Infinite Possibility: an Interfaith Sermon

by Vicki Garlock on May 13, 2015

I was honored to offer the meditation (sermon) at Jubilee! Community church last Sunday morning, May 10, 2015. The topic was Infinite Possibility, and I used readings from the Bhagavad Gita, the Tao Te Ching, and the New Testament, as well as a kirtan chant. Below is the text of my address.

Our topic for today is Infinite Possibility which makes it a little hard to know where to begin – or end. I decided to start at the beginning – not the very beginning, of course – but at about the 4th century BCE in the vast expanse of land known as the Indus Valley. Where farmers worked the fertile land around the Indus River; and metal-workers fashioned copper, bronze, and tin; and city-dwellers occupied baked brick houses in well-planned urban centers that offered both clean water and elaborate drainage systems. And the merchants…well they did what all merchants have done before then and since then – they traveled from place to place carrying goods, sharing the news of the day, and telling stories.

One of the stories they told – in that area we now call NW India and Pakistan – was the Mahabarata – now known as the longest epic poem ever written down. The Mahabarata tells the tale of ancient war between the Karauvas and Pandavas – two clans of the powerful Kuru tribe. One of the heroes of the Pandava clan was Arjuna, shining master of the bow and arrow. But as the war was coming to a close, Arjuna’s courage began to fail. He was fighting members of his extended family – his mentors, his teachers, his boyhood classmates. He was devastated, distraught, full of self-doubt – unsure about whether or not he could stomach the outcome. And that’s when Krishna took over.

[Krishna Govinda Govinda Gopala]

In the Hindu tradition, the cosmos were created by Brahma, they are maintained and protected by Vishnu, and they are destroyed and transformed by Shiva. If that sounds a bit like the Trinity to you, it should. And, no, the early Christians were not the first ones to think of that idea.

Occasionally, these gods would descend to earth and appear in human form – as manifestations or incarnations of the divine. These manifestations or incarnations are called avatars, and Vishnu, in particular, sent a lot of them. Krishna was the 8th of Vishnu’s avatars. Krishna was Vishnu – living on earth – the divine in bodily form – the divine incarnate. So, no, the early Christians were not the first ones to recognize that phenomenon either.

[Krishna Govinda Govinda Gopala]

Govinda and Gopala are names for Vishnu, and they refer to Vishnu’s role as a protector. So this line…Krishna Govinda Govinda Gopala… essentially acknowledges that Krishna is Vishnu. Krishna is the divine on earth. Over the centuries, Krishna has come to represent many things to many people. He was a cow-herder who apparently had quite a way with the young milkmaids of his day – one of the perks of being a god, after all. Sometimes he shows up as the merry prankster, stealing butter and milk from neighbors, and he is often depicted playing the flute – called a murali in Sanskrit.

[Krishna Govinda Govinda Gopala
Krishna Murali Mano Hare Nanda La Ha La]

The second line of this chant is roughly translated as Krishna, who enchants – or maybe steals – hearts (hare) and minds (mano) with his flute. It is a pretty popular and famous kirtan chant. If you’ve ever done kirtan, you know that the chants can go on for several minutes. They are also done in a call-and-response format. We won’t go on for several minutes, but we can do this as a call-and-response. [Teach chant and sing through a few times]

[Krishna Govinda Govinda Gopala
Krishna Murali Mano Hare Nanda La Ha La]

This is the Krishna – Vishnu as he appeared on earth – that we find on the battlefield with Arjuna – our young warrior who is currently in great distress over killing those he loves. Krishna and Arjuna engage in a very long conversation in which Krishna explains to Arjuna that the war is both necessary and inevitable. That conversation between Krishna and Arjuna is known as the Bhagavad Gita.

Over the course of that conversation, Arjuna comes to understand the full divine nature of Krishna. This passage, one of the most beautiful and well-known in all the Bhagavad Gita, is when Krishna finally agrees to reveal the fullness of his glory to the mortal Arjuna.

Arjuna: Just as you have described your infinite glory, O Lord, now I long to see it. I want to see you as the supreme ruler of creation. O Lord, master of yoga, if you think me strong enough to behold it, show me your immortal Self.

