A New Mind

“Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I bid every one among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith God has assigned.”

Romans 12:2-3

My friends, I need an attitude adjustment.

And not just the kind an acquaintance of mine used to refer to when she had come home after a rough day and would say, “I need an attitude adjustment—pour me a drink.”

No, I need a much more drastic overhaul than that.

In fact, what I need is nothing less than a new mind, a bigger mind—along with new eyes and new ears.

Because, you see, my little ordinary mind is so helplessly inadequate, limited, fettered, constricted.

I need to understand my neighbor, the world, and myself in an utterly new way, and frankly my ordinary mind is just not up to it.

For one thing, my little ordinary mind is so hung up on like-mindedness.

Yes, unfortunately my natural, ordinary mind operates strictly within the groove of like-mindedness.

That is, my ordinary mind has this fatal flaw—it is addicted to only seeking out friends and companions who are similar to me.

My natural mind has a strong gravitational pull toward those who I hit it off with from the start, who prefer the same kind of food, music, and night out that I do—

Who laugh at the same jokes, who share my politics and world view, in short, those who agree with me and reinforce my prejudices—whose temperaments are simpatico with mine—

But really it’s worse than this—

The worst part is that with my little ordinary mind I tend to judge others’ value according to whether or not they serve my interests—

Whether they are helpful and responsive to me—

Whether they further my aspirations—

Whether they bolster my own sometimes shaky sense of personal significance—whether they console and comfort me—whether they alleviate my anxieties—

No doubt about it—the natural mode of my ordinary mind is self-interest.

So, sad to say, my opinion of my neighbor is terribly skewed by my own rigid like-mindedness and relentless self-interest.

I guess a lot of it has to do with my very limited tolerance of difference.

For the truth of the matter is that with my ordinary little mind my tolerance of the differences that others present to me is pretty skimpy—actually shamefully ungenerous.

Indeed I sometimes catch myself zeroing in on some almost microscopic difference in someone’s demeanor or attitude and becoming downright picky about it.

And when our judgment is thoroughly driven by self-interest, it can create an interesting double standard—one set of rules for ourselves and another set of rules for others.

It’s like that Calvin and Hobbes cartoon in which the two of them are walking in the woods and Calvin says to his tiger friend, “I don’t believe in ethics any more. As far as I’m concerned, the ends justify the means. Get what you can while the getting’s good—that’s what I say! Might makes right! The winners write the history books! It’s a dog-eat-dog world, so I’ll do whatever I have to, and let others argue about whether it’s right or not.”

Suddenly Hobbes pushes him from behind and sends him sprawling into a mud puddle—as Calvin raises up his mud-splattered head, he asks Hobbes, “Why’d you do that?!”

Hobbes says, “You were in my way. Now you’re not. The ends justify the means.”

At which point Calvin yells, “I didn’t mean for everyone, you dolt! Just me!”

So what it comes down to is that I need the new mind the apostle Paul speaks of in today’s epistle—a big mind that can see beyond the scope of my myopic self-interest, that can grasp that we are all members one of another, that the well-being of others is inseparable from my own, that what’s good for me and injurious to others is not really good for me.

I need this big mind that, according to Paul, the Spirit is ever wanting to bring forth in us, this big mind that realizes and appreciates my kinship with those whose differences trouble and disturb me.

Almost every voluntary organization I can think of—lodges, sororities, garden and travel clubs, service groups—are based on the on the notion of like-mindedness—similar people with similar interests.

Well, this parish is a laboratory for a bold experiment that really attempts to defy the odds—we’re trying to find out if it’s possible for us as a community to regard the differences of others as more of an invitation to enrichment than a threat or source of discomfort and alienation.

We’re trying to find out if we really believe this creed we recite every service that proclaims God as the ultimate birth parent of us all—

We’re trying to find out if we believe that every one of us is fashioned by the same Creator Spirit who delights and glories in diversity and who hides a different treasure in each of us.

We’re trying to find out if the gospel of Jesus of Nazareth can give us a big enough mind to discern the treasures, the divine gifts, hidden in others, hidden in those whose differences have thrown us and made us distinctly uncomfortable.

How much richer we would be if we had a big enough gospel mind to discern and appreciate the treasures in others hidden behind differences that offend us!

The apostle Paul seems to suggest that each of us has a God-given treasure that no one else has and that will never be seen again.

But our particular treasure has a way of getting smudged and tarnished either because we misuse it or we bury it or maybe we don’t even know we have it and it gets stale and musty.

And what can refurbish and polish up our smudged treasure more than anything so that it becomes lustrous, new, and serviceable is to meet someone with a big gospel mind who forgivingly endorses us.

