Paula Northwood January 13, 2019
Texts 2 Corinthians 4:16–18; Ephesians 3:17–21
Gospel of Thomas (excerpt)
Jesus says: “If those who lead you say to you: ‘Look, the kingdom is in the sky!’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you: ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fishes will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside of you, and outside of you.”
“When you come to know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will realize that you are the children of the living Father. But if you do not come to know yourselves, then you exist in poverty, and you are poverty.”
The Purposes of the Church (Section 1 of Plymouth Church’s Governing Policies)
We, the people of Plymouth Congregational Church, humbly seek and serve God within, among, and beyond ourselves.
We find sanctuary for our spiritual journey in the Congregational tradition. We:
- Seek the sacred in ourselves and all others.
- Cultivate our deepest and best selves.
- Nurture our capacity to love.
- Live in the hope of renewal and transformation.
We walk together in covenanted Christian community. We:
- Care for one another.
- Cultivate a spirit of gratitude, love, joy, compassion and inclusion.
- Honor many pathways to the sacred.
- Deepen our understanding of our faith tradition.
- Nurture a welcoming culture to all.
God’s creation benefits from our love lived out in the world. We:
- Invest our time, talent and treasure consistent with our values.
- Serve people in need.
- Advance human rights.
- Further social, economic, racial and environmental justice.
- Share our vision of progressive Christianity, while respecting all faith traditions.
* * *
This sermon is the first in a series where we will examine the current Purposes of the Church. You may not realize that Plymouth’s Governing Policies begin with “The Purposes of the Church,” which guide the Policies. The Purposes are excellent and important statements. We will be exploring each Purpose both in our worship services and at our Sundays at 10 o’clock education time. Participants at the 10 o’clock sessions will delve into the theological underpinnings. If you can’t attend, you can listen to them on the Plymouth website.
In the context of Plymouth Church, the Purposes specifically define for what or for whom the church will have a certain desired impact. They start with these words: “We, the people of Plymouth Congregational Church, humbly seek and serve God within, among and beyond ourselves.” Under the category of “Within,” the subtitle reads: “We find sanctuary for our spiritual journey in the Congregational tradition.”
It is important to ground ourselves and to name our historical tradition. Our spiritual ancestors, the Pilgrims and Puritans, committed themselves to live faithfully to what they understood God required. What God required would be discerned in each context and for a particular time in history. Each congregation drew up their own covenant, often based on the covenant made in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1629. People became members of the church by voluntarily “owning” the covenant. They pledged to “walk together in the ways of God, made known or to be made known” to them. That may sound familiar, because the Plymouth Congregational Church covenant is based on that 1629 covenant.
This morning the first Purpose we will examine is: “We seek the sacred in ourselves and others.”
The beauty of this statement is not apparent without thinking about what it could read. Instead, it could read: “We seek the saving grace of God through Jesus Christ because we are fallen humans as a result of original sin.”
In traditional Christian teaching, original sin is the result of Adam and Eve’s disobedience to God when they ate a forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. Theologians sometimes joke that original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith. Other doctrines are based on faith but with this one we see the evidence. Of course, we know the capability of humans to do horrendous things, but this doctrine raises the question, “Are humans born with a sinful nature?” The doctrine of original sin answers “yes,” and, as a result, that sin separates humans from God, and this brings dissatisfaction and guilt into their lives.
This doctrine teaches that human beings can’t cure themselves of original sin. The only way they can be saved from its consequences is by the grace of God. The only way people can receive God’s grace is by believing that Jesus Christ died on the cross to redeem their sins, thereby bridging the gap between God and humans. (If you want more information on this, please listen to the recording of today’s 10 o’clock Theology of the Purposes, which will be posted soon on the website.)
But there is another way of interpreting the scripture that some, like theologian Matthew Fox, have called original blessing. Genesis 1:27 says God created humans in God’s own image. This concept is stated in different ways by most religions, and it’s sometimes interpreted to mean that we have the same physical features as God. It’s like a metaphysical joke: God made humans in God’s own image, and humans have been trying to return the favor ever since!
In other words, we keep trying to understand God in human, material terms, like some anthropomorphic being sitting on a cloud. But this is an overly literal interpretation of ancient teachings. In John 4:24, it is said “God is spirit, and those who worship God must worship in spirit and truth.” Being created in God’s image doesn’t mean we look like God. It means that at the level of our true selves, we possess the same qualities, which have been described as spirit, truth, love, beauty, power and intelligence, among others.
There are many texts like the Gospel of Thomas read earlier that tell us the kingdom or the realm of God is within us. Both the Ephesians and 2 Corinthians texts indicate that we have an inner nature where God dwells. We sometimes speak about it as a divine spark or sacred seed. With this understanding, it’s not that we think we are perfect or don’t make choices to behave badly—but as people created in God’s image, our essential character (or core self) is blessed by God as good. We are God’s good creation, and, if we behave badly or sin, we can tap into God’s love and forgiveness and find healing. It also invites a new way of being in the world, where there is never a danger of going the wrong way or hitting a dead end, because, rather than needing a savior to fix, correct or fill in something that is missing, we continue to seek the sacred within, so that our growth will unfold organically.