Krishna: Behold, Arjuna, a million divine forms, with an infinite variety of color and shape. Behold the gods of the natural world, and many more wonders never revealed before. Behold the entire cosmos turning within my body, and the other things you desire to see….

Sanjaya: Having spoken these words, Krishna, the master of yoga, revealed to Arjuna his most exalted, lordly form. He appeared with an infinite number of faces, ornamented by heavenly jewels, displaying unending miracles and the countless weapons of his power. Clothed in celestial garments and covered with garlands, sweet-smelling with heavenly fragrances, he showed himself as the infinite Lord, the source of all wonders, whose face is everywhere….There, within the body of the God of gods, Arjuna saw all the manifold forms of the universe united as one.

Arjuna: O Lord, I see within your body all the gods and every kind of living creature. I see Brahma, the Creator, seated on a lotus; I see the ancient sages and the celestial serpents. I see infinite mouths and arms, stomachs and eyes, and you are embodied in every form. I see you everywhere, without beginning, middle, or end. You are the Lord of all creation, and the cosmos is your body.
(Bhagavad Gita most of 11:3-16)

It is, as we see so many times in these ancient and sacred texts, an attempt to articulate that which cannot be articulated. An attempt to put linguistic boundaries on that which is boundless. An attempt to harness that which is limitless. In the Jewish tradition, Yahweh, appearing to Moses as a burning bush, went with the less-is-more approach, “I am what I am.” The Muslim tradition employs the 99 names of God, fully aware that even if they went with 999 names of God, it would still be grossly inadequate.

The Tao Te Ching also goes with a relatively minimalist approach. The chapters in the Tao Te Ching are so short! Never longer than a single page. As if to say, by its very sparseness, that you can never grasp the Great Mystery. You can touch it – only briefly – with a fingertip. You can glimpse it – only momentarily – like a far-away star in your peripheral vision. Written down around the same time as the Bhagavad Gita – but in China instead of India – the Tao Te Ching has this to say about the infinite, the unfathomable, the Way:

The Tao is like a well:
Used but never used up.
It is like the eternal void:
Filled with infinite possibilities
It is hidden but always present.
I don’t know who gave birth to it.
It is older than God.
(Tao Te Ching, Chapter 4)

The Hindu tradition, however, in the Bhagavad Gita, actually makes a real attempt. “A million divine forms with an infinite variety of color and shape. An infinite number of faces, ornamented by heavenly jewels displaying unending miracles. Infinite mouths and arms, stomachs and eyes. Radiance that is blinding and immeasurable. Without beginning, middle, or end.” A concept, by the way, that shows up several times in the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation… “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” Alpha and omega. A different alphabet, perhaps, but the same idea.

[Krishna Govinda Govinda Gopala
Krishna Murali Mano Hare Nanda La Ha La]

When my son was in first grade, he began to grasp one of the most fascinating aspects of numbers. No matter how high you can count, you can always add one more. For weeks on end, we would sit at the dinner table while he gave us math problems to solve. “Hey Mom…what’s 100 x 100 x 1,000 + 4.” “Hey Dad…what’s 37 + 18 x 100,000,000?” Sometimes we could give a reasonable answer. Other times, we could not. Eventually this dinner-time activity led to a conversation about what comes after a trillion. Is it really a zillion? Maybe it’s a gazillion. Being a not-so-in-the-closet intellectual, I did an internet search on numbers. Turns out there’s a Wikipedia page called “Names of Large Numbers.” It goes trillion, quadrillion, quintillion, by the way. Zillion and gazillion? Those are on another Wikipedia page called Indefinite and Fictitious Numbers.

But my son and his friends ended up way beyond the notion of a quintillion. Somehow they found out about googol. The word googol, spelled g-o-o-g-o-l, was coined by the 9-year-old nephew of an American mathematician. Uncle Math knew immediately that, to make it a real number, it needed to be defined. So he defined it as the number 1 followed by 100 zeroes. Funny enough, it might actually be a reasonably good estimate of the number of elementary particles in the universe. But, of course, even in first-grade, my son knew that you could just add googols together to get even bigger numbers. “Hey Mom,” he eventually said, “how much is a googol x a googol?”

