- Parish House
The Rev. Dr. Kate Alexander
The Third Sunday after the Epiphany
I was in California last year and had a Sunday off. I think that as a priest, I’m officially supposed to visit an Episcopal church and get a Eucharist in on a Sunday. But I had the chance to go to Spirit Rock Meditation Center with an old friend, and I jumped at the chance. Spirit Rock is a retreat center dedicated to Buddhist teachings and the practice of mindful awareness. I’m going to tell you a story from that Sunday, but if the bishop asks, we’ll just say that I went to church.
And it was church, but in a very surprising and humbling way. I wanted to go because the speaker that day was Joanna Macy, a renowned environmental philosopher, and scholar of Buddhism and deep ecology. The talk that day was on what she calls the “Great Turning,” a name for the essential adventure of our time: the shift from the industrial growth society to a life-sustaining civilization. “The most remarkable feature of this historical moment on Earth”, she writes, “is not that we are on the way to destroying the world — we’ve actually been on the way for quite a while. It is that we are beginning to wake up, as from a millennia-long sleep, to a whole new relationship to our world, to ourselves and each other.” I couldn’t wait to hear her speak that Sunday and to sit at the feet of a brilliant mind. So with notebook and pen in hand ready to take lecture notes, I took my seat.
I guess I should have been more prepared for what happened next. After all, Spirit Rock is a famous spiritual hub of Northern California. We were asked to pair up with someone we don’t know and to sit facing each other. Our instructions were to sit first in silence simply looking at our partner, experiencing their presence. That was for five excruciatingly long minutes. Then we each were to take five minutes and introduce ourselves while the other person received that introduction in silence. Did I mention the word excruciating yet, because that’s what this kind of exercise is for an introverted type. I have always feared small groups, and this was exactly the kind of stuff I try to avoid.
So I sat in silence with a woman named Hannah. She was half my age. She appeared fresh-faced and bright-eyed and happy. It turns out that she was living at Spirit Rock for an internship, having just moved there from her parents’ home in the Midwest. I made immediate assumptions about her, assuming that she was on a kind of spiritual quest and on a spiritual high – you know, the kind you can only have when you’re twenty, and that with more life experience she would settle down. I also think I assumed that I was further along some spiritual path as an older, churchy type.
We dutifully sat in silence, and then I introduced myself. I think I took about 45 seconds of my five minutes, mentioning stuff about geography, family, and work, and then we had to sit in silence again until it was her turn. She talked for five minutes about who she is with ease and honesty and authenticity, and I have to say that I was moved. There wasn’t an ounce of pretense. She didn’t hide behind irony or achievement or any posturing. She was simply open-hearted, self-aware, and loving. It was beautiful to witness, and humbling. I thought to myself, I have been a Christian my whole life, a religion based on the love of God in Christ, and here a young new Buddhist is teaching me something about an open and loving heart that I had somehow evaded all these years. And I knew instantly that I needed to learn this lesson of an open heart to deepen my faith.
We see this same lesson, I think, described in only a few words in the Gospel of Matthew. Walking along the seaside, Jesus calls four fishermen – Simon, Andrew, James, and John. “Follow me,” he says, “and I will make you fish for people.” And we’re told that immediately they left their boats and followed him.
What we don’t hear in this calling of the first disciples is vast. What were their lives like? What went through their minds before they dropped everything and followed him? They must have had the same sort of preoccupations that we do – families, bank accounts, conflicts, daily routine, and the future. And yet, somehow they were completely open-hearted. When the call came, they were ready. When Jesus said the kingdom of heaven was coming near, they recognized that as true in him. Perhaps they had been practicing open-heartedness before that day, seeking meaning in their lives. But they certainly weren’t spiritual giants – just ordinary seekers like us. That’s all they had to be to do well enough as disciples. The only prerequisite seems to have been an open and willing heart.
That’s a prerequisite of us, too. Each of us who walks through these red doors must recognize that there is something compelling about Jesus. But just like those first disciples, we don’t get to figure it out merely as an intellectual exercise. We have to be moved. And to be moved, we need an open heart. No hiding, no pretense, but honest and open present selves ready for an encounter, ready to be changed. It sounds simple, but it’s not particularly easy.
Last weekend at the parish retreat, we discussed the work of Brené Brown, a researcher and story teller whose work on vulnerability has gone viral. She argues that vulnerability, or being our true, authentic, and imperfect selves, is the only way to find true connection. Vulnerability, something we normally try to avoid, is actually the birthplace of creativity, innovation, and change. She calls people who are able to sit with their vulnerability and to find real connection “whole-hearted” people. And Jesus, you see, was completely whole-hearted and vulnerable, all the way to the cross. Perhaps his vulnerability, his open-heartedness is something for us to embrace, imperfectly of course, but embrace all the same.
This kind of work means letting go of a type of spirituality measured through achievement. Growing in connection to God is not first and foremost about about acquiring knowledge or skill. The Gospel promotes a kind of downward mobility, or unraveling of all the ways we try to present to the world. Following Jesus means letting go of ego and posturing and all the things we hide behind. We shed our defenses so that our hearts can open. That is where true connection is to be found, connection with our deepest selves, with each other and with God. Christianity is a path headed for authenticity and real connection.
I think we are invited every day to practice open-heartedness in small ways, like learning to sit with a openhearted young stranger at a retreat center. And if we are faithful in this practice, we will grow into whole-hearted people and lovers of God. We too will be able to drop our nets and follow when the kingdom of heaven comes near.