03 February 2008

Abiding Presence: Sermon 3.February.2008

The Last Sunday after The Epiphany
The Sunday Next before Lent

Scripture Lessons  Psalm 139 and Jeremiah 23:23-32

Abiding Presence
{A few notes about worship.  First of all, the longest sermon to date in my life: 27 minutes.  Second, there was communion, #3 was very excited, he kept trying to lead his mother down the aisle to "pick up some communion elements,"  he could not understand why he could not just walk down the aisle and  help himself.   Finally, a woman who is legally blind in the congregation always has interesting comments, noted this morning how the sermon made her want to retrieve her audio tapes of the psalms to listen to.  Furthermore (a word I always want to use more but do not) I have for the past few months been trying to figure out how to end a sermon with an invitation, not an altar call per se but an invitation.  I am getting close, a book of Howard Thurman sermons have helped.  Enjoy...

Over the course of Lent we will center on the temptations of the Master and how the Lord endured and creatively overcame them by incorporating them into his life. This morning I want to lay the groundwork for the proper placement of temptations. I do not want to define temptations or even reveal how they operated in Jesus’ life and in our lives. I want to, instead, lay a foundational primary experience: the constant and abiding presence of God. The practice of the presence of God is the most difficult thing we will do as human beings and it is the hardest temptation to overcome and incorporate into our lives.

As far as I know no one here has seen God; no one knows exactly what God looks like, smells like or sounds like. We do have some words and actions of Jesus recorded for us in the gospels but no pictures, audio files or descriptions about his appearance or looks. Folk 2000 years ago did see Jesus, i.e. God incarnate, they did hear him, they did smell him, touch him and even tasted him as they kissed or greeted him. Jesus was a specific person with a specific mom and dad, with a specific name from a specific time and culture. Jesus had an accent, walked a certain way, laughed at some things and cried at others. Nevertheless, despite the specificity and limitations contained in the descriptive designation: Jesus of Nazareth. The designation of Jesus of Nazareth tells more who he was not than who he was; he was not Jesus of Athens, Jesus of Rome, Jesus of London or Jesus of Montreal. Jesus of Nazareth is a scandalous doorway to God. Jesus presents a picture and a presence of God. Jesus of Nazareth allows us to form a picture of God in our imaginations. The picture of God is the doorway to our spiritual life transforming God from and vast and vacuous word to a living reality. Our pictures of God cannot fully contain God but they allow us in our individual ways to meet and practice the presence of God. Regardless of the primacy and life changing magnitude of our pictures of God we constantly forget about and fail to practice the presence of God.

True, we may not have literally seen God but we have in a deeper and truer way the experience of seeing God in Jesus Christ. Despite having the picture of God provided by Jesus, despite having the saving experience of Jesus and despite knowing a more abundant life awaits us if we would practice God’s presence we do not.

Why is this the case? I can safely imagine that most of us here have cell phones. And have you noticed how your ability to remember phone numbers has diminished? This has nothing to do with senior moments, hardening of the arteries or even absent mindedness. You can recall a time, just a few years ago when you had a running list of phone numbers you could recall at an instance, but now you cannot. We were able to recall at an instance phone numbers because we were practicing them, we had to remember them. We sat on a chair with a phone connected to the wall, placed our finger in the rotary dial turned it clockwise and then waited the dial as it tuck, tuck, tuck and returned to the beginning position.

If we do not practice the contents of our memories, the data quickly fades into areas of our seldom used brain. Instead of well greased machines our memories function like a chest of drawers that we cannot open.

The prophet Jeremiah lived during a time of turmoil, he was called by God to warn his people of God’s impending judgment and wrath. Time and time again he offered words he hoped would cause his fellow countrymen and women to change their ways and doings, repent, and turn to the Lord. If they would simply show some signs of remorse God would put a stop to his plans. But folk did not listen, they seemed to have forgotten abiding presence, then the unthinkable happened: Exile, the ground shook, the army invaded, the beloved city of Jerusalem was burned to the ground and the citizens were shackled and led out of the promise land and into the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates.

In our passage from the prophet Jeremiah the curtain preventing us from peering into God’s heart is peeled away and we see the rage forming and God’s frustration with his people who have forgotten him. God sarcastically and rhetorically asks Am I a God near by and not a God far off? Then why do my people continue to listen to the prophets of Ba’al, as if Ba’al is near and I am far off? The prophets of Ba’al plan to make my people forget my name by their dreams that they tell one another, just as their ancestors forgot my name for Ba’al. God’s melancholy and rage then turns to humor: Is not my work like a fire and like a hammer that breaks a rock to pieces? One day the chickens will come home to roost and all will see the words offered by the prophets of Ba’al nothing more than clanging cymbals.

The emptiness of their words was revealed when the Babylonian army charged into the Promised Land, the moment of realization arrived and the time of reckoning had come for Israel. Living in a strange and faraway land the Israelites gathered by the river and tried to sing but all they could mutter were some words found in Psalm 137: If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem about my highest joy. Not until their homeland, and birthright were taken away by God did the moment of realization emerge. Absence and separation can allow us the necessary detachment to assess the importance and vitality of relationships in our lives – not realizing how needed someone is until they are gone. We easily take others and God for granted. After we realize how vital others are in our lives the possibility of repentance, restoration and deeper ways of living open up to us. Again, however, there is distinct possibility that we will forget again and repeat the same cycle over and over and over again.

