverse 400 years of history, but we might consider repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery as an ongoing corner stone of American Law. It may be a little late, but let’s level the playing field.
SLIDE 9: RACE
Another issue that begs for a leveling of the playing field is race. Despite some progress brought by the civil rights movement, a much higher percentage of African American families are trapped in cycles of poverty and crime, than any other ethnic group. Thirty-two percent of African American males will serve time in state or Federal Prison during their lifetimes. Hispanics further face the added burden of the anti-immigrant movement in the United States, as politicians play games of who can be tougher on immigrants. Some gestures in the direction of affirmative action in the past tried to bring more minorities into the middle class, but poverty among many African American and Hispanic families is endemic.
SLIDE 10: SKIN COLOR STILL AT THE ROOT OF PREJUDICE
While our ideal is that the law should be color blind, the recent case of police brutality against, Sureshbhai Patel, a dark skinned India grandfather right here in Madison County suggests that skin color is still at the root of our prejudice. The demand that Black Lives matter is about more than just the deaths of African Americans in police custody it is a cry for help against a system driven by prejudice that still discriminates because of race.
The Alabama legislature just gave ample evidence of racial discrimination. Now I am sure they will claim that closing Driver’s License facilities was a budgetary necessity. But consider that in a State where photo ID is required to vote, the legislature just closed the Driver’s License facility in every county where 75% or more of the registered voters are African-American. After years of fighting discrimination in voting the playing field still is not level.
SLIDE 11: LOW WAGE JOBS
Another major area, where we can begin to level the playing field is in our economy’s treatment of low wage workers. The current minimum wage in the United States is $7.25 per hour. If a person works 40 hours per week, 52 weeks per year, they would earn $15,080 per year, slightly below the Federal Poverty Guideline. But that does not take into account that many Discount Retailers like Wal-Mart for their own purposes in order to deny health, sick and vacation benefits define full time as 32 hours per week or $12,064 per year well below the Federal Poverty Guideline. And let us remember that Wal-Mart is the largest private employer in Mexico, Canada and the United States.
SLIDE 12: MINIUMUM WAGE
To the criticism of low wage jobs many corporations claim that entry level jobs give employees an opportunity to earn a living and improve their lives through education. Today, however, the majority of low wage workers have earned a high school diploma, and many have earned a college degree without attaining any upward mobility. The biggest increase in employment between 2004 and 2014 were in low wage jobs offering only stagnation and no upward mobility.
SLIDE 13: JESUS CONCERNED FOR MARGINALIZED WORKERS
On several occasions Jesus taught and showed concern for marginalized workers. Remember the story of the day laborers in the vineyard. In Jesus’ day peasants were being pushed off the land, where they found themselves in competition for the very few jobs paying a daily wage. Today Jesus would advocate for people who are trapped in dead end low wage jobs insisting that the economic playing field needs to be adjusted.
SLIDE 14: MARGINALIZATION OF THE ENVIRONMENT
Another issue where people of faith need to be concerned about the fairness of the playing field is the marginalization of our environment. Many individuals and corporations with deep pockets have vested interests in exploiting our environment. One of the most egregious examples is mountain top removal mining. Where the natural environment is simply blown up and permanently change in order to mine for coal. The Elk River Chemical Spill in West Virginia and the release of toxic mining chemicals into the Animas River in Colorado point to the marginalizing of our environment. Climate change, depletion of natural resources, deteriorating air and water quality are all issues where the public good is often ignored, because private profit has more political leverage.
SLIDE 15: BEST POLITICAL SYSTEM MONEY CAN BUY
We have the best political system money can buy, especially at the state and local level. Presidential campaigns cost billions. House and Senate campaigns can soak up hundreds of millions of dollars. But a few thousands of dollars, even hundreds of thousands of dollars can turn the tide in State House elections – a lesson the Koch Brothers have learned well.
SLIDE 16: FEDERAL BUDGET TOTAL
One last area where I think Jesus would ask us consider. In this election season we have politicians claiming that Medicaid and Food Stamps are bankrupting America. I suppose it all depends upon how we look at the Federal Budget. If we look at total spending Social Security, Medicare and Unemployment sometimes called entitlements make up almost 60% of Federal Spending. Now I don’t know about you but after participating in payroll taxes for many years I think of Social Security and Medicare as a prepaid insurance not some kind of hand out.
SLIDE 17: DISCRETIONARY SPENDING
So let’s look at discretionary spending that is primarily supported by income taxes and corporate taxes. Under the title of discretionary spending 55% is military. So please tell me how Medicaid and Food Stamps are bankrupting our nation. There is even an argument that Medicaid and Food Stamps that help to support low wage workers are a form of Corporate Welfare for companies who pay low wages.
SLIDE 18: JESUS CRUCIFIED TRYING TO LEVEL THE PLAYING FIELD
Now I know I am treading dangerously close to “politics,” especially in an election season. So I will back off. But let’s remember that Jesus was crucified, because he sought to level the playing field.