Compassionate Emptiness, Sep 25, 2011


Compassionate Emptiness
September 25, 2011
Leverett Congregational Church, Leverett, MA
Lee Barstow


Matthew 21: 23-32 (Good News translation)
 23 Jesus came back to the Temple; and as he taught, the chief priests and the elders came to him and asked, 
         What right do you have to do these things? Who gave you such right?
 24 Jesus answered them, 
         I will ask you just one question, and if you give me an answer, I will tell you what right I have to do these things.25 Where did John's right to baptize come from: was it from God or from human beings?
            They started to argue among themselves, 
         What shall we say? If we answer, 
         From God, he will say to us, 
         Why, then, did you not believe John?26 But if we say, 
         From human beings, we are afraid of what the people might do, because they are all convinced that John was a prophet.
   27 So they answered Jesus, 
         We don't know.
   And he said to them, 
         Neither will I tell you, then, by what right I do these things.
The Parable of the Two Sons
 28 Now, what do you think? There was once a man who had two sons. He went to the older one and said, 
         Son, go and work in the vineyard today.29 
         I don't want to, he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.30 Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. 
         Yes, sir, he answered, but he did not go.31 Which one of the two did what his father wanted?          
         The older one, they answered.
   So Jesus said to them, 
         I tell you: the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the Kingdom of God ahead of you.32 (C)For John the Baptist came to you showing you the right path to take, and you would not believe him; but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. Even when you saw this, you did not later change your minds and believe him.

