9 Pentecost—Proper 11-B, July 22, 2018
Jeremiah 23:1-6, Psalm 23, Ephesians 2:11-22, Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
Is there a special church you’ve been in that seems to be filled with the presence of God? In this country I’ve always felt Presence in the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, but the place that I feel God the strongest is in the church at the Trappist Monastery of the Holy Spirit, in Conyers, GA, just east of Atlanta. Though very different in size, both churches offer a tourist a place filled with light, symbols of faith, and most of all, beautiful empty space. The quality of the space is not all cluttered with stuff and noise, so the soul can lift out of her inner clutter from memory and imagination, and soar into the empty space of peace and Presence.
That is, IF we take the time to sit quietly for a few minutes, putting down the phone and the brochure, and just be, letting our eyes soften and our hearts open, we will enter into a relaxed, prayerful, state that can be picked up on an electroencephalograph, an EEG. Your brain will move from Beta to Alpha waves, as we experience calm centeredness.
But often we’re too busy to take the time to enter into the beauty of empty space, because we’re already behind schedule “with miles to go”, if we want to see and do everything on our list. So, we take a bunch of pictures with our phones and head to the next place—like the bookstore or the coffee shop. By the way, I have good reason to know that both Washington Cathedral and the abbey church have excellent bookstores!
Of course, there are beautiful spaces that can free the soul from her clutter that have nothing to do with church buildings. The mountains do it for some, the ocean or lake for others.
You’ll remember a verse from John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High”:
Now he walks in quiet solitude the forest and the streams
Seeking grace in every step he takes
His sight has turned inside himself to try and understand
The serenity of a clear blue mountain lake
But again one key requirement is not only the quality of the space we’re in, but the quality of the space in us. If our inner space is filled with hurry and cyber noise we will not sense God in the holiest church or the grandest national park.
This is as true for the disciples as it is for us, so Jesus listens closely to the apostles report on their first mission without him—you know, the one where they DIDN’T take a backpack filled with food, money, and clothes, just in case God didn’t come through for them.
Mark tells us: “The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they” had participated in healing of the sick, driving out of demons, and proclaiming the arrival in Jesus of the Commonwealth of God. But Jesus senses their souls are frayed and frazzled, so he says to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.”
Even with Jesus right there, they needed to rest, so once again their souls could attend to the mystery of God.
Summer hopefully is about finding the space in our calendar and in our souls to rest, to re-create, so we can open to the Mystery all around us. But just taking time off from work and going to a great place is not a foolproof way to renew ourselves and experience the Presence, because the fool, who is us, always joins us on our vacations.
In the disciples’ case, they couldn’t rest because the people got there before them and the work of ministry starts up again. Vacation would have to wait.
And for us even after we take a great vacation, we come home and the assault on our soul begins anew and we fill up with more junk and noise, and we forget to open ourselves to the many spaces in our lives, which are filled with Presence.
In fact, there are NO SPACES that are not filled with God, but until we learn how to see God in the obvious spaces, we will not see God hiding in plain sight in the unexpected ones.
Therefore, it is necessary that we practice that kind of seeing: So maybe we start looking in obvious places like a beautiful church or the face of a newborn, and then we practice this contemplative seeing in weekly participation with our parish community, in the beauty of our stone wall and rugged cross, surrounded by a mid-century modern A-frame.
The patron saint for parish clergy, Saint Jean-Marie Vianney, tells the story of an old farmer who would regularly spend an hour a day sitting in their empty church in front of the Blessed Sacrament in the tiny French village of Ars. Saint Jean asked the farmer what he said to the Lord during those times of just sitting in church and the farmer said, “I don’t say anything. I just look at him and he looks at me.”
With this kind of contemplative practice the farmer is capable of seeing God at work when he gets back to the farm.
So the question today is: where and how do we practice seeing God in our daily lives?
I know some of you practice being open to Presence as you walk your dog in the woods. Others practice by praying the psalms, reading the Bible, or Centering Prayer. Others experience Presence through painting, woodworking, journaling, reading, exercising, gardening, doing yard work, cooking, or playing with your kids. There is no end to the possibilities, because there is NO PLACE where God isn’t active in love. NO PLACE
Of course—all these activities can be run by and for the ego, and become “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Paul even makes the radical claim that it’s not just the church building that is filled with God, but it is the community of believers who are in fact the Temple of God.
Paul writes to the Ephesians this morning: “We are members of the household of God…and that In Christ the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom we also are built together in the Spirit into a dwelling place for God.”
We are that place! Which is why being a worshipper in church or in nature or in home and office is a deeper experience of God than simply being a tourist. Worship is not just something we do an hour a week sitting in hard pews—worship is an attitude of openness to God who in Christ is present in love in all creation.
John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” begins this way: He was born in the summer of his 27th year/Coming home to a place he’d never been before.
It reminds us of the T. S. Eliot line from Four Quartets:
“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
This is Christ’s work in us. It is Christ Crucified who tears down the dividing walls that chop up our world, making us too scared to see God in friend and stranger. And it is Christ who invites the soul to reach out her hands to touch him, be healed…and come home.