Monday, December 26, 2016

SERMON: 'FROM THE FOUNDATIONS OF THE WORLD'...Matt 25: 31-40..edited ..Jan. 1, 2017

At age seven I lost a billfold with five dollars in it. I said to my concerned parents, ' Lets pretend I never had it, then we won't be so upset'. I realize we can't get through life denying losses and pains but the event does show that intentionally  changing our point of view, the lens through which we choose to view things ,  can result in  a very different emotional outlook. As an aging preacher I find myself more needing to look, I trust faithfully and  responsibly, at our sacred ancient texts through lens that may make them more relevant and transforming for the 21st century. I do not expect all to agree with my lens but invite you to look over my shoulder while I attempt that kind of view in today's sermon.

What poetic and inspired words the ancient author of Matthew puts before us here. The nature of the gospels is not to promise the  actual words Jesus said but instead we are given  metaphorical  poetic  heart stirring images of the quality of life and love of one called Jesus of Nazareth. Such a life that it generated a new point of view in the hearts of a small group  which then spread throughout the world. We now experience only a small ripple effect of what those emotional images did near the beginning. A danger as we look at such a metaphorical passage is to take these spiritual teachings too literally,  as  being about the literal outer world and fail to grasp they are first meant to describe the dynamics of our personal inner world or what the gospels call the heart.  Let's seek an inner meaning of this passage, a meaning which is true to the central message the gospel seeks to bring to each of us personally. This passage can be seen as the crescendo of the story of Jesus's potential  influence on our common collective life, of hope for 'peace on earth and good will to all.' The emphasis here must be so important to life and love it is called the very 'foundations of the world.'  Surely worth our careful attention. 

Can this now describe a personal inner owning of Good and Evil, not future literal Judgment?

First, let us acknowledge that 'son of man' is an expression emphasizing that Jesus was fully human, son of man- not only son of God. That means the image is not just about Jesus bringing judgment but can be  about us making some responsible inner decisions for ourselves. Instead of our jumping to an interpretation of a literal judgment scene, where Jesus is described as proclaiming some of God's children are saved and as many others damned eternally, as instead speaking to us of the importance of making some intentional personal  value  judgments. As describing, as it were, our taking the rightful place on our own inner throne and deciding(that is taking personal responsibility) for what we each judge as most important in our human life. In other words YOU are the 'son or daughter of man' here. Yes, we can “take our place on our heart's throne, with our own best angels , as we seek to own our truest and highest  potential as human beings.”

The images speak of ' knowing the difference between 'good and evil.' Remember the Genesis story that has so influenced all of Western Civilization, where the first human couple is pictured being told to not eat of the ' Tree of Knowledge Of Good And Evil' ... for it would result in them knowing the real difference between good and evil? Unfortunately we have been overwhelmingly persuaded  to think of the couple eating of that tree as something to grieve and to think, "Oh if only they hadn't  done that the world would be only be good."  No,  that ancient story was told  not to prevent evil but to give an understanding of why there must be presently good and evil for life to exist. And that we must be keenly aware of  the difference. And that it was necessary for humans to, as it were, eat of that tree so we could come to discern what is really good and really bad. Why I was taught in my youth that dancing, having a drink, playing cards, most anything sexual and being Catholic were among the greatest evils. You may laugh but does our culture yet get it  that good is that which promotes human beings to be more fully their fullest and finest selves, each one contributing to the well being of others? And evil is anything that questions human worth and dignity and treats humans and creation as only objects for self pleasure with little concern for the person or the planet? Now I see  that dancing, taking a drink, playing cards, being Catholic and certainly sexuality do not fit the criteria of being evil. But, for example, not caring that there are mentally ill people who our social structure has decided to put on the street and not take care of …. that is evil.  To allow, yes promote, in America the gathering of personal  wealth to the extent it makes poverty for others a necessary consequence is evil. To surgically drop bombs on those we call enemies with no strong misgiving that we will be killing completely innocent persons is wrong.
Psychologically, can't this be  a call for inner personal discernment of  Good and Evil?