And really we can do this for each other if we permit the Spirit to grow a big enough, forgiving gospel mind in us—we can help one another recover and reclaim our smudged treasures.

Here’s a homework assignment for cultivating a big gospel mind.

Go to some public gathering place, such as Riverscape in Dayton when they’re having an outdoor concert, where you’re sure to run into differences that you will find challenging and unnerving, even appalling.

And then just notice the diverse sorts and conditions of people scattered about, especially those who strike you as most peculiar or eccentric or different, the very people you are least likely to have dealings with.

For example, the 50 something lady with the too tight slacks, the smeared blue eye shadow, and bleached, teased helmet hair who is talking and laughing too loudly about the series of male companions she’s had—or the middle-aged fellow with the Mohawk haircut and tattoos all over his face who’s swilling a Miller Lite—or the muscular, shirtless young man with long, curly hair who always sits off by himself staring into the distance, sometimes carrying on a solitary conversation, occasionally getting up to do some Tai Chi routine, sometimes going across the street to rifle through the Engineers Club trash can.

And then consider the possibility that each of these individuals has a treasure, a one of a kind divine gift, that if he or she could give it and you could receive it, would enhance and enrich you remarkably.

The Rev. Robert Dwight
15 Pentecost
8/24/2008
8:00 a.m.
Christ Episcopal Church, Dayton, OH

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Voice in the Chorus

“As Jesus and his disciples went on their way, Jesus entered a village; and a woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving; and she went to him and said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion which shall not be taken away from her.’”

Luke 10:38-42

Here we have at the outset the essential ingredients for a grand, harmonious get-together—a lively, intriguing special guest with some interesting companions and an eager, hospitable hostess.

And then the human factor intrudes.

And anybody who has ever grown up with a sibling can appreciate what happens next—Mary plants herself at Jesus’ feet and is seemingly hanging on his every word.

Martha meanwhile has gotten a little frazzled and fussed as she scurries about, presumably trying to be the perfect hostess—laying out refreshments, bowls of cool water, and towels, and tending to the guests’ every need.

What’s becoming obvious to anyone who cares to notice is that she’s getting miffed at her sister for not helping out.

Now do you think that Mary just might have an inkling that Martha is starting to do a slow burn?—or is Mary so spell-bound, so mesmerized by this rabbi, that she’s clueless?

Well, it’s hard to imagine that Jesus’ scolding improved Martha’s attitude.

Can’t you see her leaving the room in a huff and pouting in the kitchen while perhaps one can detect in Mary’s face just a trace of smugness?

For there’s nothing more guaranteed to inflame rivalry between sisters than dressing one down in public while praising the other.

After all, Jesus could have said something to Martha that was a little sympathetic and comforting like, “Martha, you’ve been waiting on us hand and foot all night—you must be worn out—come sit next to me for a while and then later we’ll all pitch in and clean up.”

Of course, Luke is describing two characters who are very familiar to us.

He is describing the Marys and Marthas we have known; he is describing the Marys and Marthas we have been.

The story of Mary and Martha highlights the way that Marys and Marthas down through the ages have always been at odds with each other, how they have always jostled, scuffled, and competed with each other for approval, recognition and renown.

Well, are we a Mary or a Martha?

Are we naturally inclined to be a dreamer or a doer?

Are we a Mary who takes time to smell the roses or are we a Martha who tends the roses, who waters and trims them, who looks out for aphids, who makes sure there are roses to smell?

Are we inclined to ponder the great mysteries or take care of business?

Do we subscribe to the old Army motto, “Don’t just stand there, do something,” or the revised hippie version of the 1960s that maybe Mary would prefer, “Don’t just do something, stand there.”

William Faulkner was a very productive writer but he had definite Mary tendencies.

As a young man, he was fired from a job as postal clerk because, instead of sorting the mail, he kept slipping off to read a novel.

Now which was more important—his brooding over these novels in preparation for becoming a Nobel Prize author or getting the mail out?

Well, I suppose if you had been desperately waiting for a subsistence check to arrive, you could have cared less about Faulkner’s literary development.

As far as I can see, there’s very little evidence that any of us chooses to be a Mary or a Martha or some combination of the two.

It’s more a matter of discovering that we are one or the other, that, for better or worse, like it or not, this is the temperament with which we will make our way in the world.

And if we have any doubts about which camp we belong to, whether we’re a dreamer or a doer, those who have come to know us will make it unmistakably clear to us.

There was the time I was supposed to meet our West Virginia relatives at a restaurant half-way between Charleston and Dayton—somehow I got a little distracted and whizzed right past the designated meeting place—my brother-in-law saw the car come and go and said, “There goes Bob in a big old daze!”

