Powerful Habits

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 10:30 a.m. service. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2012 Daniel Harper.

Reading

This morning’s reading comes from the essay “How To Make Our Ideas Clear” by Charles Sanders Peirce:

From all these sophisms we shall be perfectly safe so long as we reflect that the whole function of thought is to produce habits of action; and that whatever there is connected with a thought, but irrelevant to its purpose, is an accretion to it, but no part of it…. To develop its meaning, we have, therefore, simply to determine what habits it produces, for what a thing means is simply what habits it involves.

(“How To Make Our Ideas Clear,” Charles Sanders Peirce, Chance, Love, and Logic: Philosophical Essays, ed. Morris R. Cohen [New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1923], pp. 41-42.)

Sermon — “Powerful Habits”

Here’s a story from the Buddhist tradition, the twenty-sixth Jataka tale; the Jataka tales tell of the previous incarnations of Gautama Buddha. The story goes like this:

Once upon a time, a king had an elephant named Damsel-face, who was virtuous and good, and never hurt a soul. But one day, robbers came and sat beside the elephant’s stall at night ro make their wicked plans. They said to each other, “If someone catches you in the act, don’t hesitate to kill them. Get rid of all goodness and virtue, be pitiless, cruel, and violent.”

The robbers kept coming back, night after night, to talk over their plans. Damesel-face got into the habit of listening to them, and at last the elephant concluded that he, too, must turn pitiless, cruel, and violent. The next morning when his keeper appeared, the elephant picked him up with his trunk, and dashed him to death on the ground. When another man came into the stall to see what had happened, Damsel-face picked him up, too, and dashed him to death on the ground.

The news came to the king that Damsel-face had gone mad and was killing people. The king sent his prime minister (who was, as it happens, Gautama Buddha in an earlier incarnation) to find out what was going on.

The prime minister quickly determined that there was nothing physically wrong with Damsel-face. Thus he determined that someone must have been talking near Damsel-face. He asked the elephant-keepers if anyone new had been seen near Damsel-face’s stall. They replied that for some weeks a band of robbers came to sit and talk outside the stall every evening.

The prime minister told the king that the elephant had been perverted by the talk of robbers.

“What is to be done now?” said the king.

“Remove the robbers,” said the prime minister. “Order good men, sages and brahmins, to sit in his stall and to talk of goodness.”

This was done. Good men and sages sat near the elephant and talked. “Neither maltreat nor kill,” they said. “The good should be loving and merciful.”

Hearing this, the elephant thought they must mean this as a lesson for him, and resolved thenceforth to become good. And good he became.

(Story adapted from Mahilamukha-Jataka, The Jataka, or Stories of the Buddha’s Former Births vol. 1, ed. E. B. Cowell, trans. Robert Chalmers [Oxford: Pali Text Society, 2004; Oxford University, 1895], pp. 68-69.)

The point of this story is similar to the point of this morning’s reading: If we would discover a person’s thoughts, we should observe their habits. Or to put it another way: You are your habits. This was the great insight of nineteenth century philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, the author of this morning’s reading.

Recent advances in neuroscience confirm Peirce’s insight. Neuroscientists have found we may come to a conscious decision to engage in an action only after we have already commenced that action; at times our conscious thoughts serve only as an after-the-fact justification of something we have already started doing. We may have far less conscious control over our actions than our conscious thoughts would have us believe. Consider the act of walking: how could we possibly walk if we had to make a conscious decision about each action involved in walking? — now I will lift up my left foot, now I will move it forward, now I will place it on the ground, now I will lift up my right foot, and so on. If we had to retain conscious control over every action involved in walking, we would have a hard time getting anywhere, and we would certainly not be able to chew bubblegum while we walked.

The greatest portion of our lives is governed, not by conscious thought, but by the habits we develop over time. This is true of basic everyday physical actions like walking and talking; it is also true of our social and moral actions. We rarely have the luxury of having enough time to think through every moral decision we must make; we have to rely on habit.

Habit is built through repetition, through doing something over and over again. Mastery of a new skill begins when some of the actions involved in that skill become automatic, when they become a matter of habit. If you have a driver’s license, you probably have some vivid memories of the mistakes you made before driving a car had become an automatic process for you. And then when you become expert at something, you have to continue to maintain your expertise; if you stop driving for a period of some years, it may take some time to regain your confidence; a musician may master an instrument, but even after achieving mastery a musician must continue to practice to maintain mastery.

