Sermon: Focus, Flow, All-In
Texts: Matthew 13:45-46, Mark 12:28-34
Date: June 18, 2017
©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church
“I’m all in.” I’ve said those words on occasion, have you? I’ve said them at a picnic table playing Texas Hold ‘Em poker with my cousins and Budweiser uncles and aunts. I don’t have a total grasp of that game, since I don’t play very often, but that hasn’t prevented me from taking the plunge of being “all in” on a bet, putting all my remaining chips on the table either because I think I’m going to win or because I don’t have much to lose.
“I’m all in.” I’ve said it away from game tables as well, to indicate that I’m going to give the undertaking at hand all that I have—I’m not going to hold anything back. I recall saying that when I was on a trip to Israel and Palestine several years ago, when the question of who was going to go swimming in the Dead Sea came up. I was trying to absorb everything that journey had to offer, which included getting into that rather strange and caustic body of water about which many warnings and cautions had been given. I’m all in, I told the leader.
The kingdom of God one-liner parable we read this morning is an “all in” parable. The merchant in search of fine pearls finds one pearl of great value; he goes and sells all that he has to buy it. The merchant is all in. That’s what the kingdom of God is like, Jesus says.
I spent a good deal of time this week ruminating on what it means to be “all in” for the kingdom of God. I mean, that parable really worked me over. I matched it up with a text from the gospel of Mark because of the way Jesus said to the scribe, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Not far—it’s as if the scribe had come right to the border of the kingdom by affirming Jesus’ teaching about loving God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving your neighbor as yourself. The scribe repeats it back to him, and affirms that the love one gives one’s whole self to is much more important than all the religious rituals one might use to symbolize commitment to God. It’s an “aha” moment for the scribe; the insight itself lands him “not far from the kingdom of God.”
Not in it, exactly; not in the kingdom of God, but not far from it. Standing on one side of the border, with a clear view to the other side. You could say the scribe has discovered the pearl of great value, but has not yet gone to sell all that he has to buy it. We wonder if he followed through on this great pearl of an insight by going all in for the kingdom of God…?
We all know of people who have gone all in for the kingdom of God. They are our heroes and sheroes, those who held nothing back, but gave their lives to God’s cause. I was shuffling through a pile of stories I collected for Family Camp one year (a year that super heroes were part of the teaching theme) when I surfaced the story of somebody I don’t know but who fits the “all in” profile. Her name was Kip Tiernan. She was a social justice activist in Boston who died in 2011. She started out as a copywriter and advertising agent. She was good at it, and successful in creating her own advertising agency. Yet worldly success was not all she was after. In a talk she gave about the various crossroads of her life, she said she had her beginnings as an activist when she was seven years old and she watched her grandmother feed hundreds of hungry people during the Depression. Her grandmother was generous about sharing what she had, and their home was marked with the charcoal “X” on the post that told hoboes a compassionate person lived at this house. Kip must have gotten an early taste of what it was like to be “not far from the kingdom of God.” Her own grandmother’s table was located in that realm.
Kip started writing articles about social justice for various periodicals. When she met some priests who were given to peace and justice work, they invited her to join them. They told her that the poor needed public relations work as much as anybody, and asked her to be on the team even though they couldn’t pay her much, if anything. She joined up, and recollects a moment going down the center aisle of a church she would eventually turn into a shelter for homeless women when she heard a voice saying, “I feel like I just went through a door and there’s no turning back.” It was such a powerful turning point for her that she actually paused to look around to find out who said that. It was her deepest self, noticing that she was all in.
And she was. She opened “Rosie’s Place,” the first shelter for homeless women in Boston. Kip’s legacy also includes her role as a founder of the Boston Food Bank and co-founder of the Boston Women’s Fund, Health Care for the Homeless and Community Works. In 1980 she co-founded the Poor People’s United Fund, a “spare change” funding source for grass roots community groups involved in issues of homelessness, hunger and access to justice. In 1990 she established the Ethical Policy Institute, a multi-disciplinary community of people engaged in political analysis, economics and community activism. She also taught as an adjunct professor at the University of Massachusetts.
Kip Tiernan explained herself like this, addressing folks who were working at the food bank she founded: “As a self-styled nonprofit junkie, I frequently ask myself if I am a do-gooder, or a good doer. And then I look at you, sloughing along through these grapes of wrath, and I can say with you and to you, we are not do-gooders. We are good doers. And what we do, we do well. We have learned that compassion is not a smiley face, but a discipline that we will carry with us all the days of our lives.” I mean, this woman was ALL IN. She is remembered as a tireless advocate, and a truly joyful person. “I love what I’m doing,” she told a reporter, “every sometimes grisly moment of it.”
I only learned about Kip through articles and books and videos, but I feel like I know something about her. I believe that she was one who found the pearl of great value and sold everything she had to buy it, and she didn’t seem to have any regrets. Admirable, don’t you think?
