Sermon: After Ecstasy, The Laundry

2019 April 21
by Rev Ana Levy-Lyons

 

One of the things that bugs me about books and movies where the heroes live happily ever after is that you never get to see them living happily ever after. After the big adventure where someone almost dies but doesn’t or the couple risks everything to be together or the kid finally confronts the bully, at the end they always just ride off into the sunset. It’s like this in the Christian gospels too. You get the resurrection – the juiciest moment, the dénouement of the whole thing, and then the story’s over. In some versions Jesus talks to his disciples and gives some parting instructions but then he basically goes up into the sky and sits happily at the right hand of God ever after.

 

But I always want to see what happens next. Whether it’s a novel or a movie or the Bible, I want to get to enjoy the new lives of the characters. I want to watch the couple having long, relaxed candlelit dinners together. I want to see the kid growing up all confident and happy. I want to see Jesus doing whatever he does at the right hand of the Father and I want to see the women who discovered his empty tomb never doubting their faith for even a second for the rest of their lives.

 

But you never see that. Because, for one thing, that would actually be boring. Without dramatic tension, without some problem that needs to be resolved, there’s no plot. It would be like a football thrown out into outer space with no friction that would just keep going in one direction at one speed forever. Boring. More importantly, you never get to see the happily ever after because it would be unrealistic. There’s no such thing as “happily ever after” in the sense of being unrelentingly happy forever.

 

We have moments of great happiness, great joy. We have breakthroughs and personal triumphs; we climb physical and emotional mountains. We have spiritual awakenings. Maybe we have a baby. Maybe we do marry the person we love. Maybe we do finally confront the bully, whoever that is in our lives. Maybe those women did see an empty tomb and an angel. Who knows? But after the euphoria, after the glory, and the heady, tingly rush of meeting our fate passes, we come back to ourselves. And we find that we still have to get up in the morning and go to the bathroom and feed ourselves and brush our teeth. We still have to have relationships with other human beings who can, I’m told, be fickle. And we are still basically ourselves with all our own fears and insecurities and patterns and limitations. We carry most of that with us into the next chapter.

 

Because in real life, unlike in books and movies, there usually is a next chapter. After the euphoric moment, there is something else. And that something else is where things actually get interesting. Because whatever is next tests the transformation we’ve undergone. People who go on meditation retreats for weeks or months or even years often report having major spiritual breakthroughs, feeling a profound liberation from everything that had been causing them pain. But when they return from the retreat to the “real world,” they can report feeling all the old stuff come rushing back in – the anxiety, the anger, the worry. It is said that it can take as long to integrate what you’ve learned as the time you were away. So if you go for five years, it can take another five years to see that spiritual work bear fruit in your life.

 

It may seem like I’m being a downer on Easter and saying that we can’t change. But that’s not my intention. Of course we change. We always change. It may not be a once-and-for-all happily-ever-after change, but we do change. If we are lucky, we can shift our perspective and elevate our consciousness a bit in a way that carries over into the next week or the next year. But I am saying that transformation doesn’t happen all at once. I’m trying to take some pressure off of the idea of these big, spectacular moments where, boy, you better never be the same again or you’re a loser. Change tends to be cyclical, two steps forward, one step back. There is no one moment where our football will get thrown into outer space.

 

Jack Kornfeld, the American Buddhist teacher, wrote the book from which I stole the title of this sermon, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry. It’s the idea that after the ecstasy of enlightenment, what do you do next? The laundry. The spiritual journey, although it has sparkling, vivid, liberatory moments, is ultimately about the mundane. Being present to the ordinary stuff of life. And accepting the vagaries and impermanence of that process. He writes: “For almost everyone who practices, cycles of awakening and openness are followed by periods of fear and contraction. Times of profound peace and newfound love are often overtaken by periods of loss, by closing up, fear, or the discovery of betrayal, only to be followed again by equanimity or joy. In mysterious ways the heart reveals itself to be like a flower that opens and closes. This is our nature.”

