“Taking Root” 02/28/16 by Rev. Stacy Swain (Click on title for Audio)

Luke 13: 1-9

Are any of you familiar with what in Zen Buddhism are called Koans?

Koans are short phrases that Zen masters give to their students as a tool to deepen meditation. What makes a phrase a Koan is that the phrase on the surface does not seem to make any sense at all.   Koans on their surface seem nonsensical. “What is the sound of one hand clapping” is one well known koan.  “Out of nowhere the mind comes forth” is another.

In recent years, I have taken up a meditation practice, but try as I may, Koans just do not work for me.  Instead of being a gateway to greater enlightenment, for me they bring nothing but irritation.  Instead of calming me down, they rile me up.  If there is a truth or wisdom to share why not just say it straight?  What’s the point of talking in riddles?

So you can imagine my dismay when opening our Scripture for this week I found Jesus sounding very much like a Zen Master with a Koan for his students.

You can picture the scene.  As Amy mentioned last week, Jesus is nearing Jerusalem.  He knows there is a fox on the prowl. The disciples are edgy sensing the growing danger.   Jesus’ message was intoxicating up there on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, but here in the shadow of the great city of Jerusalem, here close to the center of religious, political and military power, it’s all beginning to feel a bit risky.

So here they are this morning already feeling on edge when news comes of the heinous slaughter of their fellow Galileans by blood-thirsty Pilate.  We can surmise by Jesus’ retort that they were trying to make sense of the slaughter by applying what would have been the mainline theology of the day, that those to whom such misery befell must somehow be to blame for it.  This is the theology that says God makes “good things happen to good people and makes bad things happen to bad people.”  This is the theology of the friends in the book of Job when they counsel Job in the midst of his loss and hardship to repent to God for certainly he is being punished for his transgression for why else would he be suffering so?

And while we may no longer agree with that kind of theology, we can certainly appreciate the desire for some organizing principle that helps one cope with the tragedies of the day.  Don’t we do the same?  Don’t we too long for an explanation for why bad things happen? Why is there so much suffering?

But while finding an answer to the question may be a priority for us, it does not seem to be so for Jesus.  In the elusive Zen master way of his, Jesus does not answer the question of “why suffering”, but instead  starts talking about a vineyard and a fig tree.

I can just feel the irritation that must have been rising in those disciples, questioning in their hearts “What in the world does a fig tree have to do with the brutal reality we have just been talking about and trying to make sense of?”

But the point of koans, (and I suspect the reason why Jesus does not just answer the disciples’ questions straight on) is to pry the student into a new way of perceiving and understanding.  In the words of one Buddhist master “the koan serves as a surgical tool used to cut into and then break through the mind of the practitioner.  Koans wait for you to open enough space in your mind and heart for them to enter into your depths – the inner regions beyond knowing.”[1]  Koan’s awaken higher consciousness, deeper and more expansive enlightenment of mind.

I suspect that is why Jesus so often speaks in parables, story, and verse.  I suspect that is why Jesus prefers to “tell it slant.”  Jesus does not just tell the disciples the truths they long to hear, he helps them to experience those truths, to enter in to them with a freshness of mind and heart. He is wanting them to see and experience a richer and truer reality than that which they are struggling to make sense of.  And, according to Jesus, entering into that deeper, truer reality requires repentance.  With out repentance you will perish he tells them.

How many of us hear that call to repent and cannot help but chaff a bit?  It is not a word we use very much any more but it is a word heard over and over in scripture.  The call to repent is one that resounds throughout Biblical scripture.  We hear it in the mouths of the great prophets calling Israel to account for her errors and to honor the covenant with God.  We hear it in the mouth of John the Baptizer there by the river Jordan, telling the ‘brood of vipers,” as he calls the crowd coming to him to bear fruits worthy of repentance. (Luke 3:7)  And we hear it in the mouths of great preachers of our tradition.  Yesterday I reread Jonathan Edwards seminal sermon from the 1700 “Sinners in the hands of an Angry God” in which the cry to repent was so forceful, I could imagine the rafter of that Northampton church shaking at his voice.