Maintaining habits may take less time than we think. Neuroscientists have discovered that in some cases you can just think about something to maintain some level of expertise. Some musicians have exploited this fact. The concert pianist Hélène Grimaud can rehearse for a concert by playing through a piece in her head: “Mat Hennek, her current partner, remembers that one day, when he and Grimaud were first dating, they went shopping in Philadelphia and then to a Starbucks. At one point, he recalls, ‘I said to Hélène, “Hélène, you have a concert coming. Did you practice?” And she said, “I played the piece two times in my head.”‘” [D. T. Max, “Hélène Grimaud’s Life as a Concert Pianist,” New Yorker November 7, 2011.] It should be said that Grimaud is known for playing many wrong notes during her concerts, and perhaps she needs to spend more time practicing at the piano, not just in her head. Nevertheless, it is relatively easy to maintain a habit that is already in place.

We human beings are creatures of habit. While we Unitarian Universalists like to believe that we human beings are basically rational, and that we human beings have a great deal of control over our own actions, this belief does not exactly correspond with who we are. We are more like the elephant Damsel-face than we would like to believe: reason and rationality have only limited influence over the power of habits.

Yet it is possible for us to use our reason, to have conscious control over our lives, by using the power of habits. A prime example of this may be found in the Silicon Valley culture in which we live. Silicon Valley culture encourages us to be innovators: we break through old habits to develop new and innovative ways of doing things. In this way, Silicon Valley culture shows us how innovation itself can become a habit: to innovate is to form the habit of always questioning the way we do things habitually; it is a skill that is learned through repetition until it becomes a habit.

The habit of innovation is both personal — if you’re a creative engineer, you get in the habit of seeing the world in new ways;— and the habit of innovation is social — one of the reasons people come to Silicon Valley is because here we can meet many other people who have personal habits of innovation. All habits are both personal and social: it is easier to form the habits we want when we are surrounded with people who already have those habits, or who are also trying to form those habits.

Though I suspect we religious liberals rarely think about it, religion is a matter of habit and repetition. We have a tendency to do the same things over and over; and we work to develop habits that support our highest values. Some of these habits are more personal: we pray, we meditate, we write in journals. Some of these habits are more social, and the social habits support and reinforce our personal habits. This is why we like to do the same things in the same way year after year in our religious community. Repetition and ritual, doing the same things over and over again in the same way, helps us keep the good habits we came here to get. And so every year in late December, we tell the same story about the birth of a human being who grew up to a powerful prophet of love; we tell that story year after year in order to remind ourselves to dedicate ourselves to the habit of love in its highest sense; and we come here to this religious community to tell this story so that we are surrounded with other people who are also maintaining the habit of love.

This kind of repetition can make our liberal religious congregations feel like conservative institutions at times. It is never easy to balance the need for repetition and sameness against the religious liberal’s need for ongoing evolution. I think this balance can feel particularly hard to achieve here in Silicon Valley, amidst the culture of innovation. It is hard to balance the habit of repetition and sameness which help keep us true to our highest values, and on the other hand the combined effect of the Silicon Valley habit of innovation and the liberal religious habit of ongoing evolution.

To maintain our balance, there are two social habits that we religious liberals especially cultivate. First, we cultivate the habit of skeptical argument; and second, we cultivate the habit of keeping the sabbath. Let me describe each of these, beginning with skeptical argument.

 

By definition, we religious liberals are skeptics, and as such argument is one of our chief forms of religious practice. We argue with one another so we won’t settle for comfortable platitudes that feel good but are only partially true. We argue with one another because we know that no one person has complete access to the entire truth of things. We argue because we know that the only way to find truth is to be a part of a community of inquirers.

Argument is neither a comfortable nor a comforting religious habit. When you engage in true skeptical argument with someone else, or in a religious community, you take the risk that someone else is going to show you where you are not quite right. I have had this happen frequently, and sometimes very publicly, for when you preach to a room full of religious liberals for whom skeptical argument is a spiritual practice, there is a very good chance that someone will talk to you after the sermon, and show you where you need to think more deeply about a particular topic. I knew a man who wrote down questions that arose for him during the sermon, and he would hand that list of three or four questions to the preacher at the end of the service. When I was the preacher, I both looked forward to and dreaded receiving that list of questions; I dreaded getting the list because usually at least one of the questions would reveal a place where I had not fully thought through some part of the sermon; I looked forward to getting that list because his questions invariably made me think more deeply about the topic. Like most religious liberals, I find it refreshing to think about something in a new way. A bath of ice cold water is also very refreshing, but that doesn’t mean it is comfortable or comforting.

