A Contemplative Manifesto

 

A Sermon for Covenant
A Contemplative Manifesto
Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
Epiphany Sunday
January 5, 2013
Kyndall Rae Rothaus

 

(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)

We confess the lack of dreams. We have not the folly of wise men, who were open to the wonder of stars, ready to find God however long the journey, no matter if it led to a dirty stable. Reignite our imaginations, open our eyes, and energize our feet, that we might search, traverse, and pay homage.

This is the prayer with which we began our worship this morning. There is not much we know concretely about the wise men, very little we can say, much less prove, about their identity—who they were, where specifically they came from, what religion they adhered to, how long they’d been observing the skies, or why they put so much stock in this one astrological event. The one thing they are known for is following a star, a star which led them—unexpectedly, I presume—to a child of humble origin. And yet despite all the mystery that surrounds their arrival, I sense we have a kinship with their journey.

Though they were Gentiles, it seems they must have known something of the Hebrew Scriptures, and so I wonder if these words from Isaiah were what woke them up in the night and prodded them to pack their bags: “Arise, shine, your light has come” (Isaiah 60:1). Was it Isaiah who provided the packing list? “They shall bring gold and frankincense and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord” (Isaiah 60:6).

Regarding our kinship with their journey, I wonder: when light enters your world, when the glory of the Lord shines upon you, will you arise? Or will you stay in bed? Will you follow the light of God wherever it leads, or will you stay put? Will you share the light or hoard it?

I know it sometimes seems light is in short supply. We have spoken before about waiting, waiting, waiting for the dawning of light after a dark night of the soul, but I have to wonder, at least about myself, if I ever get so desperate for sunrise that I grow bitter towards night and shut my eyes to the stars. I don’t know how much darkness you live with, whether you are in a season of sun or whether you are in one of life’s many waiting room. I do not know  what the ratio of light to dark is for you at this time. I don’t know how deep and wide and ravenous your craving for sunlight may be. But I know this: even before daybreak, there are stars. Even when it seems too black outside to see your own two feet in front of you, if you look up, there are tiny lights of guidance. Guidance for the journey. Guidance for the night’s trek through foreign lands.

The writer Christina Baldwin says she wants to “move at the pace of guidance,” and this is the wise man’s pace, the wise woman’s pace. The pace of guidance, I believe, is the mark of a true contemplative.

A contemplative doesn’t exist just to contemplate. A contemplative contemplates, then moves according to the guidance, when the time is ripe, when he or she is called forward by a pinprick of Light. True contemplation is not merely sitting still. It is stillness in service of right action. Contemplative spirituality says, “Get out of the hamster-wheel religion that keeps you exerting energy in a sort of aimless desperation for fulfillment. Instead lay out a blanket beneath the stars, sing and give thanks to the heavens for their expansiveness, and once you hear a light calling you forward, Arise and move towards it.”

For those still living in the land of darkness, don’t worry so much about when the sun will break through the night. Take the light you have already been given and refract it back into the world like a prism or reflect it like a moon. You are not the Source or the Son but there is light inside you all the same and you have powerful shine. So arise. Shine.

The work of the contemplative is like the repetitive cleaning of a dingy, dusty mirror. You do not manipulate or coerce the light; light comes on its own. But you position yourself where the light can hit you and you relentlessly, patiently, and gently keep removing the smudges life leaves on your ability to reflect the light. Arise. Shine.

Here is something you need to know: There will always be a Herod who tries to kill the thing you’re after and sabotage the journey. This devil-in-disguise will sound like he has good motives; you will need to listen to your deeper wisdom, your dreams, your prayers, your heaven-sent messengers to know that he is criminal. Once you start following Light, things will crop up to get in your way, to make you question your sanity, to challenge your resolve, to discourage your tenacity, and to slander your glow.

Every sojourner meets Herod. Every disciple gets the chance to be a wise man who spurns instruction or a Judas who gives in. Every Christ-follower will be offered the chance to sell him out for thirty pieces of silver, precisely at the moment in your life when thirty measly dollars sounds like a fortune and the answer to all your problems. On your way to the child, you will stop at palaces where you will be tempted to make allies with the powers. You will meet resistance to your truest calling, and sometimes the resistance will sparkle at you like the promise of jewels. You won’t always recognize the sinister right away, but it is never too late to alter your route to avoid further sabotage. You will make it past the resistance if only you keep the echo of call tucked close to your heart: “Arise, shine.” It will never stop calling you to bypass the Herods and move towards the light.

We often say around here that we are a “contemplative Christian community,” and we sometimes say right after that we aren’t totally sure what we mean by those tongue-twisting words. In the spirit of Epiphany, I would like to suggest we mean this:

A contemplative isn’t afraid of the shadows of life because he knows a shadow cannot be cast without light, doubt cannot be cast without faith, and sorrow cannot be cast without joy. The shadow means you are living in relation to light, doubt means you have a connection to faith, and sorrow means you have an equal capacity for joy. A contemplative is not afraid of the dark night because she knows that with the black night eventually comes the clarity and guidance of starlight. In the dead of night, something of the Spirit will make its way to her heart and show her where to go next.

Contemplatives are not afraid of long journeys—at least, not so afraid they stay home. Contemplatives are not afraid of Herods and they do not scoff at babies as divine presence. Contemplatives rarely scoff at anything for that matter because they remain so resolutely open to surprise, open to transformation, open to the power of changing one’s mind when the signs so lead. Contemplatives are rarely too afraid of anything—they may feel a lot of fear because they are the type to let themselves feel things—but they do not fear to the point of cowering. They act in compliance with wisdom and love, never in subjection to angst.

Contemplatives cross boundaries. Like wise men traveling from East to West, contemplatives traverse a lot of territory, exhibit a willingness to befriend foreigners and a willingness to be foreigners in brand new terrain. Contemplatives give extraordinary albeit unconventional gifts to the world. They keep a loose grip on their possessions and even their ideas. They are open to heading home by a different way if the angels so suggest.

Despite all the mystery surrounding the arrival of the wise men, I sense we have a kinship to their journey. Maybe we are still a long ways off from being contemplatives; maybe we are still on the patient lookout for guidance before we move, maybe there is still a dusty journey ahead of us. Even so, maybe you can hear the starlight whispering in your heart, “Arise. Shine,” and maybe, this is one of the years you will do so.

And so though we may yet lack dreams, though we may yet to attain the folly of wise men who were open to the wonder of stars, ready to find God however long the journey, we ask Thee, oh Christ, to reignite our imaginations, open our eyes, and energize our feet that we might search, traverse, and pay homage. Amen.

 

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