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Sermons

The Revelation of Our Inner Thoughts

December 11, 2011

Bible Reading

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. (Luke 2:22-38)

Sermon

When Jesus was brought to the temple, his presence was a cause for much celebration. Not only did his proud parents have a healthy baby to thank God for, they were also greeted by two prophets, Simeon and Anna, both of whom confirmed all that the angels had said about this special child. By their words they declared that this baby was indeed the Messiah, the “salvation . . . of all people,” “the light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of Israel.” He was truly a blessing.

But, as is the case with many blessings, he was a mixed one. For Simeon, after singing his praise to God, continued his prophecy: “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel,” he said. “[He] will be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” He then turned to Mary and said that a sword would pierce her own soul as well. You can almost feel the cloud passing briefly before the sun, and the chill his words would have caused for all who stood in the temple courts that day.

Jesus’ presence would indeed bring healing, hope, and consolation to those willing to receive him, but he would also bring sorrow to and arouse anger in others. I am most struck by Simeon’s words about Jesus revealing people’s inner thoughts. His ability to do this would cause Jesus to be loved and revered by some and despised by others. You see, the revelation of our inner thoughts is rarely a comfortable process. Jesus made a great many people uncomfortable and angry because by his very presence he drew people into the light and revealed to them who they truly were and what they truly loved. He did not judge others, but something about the way he spoke and acted brought people’s true motives to the surface. He gave them the opportunity to see themselves clearly, and people are rarely thankful for that kind of honesty. Some took their interactions with him as an opportunity for spiritual growth and did indeed rise up: Nicodemus, many of the disciples, Zaccheus, and Mary Magdalene, just to name a few. But there were also those who turned away, clinging to their illusions rather than yielding to the truth. The revelation of our inmost thoughts is a profoundly life-altering experience, and rarely an experience that we welcome with open arms.

I saw something of this in action a few weeks ago. Doug, our sexton here at the chapel, invited the Thursday night reading group to the Cambridge Zen Center to hear the teachings of an American Zen master. I really had no idea what to expect, but it sounded like an interesting variation on our usual routine, so I encouraged the group to go. We arrived in good time, shed our shoes at the door, and proceeded through the renovated brownstone buildings that have been joined together to house the Zen Center until we reached the outer hallway of the main meeting space. There we were given robes, which Doug taught us all how to tie on properly, and then we were escorted into the room where we sat zazen on cushions and meditated for a time. After a short instructional talk by a member of the community, the evening was turned over to the Zen master.

I had expected him to give a lecture or sermon or talk of some sort, but instead, he just sat there. And then, after a short time, people began to ask questions . . . all sorts of questions. Questions about life, government, civil responsibility, meditation, love, death, war, and enlightenment. The Zen master answered each individual in turn with a calm assurance. I was impressed with his wisdom. He was unflappable and honest in a way that was both disarming and welcoming.

As I listened I had the sense that Jesus must have been a teacher like this—as, I imagine, was Socrates. A genuine affection for everyone present suffused this man. He was not judgmental, but he was unflinchingly honest. I became aware that he was not one to send people away with easy answers. He was not there to make us feel comfortable with ourselves. In fact, his answers seemed to make people distinctly uncomfortable. And, perhaps because of this dynamic, one thing I noticed rather quickly was how reluctant those who asked a question were to hear his answer. They had thought long and hard about their questions, mulled them over, and often come up with answers of their own, so when the Zen master responded, some of them genuinely had trouble accepting his words. Rather than mull over the master’s response, they would often simply rephrase the question and toss it back at him for another go.

The master was unflappable, patient, and uncomfortably frank. Afterwards I mentioned to Doug that the master seemed like a rock: unshakable, absolutely certain, impossible to offend, and opaque. He revealed nothing about his own inner struggles or desires as he spoke and seemed completely detached. But the people who questioned him . . . I have to say it was almost too much for me, because as they struggled to hear what the Zen master was saying, rephrasing their questions and trying again and again to understand, they revealed so much about themselves: their fears, their desires, their temptations. Some even became visibly angry. It was as if their innermost thoughts were laid bare before the master and the rest of us. I felt as though they were running up physically against this man with their questions, and as though their egos—or, as Swedenborg would phrase it, their proprium, that which was proper to them—splintered in the face of this man’s calm repose and compassionate wisdom. He reflected their doubts and their fears as a mirror, and that mirror was often shattered by his answer. People would either see the pieces and leave them there on the ground, thankful that the illusion had been broken, or gather them up again and glue their mirrors together and have another go at him. Many of them chose the latter option.

