The Land of And…
A sermon related to Matthew 14:13-23
The inward contemplative life must be integrated with the outer life of expression and service (and vice versa).
When Jesus heard about John, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. When the crowds learned this, they followed him on foot from the cities. 14 When Jesus arrived and saw a large crowd, he had compassion for them and healed those who were sick. 15 That evening his disciples came and said to him, “This is an isolated place and it’s getting late. Send the crowds away so they can go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”
16 But Jesus said to them, “There’s no need to send them away. You give them something to eat.”17 They replied, “We have nothing here except five loaves of bread and two fish.”
18 He said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 He ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. He took the five loaves of bread and the two fish, looked up to heaven, blessed them and broke the loaves apart and gave them to his disciples. Then the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 Everyone ate until they were full, and they filled twelve baskets with the leftovers. 21 About five thousand men plus women and children had eaten.
22 Right then, Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead to the other side of the lake while he dismissed the crowds. 23 When he sent them away, he went up onto a mountain by himself to pray. Evening came and he was alone.
For the Word of God in Scripture
For the Word of God among us
For the Word of God within us
Thanks be to God
Some of you know the elder Roman Catholic Priest Father Richard Rohr who was the founder and driving force in establishing the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He once offered this illustration……
When people ask me which is the more important, action or contemplation, I know it is an impossible question to answer because they are eternally united in one embrace, two sides of one coin. So I say that action is not the important word, nor is contemplation; and is the important word!
I’ve read Father Richard Rohr’s books in past years and he is an increasingly important teacher for me, particularly as an articulate voice and presence for evolving Christianity, for the kind of Christianity that takes the best from our tradition and moves it forward with articulation and depth that is accessible. Like Father Rohr, I don’t find the essence of Christianity problematic, I find that too often our way of understanding it over the centuries has been problematic and immature. Our faith has too often been captured by the Empire and used for its purposes. Conveniently for the Empire, this capture psycho-spiritually involves the ego and its fondness for splitting things into two and confirming its bias. The ego thrives on either/or; my way or the highway, I’m in and you are out, heaven or hell. Taken as a whole, and in its highest and deepest teaching, the Gospel and our spiritual lives are meant for more. The Realm of God, of which Jesus spoke so often, is a big enough circle, a wide enough vision to include all, even paradox. In short, the Realm of God could also be called the Land of And.
Father Rohr quotes Charles Péguy (1873–1914), French poet and essayist, who wrote with great insight that “everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics.” And Rohr says that everything new and creative in this world puts together things that don’t look like they go together at all, but always have been connected at a deeper level. Spirituality’s goal is to get people to that deeper level where the Divine can hold contradictions and paradox. (Some call this place the unified field or nondual reality or wisdom.)
This creative work of living in the Land of And is the creative work of a lifetime and a sign of maturing faith and psychology. (It’s harder when we are younger.)
We could spend a long time exploring all those seemingly opposing poles of life in which we move, like continuity and change, structure and flow, accountability and mercy, planned and emergent, and countless others. Today, I invite us to travel in ‘the Land of And’ by focusing on the two important poles initially mentioned: action and contemplation.
Did you notice the integration of these two in our Scripture story today?
Just below the plot, just below the surface, Jesus is in the dance of action and contemplation. He seeks solitude and prayer both before and after his communal feeding of the 5000. Just before our story, Jesus hears of John the Baptist’s cruel execution at the hand of Herod, and he seeks solitude. And after his action with the crowds, showing them compassion and healing, offering them food, he seeks solitude and prayer time once more. This is a deep pattern, contemplation and action and then contemplation again and so on, each feeding and informing the other.
You might say that Moses was in this cycle on Mount Sinai, first having a mystical experience of the burning bush and having that lead to his actions for liberation of the people. It’s as if the bush burned before him, then in him, and then through him in action in the world.
You might come to the Land of And from either side of this or any polarity. You might be a person of action like Simone Weil, an activist who fought against totalitarianism and worked for the French Resistance based in England during World War II. What you might not know is that in the 1930’s as a young activist, her atheist, communist sympathies soured and it was no longer religion that she considered the opiate of the people, but revolution. A mystical experience in the Church while on a visit to Assisi changed her life and the framework and fuel of her activism. She realized that activism without a spiritual framework, a framework capable of getting beyond the ego, was deeply limited and even dangerous. Said Weil, “God is not present, even if we invoke God, where the afflicted are merely regarded as an occasion for doing good.” Weil began in action and found her way to the inclusion and integration of contemplation, of inward spiritual practice, which in turn altered and inspired her continued activism. She found her way to the Land of And where action and contemplation were one dance, indispensable and interdependent elements.