 

In the story of Jesus in the gospels, we seem to be left with the happily ever after ending of resurrection. But then the rest of the Christian New Testament describes what happens over the next hundred years. They describe the wrestling of the early Christian community. How are they going to implement the teachings of Jesus in real life, while talking, eating, and doing the laundry? How should they interact with each other? Are they still Jews or not? Do they still have to follow the laws of the Torah or not? Do they really have to sell all their possessions and give them to the poor like Jesus said? All of that transformative power of the resurrection had to be given shape in the crucible of real life.

 

The Passover story, which we’re celebrating Tuesday evening at our First U Seder, has a similar arc. It’s the Israelites’ journey of liberation from slavery in Egypt, including ten plagues and a dramatic escape through the Red Sea. Rabbis have described it as a birth process with the whole people passing through the parted ocean, like the narrow channel of the birth canal. They are pushed out the other side, reborn. This is the big awakening moment of the Jewish people. But then the question for them is, now what? There they are, free from slavery, in the desert – a big, open neutral space – and it doesn’t say “they lived happily ever after.” The entire rest of the Hebrew Bible is the account of what to do after that ecstasy of liberation. How will they now create a new society that doesn’t replicate the oppressive society they left behind? How can they really let go of their slavery? The Ten Commandments are an answer to this question and the people immediately break them. Two steps forward, one step back.

 

So in a few minutes, we’re going to do our fire ritual. And I’m going to invite you to think about what you need to let go of – what do you need to let die in yourself in order to be resurrected into new life this spring. Do you need to let go of a relationship, a bitterness, a limiting self-image? Do you need to let go of an idea of who you’re supposed to be and what your life is supposed to look like? If you were here last week, you’ll remember I said that we might need to let go of the navel-gazing pure spirituality to move toward engagement with the world. Or we might need to let go of the striving and complexity of the city world to find your simple song. Whatever it is, pour that thing or idea that you need to let go of into that piece of paper. You can even write a word on it if you have a pencil – a word representing the thing you need to let die.

 

But here’s the teaching from the stories of this season: It’s possible that that nanosecond-long ritual where the paper combusts might not completely transform you. You may not live happily ever after from that moment. In fact, the thing you’re going to try to let go of today might be the very same thing you tried to let go of last year; which might be the same thing you tried to let go of the year before that. It’s okay. It’s totally normal. It’s not a failure. Not by any means. This is the spiritual journey and just the fact that you are staying with it and revisiting your place of constriction, just the act of seeking release over and over again is an act of courage.

 

And the truth is that moments like this, if we approach them earnestly, can change us. It might be subtle and it might be cumulative, but I believe that every time we knock on the door of the spirit, it opens just a little bit more. Every time we say to God or the Universe, “I want to let go of this thing or this person or this part of myself that’s holding me back,” we gain just a little more breathing space. Every time we say, “I want to be reborn this spring,” we awaken… a little. And we can breathe that spring air anew. And then it’s up to us to try to bring that little shift in consciousness into our lives as we go shopping, as we argue with our loved ones, as we exercise, as we send text messages, and as we do our laundry. Because this is where it gets interesting and this is where it gets real.

 

We’re going to do our fire ritual now. Just a practical note – the paper you have is a special paper (if you don’t have one yet, you can get it from an usher). It’s flash paper, which, if you’ve been here on Easter before, is a kind of magician’s paper that combusts immediately when you touch it to a flame. Do not try this with a regular piece of paper. Call to mind again the thing you need to let go of to be reborn this spring and press your flash paper to your heart or your belly or your forehead and infuse it with that thing. We’re going to come up to the three stations, just like we usually do during candle lighting, but this time we’re going to touch our piece of flash paper to the flame, lift it up, and let it go. Karen will demonstrate… Please come forward when you’re ready.

 

 

 

 

 

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