We religious liberals cultivate the social habit of skeptical argument through listening to sermons, and then most importantly talking about those sermons during social hour. When I attend a Sunday service, I make sure to leave time to attend social hour. And I always feel bitterly disappointed when no one talks about the sermon during social hour. Even if the sermon is boring, I gain a lot by trying to find the kernel of truth in that boring sermon, and then talking through where that kernel of truth might lead us. When the sermon challenges me, and prompts me to think about things in a new way, that’s even better, and then I really need to talk about it with other people during social hour.

The primary habit of skeptical argument in our liberal congregations is this process of hearing a sermon, finding the kernel of truth in it, talking about it to find where it might lead us, and so moving closer to truth in the company of a community of inquirers. We religious liberals do not listen to sermons passively; sermons, even bad sermons, give us something to think about, to talk about, to argue about. This is why Unitarian Universalists have a long tradition of having educated clergy, ministers with learning, preachers who will provoke us, teach us, sometimes annoy us, provide us with fodder for our ongoing skeptical arguments.

(A parenthetical note: I cannot help mentioning two other methods of cultivating skeptical argument: teaching or attending Sunday school, and participating in the Sunday morning forum. If you have ever taught a class of lively fourth and fifth graders, or if you have ever participated in a lively discussion in the forum, you know that you can cultivate the habit of skeptical argument in either setting. As someone who teaches Sunday school most Sundays’, though, what I miss is the chance to participate in skeptical argument with the larger number of people attending the main services. As good as teaching Sunday school can be, it is also good to come regularly to the sermons in the Main Hall.)

Sermons, or any statements, cause problems when we accept them passively. That is what happened to the elephant Damsel-face: when the robbers came and sat next to his stall and talked about evil doings, Damsel-face passively accepted what they said as truth; and in this passive acceptance Damsel-face himself turned bad. Had Damsel-face been a religious liberal, he would have gone to social hour afterwards and argued about what they had said, talked about how what the robbers said contained no real kernel of truth, and so (we hope) he would have moved towards higher moral truths.

The story of Damsel-face also implies that we should choose with care those people with whom we would argue. We want to have our skeptical arguments with other people who also aspire to the highest human values, so we develop the habit of good thoughts, and good actions. Like Damsel-face at the end of the story, we want to spend time each week with good people, our equivalent of sages and brahmins, with whom we can talk about goodness and truth, and who will encourage us to go out into the world and do good.

 

The other habit we religious liberals cultivate, in addition to the habit of skeptical argument, is the habit of keeping the sabbath. Unlike other religious traditions that keep the sabbath, we don’t have a complex set of rules and rituals to follow on the sabbath. Our rules are simple: show up here each week, or as often as we can, often enough to cultivate the habit. Obviously, a big part of keeping the sabbath for us Unitarian Universalists is the opportunity to engage in skeptical argument. But we also come here to spend time with others who are striving after the highest human values.

This was how the damage to Damsel-face the elephant was repaired: sages, wise and virtuous people, sat down regularly with Damsel-face to talk about goodness. This is what happens to us in our lives. We cannot avoid spending time in settings where goodness and truth and virtue are not the highest values — every time I drive on the freeway, I find myself in such a setting; in my previous careers, some of my workplaces felt like I was spending time with a band of robbers. We come here each week, or as often as possible, to keep the sabbath and recall ourselves to truth and goodness.

In order to keep the sabbath, we don’t have to do anything in particular; all that’s required is that we show up, and spend time with others who also strive after the highest values. Like Damsel-face listening to the wise sages, we don’t necessarily have to do anything; we can just sit and listen to talk that aims at the highest virtues. It is probably better if we engage in some skeptical argument, but it is not necessary. What is most important is that we show up here for a couple of hours each week; the sabbath is a time we can let our souls lie fallow, a time to let ourselves rejuvenate.

Like the elephant Damsel-face, we human beings need to spend time in good company; we need to listen, and take part in, good and virtuous conversation. So it is we cultivate the habit of skeptical argument; so it is we cultivate the habit of keeping the sabbath, in our liberal religious sense of it. And may our cultivation of these powerful habits lead us to become better and wiser people.

