Sunday, January 16, 2011

“The First Epiphany Awakened in the Moment”

16 January 2011
The Second Sunday of Epiphany
The Reverend Jonathan A. Voorhees
St. Joseph’s Chapel, Kent School

The season of Epiphany is about the light of God shining forth in the world, even moving into the darkness.  We celebrate the moments of breakthrough, where the love of God is glimpsed, living and abiding here in this troubled world.  The idea behind this season is that our own sacred witness even increases the presence of God in the world.  Our words and actions can help to bring more of God into a world that has so many problems, and so much pain and violence.
I encourage people I know to celebrate the entire twelve days of Christmas; that the holiday is not just one day of benevolent commercialism through gift giving.  It is a whole season—nearly two weeks—to make room for God to grow into our hearts and minds; that the Christ child is not something, or someone, that we toss out like our old Christmas trees, but rather something to nurture and raise up in our own lives.  The season of Epiphany takes things even further into the new year, witnessing to the love of God in the arrival of the wise men, and now the first moments of Jesus’s ministry as the messiah.   
This said, these early scenes of Epiphany are kind of ordinary in a way.  From Matthew’s gospel, three wise men—three scholars—take a long journey to visit a baby that they believe will change the world.  But if you actually saw this happening at the time, it might not strike you as extraordinary at all.  You might miss the miracle, even if it were right in front of you.  I think this happens to us all the time.  Matthew makes it known that God is active in these three men’s journey; by communicating with them through their dreams.  God tells them not to cooperate with a powerful ruler, King Herod, so they do not tell the king where the Christ child is.  They go home by a different way.  The last two weeks tell the story of Jesus’s baptism by John the Baptist, first from Matthew’s gospel, and now today from John.  Once again, on one level, it is simple event of a ritual bath offered by a great teacher to a new master, the same Jesus once visited by the scholars.  What makes the baptism extraordinary is the presence of God in the scene.  John the Baptist testifies that God was present at the baptism of Jesus: “’I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.’  ‘And I myself have testified that this is the Son of God.’”  In Matthew’s gospel, the voice of God is audible at the ordinary event of Jesus’s baptism.  God’s presence makes the event extraordinary.  But did everyone hear it?  Did everyone see what John saw? 
This season of Epiphany seems to be telling us that it takes hard work, and spiritual concentration, to see the hand of God in the world.  That we have to clean our lens—our vision, our way of seeing the world.  That we should clean out our ears, and our mouths too, if we want to help God’s love move more deeply into the ordinary events of our world, our Earth that we share with each other, with the animals, and with the generations to come.
As I wrote this sermon yesterday afternoon, I was also mentally preparing to coach my basketball team against Trinity Pawling, always a formidable opponent.  For some reason, they don’t seem to like us very much.  Mental preparation, the cultivation of one’s mind, is very important in athletics, and in academics too.  If you can meditate silently for ten minutes—ten minutes of relaxed concentration before you study—you can work, effectively, for hours.  You can release your complete creativity by being in the moment with a task.  My basketball team regularly meditates during our practice time, several times a week (we also have Native American spirit animals and Indian names from our two vision quests, but I leave that for another sermon).  I believe this meditation time is as important as any drill or scrimmage, and Coach Phil Jackson of the Los Angeles Lakers agrees with me.  He’s my elder, so it would be more respectful to say that I agree with him, and follow his example as a coach and spiritual leader on the court.  I regularly read from his book Sacred Hoops before meditation time with my team.  Jackson believes that spiritual exploration and basketball are integrally related, as are basketball and life itself.   Coach Phil Jackson consciously blends the fundamentalist Christianity of his youth growing up on the Dakota Plains with the enlightenment traditions of Eastern religion, especially Zen Buddhism; with its spiritual teaching about how to be awake and alert in the moment. 
From Jackson’s book on religion and basketball, Sacred Hoops:
“…To excel, you need to act with a clear mind and be totally focused on what everyone on the floor is doing.  Some athletes describe this quality of mind as a ‘cocoon of concentration.’  But that implies shutting out the world when what you really need to do is become more acutely aware of what’s happening right now, this very moment.
The secret is not thinking.  That doesn’t mean being stupid; it means quieting the endless jabbering of thoughts so that your body can do instinctively what it’s been trained to do without the mind getting in the way.  All of us have had flashes of this sense of oneness--…creating a work of art—when we’re completely immersed in the moment, inseparable from what we’re doing.  This kind of experience happens all the time on the basketball floor; that’s why the game is so intoxicating.  But if you’re really paying attention, it can also occur while you’re performing mundane tasks…
In Zen it is said that all you need to do to reach enlightenment is ‘chop wood, carry water.’  The point is to perform every activity, from playing basketball to taking out the garbage, with precise attention, moment by moment.” 