Can we prevent this cycle from happening over and over again? One of the surest ways is simple contact, nurturing of a relationship and the practice of the presence of another. The movers and shakers of the Reformation of Western Christianity in the mid 1500s faced a great question: what should they keep from the Catholic faith and what should they dismiss? The English Reformation sought to preserve a Catholic style of worship blended with a Protestant mindset, sometimes called the via media or middle way. The Continental Reformers sought to dismiss a greater portion of Catholic Christianity, and then there were the Radicals, the Baptist, the Mennonites, and the Anabaptists. They threw everything and the kitchen sink out the window with the hope of retrieving a New Testament church. Gone were statues, icons, stained glass windows, no monasteries, no crosses, no religious holidays – no nothing but the Bible, Prayer, Hymns, and Preaching. This radical move looked great on paper but created a practical problems for the practitioners: how to practice daily devotion, daily prayer, how do you daily practice the presence of God without the aid of an icon, rosary beads, or even a simple genuflection? The radicals developed took two teaching pedagogies and intertwined them: imagination and bible memorization. In private devotion disciples developed a way of reading the Bible creatively placing themselves in the story also they memorized large portions of scripture, even whole books!

Laugh at this if you want, but they were onto something, they were seeking to incorporate the Biblical narrative into their narrative. The Bible was not just another book from another time and culture; it was the primary means along with experience to encounter God. The Bible was not a history book but a Living Word. Their practices of scriptural memorization and creative reading allowed our ancestors of the faith to develop a rich depository of living words, they filled their wells with living water till their cups overfloweth.

It should come as no surprise the book most easily quoted and memorized was/is the book of Psalms. The Psalms are the prayerbook of the Bible, Martin Luther once referred to them as the Bible in miniature. They are timeless prayers. Why are they so memorable? They are poems, songs and heart-words. They were set to music, prayed at sunrise, spoken at meal times, and chanted before folk went to bed. They possess a deep reservoir of language which speaks to our souls in unknowable ways. At a funeral the words of Jesus comfort us, but nothing moves us like a reading of 23rd Psalm. We are comforted in a different way when Psalm 121 states: The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore. When you want to confess you pray Psalm 51: create in me a clean heart O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. When you are moved and want to wring someone’s neck you turn to Psalm 109 possessing the subject of our anger in mind and pray: May his days be few, may his children be orphans, his wife a widow, may the creditors seize all he has. When you feel like God is for far away, when life makes no sense allow Psalm 139 to sneak in: O Lord, you have searched me and known me. Where can I go from your spirit? Where can I flee from your presence – lead me in the way everlasting.

The Psalms present to a lavish and varied aspect of the practice of the presence of God. They do not present a sugarcoated faith or prosperity gospel. They present a faith stirred up in the blood, the guts and the beer which is sustained only by the abiding presence and steadfast love of God that must be remembered, practiced and not forgotten.

Around 1632 a young man of 24 in eastern France, after fighting in the Thirty Years War and serving as a valet, entered the Carmelite monastery in Paris. He took the name Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, he had no education or standing and therefore sent to the kitchen where he spent the next 56 years baking bread and preparing meals. Covered in a dusting of flour he talked to his brothers in the monastery about his daily practice of the presence of God. For centuries folk had daily practiced the presence of God, but no one described it like Brother Lawrence. He wrote a series of letters/conversations about his practice of God’s presence to an associate. The short letters describes why worship must not stop at 11:00am but must be a continual act, an act that impregnates every thing we do whether flipping an egg or kneading bread. He did not advocate for folk to pray out loud all day or even in quite inner prayer. Instead, as Douglas Steere the great 20th century Quaker commented on Brother Lawrence said we can fix our will and our affections upon God as to permeate all that we do with this relationship. The baker’s words have inspired and lifted up the reality ever since, we can practice God’s presence, we can experience God everyday at all times. We can overcome and incorporate the temptation that God is not present. We can overcome the temptation that God does not really care about you or that God really does not want to spend time and be bothered by me.

The scandal of Jesus Christ coming to earth is that God does want to be bothered by you. God does want to spend time with you. God wants you to have a picture of mind when you pray and practice God’s presence.

I would like to draw to a close with this image/story. In Cremona, Italy the national violin museum is located. For the past 30 years, everyday but Sunday, Mr. Andrea Musconi dresses in a finely cut suit finished with a handmade silk tie and plays the worlds greatest violins. He plays a steady diet of Bach and Tchaikovsky. Many people have wondered why the violins of the Italian masters are the worlds greatest. What make a Stradivarius and Stradivarius? Some say it is the glue and resin, the presence of trees now extinct or the vestige of the mini ice age. No one knows, but there is a secret to keeping a Strat a Strat: they must be played. To keep a world class violin fit and sounding their best they must be played. If you do not play a violin the wood gets tired.

You cannot give into the temptation that God is not present. We must realize no only God’s constant presence but practice it. We have beautiful souls, we are the handiwork of God, how can we keep from singing? How can we keep from practicing God’s presence? We sing because we are happy/ We sing because we are free. We have marvelous souls that need and desire to practice God’s presence. When you face the temptation not to practice, remember and acknowledge God’s presence how will you respond? Will you let your soul get tired?

Living God, daily we are tempted, daily we fail. We will not walk through the pearly gates because of our failures, but because of your grace. But how sad when we choose not to practice your presence, to let our souls grow tired when there was a richer, fuller and abundant life to live. Grant us, O Lord, some time and space to practice your presence. Provide not a cold icy or silent moment but a warm and lively spirit. In the precious name of Jesus we pray. Amen

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