The Power of Stories

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2011 Daniel Harper.

I’d like to speak to you this morning about the power of stories, both formal stories with a beginning, middle, and end, and the informal stories that we tell about ourselves. And I’ll begin by telling you a story, the story of the Frightened Rabbit. You may have heard this story before in a slightly different form, but I’m going to tell it more or less the way Buddhists have told it for the last two thousand five hundred years. 1

 

One day in the town of Savatthi, some of Buddha’s followers, known as the bhikkus, went out to beg for their food, as they did every day.

Each day, the bhikkus went to a different part of the town to beg. One day, they went past some holy men who lay naked on beds of thorn-plants, in the hope that this would help them become more holy. Further along, they saw more holy men. These holy men had built a large bonfire, and even though the day was hot and the sun was bright, they sat as close as they could to the broiling fire, in the hope that the burning heat would help them become more holy.

The bhikkus continued on their way, stopping at each house to beg for their food. When each of their begging bowls was filled with food, they returned to where they lived with Buddha. And Buddha came to sit and eat with them.

“Buddha,” said one bhikku, “when we were out getting our food this morning, we walked past some holy men who were lying naked on cruel, sharp thorns.” She paused for a moment. “Will doing this make them any more holy?”

“And Buddha,” said another bhikku, “we also walked past some holy men who were sitting next to a blazing fire, out under the blazing hot sun. Will this make them any more holy?”

“No,” said Buddha. “These men are heretics. They have deluded themselves, and so they avoid the truth. They lie on thorns and bake themselves only because someone told them to. Which reminds me of the frightened rabbit and the horrible noise.” And then the Buddha told this story:

 

Once upon a time (said the Buddha), there was a little rabbit who lived in a forest by the Western Ocean. This little rabbit lived in a beautiful grove of trees, at the foot of a Bengal quince tree, the kind of tree under which the god Shiva was said to have lived. Next to the Bengal quince tree was a palm tree where the little rabbit liked to sit and nibble grass.

A Bengal quince (Aegle marmelos)

One fine day, the little rabbit sat under the palm tree nibbling grass and thinking about what would happen to him if the world got destroyed by Lord Shiva. At just that moment, a large, hard Bengal quince fell off the tree and hit the ground directly behind the little rabbit.

“The earth is cracking apart!” cried the little rabbit, and he ran as fast as he could away from the sound.

Another rabbit saw him running, and said, “What’s going on?”

“The earth is cracking apart!” cried the little rabbit.

The second rabbit ran after him, shouting, “The earth is cracking apart!” Soon, all the rabbits in the neighborhood were running with them.

When the other animals saw all the rabbits running, they said, “What’s going on?”

“The earth is cracking apart!” cried the rabbits, “Run for your lives!”

The other animals began to run, too: the wild pigs, the deer, the buffaloes, the rhinoceroses, the tigers, and even the elephants all began to run, shouting, “The earth is being destroyed!”

      Ad lib comment during service: Perhaps this story will
      remind you of a story in the news yesterday and today.

Now, in another part of the forest there lived a good and kind lion. She saw all the animals running, and heard them shouting, “The earth is being destroyed! Run for your lives!” The lion was wise, and immediately saw that the earth was not being destroyed. She could also see that the animals were so frightened that if they didn’t stop they would run into the Western Ocean and drown. She ran as fast as she could and got in front of all the animals. She roared three times.

When the animals heard the good and kind lion roaring, they call came to a stop.

The lion said, “Why are you all running?”

“The earth is being destroyed,” said the animals.

The lion said, “How do you know the earth is being destroyed?”

One animal said, “The elephants saw it.”

But the elephants said, “It wasn’t us. The tigers saw it.”

But the tigers hadn’t seen anything. “It was the rhinoceroses,” they said.

But the rhinoceroses said, “The water buffaloes gave the alarm,” they said.

But the buffaloes hadn’t given the alarm. Nor did the deer know anything. The wild pigs said they started running when they saw the rabbits running. One by one, each of the rabbits said that they hadn’t seen anything, until at last the little rabbit said, “I was the one who heard the earth breaking into pieces.”

The lion said, “Where were you when you saw this?”

