SERMON PREACHED at St PAUL’S, ARROWTOWN
ORDINARY SUNDAY 25 (September 233d) 2018
Proverbs 31: 10-31
James 3: 13 – 4:3, 4: 7-8a
Mark 9: 30-37
It is not often, even as a fairly liberal sort of a fellow, that I begin a sermon by quoiting the Buddha. Actually Professor Google has made it a little difficult for me, and I am unsure whether the saying I want to quote originated with Gautama Buddha 2500 year ago or with twentieth century Buddhist teacher Eknath Easwaran. Either way, I first heard the saying from one of my earliest mentors, an Anglican monk, Alan Lewis, who indicated that he had borrowed it from Brother Roger of the Taizé Community. Since both Buddhist Eknath Easwaran and Protestant Brother Roger drew heavily on Roman Catholic and interfaith contemplative traditions it’s probably a sort of cosmic, universal truth:
We become what we meditate.
For what it’s worth I think the notion if not the actual words that we “become what we meditate” predates Gautama Buddha. The psalmist was probably about two hundred years before Buddha, and in any case the game of “the source of my wisdom is older than the source of your wisdom” can become one of those sorts of contests that I won’t name in a sermon but that males are allegedly very good at, and are probably best not undertaken when the wind is blowing. They represent an ancient wisdom, the sort of wisdom that C. S. Lewis’ Aslan is referring to when he observes that “though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know.” Or perhaps, since Aslan is an image of Christ, that is a deeper wisdom still, the wisdom of a crucified God. But the point remains: “we become what we meditate.”
What the psalmist and – roughly in chronological order – Buddha and Jesus and his ostensible brother James and Eknath Easwaran and Brother Roger and countless others are trying to tell us: where our treasure is, where our deepest moments of focus are, there will our heart also be. Walk not in the counsel of the wicked. And most of us can take a moment of self-congratulation, because on the whole we don’t hang out with too many wicked people, and on the whole our hearts are not allied with too immoral and decadent a treasure. We are all too aware, sadly, of the tales of predation and abuse that have emerged from around the world from within and beyond the Christian community, our consciences raised not least by the #MeToo movement, but most of us dwell reasonably comfortable in the range of not too great a sinfulness.
Stephen Colbert, incidentally, while interviewing David Tennant during a very funny, but disturbing segment recently, asked Tennant to read a series of Scrooge McDuck and Donald Trump quotes and identify which sayings came from which source. “My money’s the best friend I ever had” was a McDuck saying. Other sayings, such as “Part of the beauty of me is that I’m very rich” and “You’re fired. And don’t come back until you’ve discovered the joy of the enchantment, the sheer ecstasy of making big bucks,” were more difficult to source-critique. Neither “we become what we meditate” nor “do not lay-up treasures on earth” were attributable to either McDuck or Trump.
But money is not the only false god that can distract us from the task of becoming who we are called, formed, shaped to be. Within the Christian community there are many demons of distraction. Power, prestige, piety, to focus on just one letter of the alphabet, are seductive deviations from the Way of the Cross to which Jesus invites us. The scandals of sexual abuse that have emerged from around the Christian world are brutal examples of all that can go wrong when we permit ourselves to displace the self-effacing, power-rejecting Jesus from centre stage. Jesus himself of course, despite the attempts of some publicity-seeking Christian gimmick-mongers, rejects performances of power display, suggesting to Satan at the time of the Temptations exactly where he can get off. False gods are not the Way of the Cross, and the genuine power of Jesus will eventually be revealed not in neon lights or phoney miracles, but in brokenness on a criminal’s cross. As it happens wherever we turn the cross into a display of power and prestige we are abusing the gospel, spitting on Christ, parodying love, blaspheming the Holy Spirit.
There are other – only arguably lesser – forms of abuse. When faith becomes all about performance – still as it happens sticking with the letter “P” – a temptation particularly attractive to so-called liturgical traditions, but at least equally tempting to Pentecostal and charismatic leadership, then we become proclaimers of a false god. Our buildings, grounds, robes, reputations – all potentially fine and deserving of love in themselves – become, as Paul puts it, so much dross if they are not used in the service of that greater good, the proclamation of the divine love proclaimed to us and even to all the universe in the brutal, unspectacular, hope-proclaiming moment of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The psalmist, James, Jesus, and countless followers of that God-revealing tradition of self-denial speak with one voice. We become what we meditate. Walk not in the company of the ungodly – or ungodliness. Lay not your treasure on earth. Instead welcome the one who places a child in the midst of a crown and says “become powerless as this child is powerless.” Become a child – as indeed God-in-Christ becomes a child. Become powerless. It is there and thus that the eternities of God are revealed.