Most of our lives pale in comparison to such a shero. I know mine does. As I said earlier, this parable worked me over while I reflected on it this week. I couldn’t say honestly that I have sacrificed everything for the “pearl of great value.” I have given my professional life to the church, but I am acutely aware that doing so is not the same thing as the God-and-neighbor loving vocation for which one puts everything on the line. I expect Jesus might look over my life and say something like he said to the scribe: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Not exactly in it, but not far from it.
Yet I have experienced being in something like the center-everywhere-circumference-nowhere kingdom of God on many occasions. I’ve been transported from “not far” from the kingdom of God to its heartland again and again. It’s as if it comes into focus on occasions when usually scattered attention is engaged and self-absorption is put on the back burner for a while. Do you know what I mean about coming into focus, when single-minded love takes over? It’s something like what psychologists describe as being in the “flow.” In positive psychology “flow” (also known as “the zone”) is described as “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.”
I’ll come back to that, but I want to show you a little clip from the film “Deconstructing Harry” that bubbled up in memory while I was musing on the idea of focus. (You’ll have to overlook the Arabic subtitles that came with this Youtube clip.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6IDVIIJzseg
I wonder if we part-time disciples don’t walk around being a bit fuzzy, a bit blurry around the edges in terms of how we appear as lovers of God and neighbor? We’re not awful people, just somewhat scattered and egocentric. We may even make people feel a little nauseated as they observe us in some act of greed, rudeness or heartlessness that doesn’t match up with our Christian values. We all certainly have our snarky moments and times when compassion is steamrollered by nativist judgmentalism. That’s when we may hear holy conscience, like the youngster in the clip, shouting “You’re out of focus! You’re out of focus!”
Compare that fuzzy, dissatisfying vaguely Christian-ish feeling to what it feels like to be sharply in focus, in the flow of love and compassion, in an experience like the kingdom of God. Take a moment and think of a time when love of God and neighbor really took over, however long or short that experience was. A time when you were all in, at least briefly—in the flow, in the zone, absorbed by love.
It’s quite possible that some kind of sacrifice was involved in those moments—at the very least, a sacrifice of time. The kingdom parable is clear that when the pearl of great value is discovered, the finder sells all that he has in order to obtain it. Something is given up in order to attain the thing that has immense value. It’s part of the dynamic of going from being “not far” from the kingdom of God to being in the heartland. I like the way Thomas Moore writes about sacrifice, in a chapter of The Soul’s Religion titled “In Every Sacrifice, God Is Born.” He says that sacrifice, long a part of human religion, reveals a profound insight: “The giving up of ego transforms a person radically, placing him [sic] in a much vaster notion of what it means to be a human being.” While modern folk may think of sacrifice as something undesirable, “sacrifice doesn’t have to be accomplished in a masochistic spirit of self-deprivation. It is more a graceful and creative acquiescence, a willingness to let life happen and flow through us. [There’s that word “flow” again!] It makes room for a selfless power that is not intended to bolster the ego. Sacrifice doesn’t make us feel self-important, but it can offer an increase in personal power, a strength that derives from being close to the source of life.”
Close to the source of life—as in, “not far from the kingdom of God.” There is strength, joy and energy in the kind of experience that often follows some kind of sacrifice—a sacrifice of time, money, ego, prized possessions, hard-shelled opinions, whatever. “Every sacrifice,” Moore proposes, “transforms the person in a small way, and bit by bit life becomes more holy. By allowing a greater will to have a role, the person is deliteralized, made into something less centripetal.” Less centripetal—less about myself at the center of the universe with everything revolving around me and my preferences and pleasures and judgments.
As I look back on my intermittent experiences of intense focus, of being truly in a timeless, expansive experience of love, listening to others with unconditional positive regard—whether I’m doing the listening or I’m the one being listened to—has often been at the heart of the experience. It’s not much on the scale of sacrifices, but truly making room for someone to be themselves involves some sacrifice of time, of distractions, of narcissism, of petty judgments. I have my own stories, but rather than violate any confidentialities, let me go back to Kip Tiernan’s story. One of the videos of her talking includes an interview when she was talking about the women’s shelter she established. She named it “Rosie’s Place” because she wanted every woman to think of herself as being as beautiful as a rose. She said that when women come in, they don’t ask any of the harsh questions society asks: “How did you get this way? When are you going to do something about it? When are you going to pull yourself together? Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” [With tears in her eyes, Kip shakes her head no.] All we ask women when they come in is “Do you take your coffee regular? Do you need a bed? We have it. Would you like to take a shower?” Even as she tells this story, she is so absorbed in love you can feel it through even through the clumsy instrument of Youtube.
The pearl. From time to time, it’s been in every one of our pockets, right? What joy there is in being focused in Love, in being all in, even for a moment. We lose and find ourselves in the same instant. As Frederick Buechner wrote, “When the kingdom comes, it’s as if the thing you lost and thought you’d never find again is you.”