“I was at home in the beautiful grove of trees,” said the little rabbit, “next to my house at the foot of the Bengal quince tree. I was sitting near my favorite little palm tree nibbling grass, when I heard the earth start to break up behind me. So I ran away.”

The lion knew that the Bengal quinces were starting to ripen, and she suspected that one of the fruits had fallen from the tree and hit the ground behind the little rabbit. “Stay here for a while,” she said to the animals. “I will take the little rabbit with me, and we will see what is happening there.”

The kind lion had the little rabbit jump up onto her broad back, and off she ran to where the little rabbit had been sitting nibbling grass. When they got to the Bengal quince tree, the little rabbit pointed in terror and said, “There! There it is! That’s where the earth is breaking up!” And he closed his eyes in terror.

“Little rabbit,” said the lion in a kind voice, “open your eyes and you will see that the earth is not breaking up. I can see just where you were crouching under the little palm tree nibbling on some grass, and right behind that a large fruit from the Bengal quince tree is lying on the ground. What you heard was the sound of that big quince hitting the ground behind you. It must have made a loud sound, and no wonder you got scared, but there really is nothing to fear.”

The good lion went back and told the other animals what she had found. The animals all sighed in relief, and everything returned to normal.

 

“That’s the story,” said the Buddha.

One of the bhikkus said, “Those animals should not have listened to the little rabbit without checking for themselves that the earth was breaking up. Common sense should have told them that the earth wasn’t breaking up.”

Another bhikku said, “I guess those men who lie naked on the thorns are like the animals in the story. They didn’t pay attention to their common sense.”

A bhikku added, “The lion was truly wise and compassionate. If it had not been for her, all the animals would have drowned.”

Then, because Buddha and his followers all believed that they had lived many different lives, the Buddha said that in one of his previous lives he had been the lion in the story: a wise and compassionate being who helped others.

 

Did you notice what happened in this story? — or I should say, in each of these stories: the story about the animals, and the story about Buddha’s followers?

In the story about the animals, a Bengal quince, a piece of fruit, falls to the ground. The little rabbit hears the sound and thinks the world is cracking apart! When the wise lion hears the little rabbit’s story about what he thought had happened, she figures out what really happened, and she helps the little rabbit to retell the story in a better way. In the story about Buddha’s followers, they see some holy men lying on thorns and baking themselves in intense heat, and they’re trying to make sense out of what they see. Buddha tells them a story to help them understand what they already knew — lying on thorns and baking in intense heat are not going to make you any more holy.

We have our educational goals, and there are the Seven Principles printed on those wallet cards you can get outside the main door to this room; as important as these are, they are not nearly as important to our religious community as the stories we tell to one another.

At the beginning of the service, Jack Hardy told us: “When I listen to stories at church I imagine what the person in the story is feeling and thinking what I would do in that situation.” So when Buddha tells the story about the little rabbit to his followers, his followers imagine that they are the little rabbit, and they imagine that they are the wise lion, and they realize that it is better to be the wise lion than the little rabbit. And in listening to the story, and using their imaginations, Buddha’s followers are changed, transformed for the better.

At the beginning of the service, Heather Chen told us how our congregation is a unique community for kids. Now even though she didn’t start with “Once upon a time” and end with “they lived happily ever after,” Heather was really telling us a kind of story about how our kids experience our congregation: she is telling us that while our kids are learning a lot, more importantly they are becoming a part of the community that is our congregation. We are constantly telling each other little stories about who we are and what’s important to us, and these little stories shape us, transform us for the better.

The writer Ursula K. LeGuin once wrote, “We shape each other to be human.” 2 This is why we tell each other stories — big formal stories that may begin with the words “Once upon a time…” and informal little stories and conversations that reveal what is in our hearts and souls. Story by story, conversation by conversation, bit by bit, we shape each other, transform each other into better human beings.

 

Notes

Note 1:

The story in the sermon is Jataka tale number 322, Duddubha Jataka. My source was The Jataka: Stories of the Buddha’s Former Births, ed. E. B. Cowell, vol. III, trans. H. T. Francis and R. A. Neil (1895; rpt., Pali Text Society: Oxford, 2005) pp. 49-52.

Note 2:

Ursula K. LeGuin, “Coming of Age in Karhide,” in New Legends, ed. Greg Bear, (Tor, 1995).

The Parable of the Empty Jar

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2008 Daniel Harper.

