One of the things I love about the way we practice our faith around here, is that we have an openness to the wisdom, not only of our own Christian tradition, but of other faith traditions as well. For instance: if you spend any time studying Zen Buddhism, it won’t be long before you come across the idea of “beginner’s mind.” This is the English translation of the word, Shoshin. It means having an attitude of openness, eagerness and receptivity, as we typically do when we encounter something new and interesting for the first time; when we are “a beginner.”
Usually, after something becomes familiar to us, we tend to not pay too much attention to it anymore. It becomes part of the background furniture of our lives, which we mostly ignore. It’s like driving a car. When we’re first learning, we’re intensely conscious of every little movement, all the rules we’re trying to follow and everything the other cars are doing. But after driving for a while, we can go miles hardly aware we’re behind the wheel at all. We can drive, eat donuts and listen to the radio, all at the same time. The idea behind beginner’s mind is that we try to not allow ourselves to drop into this semi-consciousness. We work to keep that attitude of freshness and aliveness present even with those things that we’ve done over and over again. We practice being consciously aware of our lives, rather than just zoning out and going through the motions.
There’s a perfect illustration of this in one of the songs from the musical Zorba the Greek. Zorba is trying to explain to his friend Nikos what his philosophy of life is. “I believe in grabbing at life,” he says. “Every minute a new minute. Every second a new second. Never happened before.” And then he breaks into song.
I pound on a table. I leap on a chair. I crawl up a mountain to breathe in the air.
By now I’ve stopped counting how often I’ve been there. But each time is the first time.
That –– is beginner’s mind. Each time is the first time. No matter how often we may have had an experience, each time is new. Each time, we begin again. This allows us to look for uniqueness, even in the very common experiences of our lives.
Now, one of those common experiences of our lives, is this … what we’re doing right now; Sunday morning worship. If you’re like me, and I know that most of you are, you’ve been doing this for a long time. And under those circumstances, it would be really easy to feel like there wasn’t a whole lot more for you to learn about Sunday morning worship. But what would happen if we all decided to bring a little Shoshin into this worship experience; a little beginner’s mind?
Well, first off, it might be helpful to take Paul’s words as a starting point. Most of us have heard the passage that Karen just read to you, quite a few times probably. But what if we were hearing it for the first time. What if we were to go back to when Paul wrote these words. We’re talking about a time before there was anything like an institutional church. Well, actually, that’s not quite right. There was certainly a Jewish institutional church; temple in Jerusalem, a formal priesthood, worship rituals, sacred scripture, the whole nine yards. But Paul, even though he came out of that tradition, was starting something brand new. He went from town to town. He usually started out at the synagogues. But mostly, he just gathered random people together to talk about Jesus. He told about the resurrection, and about| his own conversion, his own powerful experience of the risen Christ, and people liked what they heard and began gathering together into groups of followers.
I know that it’s hard, but what if we try to imagine that we are some of those people. Set aside all the trappings of religion we’re so familiar with. We’d just be a small group of people bound together by a vision of Christ. It wouldn’t be long before we started asking, “How do we do this?” Believing in Jesus is a good place to start, but how do we turn ourselves into a community of Christ? How are we supposed to live? How are we supposed to behave? Well, Paul answered those questions, as best he could. And what he said, eventually, got written down into letters like this one to the Romans. Imagine you are hearing his words for the first time:
• Love one another, and let your love be genuine, not just for show.
• Live in harmony with one another.
• Outdo one another in showing honor.
• Oppose what is evil. Hold on tight to what is good.
• Let go of arrogance.
• Don’t act like you’re the smartest one in the room.
• Serve the Lord with gladness and passion.
• Welcome the lowly.
• Extend hospitality to strangers.
• Bless those who persecute you; bless them. Do not curse them.
• Do not repay anyone evil for evil.
• Rejoice in hope.
• Be patient in suffering.
• Persevere in prayer.
• Rejoice with those who rejoice.
• Weep with those who weep.
• And always, take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.