And, of course, the Mary and Martha syndrome, the relentless, ravenous struggle for recognition, the struggle to justify ourselves, the struggle to establish ourselves as someone significant, the struggle we are all engaged in, is not just a family thing.

The Mary and Martha syndrome flourishes in every parish, every corporate office, every teacher’s lounge, in other words, wherever people gather to collaborate and work together but in some way or other also end up strenuously competing for recognition.

The Mary and Martha syndrome accounts for a lot of resentment and squabbles among parish folk as each of us tries to stake a claim to being notable and significant.

So the question is: can the Marys and Marthas, the dreamers and doers of this world, who seem to be so fundamentally at odds with each other, ever be reconciled?

The gospel says yes—for those who have ears to hear, the gospel resolves this seemingly insoluble dilemma by completely re-defining our value and our vocation.

You see, the world tells us that we earn our worth by doing something distinctive, something sensational, something that sets us apart from others.

Of course, this worth that the world assigns us is never really secure, because with the world, it’s always, what have you done for me lately?

And the world insists that our vocation is to develop the most impressive solo act, the most dazzling one person performance, we can pull off.

Sometimes the need to win recognition as a solo performer takes an interesting route.

The other day I heard a gentleman who’s definitely more a doer than a dreamer interviewed on the radio—he happens to make his living as a pickpocket—he said, “You’re telling me I don’t have any skills—I can reach around two people and fish out some woman’s pocket book from her purse without anybody knowing it—I don’t have any skills?!” –well, I guess we’ll do whatever it takes to feel special!

The gospel turns all of this on its head—the gospel reveals to us our true identity and our true vocation.

When Jesus chides Martha for flitting from one distraction to another and commends Mary for attending to the one necessary thing, I wonder if this is “the one necessary thing” Jesus is referring to—learning our true identity and vocation.

Don’t we naturally tend to understand ourselves as self-made and self-generated, that we started out with zero and have sired and authored our selves and our abilities, that our choices and accomplishments are the product of our own fashioning, that our very experience of moment-to-moment aliveness proceeds from our own self-sufficient resources?

And so perhaps “the one necessary thing” for Mary, Martha, and us is to be born into a new understanding of ourselves and our vocation.

The Good News is that each of us is a son or daughter of God, that we arrive on this earth with the most prestigious label possible, that the supremely unique, indescribable self that each of us is is God’s continuous gift to us, that the essence of you, what makes you the incomparably radiant you that you are, is God’s never ceasing, never failing gift to you, and that all that we are and all that we are capable of, even the most basic acts of thinking, perceiving, feeling, deciding, moving our limbs, is a gift.

The Good News is that the inexpressibly rich, vibrant life that pulses through us, courses through us, roars through us, the life that animates, equips and empowers us, is nothing less than God’s life unceasingly poured out for us—for God is life and to love life is to love God.

We might go so far as to say that in our moment to moment experience of this life that we so cherish, God breathes through us and circulates our blood, God sighs through us, God sings through us, God suffers through us, God loves through us, and in our savoring of pleasures large and small such as grilling out on a summer evening God enjoys through us—as the old Prayer Book service says, “we are in Him and He in us.”

The Good news is that we are intimately related to the whole garden of creation that issues from the same source of life as our own selves and thus we naturally relish and delight in nature’s abundance—Tolstoy made this entry in his diary: “Rejoice! Rejoice! Life’s task, its destined purpose, is joy. Rejoice in the sky, the sun, the stars, in grass, trees, animals, and people. Be like children—rejoice forever.”

But the Good News insists we are most intimately related to our neighbors wherever we may find them who are also sons and daughters of God, who also, whether they know it or not, have received everything including their very lives from the same God who is the life of all.

As far as I can tell, the purpose of evangelism is to somehow inform people who may think they are of little worth and don’t count for much that their very selves and the life that flows through them partake of the splendor of God.

And the Good News about our vocation is that we are not called to be soaring, stand-alone soloists who bask in the glory of their individual performances.

The Good News is that each of us is called to be a voice in the Gospel chorus—each of us is called to join the chorus that sings the music of God’s true democracy, the music that is greater than any of us—each of us, whether we’re a dreamer or a doer, is called to contribute our real but limited gifts to the chorus, for all voices are needed but no voice is dominant—and when we sing together, and, remember, everyone’s voice is indispensable, the music is greater and more glorious than anything we could produce on our own.