Readings

Upon seeing the title of this sermon in the church newsletter, Everett Hoagland, member of this congregation and a poet, suggested a reading from the Tao te Ching for this worship service. I was thinking about using something from the Tao te Ching as a reading, and Everett found exactly what I was looking for, in a new translation by the poet Stephen Mitchell:

We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move.

We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.

We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.

We work with being,
but non-being is what we use.

The second reading comes from the Gospel of Thomas, chapter 97:

Jesus said, “The kingdom of the [Father] is like a certain woman who was carrying a [jar] full of meal. While she was walking [on the] road, still some distance from home, the handle of the jar broke, and the meal emptied out behind her [on] the road. She did not realize it; she had noticed no accident. When she reached her house, she set the jar down and found it empty.” [trans. Lambdin (1988)]

Sermon

Back in 1945 in Egypt, Mohammed Ali Samman and his brother by pure chance happened to uncover an earthenware vase. Inside that vase were ancient handwritten manuscripts, containing many previously unknown books, what we now call the Nag Hammadi library. The most famous of the books is what we now know as the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of sayings of Jesus that was written down somewhere around one thousand nine hundred years ago.

I find the Gospel of Thomas to be a particularly interesting book. Although many of the sayings of Jesus recorded in it are similar to the sayings of Jesus we already knew from the gospels recognized by the Christian churches, the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; yet other sayings in the Gospel of Thomas are recorded nowhere else.

Now we know what we’re supposed to think the sayings of Jesus mean, because for the past two thousand years the Christian churches have been telling us what they mean. But the Gospel of Thomas is not an official Christian book. Therefore, those sayings of Jesus that appear in the Gospel of Thomas, and nowhere else are of particular interest to me. The Christian churches have not been telling us what they mean, so we can look at them with fresh eyes, listen to them with openness.

When I first read the Gospel of Thomas all the way through a few years ago, I was particularly struck by chapter 97, which we heard in the first reading this morning. I re-read that short little parable several times over, asking myself: What was Jesus trying to tell us? Part of the reason it’s so hard to understand is that it’s so short; perhaps all that got written down was the merest outline of a longer parable. So as I thought about this parable, I began to imagine it more fully. I filled it out, and this is how I imagined it went:

Jesus and his followers were traveling from village to village in Judea so that Jesus could teach his message of love to whomever would hear it. They had spent the day in a village where some people wanted to hear what Jesus had to say, and many others didn’t seem to care. That evening, they stayed on the outskirts of the village, and as they were eating dinner, one of the followers asked, “Master, what will it be like when the kingdom of heaven is finally established?”

“Let me tell you a story that will explain,” said Jesus, and he told this story….

“Once upon a time, there was a woman, just an ordinary woman who happened to live in a very small village that had no marketplace of its own. At the harvest season, the crops having been gathered in, the woman decided to walk to a larger village, just two or three miles away, where there was a market.

“She started off early in the morning. She brought along some things her family had grown to sell in the market, and she brought along a large pottery jar with two big handles. Since she was an ordinary villager, or course she did not have fancy bronze jars, she just had an ordinary earthenware jar that had been made in her village. The potter who lived in her village was not very good at what he did, so her jars were without decoration, and not very well made.

“She arrived at the marketplace, and sold everything she had brought. Then she purchased a large amount of meal, that is, coarsely-ground flour. She filled her jar with the meal, tied the handle with a strap of cloth, and slung the jar over her back.

“The path home was steep and rough, and by now the day was hot. She walked along, putting one foot in front of the other, and she did not notice anything besides the heat and the rough path.

“But one of the handles to the jar broke off, and the jar slowly tipped to one side. Bit by bit, the coarsely-ground flour spilled out on the path behind her. Bit by bit, the jar tipped even further. Before she reached home, all the flour in that jar had spilled out.

“At last the woman reached home. She put the jar down, and discovered that it was empty. That is what the Kingdom of Heaven will be like.”

——

That’s how I imagined the Parable of the Empty Jar might have been told in a fuller version. That helped me visualize the parable. Next I thought about how I could better understand the parable, and I began with three assumptions:

First, I assumed that traditional Christian theology was not going to be able to adequately explain this parable; I made this assumption because I noticed that orthodox Christians tend to ignore the Gospel of Thomas in general, and this parable in particular. (Indeed, I decided that this parable was especially interesting because I couldn’t see how traditional Christians could possibly incorporate it into their theology.) Thus, I assumed that I should go beyond the boundaries of conventional Christian theology.

