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29 May 2011

Preaching on Mars Hill

There was once a Zen monk named Chikanzenji, who had been working for at least thirty years as a scripture scholar. He was very honest and sincere in his search for enlightenment -- the moment when one loses one's self. He practiced all that he had learned, he visited many masters, he lived in many monasteries. He did all that was humanly possible, but enlightenment didn't come.

He practiced yoga, he practiced meditation, he did this and that — but all to no avail. Nothing was happening; in fact, his frustration was growing more and more. The more the methods failed, the more and more frustrated he became. He had read every one of the Buddhist scriptures — there are thousands of them. Chikanzenji had copies of all these holy books in his room, and he was constantly reading, day and night; his memory was so perfect he could recite whole scriptures — but still nothing happened. No enlightenment.

Then one day he decided that he had had it. He burned his whole library. Seeing those scriptures in the fire he laughed. He left the monastery, he left his guru, and he went to live in a ruined temple. He forgot all about meditation, he forgot all about yoga, he forgot all about practicing this and that. He forgot all about virtue; he forgot all about discipline, and he never went inside the temple to worship. 

The day when it happened, he was living in that ruined temple. He was doing ordinary work, mowing down the weeds around the temple — not a very religious thing to do. Not anything specific, not anything special, just taking the weeds out. When he threw away a bit of broken tile, it clattered against a bamboo tree — in that instant, the moment of awareness happened. In that very clattering of the tile against the bamboo, he experienced a shock, and for just a moment his mind stopped. In that very moment he became enlightened. He lost his own self -- he and divine love became one. At that moment of freedom, he sang out these words:

Upon the clatter of a broken tile
All I had learned was at once forgotten.
Amending my nature is needless.
Pursuing the task of everyday life 

I walk along the ancient path.

Chikanzenji's old self has died. He and divine love have become one. Enlightenment is a process of burning books – it's a symbol for unlearning the stuff our minds have been stuffed with ever since we went to school. Before human education gets them into their clutches, our children have a sense of the world and the universe that is whole and complete; then our educators come and distort the knowledge of the children, by forcing them to become little citizens of this world. “All I had learned was at once forgotten”. Enlightenment is utter ignorance.

Once we disconnect from the claims of this world, the knowledge of the world seems foolish. Not knowing the ways of the world is an ignorance that Paul calls wisdom. What's foolishness to the world is what counts before God. Zen teachers tell their students that once they have awakened to the fact that this life is but an illusion, it's like they have been awakened from a dream. Unlearning the stuff of our minds robs our ego of its power – then the rushing around is over and we can rest by the still waters our shepherd provides for us.

In their attempt to amass every possible god in their collection, the Athenian philosophers of our text have tried to control the world; that's their human ego at work. The Apostle Paul affirms the Athenians' sense that God is universal, and that the search for God is universal, but he challenges the acrobatics of their egos.  He talks a dynamic relationship with the divine, about a God that comes close: "In him we live and move and have our being". He brings them an image of God who is not separate from creation.

St. Paul's Sermon on Mars Hill proclaims that the universe is infused with divine love. For divine love to work, we have to stop entertaining the illusion that we are in control; for divine love to reach us, we must put our ego in check. Only when we learn to tame our ego can we reach out to all creation. God's love can only experienced by someone who has tamed their ego and who has a healthy suspicion about the world around us. 

The Irish poet and theologian C.S. Lewis said it this way: “Nothing in you that has not died can ever be raised from dead.” Like the Athenian philosophers collected gods in their desperate attempt to control the world, our ego and mind constantly instigate to keep us blinded. Remember Jesus' command to be in the world, but never of it. Remember that our home is not here, but with God.  

Putting your ego in check is really easy, but because it is easy, people seem to resist the idea. No special consultant has to perform some mumbo-jumbo, no application has to be filled out and no library full of books has to be digested. The simple truth is that getting together as the People of God is all about the extravagant and magnificent Love of God. God is Love – that's what church is all about.

As long as the people "out there" are convinced that the People of God are all about rules and regulations, and that we are an exclusive club where membership is impossible to achieve, they have no chance to become transformed. But when God's love is truly preached, and practiced, and lived, people will think of our churches as groups of inspired people, rather than awe-inspiring intimidating buildings.

Church is about the fact that God is Love. Church is about melting into God. As we begin relying on God's love, our ego and mind will fly out the window. As our ego and mind lose their power, we regain our freedom. As we become free, we won't mind standing our ground even if the world scoffs at us. Firmly planted in God's world and guided by kingdom values, we can be true witnesses of the Resurrection, in word and in deed.

Acts 17: 22-31

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