Whenever we sing together the music of God’s true democracy, the music of God’s universal welcome and mercy, the music of abundant life for all, then the greatness of the music lifts us and all the fussing and carrying on that ordinarily plague us fall away, and all our gifts are enhanced exponentially and the music soars and we forget ourselves and we sound better than we ever imagined—and we find that the music impels us to be more merciful, helpful, and joyous.

The Rev. Robert Dwight
8 Pentecost
Christ Episcopal Church
Dayton, OH 7/22/07

Eleventh Commandment Sermon

“Sing to the Lord a new song,
for he has done marvelous things…
Shout with joy to the Lord, all you lands;
lift up your voice, rejoice and sing.
Sing to the Lord with the harp,
with the harp and the voice of song.
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
shout with joy before the King, the Lord….
Let the rivers clap their hands,
and let the hills ring out with joy before the Lord,
when he comes to judge the earth.”

Psalms 98: 1-5-7-9

So with the 98th Psalm’s cascading bursts of sheer exultation ringing in my ears, I’m thinking that maybe we need an 11th Commandment which would consist of just one word: “Enjoy!”

I know, it sounds a little heretical—but I think it’s consistent with Jesus’ gospel—after all, isn’t he quoted as saying “I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly” and “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full”?

And it seems to me this is what Psalm 98 shouts from the rooftop: Enjoy!—and I don’t mean “enjoy” in the current, casual, offhand sense of “have a nice time” but in the sense of the original Latin, “rejoice.”

Psalm 98 describes a Divine circuitry of joy that pulses through grass and fields and leaping salmon and also through us.

So maybe we need to understand God less as rule giver and more as the giver of abundant Life, as the God who delights in our having a good time, as the God who enjoys our enjoyment, as the God who enjoys through us.

To be a child of God, as the baptismal service reminds us, is to be imbued with the gift of joy and wonder—and we know that young children who’ve been given half a chance are experts at rejoicing and singing a new song.

I was reminded of this the other night when we took our 4 year old granddaughter to a restaurant and, while we were waiting for a table, she found just enough open space in which to perform a series of frisky cartwheels, handstands, and jumping jacks—while we amused grown-ups looked on and marveled at this spectacle of joyful energy.

But as for us seasoned, battle-scarred adults, singing a new song is often just out of the question—the most we can muster is half-heartedly singing the same, tired, old song.

For us adults, rejoicing is often the furthest thing from our minds.

Often for us, the first and only order of business is just making it, getting by, plowing through the muck and debris, keeping our head above water, enduring, coping, surviving.

Our God-given capacity for enjoyment, for loving life, can so easily get buried under a boat load of fretful care.

So how to recover the wherewithal, the zestfulness, to truly enjoy and sing a new song of gladness?

Tolstoy wrote that “the task of the writer is to seize the reader by the back of the neck and force him to love life.”

Actually I think that’s a pretty good description of the preacher’s task—there have been times when I have heard sermons that have turned my glumness into joy, that have propelled me into rejoicing.

Sometimes it just takes a nudge or a little prodding from an unexpected source to set us right—I remember sitting in a Seattle café having breakfast and overhearing the proprietor who looked like a young Yul Brynner calling out to a couple who had just paid their bill and were going out the door, “Don’t forget, folks, live life to the fullest!”—and I took this as a message intended for me as well.

But sometimes we require a real jolt to shake us out of our ho hum, nothing new under the sun complacency and remind us just how dear this existence is to us.

Yes, strangely enough, it is often trouble, serious trouble, that jars us into singing a new song—it is often trouble that actually provokes us into rejoicing.

You’re flying at 37,000 feet over the Atlantic and you’re one hour out of Atlanta—suddenly the pilot comes on the intercom and says, “Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve had a threat called in against this airplane—we’re pretty sure it’s a hoax—but as a precaution we’re heading for the nearest airport which is New York’s JFK.”—following this announcement, the flight attendants start rifling through the overhead bins, presumably looking for anything suspicious—and in that moment you realize with absolute clarity how much you love life, how much you enjoy the exquisite pleasure of aliveness, how even the most ordinary of days is a spectacular gift.

Even the slightest brush with the angel of death—a worrisome call from the doctor, a car accident—can bring home to us with full force just how we cherish this teeming, surging, inexhaustible life that God continually breathes into us, how, in spite of anxieties and troubles galore, we are overwhelmingly glad to be alive—and in that instant we vow never again to take a day or even an hour for granted—but, of course, in spite of our resolve, we will once again before too long lapse once again into a care-worn, distracted, blasé state of just going through the motions, and we will have to learn our lesson again.

But, fortunately, we are given reprieve after reprieve, wake up call after wake up call—indeed, every morning that we wake up and discover that we are somehow still of sound mind and that our limbs move is a reprieve, a new beginning, a fresh invitation to sing to the Lord a new song.