When we hear this call to repentance we are used to hearing it as a call to acknowledge our sin and to ask for God’s forgiveness.  We are used to understanding repentance as the way we ask God to forestay God’s wrath and judgement at our transgressions.

But what if repentance actually meant something different to Jesus? What if repentance was not so much about saying sorry as it was about a change of mind, a complete transformation in how we understood ourselves, the world and God? What if repentance is the hinge (Romans 12) between being not conformed to the world and but being transformed?


In his book “Christ Actually”, author James Carroll makes a stunning statement.    He writes “the life and death of Jesus are not the mechanism of redemption at last attained, but the signal that redemption is the permanent ground of being.  No mechanism of change is necessary. It is not God’s mind that needs to be changed, therefore, but the self-condemning human being’s.”

What if repentance then is not something we do to change God’s mind about us but the gateway to a change in our own state of mind so that we too can begin to see that we are rooted in the love of God and made for flourishing?  What if God is not standing in judgment over us, but is instead at our side doing all God can to usher in not only our well-being but helping us to see that our well-being is linked to the well-being of all.

When the disciples heard Jesus speak of the fig tree, when they saw how his eyes lit up and danced with delight, did they feel fear begin to drain away?  When they heard Jesus speak of the care of the Gardener did they feel blame and condemnation melt away?  Did they begin to feel not buffeted by circumstance but deeply rooted in a ground of being that would not fail them?  Did they feel hope returning?  Did they experience a change of mind, the deep repentance of which Jesus spoke was the doorway to thriving?  Do we?


I recently heard a talk by James Doty who is a neuroscientist and head of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University.    In his talk, Dr. Doty said that there are quite clear physiological changes in the brain that can be observed and measured when we shift our way of perceiving reality from that of being scary and dangerous to being full of possibility and hope.  It’s amazing, but the brain he says actually changes.  The amygdala which is the seat of the flight or fight place actually shrinks and the seat of higher thought and creativity actually thickens.[2]  Dr. Doty says that brains are like muscles that respond to exercise.  The question is how are we going to exercise our brains?  If we engage in mindfulness, compassion, loving kindness, having an open heart, he says we strengthen that part of our brain that help us to see the world as a vibrant place where we recognize the incredible aspect of humanity and how every person has this potential to change the world.

Is this what Jesus knew all along – that the repentance he calls us to is the change of mind that is needed in order to change the world?

It seems to me that the choice is before us.  Can we engage in the repentance, the change of mind that enables us to engage the world with hope and possibility or are we going to remain mired in fear?  Can we see that “redemption is the permanent ground of our being” and that rooted in God’s redemptive love we no longer have to fear or attempt to explain away the suffering of our day but instead can courageously enter into it so that it by doing so it may be transformed?

I saw this choice in action so many times last week on our service trip to Nicaragua.  I saw people picking up pick axes and shovels, shoulder to shoulder with our Nicaraguan brothers and sisters breaking through hard rock and perhaps even harder hardship until fresh, clean, life giving water flowed.

I see this choice in action as we will gather this afternoon with our brothers and sisters in faith across Newton to enter into the problem of homelessness in our community and seek ways to support those find themselves in its grasp.

I see this choice in action every time we refuse to capitulate to the narrative that the “the other” is enemy and to be feared, and instead insist that all are children of God to be treasured as beloved.

I see this choice in action when we name and excavate racism from our hearts and societal structures and practice the humility required to learn from those who have for far too long been silenced.

I see this choice in action every time we do whatever we can to tread more lightly on the earth.

So as we continue to walk through this season of Lent, this season of repentance let us practice this change of mind that is the gateway into full realization of the redemptive power of God’s love that is our deeper reality.  Let us recognize fear mongering for what it is and chose to do something different.  Let us see that God is not against us but alongside us tending the ground of our being so that we and all of God’s creation may thrive.

Thanks be to God our gardener, our advocate, our Christ and our friend.  Amen.

[1] Don Dianda as quoted in Carol Kuruvilla’s “These Zen Buddhist Koans Will Open Your Mind.”  10/31/2015 7:31 a.m. ET. Huffington Post.

[2] https://soundcloud.com/onbeing.  James Doty – The Magic Shop of the Brain. Roughly at 22. 1 minutes into podcast.