Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church, Middletown, NJ
October 25, 2020
Texts: Deuteronomy 6:1–15; Matthew 22:34–40
There’s an old story about the young student who has come to see the old Zen master and wants to show him how much he has learned. As the young student babbles on, the old master begins pouring tea. The student realizes that the master is continuing to pour the tea into the cup so that it is overflowing and stops suddenly. “Master, don’t you realize that you are filling the cup so that it cannot take any more tea?” “Ah, my son,” says the old master, “so it is with your mind. You have to empty yourself before you can acquire wisdom.” In a world full of fast moving information, constant stimulation, and so-called knowledge, we don’t empty ourselves very well. No wonder our spiritual tea cups are so filled that we cannot take on more.
Jesus understood this very well. Asked what is the greatest commandment, he responds not with the traditional shema, but adds the important dimension of mind––of thinking. We cannot love God with all our hearts and souls unless such love includes our minds, our capacity for critical judgment. Although we may look at some people and think, love is blind, it is not blind when it comes to loving God––or our neighbor.
Critical thinking is clearly an element of mindfulness, a word used for the concentrated awareness of one’s thoughts, actions or motivations. When we hear the word mindfulness, we usually think of Buddhism; however, Christian mindfulness or meditation has a long and revered history. Paul put it this way in Philippians: We should empty ourselves as Christ emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.
Jesus’ mind was not full of self-reference but full of God. Emulating this, some early Christians became hermits and lived in the desert or in small colonies where they could meditate on God day and night. Obviously, this approach wasn’t particularly helpful in building a society so in his codification of monastic life, St. Benedict created the rule of work and prayer, which does really reflect more of Jesus’ approach as pictured in the Gospels.
Although it is clear from the Gospel narratives that Jesus needed to get away from the crowds––often the term used in the Gospels is “withdraw,” it seems clear that Jesus practiced his mindfulness, so to speak, through his actions, especially healing. Jesus also encourages us to mindfulness through his use of parable and story because we have to think as well as feel. And his amended shema is a perfect example of that.
What does it mean to love God with our minds? How do we empty ourselves into God and God’s mind so we can critically reflect on the world around us and then live in that world, our world? I know when I read stories of contemplation I often want to move ahead into the next step. You may have noticed that it’s difficult for me to sit still. It’s difficult for most of us. We are bombarded by external stimuli, literally bombarded. We can’t even go into a store or a bank without some Muzak or tape pouring into our ears.
Last December, I commented to the bank teller down the street that I think I would get really sick of so-called Christmas music by the end of the year, and she just nodded her head in agreement, noting that the so-called holiday music wasn’t really connected to Christmas per se. As I stopped to listen, really listen, I realized she was right. There were no traditional carols, not even traditional Hanukkah songs, just music about mommy kissing Santa Claus and other similar kinds of themes.
Most people don’t do silence well, even in worship. If there is more than 20 seconds of silence, people start fidgeting. The Quakers are, of course, the exception. And they are among the most socially active of Christians. They seem to gain the inner strength through their mindfulness, their critical thinking, and their commitment to the heart of the Gospel: Love the Lord your God with all your mind, your heart, your soul and your neighbor as yourself.
People who are opposed to independent thinking such as extremists and terrorists understand this. Humanitarian aid workers are often the targets of such groups. Last year about this time two members of the Church of Christ in Nations were executed by members of Boko Haram, a terrorist organization in Nigeria who claim they are guided by religion. They are not.
Extremists and terrorists of every political persuasion are guided by a narrow vision of the world, one that will not brook any dissent. Some claim they are driven by religion. It does not matter whether those extremists are Muslims killing Christians in Nigeria and Afghanistan, Buddhists killing Muslims in Myanmar, or Christians killing abortion doctors.
Most humanitarian aid workers are driven by some form of belief; it does not matter what specific religious label is given. They are seen as a threat to those who have a narrow view of the world. Their narrow view of truth and the world drives them to destroy those who are truly mindful, who open themselves to the reality of God’s presence in the world.
This has happened so often that we often forget their names. The stories pop up in the media and then disappear. Most are unassuming, deeply committed believers who have a broad view of God.
Most of the organizations helping others that have been attacked, such as Doctors Without Borders, MSF, do not proselytize for any religion but in their own way they call for a broader vision of the world. Several years ago I met a doctor from Denmark who had been in Sierra Leone during the civil war. She did not espouse any particular religious framework but a broad understanding of what it means to be human.
She had emptied herself like Jesus, taking the form of a servant. As St. Francis said: preach the Gospel at all times; use words if necessary. She preached the Gospel in the same way as did Jesus of Nazareth: by living it. Had Jesus only preached and not lived the Good News of God’s new realm for all, he would have just been another itinerant prophet. It is living the Gospel, loving our neighbors as ourselves that made Jesus and his followers dangerous. It should do the same for us.
Let us pray: Holy and eternal God, guardian of our minds, our souls, and our hearts, may we empty ourselves into you through loving and serving those around us. Help us to be mindful through your grace, in the name of him who was truly mindful, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.