Second, I assumed that “Thomas” or whoever wrote this parable down was a theologian, and so he (or she) had some kind of theological bias. It appears that whoever wrote this parable down was a Gnostic, that is, a member of that branch of early Christianity which taught that there are secret and hidden teachings of Jesus. The Gnostics seem to have believed that Jesus left secret teachings that were never written down, but which they passed on by word of mouth to those who were initiated into their religious communities. So perhaps we are meant to be confused by this parable, and this is part of the theological bias of this parable. At the same time, as a Unitarian Universalist, I’m used to understanding and working around other people’s theological biases, so I assumed that, alien as it might be, I could still make some sense out of it.

Third, I assumed that even though the Gospel of Thomas is not a part of the standard Christian Bible, it’s still an interesting and useful book. I assumed that any book about Jesus that was written within two or three generations after the death of Jesus is worth reading; such ancient books are likely to have some interesting or useful insight into the world of Jesus, or at least into the world of the early followers of Jesus.

Those were my three assumptions. If we start with those assumptions, we don’t have to try to make the Parable of the Empty Jar fit into conventional Christian theology, and we don’t have to reject it simply because it’s not in the official Bible. Furthermore, we know that it has been retold by someone with a Gnostic Christian bias, but we don’t have to let that affect us. Finally, we know that it’s worth trying to understand this parable insofar as it might give us some additional insight into the thought of Jesus of Nazareth. Starting with these three assumptions, let’s see what the Parable of the Empty Jar has to say to us.

The first thing I notice is the that Parable of the Empty Jar tells us that emptiness somehow is the same as the Kingdom of Heaven. This is not traditional Christian theology, where the Kingdom of Heaven means a place you go after you die — emptiness is not a place, emptiness is just empty. Not only is this not traditional Christian theology, it seems to have a passing resemblance to another great religious tradition, the tradition of Taoism. In the Tao te Ching, the central book of Taoism, we find that passage which we heard in the second reading this morning:

We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.

Is this just coincidence? Does the idea of emptiness occur anywhere else in the Christian tradition?

Once we start looking, we find that images of emptiness and nothingness do appear elsewhere in the Christian scriptures. I think of the story of the rich young man who comes to Jesus, says he has observed all the commandments, upon hearing which Jesus tells him: “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” (Bible geeks note: this is from Mk. 10.21 [also Mt. 19.21; Lk. 18.22] RSV.) An empty bank account is equated with the kingdom of heaven. I think also of that passage in Jesus’s most famous sermon, the so-called Sermon on the Mount, where he says that we shouldn’t worry so much about material things; we shouldn’t even worry about clothing, he says: “And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” (Mt. 6.28-29) An empty clothes closet is equated with the kingdom of heaven. Jesus even empties out his family, as in the story where his mother and brothers and sisters have come to see him, to which he replies: “Who are my mothers and my brothers [and my sisters]?… Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.” (Mk. 3.33, 35)

Obviously, the Jesus tradition has a way of talking about emptiness that is quite different from the Taoist tradition; I’m not trying to tell you that they’re the same thing. The teachings of Jesus are more likely to advise us to pay less attention to material things, and instead pay greater attention to matters of the spirit; whereas the Taoist tradition, at least in my limited understanding of it, is more likely to instruct us in how to empty our minds as a form of spiritual discipline. Yet in both traditions, we do seem to find the idea that in order for us to be connected with that which is most important in life, we have to empty our lives of non-essential things; we even have to empty our lives of things we thought were essential, but which we are assured are in fact inessential.

While there are distinct differences, I think that both Taoism and the Jesus tradition are telling us that if we want to truly understand the world, we can’t rely on ordinary ways of thinking and being. Lao-tse, who allegedly wrote the Tao te Ching, invites us to empty our minds so that we may better know what he terms the Tao, the Way; Jesus invites us to empty our lives so that we may better know what he calls the Kingdom of Heaven — which he sometimes also calls the Way. Both traditions are inviting us to step out of the ordinary way of thinking and being, and step into a new way of thinking and being.

