A dear friend of mine and of many of yours died this week. I only knew the Rev. Donald Grayston for about three years but I considered him a good friend. In fact, Don was making new friends right up until his death; even at the hospice where he lived the past six weeks he made new friends. For Don his faith, was always a practical endeavor, it was about how he lived his life. I miss him.
Don was a theologian, a scholar, a teacher, and I would say a wise elder, though he chuckled when I called him that. Don wrote a blog and earlier this year one of his posts explored the theme of conversion. He named that tendency in more conservative Christian communities to view the ideal conversion being a world where everyone becomes Christian. In the next sentence he critiques the more liberal Christian tradition that takes a pluralistic view of conversation, in which all major religious traditions are granted respect and there is no expectation that people convert to Christianity, and in fact it’s just fine if you want to convert to another religious tradition.
Don was loaned a book written by the Zen teacher Adyashanti, (I know some of you are familiar with his work). Adyashanti takes a third view, suggesting that Christians should remain Christian and open themselves and experience enlightenment. Enlightenment is the key.
He says that we need to ‘pour ourselves into the story,’ ‘become the story ourselves,’ ‘breathe the all transforming spirit of new life,’ and thereby ‘reclaim the original power it once had before it became weighed down by centuries of egoic misunderstanding. When we become the story, we resurrect it from all of the old ways… as Jesus intended it to do.’
When Jesus says the simple words that we just heard read: love God and love your neighbour, it is an invitation to become the story of that love. Jesus was reinterpreting the truths of his tradition, in a way that might breathe new life into that tradition. What I’m trying to say is that the story we breathe here is a living story, an active story, not some static story we read about in a book, but one that we must live.
The bible story today takes place when Jesus is in Jerusalem for the last time. This is one of the stories that sets up his crucifixion. People were drawn to this wandering prophet and the religious leaders had taken notice. His way of being, of looking at the world was resonating. And those leaders, who knew the rules and set the bar and measured people by it, had had enough. They wanted to expose him as a heretic, one without the proper learning or credentials and most definitely without the proper interpretations. So they asked him, which law is the greatest? Make no mistake, this was a simple question: every little Hebrew child would have learned that loving God with all your heart and mind and might was the pinnacle of the entire Torah.
Had Jesus stopped after saying that loving God is the most important law, things may have turned out okay, but instead he says a second law is like it: to love your neighbour as yourself. What he does by adding this second law is something that all great spiritual teachers have done before and since. He honoured what was good in his tradition and brought to it a deeper, broader, more enlightened perspective. He didn’t dismiss his Jewish heritage; in fact he said further that all of the law and the prophets are built on the instructive to love God and neighbour. Of course to those putting Jesus to the test, to those with the most to lose, his words were foolishness.
Love in the bible is always about what you do, it is never about what you feel or even what you think but what you do. It is an invitation to become the story of that love. Each time we gather for baptism it is an opportunity to reinterpret a practice that has held meaning for 2000 years, it’s an opportunity to open more deeply to enlightenment. Baptism is the ritual of love between God and humanity. This is not a moment when we wash anyone’s sins away. It is a faithful, countercultural act.
When Jesus arose from the river Jordan on the day of his baptism the Spirit descended on him like a dove and the voice of God declared “You are my beloved with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:10-11) Every time we come to the font and perform this sacred ritual we are re-enacting, remembering, declaring, reinterpreting that moment at the Jordan. You are loved, not because of what you’ve done but because you are. Baptism is an invitation to live into the story of God’s love. It’s not just an invitation for those being baptized but for all of us. You are asked to make promises each time we come to the font, promises to be there for these neighbours, whether you know them or not.
This week we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the beginning of Reformation, a moment when the church was shaken down and shook up, a time of reimagining what this love of neighbour and self should look like. Martin Luther is not the last reformer the church has seen.
Our friend Don Grayston was a life long scholar of Christian mystic Thomas Merton. Don described “Merton as the architect of a renewed Christian spirituality for the 20th Century and beyond.” Merton’s contributions were many but contemplation as an antidote to the “hyper-rational and technologized life of the West,” was perhaps one of his most significant. He believed that we needed to take time to listen for God if we are to respond faithfully to God’s call. In other words, ours is a relational God and the path to enlightenment must include the practice of listening, opening. In a world that never sleeps listening oddly becomes very difficult.
In 1958 Merton had a mystical experience while standing at the corner of the downtown-shopping district in Louisville Kentucky. He wrote about it saying “I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers …” I loved all those people, they were mine and I was theirs. Talk about becoming the story of God’s love! What do you suppose it looks like when we live from that place where all people, all creation are neigbour? This wasn’t some theory to Merton, it was his lived experience, he didn’t just think about God, he experienced God in a tangible way on that street corner.
Another great reformer died this week. Gregory Baum was a Catholic theologian who insisted that God is present in the nitty gritty, You fall in love? That’s God at work. “God was on the ground with grace-an insider God.” Michael Valpy wrote of Baum in the Globe and Mail yesterday,
His frequent public speeches, to say the least, got up the noses of his superiors. He was thunderously criticized by the church hierarchy and had restrictions placed on his teaching after publicly dissenting from the Vatican’s 1976 Declaration on Sexual Ethics, with its strictures against homosexuality.
I like that line, he got up the noses of his superiors. That’s what Merton did, that’s what Jesus did, it’s what we are called to do. How would that be as a baptismal promise? Do you promise to love God and neighbour? Will you get up the noses of those who would cut down your God given worth? Will you get up the noses of those who try to restrict God’s love? Will you get up the noses of those who say God’s love has limits? Will you get up the noses of those who say some neighbours aren’t worth loving?
Every Sunday morning I stand before you all and I wonder to myself, why are you not at Starbucks? I’m serious, it’s foolishness to come here, why are any of us here? Why are we here to listen to a 2000 year-old story about a man who was put to death because he insisted God’s love is most truly revealed when we love one another? Following Jesus makes demands on our lives, who needs that? Besides, there are a lot of other places to go on a Sunday morning. There are sea walls to cycle and beaches to stroll, brunches to be enjoyed. Today you chose to come here, to sit in an uncomfortable pew, to witness foolish things like water being dripped on foreheads.
There is nothing we do here that says love like baptism. In baptism we reenact and reimagine a story that insists against every other message the world might offer, you are love now go and love. It’s counter cultural, it’s not something people are running to do, this is not mainstream. In fact, what we do here would look downright foolish to some people out there. Who would think a bit of ritual, some water dabbed on the head of a baby or a full-grown woman could count for anything? But it does. And we call it a sacrament because what it points to is sacred. Your beloved-ness is sacred, your neigbour is sacred, the unconditional love of God is sacred, and when we practice it begins to seep into our souls. Make no mistake, in coming here you are choosing to be part of something foolish, part of a story of Love that won’t let us go, not then, not now, not ever. Amen
 Zen and Enlightenment of Christians, by Donald Grayston, February 7,2017. http://www.donaldgrayston.ca/?page_id=350
 Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Image Books, Toronto, 1966.
 Michael Valpy, The Globe and Mail, October 28, 2017. https://beta.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/top-theologian-gregory-baum-was-a-voice-for-modernity-in-the-catholic-church/article36753680/?ref=http://www.theglobeandmail.com&