1st Sunday of Lent
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
As you may know, Susanna and I recently returned from a trip to India that combined some of my vacation time and some of my annual retreat time. India was alternately sublime, very difficult, profound, and disturbing – a real pilgrimage. I am very appreciative that you provide me the opportunity to do things like this, and so eventually I want to share with you some of my reflections on this pilgrimage in writing.
Part of the retreat portion of our trip was time spent in Hindu temples, some of them used continually for the last 1,000 years as lively centers of daily devotion. There were times in these temples when I felt that I had been transported into another world, another dimension.
In a labyrinth of massive stone hallways, incense and chant rise up around dozens of shrines to the one God who is manifested as elephant, monkey, terrifying warrior woman, flute-playing cowherder, or as a primitive stone phallic shape. Bare-chested Brahmin priests daub ash and red powder on devotee’s foreheads. Bells ring randomly, liturgical dancers perform ancient symbolic movements, and little processions of loud drummers and reedy instruments blare by. Families stand before one of the idols, swaying and murmuring prayers, offer flowers and food, and then picnic on the floor with their children, while others around them sit in meditation. All of a sudden a group of people cluster together as a priest circles a dozen oil lamps around a four-armed figure festooned with marigold wreaths.
All of this activity went on at once, but it all flowed together, as only India can, in a complex, harmonious dance. We had entered the mythic realm. Because it was so unfamiliar to me, it sometimes felt like some dark, unfathomable, medieval underworld. The effect was a change in my consciousness. Walking out into the sunlight, I was aware of another dimension, knowing that our neat little material world is infused with a timeless, divine mystery.
Now I’m back here in 21st-century Albuquerque, New Mexico. But as I hear the scriptures for today’s worship, I feel transported again into the same mythic dimension. Something very deep is happening here, too, if we have ears to hear. And it has the power to change our consciousness.
In our readings today we have a flood that covers and recreates the whole earth, with a glorious rainbow as a sign of God’s love; we hear about one who was put to death in the flesh but remains alive in the spirit; angels, heavenly powers and spirits in prison about to be released; the sky ripping open and a descending spirit-bird; wild beasts, Satan, and a spiritual battle in the desert; and ordinary bread and wine will become for us the flesh and blood of God, which we will take into our bodies.
And as we continue our Lenten journey, we will walk the stones of ancient Jerusalem, wash one another’s feet, feel betrayal and suffering on a cosmic level, sit in silence at the foot of a dying God, and stand before the blinding light of an empty tomb. We too enter the mythic realm, and by doing so, our consciousness is changed from the mundane to the sacred.
This is what religion is supposed to do. It takes us out of our everyday mindset and rips open the sky to reveal the divine dimension that lies just beneath the surface. We humans have always sought this out because we need the stories and symbols and rites of our religions to give meaning and shape to things that we can only sense, things that would otherwise remain formless.
For we sense that all of life is inter-related, like one vast organism, but we don’t quite understand how. We sense that love has a creative energy to it, that it heals and brings things into being. We are aware of our own brokenness, of our damaged motivations, and how we go wrong before we even know what’s happening. And yet we also have the ability to see ourselves do this, and we wonder who is doing the seeing?
We sense that events are not just random, that there is a purpose and a direction underlying everything, but we can’t control this purpose to fit our own agenda. We sense that when we are in need and when we express this need, a force of goodness and wisdom comes to us and guides us where we need to go, but not necessarily where we want to go. And we sense that all of this is happening together in a complex, harmonious dance that began long before us and will come to its eventual fulfillment long after us.
Jesus called this dimension that we sense the kingdom of God. He invited people to enter into it, to trust in it, to allow it to change their consciousness and how they lived. In today’s gospel, Jesus, after his baptism and his pilgrimage in the desert, emerges from the sacred dimension, ready to draw others into God’s world. His very first words are these:
The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.
Repent, and believe in the good news.
The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near. In this moment, today, every day, all that we sense of the sacred dimension is very near, very real, and directly accessible. It is fulfilled, complete, all of it; it is near, even within you. Everything you have sensed about the potential power of prayer in your life, the wonder of rainbows and presence of angels, the meaning and purpose of whatever you have suffered and struggled through in your life, it is fulfilled here and now, in you. You don’t have to wait for the afterlife or even for spiritual enlightenment. You don’t have to earn it by being pure enough, or smart enough. The kingdom is already very near.
Jesus then says Repent, and believe in the good news. He encourages us: “Go ahead, walk into the sacred dimension with an open, trusting heart.” All we have to do is to turn to God, which is what the word “repent” means. Like Brother Lawrence’s “little interior glance,” all it takes is a turning towards God, and believing. But this is not “believing” in the sense of accepting doctrine, but believing in the sense of putting our whole trust in the goodness of God. Jesus says “turn towards the kingdom, and put your whole trust in it.”
Jesus asks us to risk becoming like a leaf on the river, letting go of our firm grip of control and trusting that for those who love God, all things work together for good. “Fear not,” Jesus and the angels said again and again. Fear not, give yourself to the power that has come near; you will not be disappointed. This is the good news that Jesus speaks of: that we can count on God.
We will see the beauty of this life in its ordinary splendor. We will know the efficacy of prayer and the healing power of love. We will understand that all of humanity, all of creation is a physical manifestation of the one Spirit, and we will serve our common good. We will know ourselves to be guided by an invisible hand through this journey of life. And we will see that everything, even the most difficult stuff, works together for good. As we turn, as we place our trust in the sacred dimension, both our consciousness and the way we live are changed.
Today, and every day, Hindus continue their ancient rituals of devotion, as do Muslims and Jews and Buddhists around the world. We do too, walking into the mystery of the divine with the help of story, symbol, and rite. It is a kind of daily pilgrimage, turning with openness towards a place of intuition, mystery, suffering, and hope. This pilgrimage site, this holy temple, is very near; it is, in fact, within our own heart.
In the 40 days of Lent we will be taken into our deepest truth, to the cross and the resurrection. This is our primary myth, our central story that gives shape and meaning to things that we can only dimly sense. But it is more than a mere story. It is the place inside of us where all that is not of God dies and falls away and all that is good and true comes alive in Christ. This is what we lay hold of.
The time is fulfilled; it is here and now, it is complete.
The kingdom of God has come near; it is always near.
Turn, and place all your trust in it; it will not disappoint you.
You will be made new.