Inherent Nature And Transformation – A sermon by Rev. David M Bryce
Genie asked me the other day what my sermon topic was and when I told her she said—haven’t you preached that sermon before?
I said, Well, I have preached on the theme; but it is a big theme, so I can preach upon it more than once.
When I was called to my first settlement, I spoke to my former Intern Supervisor and told her that I was quite worried. I said, “Barbara, I have the four sermons I preached during my internship, and I used two of them during Candidating week, so I only have two left; after those four sermons, I have no idea what I will preach on.” And Barbara said, “Four sermons, huh? That’s actually pretty good; most preachers only have one!”
A Zen story: Two monks were sitting by a river rinsing out their food bowls. A scorpion fell into the river and was drowning, so one of the monks used his food bowl to scoop it up. He then picked up the scorpion with his hand and put it on the riverbank. While he did so the scorpion stung him. A little while later the scorpion fell into the river again. Again the monk used his food bowl to scoop up the scorpion, picked him up with his hand, and put him on the riverbank. And again, the scorpion stung him.
The second monk said, “Why did you save him the first time when you knew he might sting you; and why did you save him the second time when you knew that it was his nature to sting you again?”
The second monk replied, “Because that is my nature.”
The ancient Gnostics were a very mixed stream of thought within the ancient world. Some were Jewish, some Christian and some pagan. Among them were some who believed that humanity was divided into two types—those with a spark of the divine within them and those without the divine spark. They believed that a divine being had spread the seed of divine sparks on the earth and these divine sparks lived in the souls of some but not the souls of others.
And so they divided humanity into “the children of light” and “the children of darkness”.
The phrase “children of light” crept into the Bible as well.
The Gnostics believed that the various divinities sought to save the children of light and reclaim the divine sparks within them, but that they were unconcerned about the children of darkness.
Is that concept valid; are there children of light and children of darkness? In modern terms, are there people who are inherently good and people who are inherently evil?
Is one destined or predestined to be good or evil?
Can I choose my nature, or is it graven on my heart?
And how do I treat other people? Are they divided by me into children of light and children of darkness?
And if I do divide people into two categories, on what basis do I do so? Is it by their actions, by their intentions? And do we allow them to change?
Dividing by actions would seem to be the easiest method, but we human beings are complicated people.
During the US Civil War, both sides convinced that the other side was evil.
The Union saw confederates as traitors to their nation; confederates saw federal troops as invaders, as perpetrators of savagery and rapine.
There were prison camps on both sides during the civil war, and prisoners on both sides were treated as deserving of bad conditions. The suffered from starvation, disease and cold.
There was a prison camp in Elmira, NY for confederate prisoners which had a 25% death rate. And there was a prison camp in Andersonville for Union prisoners which had a 29% death rate.
Some say that this high death rate was due to ignorance rather than intent, but the conditions were reported to government officials on both sides and conditions were not improved despite clear evidence of how awful they were.
Each side saw the inmates of the other side as evil. Were they both right? Were both sides evil? Or was it only those who succumbed to treating the other with gross indignity and with torture or neglect who were evil?
Most people who do evil have first convinced themselves that they are justified in doing so; that the people they are treating badly somehow deserve that bad treatment.
The vast majority of Americans have always believed that dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was and is still justified. Yet tens of thousands of civilians died in those bombings. Thousands of children were incinerated or died of radiation poisoning. If that was not an act of evil, what is? Yet we justify it.
What if it had been done to us? Would we say, “Well, they wanted to speed up the end of the war, so they were justified?” Would we? I think not.
Acts like that are not just part of our history. Drone strikes today are killing people who may or may not be enemies of ours. And all too often, such drone strikes are killing innocent people, women and children, people who we know are not our enemies.
Does that make us children of darkness?
Every such strike creates new enemies for us, but that is not the primary reason to change. The reason to change what we are doing is because it is wrong. It is not the fact of accidental killings that make an action evil, but to continue with the drone strikes knowing that more accidental deaths will take place—that makes our actions evil.
Does it make us children of darkness, or do we get a pass? Are we somehow exempt from that category? That is not an idle question. Most people do see themselves as exempt; most do see themselves as justified in whatever actions they take. It is others whom we judge.
Somehow, whenever I divide the world into the children of light and the children of darkness, I always end up on the side of light.
Various religious traditions tell us that people can change.
So, for example, in the Jewish writings of the prophet Ezekiel the word of God is reported to be:
23I will sanctify my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them; and the nations shall know that I am the Lord, says the Lord God, when through you I display my holiness before their eyes…I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh… 31Then you shall remember your evil ways, and your dealings that were not good; and you shall loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominable deeds. (end quote.)
That is, we can change; we can come to a new understanding of life and of things and can be ashamed of what we have done in the past.
In Islam the Hadith’s are collections of sayings and actions by Mohammad that are not in the Qur’an; so they are similar to the Mishnah or the Talmud of Rabbinic Judaism
A Muslim Hadith says:
When a believer gives in to temptation, a black stain appears on his heart. If he repents and asks for forgiveness, that stain disappears. But if he continues to transgress, the stain continues to grow until it blackens the entire heart. Hadith The Prophet Muhammad (SAW), as reported by Abu Hurairah
So we are told that we can change and that means so can others.
In the Zen story at the beginning of this sermon, the monk said he saved the scorpion, “Because that is my nature”. But was it the monk’s original nature, or is that—as I believe—the nature he cultivated? And if it was cultivated, then nature can be cultivated either way. I can grow the stain on my heart or I can slowly begin to erase it.
Down below, our true nature is deeper than what we do, what we think, what we say. Like the blossoms of the flower in today’s reading we each have deep roots that are unseen, roots of love and kindness that may be covered by soil or hidden by weeds.
The question is will I judge others quickly and irrevocably, or will I allow them space to change. Will I allow them time and space to erase the stain on their hearts? Will I allow them time to have a new heart put into them by their God?
Can you leave space for the divine or the universe or the human spirit to bring change?
I have made errors in life. Will you judge my actions quickly and irrevocably or will you allow me space to change; to erase the stains on my heart, to have a new heart implanted within me?
If not, will you deny the same to yourself?