I believe it’s very important that both Jesus and Lao-tse talk about the “Way.” They don’t talk about “the place we’re going to get to eventually”; they talk about the way, the path, the journey. We can see this in the Parable of the Empty Jar. Jesus says that the empty jar is like the kingdom of heaven, but he also tells us the process by which the jar becomes empty: first the handle of the jar breaks, then the jar empties out over time (and we know that it must happen slowly, or otherwise the woman would immediately become aware that the jar was suddenly empty), and then the woman gets home and realizes that the jar is empty. We also know that the process will continue after that moment when the woman discovers that the jar is empty: she will be shocked, she will wonder how it happened; and then she will have to figure out what to do next — will she borrow flour form someone else? will she be forced to rely on her extended family and the community for help? In other words, will the emptiness of the jar force her to use her network of relationships? And perhaps this is this the kingdom of heaven:– not the emptiness of the jar itself, but the inescapable network of mutuality that binds each of us to the rest of humanity, to the rest of the ecosystem, to what we might call the Web of Life.

We have come a long way from the original parable; nothing that I have said can be found in that very short parable. None of this can be found there, but in the process of thinking about that parable, perhaps this is the direction we must come. We have not come down the well-trodden path of traditional Christianity, which tends to reject the Gospel of Thomas, or tends to interpret the Parable of the Empty Jar as a conventional parable telling us to accept Christian orthodoxy. Instead, by looking into the empty jar, by looking into emptiness, perhaps we have come face to face with reality — face to face with a reality that doesn’t have firm and final answers, a reality that is always changing, reality that is a process.

Not that I think that I have just uncovered the one final, correct interpretation of the Parable of the Empty Jar. This is a process, a path, a way — it is not a final definition that can be pinned down like a dead butterfly in a display case. And to make that point, let me tell you the rest of the story of the Parable of the Empty jar, as I imagined it happening:

You remember that as I imagined it happening, one of his followers asked him what the Kingdom of Heaven would be like, and in response Jesus told the Parable of the Empty Jar. He concluded the parable by saying, “At last the woman reached home. She put the jar down, and discovered that it was empty. That is what the Kingdom of Heaven will be like.”

As I imagine it, when Jesus stopped talking, his followers respectfully waited a little while longer, because they did not think that could be the end of the parable. But Jesus had nothing more to say. They all sat in silence for a while, and one of the followers finally said, “Master, I’m not sure I understand.”

But Jesus did not explain further, and eventually he went off by himself to sleep. The followers sat up for a while talking about the story.

“It is like the story when the prophet Elijah goes to the widow of Zarephath,” said one of the followers. “God told Elijah to go there and she would feed him, but the widow did not even have enough flour for herself and her son. Elijah tells her to bake three loaves anyway, and she finds that she does have enough flour after all, for God has provided for her. Indeed, the jar of flour is still just as full as it was before Elijah had arrived. Jesus is telling us that in the Kingdom of God, we will not have to worry where our food comes from.”

“You mean like when Jesus said, the lilies in the fields don’t go to work and yet they have enough to eat,” said one of the other followers. “Perhaps you are right, but I think Jesus is telling us that we will find the Kingdom of God in the most unexpected places. He also taught us that the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, a seed so small you can hardly see it, but one that grows into a huge plant.”

“Perhaps you are right,” said a third follower, “but a mustard seed can grow, and an empty jar of flour cannot grow into anything but hunger. I think Jesus is talking about the poor, who will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. Like the woman in the story, those who have nothing, who are poor and hungry and have no flour at all. She will be one of the ones who inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.”

No one else had anything to say, and they sat in silence for a while. At last, another one of Jesus’s followers stood up.

“I don’t think any of us really understand that story,” she said, “but Jesus got us to think hard about what the Kingdom of God is like. We have thought about it, and we have talked about it, and now it’s time to sleep, because just like the woman in the story, we have a long walk ahead of us tomorrow.”

——

That’s what I think about the Parable of the Empty Jar: I don’t think any of us knows exactly what it means. I don’t know exactly what the Parable of the Empty Jar means, but it makes me reflect on life from a new perspective; and maybe that is the real point of any parable. And I suspect that the real point of this parable, the real point of any parable told by Jesus, is not to give us a final answer about something, but to make us think in new ways. The best teachers, the greatest teachers, are not the ones who give us all the answers. The greatest teachers are the ones who make us think for ourselves, who move us into new ways of being in the world, who turn us towards a way of being in the world that makes the world a better place while it allows us to be more human, which we might call the Kingdom of Heaven. And perhaps the first step is to empty ourselves of the old ways of being, so that we can move into the ways of being.