As I said before, that Zen master reminded me of Jesus. So many times during his ministry, Jesus was approached by people who questioned him but were unhappy with his answers. The rich young man, the Pharisees, Peter: so many people would rush up to Jesus seeking answers, or attempting to trap him, or simply trying to understand him better, and they would be overwhelmed by his quiet wisdom. Many were unable to hear and accept his truth in their hearts. His truth was often so hard to hear because it would reveal parts of themselves that people were uncomfortable with, parts they would rather have kept hidden. The rich young man went away saddened because Jesus’ answer to him revealed that the young man loved the security of money more than anything else. The Pharisees would continually betray their own hunger for power at the expense of truth when they would spar with Jesus. They would attack him, hoping to prove that he was too proud, that he had overstepped his authority, or that he was out of line. But in each of these conversations he would reveal in his own quiet way that the evil they sought to find in him was an evil they had yet to confront in themselves.

And then there were the others. People like the disciple Peter—Peter, who was constantly stumbling, boasting, failing to live up to his best intentions, and loving Jesus in spite of it all. Peter was a rare soul, a person who could stare his mistakes full in the face, once he saw them, and love God enough to seek forgiveness and try again. With his words, Jesus often held up a mirror to Peter, and that mirror was repeatedly broken. But Peter left the pieces of his many mirrors on the ground and kept walking after Jesus.

I keep playing with this metaphor of the mirror and the idea of its being shattered because it truly was my first impression of the Zen master. I was surprised to see the verb used in Swedenborg’s writings as well. But he does talk about good people whose false principles must be shattered before they can ascend into heaven. And this makes sense to me. Because it is not just a matter of shedding falsities, but breaking their hold on us. “Shattering” is a drastic, violent verb, but God allows these falsities to be shattered for our own good. This destruction allows what is good in us to rise freely to the surface. It is an act of love.

And much like the Zen master, I believe that Jesus loved each one of these people who came before him, even if they found it hard to love him back. I believe that Jesus loved them and forgave them and longed for their spiritual healing. It was all a matter of whether they could hear him and allow his truth to shape their lives. I guess the more I study his words, the more I realize that there was never a question of Jesus’ love and forgiveness, nor will there ever be. The question lies in each individual’s desire to accept love and forgiveness.

I am fully indebted to Doug for this sermon, because my next quote comes from a book he gave to me for Christmas. The book, by Stephen Mitchell, is entitled The Gospel According to Jesus. In the introduction Mitchell writes:

[With]in Jesus’ sayings, it may seem as if God’s forgiveness is dependent on ours. “Forgive us our [debts] as we forgive [our debtors]” . . . “If you don’t judge you will not be judged; if you do not condemn, you will not be condemned; if you forgive you will be forgiven.” But these ifs have only one side . . . Jesus does not mean that if you do condemn, God will condemn you; or that if you don’t forgive, God will not forgive you. He is pointing to a spiritual fact: when we condemn, we create a world of condemnation for ourselves, and we attract the condemnation of others; when we cling to an offense, we are clinging to precisely what separates us from our own fulfillment. Letting go means not only releasing the person who has wronged us, but releasing ourselves . . . In these sayings of Jesus, God is a mirror reflecting back to us our own state of being. We receive exactly what we give. The more openhearted we are, the more we experience the whole universe as God’s grace. Forgiveness is essentially openness of heart. It is an attitude, not an action. (p. 55)

