Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
A piece of Buddhist wisdom states: “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.
A related brief story says that before he became enlightened the Buddha would sweat when he was hot, and shiver when he was cold. And after enlightenment the Buddha would sweat when it was hot, and shiver when it was cold.
What is it that we expect will happen…on that day we finally “get it?” On the day the veil if finally lifted off of our faces and we see, not through a glass darkly, but the world transfigured before us?
What kind of wisdom…special knowledge…maybe secret powers…do we anticipate receiving when we get to the end of the path?
Or more precisely: what do we expect will happen the day AFTER we have that breakthrough…that epiphany?
Peter, John and James certainly don’t expect Jesus’ face to change, his clothes to become so bright they’re painful to look at…they don’t expect Moses and Elijah to show up. They don’t expect to hear a voice from the clouds. But it happens…
What did they expect when they came down from that mountain…did they imagine the world would be changed…that everyone would be glowing (shining like the sun?)…that things would be a whole lot easier now…?
What did Jesus expect? That these three knuckleheads would not just rouse from sleep, but really wake up? That the rest of his followers would suddenly understand all things necessary to salvation and what they needed to do to bring God’s reign about?
In some ways, this passage from Luke is like our version of these Buddhist parables.
Before the Transfiguration Jesus had to cast out demons, heal people and teach hard-headed disciples. After the Transfiguration Jesus had to cast out demons, heal people, and teach hard-headed disciples.
Before the Transfiguration the disciples didn’t really understand what acknowledging Jesus as the Christ meant. After the Transfiguration they still didn’t really understand what that means.
The beauty and wisdom of the phrase “chop wood, carry water,” is that it’s a short hand reminder—a proverbial “whack on the side of the head”—to get over our dualistic mindset. To help check our unrealistic expectations…and ground us in the here and now…in reality…which is God…which is love.
Life goes on, and the daily things still have to be attended to. Wood must be chopped, water must be carried, the bills have to be paid, the kids have to get to school, the parents have to be taken care of, the poor and sick and tired need what they need and will always be with us.
So, you can either approach these things like the drudgery they can be…or (no, wait, check that…AND), you can also approach them as pathways in, as gateways to something bigger.
If, as I said a few weeks ago (quoting Paul), God truly is that in which we “live and move and have our being,” if, as Sister Joan Chittister OSB says, “If I really believe that God is present in my life, here and now, then I have no choice but to deal with that.”
Jesus is still Jesus whether his face is glowing or not. Your neighbor is still your neighbor (and a child of God) whether you can see them glowing or not.
If God really is present…then God is really present in all of life. But Chittister goes on to say, that too often, “we forget the presence of God, and so we act as if God was not present,” [Wisdom Distilled from the Daily p. 53 & 58].
We forget to chop wood and carry water, or we forget that doing so is also way into God, and not just a tiresome tasks.
Luke doesn’t explicitly tell us why the disciples can’t cast out this spirit; but forgetting God’s presence and trying extra hard to do it on your own, is probably not too far off the mark.
So one use of the phrase, “chop wood, carry water” might be to remind us to be aware of God’s presence even in the most unlikely and mundane places. Chittister says, “To pray in the midst of the mundane is simply and strongly to assert that this dull and tiring day is holy and its simple labors are the stuff of God’s saving presence for me now.” [Wisdom p. 31].
Would that be a worthwhile Lenten practice for you? To stop every once in a while and simply say: “even if I don’t get it, I trust that what is happening now is holy and God is here.” What might change, if you did that consistently?
And consistency is important. Another use of the phrase chop wood, carry water, is as a reminder of consistency.
Chopping wood, and carrying water is not a “one and done” deal. Nor a “set it and forget it.” It’s something that has to be done regularly. Whatever your spiritual practice is: coming to church, sitting in prayer, reading the bible, walking, meditating, playing music, swimming, it needs to be done regularly.
“But I don’t have time,” I hear you say (or maybe that’s me projecting…). Here’s a bit of truth for us all…No one has the time. Time has to be made…has to be taken. You will never “find” time, you have to “make” time. Could Lent be a period when you consciously, and intentionally, focus on realigning your priorities? Making time for the things that are truly important…that genuinely feed your soul…even if (and maybe especially if) they are a little hard…and you’re not so good at it…and maybe it takes effort and time…?
What would change, if you set an intention this Lent to pray daily…to read scripture…to set aside time or money to give to a worthwhile project…or made a commitment to participate in a community project? I can’t tell you what would change for you, but I can guarantee that if you develop a practice and stick with it…you will change…the world will begin to look different.
What would a practice of “chopping wood and carrying water” be for you this Lent? And how could people here support you in doing it?
Another ancient story tells of a sage who always taught that, There are three stages of spiritual development:
The first is where we all start…very concrete…trees appear as trees and mountains appear as mountains.
As we develop practices and become able to see more deeply into the true nature of things…then, trees no longer look like trees and mountains no longer look like mountains.
The third stage is close to the divine—it is an enlightened stage—and in that stage the trees become trees again and the mountains become mountains.
Joan Chittister again: “We pray [chop wood, carry water…have intentional, high priority practices so that we can] see life as it is, to understand it, and to make it better than it was. We pray so that reality can break into our souls and give us back our awareness of the Divine Presence in life. We pray to understand things as they are, not to ignore and avoid and deny them. We pray so that when the incense disappears we can still see the world as holy.” [Wisdom p. 38].
Before the transfiguration chop wood, carry water. After the transfiguration, chop wood, carry water.
This Lent, may it be so for us all. Amen.