Others have journeyed the other direction from contemplation to action. Saint Oscar Romero might be one example of this. The quiet studious priest earned his doctorate after ordination and then eventually served in parishes and as a church official in various capacities including running a conservative Catholic publication. He certainly got things done in his early ministry, yet was considered a conventional and conservative choice years later when he was selected as Archbishop of San Salvador, selected as someone to preserve the status quo. It was Saint Oscar’s contemplation of the assassinated body of his activist friend and fellow priest, Rutilio Grande, that transformed Romero, transformed him into a prophet of action who led actions of liberation for the people, actions borne of compassion that came out of his wrestling in prayer, his inner spiritual contemplation.
The invitation to the Land of And begins when we draw the circle wide, including both energies. As simple as the inbreath and the outbreath, we come back to the necessity of each and their interdependence. Any energy pole can polarize, distorting the other side and suffering the consequences of focusing too much on one side. In most congregations like this one, to oversimplify, there will be fans of action and of contemplation, people who lean one way or the other.
Let’s do a quick polarity map of those.
A polarity map is a way of understanding where we are in relation to any given poles and how the two can be integrated. Each pole can have an upside and a downside. When we are really preferring one pole, we tend to be suspicious of its interdependent pole, judgmental about the downside of that interdependent pole. If you are preferring action, you might be suspicious of those who talk about prayer or meditation or mysticism. What are your concerns? (I’m one of these people. I have this voice.) Pie in the sky, all talk no action, hypocrisy, insulated, not real. Breaking through this polarization involves trying to see the other pole’s upside and your preferred pole’s downside. So, let’s say we guarantee that the action pole will be served, what could one gain by also serving contemplation? Energy, inspiration, insight for better actions, care for the self and inner life, integrity of spirit when engaging action, etc.
Reverse it. If you prefer the inner life, the contemplative life of Spirit, you may have been suspicious of those always in action. What are your concerns? Burn out, reactivity, not strategic, act in inconsistent manner (ie not peaceful peace marchers), etc. But what could be the gain in adding action to one’s contemplation? Integrity of doing what you say you value, new learning from engagement, connection to others, grounding in the tangible world.
Are we, like Jesus in the story we heard this morning, involved with self-awareness, with checking our egos and supporting our souls with a regular life of connecting with Spirit through prayer and/or yoga and/or other spiritual disciplines like Lectio Divina, poetry, or journaling, or walking the labrynth, or participating in vital worship? Are we, like Jesus, then filled with enough courage and compassion to answer the call to act, to incarnate the Spirit into acts of service and healing and justice-making, to put our bodies and checkbooks and time into faithful actions for the coming more fully of heaven to earth?
In a distracted world of the 24-hour news cycle, of Facebook and emails, of constant cable news crawlers and tweets, my friends we are challenged to keep in touch with God, with the deep still point of the circle.
And, in the midst of a world of such constant noise and so many opportunities to live only in a chosen private manufactured reality, we are challenged to connect in community, and to act in wise, effective, and meaningful ways that are grounded in the embodied reality of earth and guided by the vision of all God’s people and all Creation in a just relationship.
If we are to see the possibility and then miraculously deliver such abundance satisfying the hunger of body and soul as Jesus in feeding the 5000, we will have to imitate Jesus in the cycle and the integration of action AND contemplation.
It’s worth remembering that both King and Gandhi considered their movements spiritual movements, fueled by prayers of song and speech. Gandhi once said, "I have so much to accomplish today that I must meditate for two hours instead of one." That’s a human being living in the land of And.
Let us go and do likewise. AMEN
Grief & Change & Joy
Jeremiah 4.23-28a & Psalm 31.1-5,9-10,14b-15a
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
The images in our scripture texts today echo the inner landscape of grief as I have experienced and while everyone’s experience of grief is different, I’m guessing that some of these images may resonate with you. The sorrow, despair, and anger, the need for solace and help that grief brings are held in these texts. This day in September, 9/11, has held cries and echoes of grief in our nation for 21 years. Each year we remember when terrorist extremists attacked the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington, DC and attempted to attack our nation’s capital. We have each experienced many kinds of grief since then or before then. and acutely so in the last two and a half years. New grief brings up old grief. Grief is more a part of the landscape of our lives than we want to acknowledge, and it has always been so for human being. Listen with me to these ancient words of scripture from a prophet grieving for his nation, Israel. And from a poet, a song-writer, singing a grieving prayer for protection from the sorrows of the world.