What this passage's poetic images  can reveal  is that we humans are now  more capable of  knowing what true good is and what a better balance of life ordinary humans can potentially bring about in the world.  And that the world is in jeopardy to the extent  we don't. Notice the highest good we can aspire to is not about 'our church' and its traditions, dogmas and rites. It is surely not about living in luxury or about achieving notoriety, position or some measure of wealth. It is not about being right in our religious beliefs so we can judge how others are wrong. What good is , and that we as  'sons and daughters of man' are capable of proclaiming from our personal inner thrones, first  TO OURSELF, is intended to be crystal clear in this teaching.  A question is, 'Will we take this as our personal spiritual work?'  Surely this is where a safer world has to begin, individuals deciding what they really believe are the highest behaviors and attitudes for human living. By such inner work the text implies we contribute to strengthening  the very 'foundations of the World” right there in ones own space.  This is the inner human activity  that can hold the earth and all the cooperating elements of creation and humanity together. Without humans announcing this first and decisively to ourselves from our own inner throne;  life, love, hope and trust will vanish from the world, will become impossible. This due to  a sheer lack of humans not being more clearly conscious of and , 'knowing good and evil.'

We may be near such a critical need for this to happen in much measure in our present day. Have we ever seen as much degrading  human behavior and words on public display at highest levels as we did in the presidential process? No side is exempt. We and our forebears  are all implicated in it  coming to such times. Our nation's hands clearly are not lily white. We must see and own that.  It has become an important matter that we  pay close attention to the difference in good and evil as they show themselves in public discourse and in our public policies. Polices which  surely effect how citizens of our land treat each other.

(Read verses 34-36)Now Let's try to keep  our  thinking of this whole poetic image as something in our inner personal life, not a description of literal eternal judgment. Only when it is kept within and worked with can it eventually  become something commonly real in the outer world.  But be ready and expect to entertain an extremely counter intuitive paradox here. Unlike the most conventional interpretations, this passage is saying the greatest good is made possible by  first recognizing our own personal needs and fears. We are pushed to first look within, not our typical looking outside of ourselves for both problems and solutions.  Surely many of these are to be found within us? 

Surprisingly the images say we are the ones in great need. Most of us have not faced literal starvation from food and water as many others have. Yet we all can identify with having important  unresolved emotional hungers. The teaching taken as an inner discipline implies that only when we  take a caring interest  in our own sense of being a stranger and alone do we create the capacity to more fully respond to the stranger who is the other person or group of persons. And if you have ever felt barred or kept , in some way, from life and love- being in literal or psychological prison, then do what you can to release and to embrace yourself . Only then can one be most in tune to the many ways other humans are physically or socially imprisoned. If you have had the literal experience of being cold for lack of clothing or being embarrassed at not  having the latest materialistic fads, treat yourself with dignity. This way we might learn and respond more significantly to the many kinds of   nakedness that other humans experience.

Yes in all genuine spiritual teaching, compared to the preaching of rules and commands and oughts, there is an irrational paradox. The way there is not direct or   simply  calling us to 'just do it.' No, the good so needed today cannot happen in magnanimous and  efficient ways by simple willingness  and occasional 'gifts to the needy' or only community  projects of good will. For this teaching of Jesus to find fullest realization in the world, it must start with genuinely noting  and caring for ones self. Jesus consistently taught  one cannot  most effectively care for others until we  intentionally care  for ourselves. Until we experience exploring and tending to our own physical and emotional needs and stresses  are we most  preparing to do our best at effectively loving  others and loving the world.

Another paradox shown here is that those who do this inner work from their own inner thrones and strive to grasp the difference between collective good and evil are pictured as not being aware they are instruments of  generating good in the outer collective world. This may indicate it is possible for humans  to awaken to the process that such good,  should it ever fully  come into the world,  is a natural phenomenon  waiting to evolve, not a supernatural happening coming from the outside. Initiating the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven  must be the most natural of all healthy human instincts, to care for ones unique self. This awareness can potentially happen in the life of all persons. We would then no longer categorize ourselves as 'needy or blessed' or 'haves or have nots' but as one family that intentionally cares for its own. Then doing good can become no longer seen primarily as occasionally going out of ones way or a special occasion midst a world of materialistic self interest. But a  natural personal and collective response of noticing the very same needs in others as seen and seriously attended to  in one's own self. Here alone lies the gospel's paradoxical potential and power of  humans loving others as we  love ourselves, of being transformed into  lovers of the world.

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