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