23I looked at the earth, and it was without shape or form; at the heavens and there was no light. 24I looked at the mountains and they were quaking; all the hills were rocking back and forth. 25I looked and there was no one left; every bird in the sky had taken flight. 26I looked and the fertile land was a desert; all its towns were in ruins before the [Holy ONE], before [the] fury. 27The [Holy ONE] proclaims: The whole earth will become a desolation, but I will not destroy it completely. 28Therefore, the earth will grieve …
Bible, CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 29664-29676). Kindle Edition.
I take refuge in you, LORD. Please never let me be put to shame. Rescue me by your righteousness! 2Listen closely to me! Deliver me quickly; be a rock that protects me; be a strong fortress that saves me! 3You are definitely my rock and my fortress. Guide me and lead me for the sake of your good name! 4Get me out of this net that's been set for me because you are my protective fortress. 5I entrust my spirit into your hands; you, [Holy ONE], God of faithfulness-- you have saved me. … 9Have mercy on me, [Holy God], because I'm depressed. My vision fails because of my grief, as do my spirit and my body. 10My life is consumed with sadness; my years are consumed with groaning. Strength fails me because of my suffering; my bones dry up. … 14… [Yet]I trust you, [GOD]! I affirm, "You are my God." 15My future is in your hands. …
Bible, CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 20310-20340). Kindle Edition.
It came as a shock to me at the age of twenty-four that grief would be a part of my whole life. I guess I thought that grief was something you could avoid if you worked hard at having a happy ever after and worked hard at being a good person, a good Christian. But at twenty-four, I learned that, indeed, bad things happen to good people when my youngest sister died in a car accident at the age of sixteen. Not her fault or the fault of the teenage driver who was her friend. Someone else’s mistake. Still, it happened and could not be undone. Big grief, in my face.
We all come to a reckoning with individual grief at some point in life – through a death, an illness, a job loss, a relationship loss. If we are lucky, we first learn as children surrounded by loving companions, parents, family to grieve through the loss of a pet. This teaches us in a very real but gentler situation the ways of sorrow and how to mourn, how to externalize the pain in our hearts through ritual and words. Beyond our individual griefs are our experiences, like today, 9/11, of communal grief. You can probably each name your first realization of communal grief. My first was as a second grader on the playground in Fort Worth, Texas, when the announcement came that the president, John F. Kennedy, had been shot and killed in our neighboring city, Dallas. Our children and youth today have witnessed with us too many of these communal/national/worldwide events of grief in the last several years.
Grief is a part of life. Sorrow is a part of life. Do any of us like this? No. Our culture considers grief to be the enemy of joy in our lives. How can anything be right, be okay, be normal when we are grieving? The pain is too great. It hurts too much. So, if you are anything like me, perhaps, you sometimes try to deny the grief, compartmentalize it, to move through it. You push it aside to find meaning in your work or in helping other people, or in your family, your hobbies. We can focus on anything, even to the point of addiction, to avoid grief - work, entertainment, volunteering, exercise, relationships, substances from coffee to sugar, to alcohol. Anything to not feel the pain. So that we can make it through another day. We may run from grief, but we cannot hide because we hold grief in our bodies no matter how hard we try to ignore it. And grief comes with every change in life, every change. Even good change.
The prophet, Jeremiah, whom scholars call the “weeping prophet,” lamented all the changes coming to the people of Israel, with their idolatrous ways, as Jerusalem was invaded, and temple torn down. His world was drastically changed…we might being feeling the same as we grieve with the people of Ukraine and as we come to grips with climate change. “The mountains are quaking; all the hills were rocking back and forth. … there is no one left; every bird in the sky had taken flight. …the fertile land is a desert; all its towns were in ruins…the earth is grieving.” The psalmist cries out for us, “Holy ONE, listen closely to me! …. Guide me. … I entrust my spirit into your hands… My vision fails because of my grief, as do my spirit and my body. [Yet]I trust you! … My future is in your hands. …” The psalmist’s Hebrew name for God in this song is,” el emet, the God who can be relied on and believed in, trusted in.”[i] When I feel my deepest moments of grief, I cling to trust in this same God, trusting that she will continue to be who she has steadfastly been revealed to be through the changes of millennia.