But forgiveness, whether it is the forgiveness of God or the compassionate guidance of the Zen master or our own attempts to reconcile with each other, is, as David Steindl-Rast says, “forgiveness freely offered, not imposed” (The Gospel According to Jesus, p. 71). And this is why Jesus made people so uncomfortable: because often we don’t want to be forgiven, we want to go on just as we are. God will not love us the less for it, for God’s love is unconditional, but we will experience less of that love because those parts of ourselves we would rather deny will cause us to turn away from it. Our true natures, for good or ill, are revealed in the face of heavenly love. Our propria are shattered in the presence of truth. In the end we cannot hide what we are because we are what we love. We see, reflected in Jesus, our inmost thoughts, fears, loves, angers, and hopes. Like that little town of Bethlehem, “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in” us when we come into his presence. Jesus is a blessing, but a blessing that comes at some cost to that part of us we would rather hide.

Swedenborg, in Divine Providence 227, writes: “There is good and evil in everyone. The good is from God, but the evil is the person’s own. Evil alone would squeeze all the life out of them: likewise good, if it were alone, would smother the person in a Divine stranglehold. So there is good and evil in everyone (that we might experience the freedom to choose what kind of people we will be).”

Everything hinges on which prevails—on whether the person is really hooked on evil and only outwardly concerned with the good, or vice versa. Either way, God sees to it that the distinction doesn’t become too blurred, and after death good and evil are finally sorted. All that remains is what the person has actually taken to heart, despite worldly appearances.

Jesus, Zen masters, and even honest assessments of ourselves can help to reveal our inmost thoughts. If there is one message I would leave us all with today, it is this: Jesus made many people uncomfortable because he revealed their inmost thoughts, but we don’t have to fear anything within ourselves. We don’t need to be afraid. There is no question of God’s love for us. We are loved, we are forgiven, we are welcomed in the eyes of God. We have only to love ourselves enough to be open and willing to look at ourselves honestly. There will be times when our inmost thoughts are revealed to be heavenly, and there will be times when they will be revealed to be hellish. This is what it is to be human. Rather than fear this truth or feel judged by it, let us accept it for what it is and realize that even the hells within us serve a use when they can be identified and turned away from. I think what made people so uncomfortable in the presence of Jesus was the very fact that he did not judge their inmost thoughts but allowed them to choose for themselves who they wanted to be. This freedom has caused, and will continue to cause, the falling and the rising of many, in Israel and beyond. But it is not a freedom we need fear. It is a freedom we can lay hold of and use as God intended, for our spiritual growth.

I would like to leave you with one last quote. It is from a book called A Winter’s Tale by Mark Halpern. Within the book a wealthy old man is about to die, and he is settling his will between his two sons. He loves both of his sons, but he makes a curious decision. To the son who shows no sign of becoming a responsible individual, he leaves all of his wealth. To the son he is most proud of, he leaves only a golden platter on which are inscribed four virtues, “honesty, courage, sacrifice, and patience.” Allow me to read:

The light on Hardesty’s face went from violet and blue to gold and silver. He felt its warmth, and saw again the inscriptions—four virtues (honesty, courage, sacrifice, and patience). Many times, his father had taken him to read them, insisting that they were the most important things he could have, and implying with a sharp, dismissive gesture of hand and arm that wealth, fame, and worldly possessions were worthless and demeaning. “Little men,” he once said, “spend their days in pursuit of such things. I know from experience that at the moment of their deaths they see their lives shattered before them like glass. I’ve seen them die. They fall away as if they had been pushed, and the expressions on their faces are those of the most unbelieving surprise. Not so for the man who knows the virtues and lives by them. The world goes this way and that. Ideas are in fashion, or not, and those who should prevail are often defeated. But it doesn’t matter. The virtues remain uncorrupted and uncorruptible [sic]. They are rewards in themselves, the bulwarks with which we can protect our vision of beauty, and the strengths by which we may stand, unperturbed, in the storm that comes when seeking God.”

Prayer

Dearest God, you have searched us and you have known us, and you love us. There is nothing within us we need hide from your light and your love. Help us to love ourselves as you love us. Help us to pare away all that would separate us from you. Help us not to be afraid to look at ourselves openly and honestly, but to love ourselves enough to seek after you in all things. Amen.

Rev. Sarah Buteux