You see, when they asked Paul about what it meant to be Christian, he didn’t talk about buildings or budgets, creeds or doctrines, dioceses or denominations. He talked about how we should treat each other. He didn’t care if you were a Jew or a Greek, male or female, rich or poor, Republican or Democrat. The same rules applied to everyone. He was all about building community through love, respect, forgiveness, honor and nobility. If you have a fellowship, with Jesus at the center, these will be the marks of your ministry. These will be the fruits of your labors. They will know you are Christian –– by your love, by your grace, by the honor with which you treat one another.
Now, this is a fairly simple idea. Isn’t it? Simple to say, that is. Not so simple to practice. But around this simple idea, over the last two thousand years, we have built an enormous structure, which is the physical manifestation of the Christian religion in the world. And if you’re going to have an organization that includes two plus billion people, a certain amount of structure necessary, inevitable. But the truth is, much of the time we seem to care more about our structure than we do about the love that is supposed to be at the heart of it all. Jesus said, tear down this temple and I will rebuild it again in three days. He could say that largely because he was talking about tearing down the complicated structure of their religion, and replacing it with the simple love of God.
That’s why beginner’s mind is so important. We need to go back to the beginning, over and over again, so that we don’t lose sight of why we’re here in the first place. Paul had beginner’s mind. Well, mostly because he was a beginner. He was just starting out. He wasn’t overburdened with centuries of Christian theology, history and practice. He could focus on what really mattered, like love and community, and let go of what didn’t matter, like dietary practices and circumcision. He could welcome people that his original tradition did not welcome, because, in his vision, Jesus was for everybody, not just the chosen few.
We know he traveled all over the ancient world building churches, but if, in this knowing, the images that rise in our minds are of a string of buildings around the Mediterranean basin, we have completely misunderstood his ministry. What he left behind were Christian communities; a whole collection of small groups of people, charged with a mission of loving one another and sharing that love with all who would receive it. We have ample evidence that they were not always successful or faithful. Nonetheless, that was their mission, to be communities of Christ’s love. And despite all the intervening years, despite all the complicated structure that we have built up around it, that mission has not changed.
I would hope we can keep that mission in mind when our thoughts turn to the really difficult arguments we are having these days. No matter what our feelings may be on immigration, health care, climate change, gun control or any of the other hot button issues of our times, I would hope we can remember how we are called to treat one another; with love, with respect, with honor, with concern for the lowly, hospitality to strangers, and blessings, even toward those by whom we may feel persecuted.
I would also hope we can keep our mission in mind when our thoughts turn to concerns about our own future. We’re going to gather next Saturday to hear the results of the survey we took back in June. And once we have those results in hand, we’re going to begin to build a strategy for moving forward. As we’re building that strategy, I hope we can approach it with a bit of Shoshin, a bit of beginner’s mind, a bit of the simplicity and clarity of Paul’s early church. If we think we are here for the sake of preserving the institution, we have it exactly backwards. The institution is here for the sake of preserving God’s love.
And whatever else we do, we need to remember that we can’t do it alone. We are the community of Christ; all of us together. We are the physical body of Christ in the world, here for the sake of his mission of love. Paul said we all have gifts that differ, but we all are given something to contribute to the health of the body. Thomas Merton put it this way:
Every other [person] is a piece of myself, for I am a part and a member of [humankind]. Every Christian is part of my own body, because we are members of Christ. What I do is also done for them and with them and by them. What they do is done in me and by me and for me. … [Love] cannot be what it is supposed to be as long as I do not see that my life represents my own allotment in the life of a whole supernatural organism to which I belong.… Nothing at all makes sense, unless we admit, with John Donne, that: “No [one] is an island, entire of itself; every[one] is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”
As we begin a new church year, I invite you to think about what being a Christian truly is, with your beginner’s mind. None of us is an island, entire unto ourselves. We are the community of Christ, here for the sake of love. Let us love one another. Let us rejoice in hope. Let us take thought for what is noble in the sight of all people.