Change is always with us. Grief at some level is always with us. What are we to do but soldier on, gritting our teeth? I have felt this way….have you? So much so that I was surprised to read an essay by social activist leader, Malkia Devich-Cyril, former executive director of MediaJustice, inviting me to befriend grief. What if grief is not the enemy? What if we can learn about change and joy in the very middle of grief? This is what Malkia learned about the death of her mother from sickle cell anemia and the death of her wife from cancer, both at ages way too young.[ii]
Prompted by the experience and work of Malkia Devich-Cyril and adrienne maree brown, her colleague and friend, I am learning that grief is holy and necessary for real change. “To have a movement that breathes,” writes Malkia, “you must build a movement with the capacity to grieve.”[iii] These two women of color have been working for and in social change movements for over twenty-five years, so I trust their observations along with the words of the ancient prophet and psalmist. We live in and work with this beloved community of faith, which is also a social change movement. We are the movement of the kingdom, the kin-dom of God. Jesus, our movement leader, knew that grief was a skill for change. He wept at the death of this friend, Lazarus. He wept over Jerusalem, the City of God, that struggled with oppression, with greed, with poverty. Jesus knew that grief is holy. Grief is a friend of God. And grief can be our friend, if we allow it to move through our bodies, teaching us to embrace change, to love and serve with more compassion, to see each other and the earth as God’s beloveds.
To begin, we remember that grief is non-linear. It is a time-traveling emotion that appears again and again in our lives in new and old forms, for new and old reasons. It is iterative and repetitive. It spirals through life even when things are going great, even when we are rejoicing, even in our joy.[iv] Joy is not the opposite of grief. It is a beloved sibling of grief. The opposite of grief is indifference. If we truly do not care, we will not grieve. Grief is a profound out-pouring of love and in love there this always joy, even if it is sitting right next to grief.
If understanding grief is a skill for understanding life, for understanding change, for understanding more about faith, what do we need to know?
This is what we learn when we befriend our grief. We learn that If you don’t really care about something, if you are indifferent to it, you don’t grieve when you lose it. So, I suggest to all of you in this room that because you have chosen to come to worship in a faith community, to be in community, if only for an hour, that you are not indifferent to Life. You love Life. You are working to love yourself in God’s image and to love others. You are not indifferent. And so, you are most likely bringing your grief here with you, large or small, personal and/or communal. And you are bringing your greatest joys which may be closely bound to your grief. A community of faith is a safe place to become grounded in our grief. This is a place where we learn with others to grieve, to lament, to rejoice and to give thanks. I’m glad you are here today.
That was a lot of information about a subject that we don’t like to talk about – grief. Take a moment and let whatever you need to hear, sink in. As the psalmist reminds us, this is a place of refuge in the presence of the Holy and one another. Remember that you are breathing. (pause)
After the service today, as a way of continuing this service and grieving together, you are invited to make a prayer flag and place it on our tree there in the yard. You will find the flags or streamers and markers in the Fellowship Hall. Write your grief, your prayer, your lament, your joy on the flag and place it on the tree. This is an act of mourning that can take the grief you feel and move it through your body. It can be an act of memory and thanksgiving that we do together on this day that we remember grief.
Let’s pray together: Holy ONE, you are with us before we call your name. Teach us to grieve so that we can in turn give and receive your love. Teach us to befriend the grief of life’s changes that we may be agents of your change for justice and love in our world. Amen.
[i] James L. May, Psalms, INTERPRETATION, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (John Knox Press, Louisville, KY: 1994, 143).
[ii] Malkia Devich-Cyril, “To Give Your Hands to Freedom, First Give Them to Grief,” ed. adrienne maree brown, Holding Change, The Way of Emergent Strategy Facilitation and Mediation, (AK Press, Chico, CA: 2021, 64-79).
[iii] Ibid., 79.
[iv] adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy, Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, (AK Press, Chico, CA: 2017, 105-107).
[v] Devich-Cyril, 78.
[vi] Ibid., 75-78.
[vii] Ibid., 78.