As Marie Curie says, “The new sights of nature made me rejoice like a child.”

And that is the sheer beauty and the utter frustration of the infinite. It’s simply not graspable. When you reach out as far as you can possibly reach, there’s this sense that you could always go just a fraction of a millimeter more. And yet, fullness of life demands that we take a seat in exactly that spot – that we live – day in and day out – as though we were discovering – each and every minute of each and every day – that you can always “add 1.”

[Krishna Govinda Govinda Gopala
Krishna Murali Mano Hare Nanda La Ha La]

Most of you have probably noticed – at least subconsciously – that this podium is positioned in different places at different times of the year. This is the springtime place. Every spring, which begins for us on the vernal equinox, around March 21, we move into the Via Transformativa. You can see the banner for it right up there. It’s even got bees and flowers on it in case you forget which season we’re in. During the Via Transformativa, we honor…transformation…change. We honor the changes that inevitably happen over time. We honor the changes that have come about through our blood, sweat, and tears. And we honor the changes we desperately hope to see in the world.

The theme Howard chose for this Via Transformativa — 2015 — is Choices. For the last several Sundays, Howard has talked about various choices we have – receiving or grasping, faith or certainty, humility or shame, letting go or giving up. But the topic he assigned for this morning wasn’t a choice at all. It was just this: Infinite Possibility. Maybe that’s because we really have no choice about that. Infinite Possibility just is — above us, below us, inside of us, and all around us. The only choice we really have about Infinite Possibility is whether or not we reach for it.

As a person who likes to plan weeks, months, and sometimes even years in advance, I find the various passages about Jesus calling the first disciples rather fascinating. Some version of it shows up in all four of the Gospels, but the passages in Matthew and Mark are almost identical – and very short. Here it is again.

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea – for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. (Matthew 4:18-22)

Of course, we don’t know exactly what happened as Jesus gathered that motley band of preachers and healers that would eat with him, travel with him, and ultimately watch him die. But, based on this passage, we are given to understand that it happened “immediately” – a word that is used twice over the course of 5 sentences. Apparently, these guys didn’t feel the need to go home and pack a bag. They didn’t run to the nearest wi-fi café to update their resumes. They didn’t give two weeks’ notice. They dropped their nets and followed Jesus. They left their boat – and their father. In that moment, it was all about reaching for whatever came next. It was all about taking the first step on a journey of discovery. It was all about Infinite Possibility.

We all know how fishing nets work. They haven’t changed much over the course of human history. You weave lines of rope to create a mesh. For big fish, like the tilapia found in the Sea of Galilee, the weave would have been larger. For smaller fish, like the Galilean sardines, the weave would have been smaller. But the point is – and has always been – the same: to trap the fish so they can’t escape.

So here’s the question I pose to you. What things in life are preventing you from escaping? What things have you trapped? What are your nets made from? Maybe it’s fear – fear of looking silly, fear of being rejected, fear of failure, fear of success. Or maybe it’s guilt. Shame. Arrogance. Disenchantment. Disempowerment. We would rather stay where we are…crowded, cramped, and flopping about…coughing, wheezing, and gasping for air…than drop the nets that trap us. We would rather stay, safe and secure in our boat, than get wet.

But sometimes, that’s really all it takes. Just drop the net. Pull the blinders from your eyes. Take a big breath in…and jump. Leap toward the infinite. Reach for that which is boundless. Stretch yourself toward that never-ending, vast, limitless realm of promise and potential. Leave your net, leave your boat – and do it immediately. As the disciples could tell you…it’s the only way you can even begin to touch Infinite Possibility.

Easwaran, Eknath. The Bhagavad Gita. Trans. CA: Nilgiri Press, 1985. Print.
Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. San Francisco, CA: HarperOne, 2007. Print.
Mitchell, Stephen. Tao Te Ching. Trans. NY: Harper Perennial, 1988. Print.

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