And often the reprieve, the wake up call, the new lease on life, is hand-delivered to us by someone who stops us in our tracks by showing us a joy that is deeper than trouble and who thus awakens our own joy.

We meet these wake-up specialists in person, we meet them in print, we meet them in plays and movies—in fact, we can meet them almost anywhere.

These mentors, these life instructors, all testify to a God-given joy, wonder, and love of life that are deeper than trouble, and through this testimony they teach us how to once again enjoy and sing to the Lord a new song.

There’s something about New York City, that gritty, tough, beautiful city, that has always rejuvenated me—it also rejuvenated Janice Beeghly who was taught a thing or two about joy by an anonymous gentleman, a revealer of joy, on the subway—she recounts:

A few years ago I moved to Manhattan from Connecticut to be part of the New York Teaching Fellowship. I instantly loved everything about the city. It seemed that something wondrous was happening every other minute.

One evening I was returning from a study date in Forest Hills and boarded a Manhattan-bound train. Although it was only about 10 at night, I was the sole passenger in that particular car.

At the next stop, an elderly man boarded the train and stepped into my car. I noticed that he was formally dressed, complete with top hat, and was carrying a beautifully carved wooden chest.

As the train moved forward, he somehow unfolded four legs from the chest and set it on the subway floor. He then proceeded, for the next several minutes and without ever uttering a word, to perform an entire magic act just for me.

I sat there in absolute enchantment while he did tricks with silk handkerchiefs, coins, and, finally, a real live white rabbit!

Three stops later he packed everything up, tipped his top hat to me and exited the train.

We might even come across a testimony to the Spirit’s gift of joy that is deeper than trouble in our local paper—in a recent column in the Dayton Daily News, Leonard Pitts Jr. offered this tribute to an 80 year old Holocaust survivor named Joe Engel who now lives in Charleston, South Carolina—

“Joe is a survivor of the Holocaust, one of the one in three European Jews who escaped the Nazis alive. He survived the Warsaw Ghetto. He survived Auschwitz. When Allied troops closed in on the death camp, the Nazis loaded their captives on a train and ran. Joe jumped from the train, hid beneath 8 feet of snow. He made his way to a barn, concealed himself under a mound of hay. German soldiers, searching for runaways, stabbed the hay with bayonets. Later, the barn wound up in a crossfire between the Germans and the Russians, gunfire punching through the walls. Joe survived all this, too.

Sometimes, I know, he wonders why. Others were bigger, others were stronger, others had more faith. Sometimes he wonders why he was one of the few who lived. I think maybe he lived so that he might someday lift a glass or bask in the beauty of a woman. Or dance. Not just to do these things but to be ’seen’ doing them. That’s an affirmation, isn’t it? Testimony to the rest of us of the stubborn resilience of life….

So I want to be like Joe when I grow up. I remember seeing him at dinner in Poland one night after a somber day spent touring death camps. The table talk had been of genocide and human cruelty. Then the band struck up ‘Hava Nagila’ and Joe found a pretty woman and started dancing. In my notes, I wrote that he danced as if his bones were made of joy.”

Even a cartoon dog can witness to this gift of indomitable joy that is deeper than trouble and that defies reason, common sense, and the pronouncements of doomsayers—as Snoopy whirls and twirls in a non-stop jig of joy, Lucy hollers, “Floods, fire, and famine!….Doom, defeat, and despair!”—and when Snoopy, undeterred and undiscouraged, keeps right on dancing, Lucy says to Charley Brown, “I guess it’s no use (sigh)—nothing seems to disturb him!”

And what these wake-up specialists and witnesses are all trying to impress upon us is the importance, the urgency, the necessity of singing a new song today, of enjoying today.

So enjoy sipping your coffee over the morning paper, enjoy watching your kids frolic, enjoy knitting, enjoy puttering, enjoy watching Carol Burnett re-runs, enjoy waiting in the express lane which turns out to be the slowest lane of all, enjoy donning your apron and serving up waffles, enjoy talking to your cranky neighbor, enjoy the hum and rhythm of the city and its fabulous parade of human faces, and, most certainly, enjoy the fellowship of the forgiven!

For the more thoroughly we enjoy, the more profoundly we enjoy with the joy of life God unceasingly pours into us, the more we will be moved to forgive everyone and everything, the more we will be filled to overflowing with kindness and mercy for one and all.

“This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

Sing to the Lord a new song!

Enjoy!      Amen.

The Rev. Robert Dwight
24 Pentecost
Christ Episcopal Church
Dayton, Ohio 11-11-2007