David McKee’s Homily, May 1, 2016

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Sixth Sunday of Easter

May 1, 2016


Acts 16:9-15

Revelation 21:10, 22–22:5

John 5:1-9



I have to confess that I’ve had quite a time with today’s readings; dare I say, a devil of a time?  I’ve always tended to have a block with the book of Revelation:  all the hyperbole, all the over-the-top, fantastical imagery; and then there’s the use and misuse of Revelation in many contemporary Christian circles…you could easily get the impression from some that it is the only book in the Bible.


Then there is the reading from John:  a miracle story.  When I first read it, I thought, “It would just have to be a miracle story, wouldn’t it?”  I’ve always had a terrible struggle wrapping my mind around the miracle stories, hoping against hope that I’d never have to preach on one.


So, through this sea of troubles, I sailed on:  each morning, reading and pondering these texts, not having the faintest idea how I was going to say something meaningful about them.  Then I received some help.  Like my friend and brother in Christ, Paul Knitter, I was rescued by Buddhism.  In my personal case, it is in the Zen tradition that I study and practice.  In the middle of my muddle, I remembered the words of the 13th century Zen Buddhist genius, Eihei Dogen.  Dogen was asked to define enlightenment–basically, the equivalent of asking a Christian to define salvation–and he replied that “to be enlightened is to be intimate with all things.”  To be enlightened is to be intimate with all things.  I looked again at today’s texts through the prism of this striking statement and they began to open to me.   In the passages from Acts and the Gospel of John, we are given stories of  intimate human encounters that are transforming, enlightening, healing.  In the climactic passage from  Revelation, we have a poetic expression of a kind of ultimate intimacy:  a world saved by Christ in which all flows from and is encompassed by God.


So, what does it mean to be intimate with all things?  As I have come to understand it, to be intimate with anything, or anyone, or, indeed, to be intimate with ourselves, means not to be separated…not to be divided.  In the case of ourselves, it means the falling away of the barriers inside us.  It involves a kind of inner silence and stillness, whereby we have given up our ongoing argument with ourselves and with our life; we accept ourselves and our lives as they are, warts and all.  There is no “not-me” that I either judge or can’t accept as “me.”  There is no lived experience which is denied because, well, “these kinds of things just don’t happen to me!”  Intimacy with ourselves means, in effect, being good Benedictines:  accepting ourselves in humility, being hospitable, and listening fully, without judgement.  It means for each of us to be, if you will, in communion with ourselves.  Likewise, we can have this same experience with others, when the barriers between us fall away and we humbly accept the other, are hospitable, and listen fully, without judgement.  It means giving up our denial and rejection of those aspects of the other that don’t fit into our program of expectations.  It means giving up our ongoing argument with the reality of the other.


This is the everyday embodiment of our union as the Body of Christ, and it hints at a deep mystery:  the mystery that this intimacy is our original condition; it is already our true nature.  We are already in boundless relationship with everyone and everything that is: a relationship that has no barriers.  We just don’t realize it.  Our experiences of intimacy are glimpses of this reality; those moments when we awaken from the dream of separation that we live in most of the time.


In one of his last talks, given to Asian monastics shortly before his accidental death, Thomas Merton said it, as only he could:


“…the deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion….It is beyond words, and it is beyond speech, and it is beyond concept. Not that we discover a new unity. We discover an older unity. My dear brothers and sisters, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. So what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.”


We are already one…but we imagine that we are not.  We sit in the cage of our imagined separateness, both inner and outer, with the key to the lock in our pocket.  The lame man at the pool in Beth-zatha imagines that, in order to be whole, he needs someone to stir the water and someone else to help him into the pool.  Jesus recognizes that the man is already whole; that he already is one.  Jesus’s act of healing is to help the man awaken to what he is.  It is striking that there is no dramatic demonstration of faith by the lame man.  His wholeness is just revealed and called forth and he gets up and walks.


The frustrating truth, for those few of us who like to have some control over our experience, is that these awakenings to intimate communion are divine gifts that we have little choice about. The “I” that says “I am in intimate communion” is not the “I” that is in communion.  We don’t get to choose this, anymore than we get to decide who we fall in love with. There is nothing that we can do to make these gifts come to us.  All we can do is be attentive and vulnerable enough to be open to them when they are given.  Paraphrasing the retreat master, James Finley, the purpose of spiritual practice is to cultivate the attitude of body, heart, and mind that offers the least resistance to awakening.  It is a seemingly “effortless effort” of opening and letting.  As a contemporary American haiku poet has put it:


cottonwood fluff . . .

trying so hard

to give up trying


The other morning, I witnessed something that exemplified this truth in an unexpected way. I was entering the conservancy park near my home and saw a red tailed hawk intently flying low over the big meadow, pursued by three cawing crows.  The redtail was beating its wings, trying to evade the annoying crows when, suddenly, it stopped flapping, extended its wings and began to rise, effortlessly, on an updraft, easily circling higher and higher into the sky, leaving the crows below.


It was a moment of grace, in more than one sense of that word. As the old saying goes, we never know when our Master will call.  All we can do is be attentive, open the wings of our Hearts, and rise effortlessly on the breath of God.




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