Compassionate Emptiness

 One of the reasons I love the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth is because in the gospel stories like the one we just heard, Jesus turns the world upside down when he declares what's true.
            The day before today's story opens, Jesus had made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The city was the spiritual heart of Israel, as it still is, home to the Temple which, in the Jewish theology of that time, was the very seat of God on earth.
            Jesus and his ragged band of disciples and followers had been walking towards Jerusalem for a long time. When they finally arrived, as we know, the crowds welcomed Jesus with adoration fit for a king, laying palm fronds down to pave his way.
            The historical record shows that Pilate was entering Jerusalem that same day through the main gate, at the head of a Roman legion, mounted on a great war horse, looking kingly in his own way, proud and victorious.
            Jesus was not mounted on a horse. Instead, he rode on a donkey. It was a parody of Pilate and a declaration that true kingship resides not in worldly power, but rather is based on the exact opposite, on emptying oneself of pride and judgment of others and all the other obstacles to Spirit thrown up by the world's best thinking.
            Then he knocked over the tables of the money-changers. And the next day, in today's passage, after being asked by the chief priests who he thinks he is, he wraps them up in a confounding parable and tells them that sinners and tax collectors are will get into heaven before them! What?
            Our passage today from Paul's letter to the Corinthians can help us wrestle with what's going on here.
            Paul pleads passionately for his congregation to follow Jesus' example by loving each other. Paul is in prison, facing death, and yet he is joyful, he says, because he has been able to do this. He says, in our Good News translation, that Jesus "gave up all he had" in his love for the world.
            Most translations say Jesus "emptied himself," and Paul has managed, he says, to taste some of the joy and freedom that come from doing a little of this. 
            Paul uses the Greek word "kenosis," and it's a big deal in biblical scholarship. Some scholars say it's the best word in all the Bible to describe the attitude of God and Christ toward humanity… they "empty themselves" of everything but love.
            If this kenosis, or emptiness, is the true nature of God & Jesus, then according to our tradition, it must be our true nature too, because Genesis tells us we are made in God's image. God's true nature is our true nature.[i]
            So what does this idea of "emptiness" mean for us today? To answer this, let's break it down into two parts.
            First, let's consider that the concept of emptiness is the goal of spiritual growth in all the mystical traditions. It is the way to fulfillment of our potential, the way to happiness.
            One prayer I know gets at this by asking to be "relieved from the bondage of self." It is about being emptied of all those worries and regrets and judgments – in short, all those painful preoccupations that fill our minds but don't actually do anything for us – so that we can make room for the good stuff, the Spirit which is within everything.
            Buddhism calls these preoccupations the "monkey mind."  The spiritual school I was a member of for many years uses the Spanish word, "chicheraro," or the "chirping of crickets."
            Whatever we call the noise in our heads, we know it works against us. It blocks us from paying attention to whatever's really going on. It blocks us from using our mind for what our mind is best at: reflecting on the experience of what's really happening to us and then using our God-given abilities to respond rightly, such as reason and inspiration  and intuition and all the rest.
            We are given many powerful tools for being response-able in our lives, but when the monkeys are chattering, those tools are out of reach. When our mind nags at us, our relationship to life is a little like looking through a dirty window on a sunny day… it's hard to see the light and beauty.
            There's a wonderful perspective on this truth by the modern theologian Matthew Fox, in a discussion of the nature of human creativity. He says that creativity comes from what he calls "the void," which is to say in our terms today that creativity comes from emptiness.
            This is my experience, and I get to test it every time I sit down to write one of these sermons. The more my mind fills with logical, laborious thoughts about doing a good writing job – not to mention whatever worry might be along for the ride – the harder it is and the slower it goes.
            Conversely, the more I empty myself, the more I let go and seek a kind of meditative void, a little miracle occurs. The words tumble out of me, with better expression than my effort-full mind could possibly manage.
            And so the idea of emptiness here does not mean abandoning ourselves. On the contrary, it means opening up to the presence of our true self, the presence of our soul.
            This idea turns the world's best thinking on its head. The world tells us to fill ourselves up – with money, with possessions, with pride in worldly accomplishments. But Paul and Jesus and all the mystical traditions tell us that the opposite is true, that the way to happiness is to empty ourselves of these things and make room for Spirit.
            What Spirit naturally pours into the emptiness is the root of Paul's passion in today's passage. It is what has produced the joy he is experiencing despite his imprisonment and physical condition. Paul is waxing ecstatic about the joy of giving, of serving to each other, of the love that fills the void.
            Paul is here describing the peak experience of what has become the hallmark of Christian practice: a generous spirit and service to others. And it all begins with this action of "emptying" oneself.
            Some breakthrough research in neuroscience is validating this. Using modern "neuro-feedback" tools, researchers are able to watch regions of the brain light up depending on the feelings and state of the subject's mind. I heard an interview the other day with Jeffrey Davidson, a neuroscientist who was asked by the Dalai Lama to study the brains of Tibetan monks in order to understand more about the nature of compassion.
            What he has learned is complex, but it boils down to an understanding that our brains are constantly changing in directions that we influence by what we choose to pay attention to. If we spend time in negativity or are otherwise preoccupied, our thinking becomes more negative and we turn inward, away from compassion. If we shift our attitudes in a positive direction, our thinking becomes more positive, tending towards compassion. The idea is that we are constantly training our brains to become stronger in whatever direction we pursue.
            And the Tibetan monks? Davidson's research revealed oscillations in their brains that had not been observed before in any neuro-feedback study. His data is leading to what the Dalai Lama said it would: emptying ourselves leads to compassion. And here's what else: Davidson's says that the reverse is also true: practicing compassion leads to the states of mind associated with our notion today of "emptiness."
            Emptiness breeds compassion and compassion breeds emptiness. The Alpha and Omega of the growth of the human spirit.
            And so again we find ourselves where we began, with the world's best thinking turned on its head: the way to happiness is to give rather than to receive. We all know this to be true in our own experience. When we give from the heart, we receive the most joy.
            Paul was well aware of how daunting this sounds. He concludes today's reading with these words: "So then, dear friends…Keep on working with fear and trembling to complete your salvation, because God is always at work in you."
            Fear and trembling indeed, because who among us can live up to Jesus' example? Who among us can empty ourselves to the degree that he did, in order to serve our fellows and the world? For that matter, who can match Paul's example, or the Tibetan monks?
            And yet all we need to do is to make a start. We can make progress. We can the steer toward the perfect compassion of Jesus as a kind of north star, knowing we will never reach it and yet make progress towards it. If we strive for progress, not perfection, we will grow compassion.[ii]
            The fact is, we have already been given everything we need to succeed. When we seek emptiness, we find it. When we knock, the door opens.
            And in those inevitable dark places, when we despair that we are prisoner to our preoccupations and unable to feel the Spirit, we can remember that this too shall pass. We are God's children. God is always inside all of us.No matter what, we will again experience God's love. We are all destined for God's glory.
            I'll leave us with a passage from the writer Marianne Williamson that suggests a wonderful little practice for building compassion:
            "Look around you while you are in public somewhere or gathered with loved ones," she writes." Look into the faces of the people you see, and silently say, 'The light of God in me salutes the light of God in you.' Do it for five minutes, minimum. I defy you to do this each day for at least five minutes and not be happy," she says. "We find our happiness to the extent to which we use our minds to bless the world, for using our minds this way is the reason we were born."[iii]
            May it be so for each and every one of us. Amen.

[i][i] William Greenway, Feasting on the Word, year A, volume 4, p. 112

[ii] Alcoholics Anonymous, p.

[iii] Marianne Williamson, Illuminata, p. 126