When my team meditates, I encourage them to aim above basketball—to aim at the mystery of life itself.  I compare this to working very hard on a paper or project or lab, but while letting go of the grade you hope to get: just be in the moment.  Aim at excellence above grades.  There is extraordinary freedom, the freedom of the moment, when you do this.
How can life change if more people are present in the moment? 
First of all, I think there would be less texting and better driving on the roads.  I also believe the love of God can enter the world more directly when we aim above ourselves, above the crass pettiness and cruel violence of our dark world.  Here are some examples.  It was a seventy-four year old man named Bill Badger who tackled the gunman in Tucson after watching him shoot a little girl: “Something had to be done,” the former army colonel said about his intervention in the heat of a moment.  Badger was shot in the head during the action, but his wound was fortunately just a graze.  It was a sixty-one year old woman, Patricia Maisch, who wrestled with the gunman on the ground, and prevented him from reloading a fresh ammunition clip into his Glock.  Without the actions of these two older citizens, many more than twenty people would have been shot.  Yet we might walk past these two and not notice anything special about them. 
We need to clean our lens, to open our ears—to wake up to God in the moment.  Along with these actions, by people who still don’t consider themselves heroes, are the decisions and expertise of the medical personnel, from the first paramedics on the scene to the brain surgeons at the hospital, who showed care, intense concentration, intelligence, and deep compassion with the life or death decisions for Congresswoman Giffords, and fourteen other wounded individuals.  The survival of Representative Giffords is a miracle, but it was people like you could be one day who made it happen in reality.  In moments of tragedy and great evil, there is also the corresponding love of God and humankind that is so much stronger. 
From John’s gospel, in its beautiful opening: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
I don’t want to leave you this morning with just a troubled and violent world in mind’s eye, however countered by selfless and loving action by individuals acting in the moment.  I will close this morning with a poem by the playwright Jose Rivera.  The poem is an odd one, as poems go; it’s just a list of the first times that you do something.  These could be ordinary events that you rush past on the way to…where are we going anyway?  Kids want to grow up and be adults, and adults long for their lost youth.  It’s crazy the way we are.  There is another way: to be completely awake in the moment.  Then this poem, this list of firsts, becomes your own witness to the beauty and wonder of your life, and the deep and abiding love of the Creator God, who is really as close to you as the person sitting beside you right now. 
From Jose Rivera:        
The first time a child trusts you to carry them to the next room.
The first time you drive from Westfield, Massachusetts, to San Diego, with someone you’re in love with.
The first time you watch birth.
The first lines of Paradise Lost.
The first time you make a decisive three point shot in a game that really counts.
The first time you get the dog to go outside.
The first time you can read “I love you” in a lover’s eyes.
The first family reunion without homicidal fantasies.
The first love letter.
The first serious talk about love with your child.
The first epiphany.
The first time you hear Lorca in Spanish.
The first real friendship with a person of another race.
The first gray hair.
The first time you see Picasso’s Guernica.
The first time you visit your birthplace.
The first time you hear Lightning Hopkins.
The first visible comet.
The first time you feel attractive and someone calls you “angel.”
The first experience with something remotely like a god.
The first recovery after a serious illness.
The first time therapy makes sense.
The first birthday of your first born.
The first time you can’t walk and your lover carries you to the next room.
The first foul ball you catch in Fenway Park.
The first time you stand alone and you’re scared to death and you don’t change your position.
The first time you’re convinced of your mortality and you laugh.
The first sunrise after the first death of a parent.
The first time you forgive the unforgivable.
The first time you see the Earth from space.
The first time it is truly obvious that it was better that you had lived, at this time, in this world.
The first time you decide every moment of your life should be a work of art.
The first time you die and you breathe again and you speak to the living.
The first time you realize that it all just might have been okay.

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