A good example is a seed. A seed can thrive with certain external conditions: good soil, moisture and sunshine. For humans, it doesn’t matter so much what external conditions we are planted in: city or rural or which state or country. Our soul is our soil, and if we generate the right inner conditions—mentally, emotionally and spiritually—our seeds will have the right nutrients to thrive.
An interesting fact is, whereas most seeds require external light to grow, human beings are self-effulgent, meaning we generate light from within. This is not only a spiritual fact discernable through meditation, scientists have detected that human beings actually glimmer with measurable light via photon emission. No matter how thick the clouds may be outside or how dark the night, the light is always shining within, ready to illuminate the seed of your true self and nourish its growth. But don’t misunderstand me, you still need your vitamin D, too.
There is a story from the Talmud that goes like this: “When Akiba was on his deathbed, he bemoaned to his rabbi that he felt he was a failure. His rabbi moved closer and asked why, and Akiba confessed that he had not lived a life like Moses. The poor man began to cry, admitting that he feared God’s judgment. At this, his rabbi leaned into his ear and whispered gently, ‘God will not judge Akiba for not being Moses. God will judge Akiba for not being Akiba.’” Or, if we were to put this in Christian language, we might confess we have not lived a life like Jesus—but that’s not the point. Jesus embodied God in a unique way, and we, too, are to embody God in our own way.
Our sacred obligation is to be completely who we are. Yet how much of our time is spent comparing ourselves to others? We humans find ourselves always falling into the dream of another life. Or we secretly aspire to the fortune or fame of people we don’t really know.
When I was young, I wanted to be Wilma Rudolph, the runner. I would put on shorts and an undershirt and race down the lane. Wilma Rudolph was a 5′ 11” Olympic Gold Medal winner for the 100 and 200 meters and she was African American. No matter how much I trained, I would never be Wilma. When feeling badly about ourselves, we often try on other skins rather than understand and care for our own. But these attempts are not successful. According to Jesus’ teachings, if we go through life accomplishing only outer results without transforming our inner being, we have lived a non-life.
In our Purposes, the church is to provide a container, a space for you to seek the sacred in yourselves and also in others. Maybe we become compost for each other to nurture the sacred in each other. It may sound easy, but seeing the sacred in the other has been historically very difficult. We, white people in particular, are waking up to the reality that we have often done the opposite.
Writing in The Direct Path, spiritual scholar Andrew Harvey expresses the sentiment: “It seems to me,” he says, “that all the major religions have failed in one essential task—the reducing of human anxiety and aggression through the instruction of human beings in their essential divine nature.” We have created systems that oppress, belittle and diminish the other because we have stripped others of their divine nature. We have failed to see the sacred in the other.
Not for the first time in Plymouth’s history, we are again awakening to a renewed commitment to see the sacred in the other. We are realizing that we have fallen short of the glory of God. If we are to embrace the sacred within others and do everything in such a way that the divine can be revealed, it will change the way we do church. And it involves changing how we live.
Writer and poet Mark Nepo shares in The Book of Awakening about a young divinity student who was stricken with polio. From somewhere deep within him came an unlikely voice calling him to, of all things, dance. So, with great difficulty, he quit divinity school and began to dance, and, slowly and miraculously, he not only regained the use of his legs but went on to become one of the fathers of modern dance. This is the story of Ted Shawn, and it is compelling for us to realize that studying God did not heal him. Embodying God did. Embodying God did.
In this story, it is dance that is the embodiment of God, but, whenever we act in the way of love, justice and healing, we are embodying God. We are letting the divine within shine through us. Maybe it makes us uncomfortable to think we have a divine nature, but can we take this idea seriously enough to let it guide our perceptions, dreams, reflections and conduct?
You see, thinking the right thing is not enough. Just praying for a kinder world is not enough. We must become kindness. We must live it. We have no right to crush another’s spirit to make ourselves feel bigger or more important. Saying out loud or even thinking we are not racist is not enough. We must examine our privilege, our defensiveness and our deeply held prejudices. We must open our eyes to our implicit biases in order to honor the sacred in others.
As people with the sacred within, we have no right to ignore or compound the suffering of others for any reason. Period.
The invitation of our first Purpose of the Church is to go to the depths of our soul, to seek the secret place of the Most High, to the roots, to the heights—for all that God can do is focused there. Know that you are worthy; that your precious, unique life is worth treasuring; that your capacity for love includes yourself; and that it must include love for all people. Otherwise, it is not of God.
We can learn from other faith traditions. Many of you are familiar with the Sanskrit word Namaste. It’s a traditional Indian greeting; it translates to “I bow to the divine in you.” Place your hands in a prayer position in front of your heart and say, “Namaste.” It is a wonderful spiritual practice. Can you imagine going through life always being reminded of the sacred, the divine, in another person?
Jesus taught that the divine is within us—within our own flesh. There is no separation of flesh and spirit in Jesus’ teachings. The spirit can only be at home in the flesh—the seed of God can only grow into God. As Meister Eckhart observed: “Now the seed of God is in us. Now a hazel seed grows into a hazel tree, a pear seed into a pear tree, and a seed of God into God.”
The seed of God is in you. Live it. Grow it. Embody it. Namaste.
Derek Rydall, Emergence: Seven Steps for Radical Life Change (New York: Atria Paperback, 2015).
Andrew Harvey, The Direct Path: Creating a Personal Journey to the Divine Using the World’s Spiritual Traditions (New York: Harmony, 2001).