Proper 15C, 2019
The Rev. Dr. Kathy Kelly
The Word is very near you, in your heart, and yet beyond all knowing. (The Living Church, 10/22/17)
Fifteen years ago when Kate was quite small, I left her at home with a sitter named Cecilia while I visited a family’s home for dinner. We had just moved from the dining room to the living room when the sitter called and told me my house was on fire. In a panic I rushed home. Those five miles seemed like a thousand. What I found there in the front yard was a crew of capable firemen, no flames but lots of smoke, and lay baby in her pajamas in the arms of an equally capable sitter.
The sitter had called 911, grabbed Kate, the dog, her phone and pulled the door to as she left. That one act saved the house though it was gutted, mostly by smoke and water damage.
I lost everything. It was the best thing that ever happened to me.
A funny side note, I called Cecilia the next day to check on her, she was pretty shaken by the ordeal, but I also called to apologize that in the chaos I had failed to pay her for her services. She declined to take the payment, as if the fire was her fault. It was not. The insurance adjuster confirmed that later. I told her that she certainly deserved her wages considering that she saved the life of my daughter, my dog, my cat and the house itself!
In the midst of the clean up I was met with the overwhelming processes of insurance claims. It is interesting to me that insurance companies still use the phrase “act of God,” as if God is the ultimate scape goat when accidents happen. Well, actually, this is not a phrase that is formally used in documents by insurance companies but rather a colloquialism which indicates the difference between an accident, such as a wiring problem like the one that caused my house fire, and a natural disaster which would be the case if lightening hit the house. I do not know, nor do I want to know the difference in terms of payment of insurance claims.
But it strikes me as odd that we still blame God when storms of wind, rain, snow or tsunamis happen. I don’t think we really still believe that God is an angry monster in the sky who send down suffering when we are bad. At least I hope not.
Instead, I have found that the Christian faith has grown up since the dark ages and come to realize that God may be in ways “beyond all knowing,” but at the same time “the Kingdom of God is within us.” The Word is very near us, in our hearts - and yet beyond all knowing.
Hear these words from New Testament professor, Matt Skinner: “When Jesus speaks of bringing “fire to the earth,” I suggest you avoid connecting it to images of destruction or cataclysm. The fire Jesus wants to kindle is a fire of change, the fire of God’s active presence in the world. . . . We do well to hear this Gospel lesson from the twelfth chapter of Luke in connection to Mary’s and Zechariah’s stories from the first chapter. And in connection to John the Baptist’s preaching in the third chapter. Jesus yearns for the kingdom of God to break forth into the world in all its fullness. The transformations and justice that the saints envisioned in the first three chapters of Luke are the things that Jesus wants too. That means that oppression has to go. Greed has to go. Idolatry has to go. Same with exploitation, dehumanization, narcissism, and any other evils you can name that prevent the flourishing of all people and all creation. Those contagions are rendered powerless in the presence of God.”
In my manuscript, I have added italics to his two uses of the word presence and his use of the phrase kingdom of God. Because, these words remind me that at those times when we feel we have lost everything, at those times when we feel God is lost, that God is silent or distant or absent, I have learned that these are the times we most need to let go of fear let go of frustration and turn again instead to the center of our very beings. Because that is where we are most likely to find God. In the very center of our own hearts.
Here’s a story from my favorite biblical humorist:
A small boy is stumbling through the woods when he comes upon a preacher baptizing people in the river. He proceeds to walk into the water and subsequently bumps into the preacher. The preacher turns around, whereupon he asks the boy, “Are you ready to find Jesus?” The boy answers, “Yes, I am.” So the preacher grabs him and dunks him in the water. He pulls him up and asks the boy, “Brother, have you found Jesus?”
The boy replies, “No, I haven’t found Jesus.” The preacher, shocked at the answer, dunks him into the water again for a little longer this time. Then he pulls him out of the water and asks again, “Have you found Jesus, my brother?” The boy again answers, “No, I haven’t found Jesus.” By this time the preacher is at his wits end and dunks the boy in the water again—but this time holds him down for about thirty seconds, and when he begins kicking his arms and legs he pulls him up. The preacher again asks the boy, “For the love of God, child, have you found Jesus?” The boy wipes his eyes and sputters and catches his breath and says to the preacher, “Are you sure this is where he fell in?”
Sometimes baptism is a tricky business. We do it as infants and as adults. Some people believe in full immersion, some in a sprinkle of water. But the point is that we are uniting ourselves with Christ. Even in this joke where the boy cannot physically find Jesus in the river, he can join Jesus in living a godly life. That is what our baptism is about— dying and living with Christ.
This reminds me of my experience yesterday over at the Kroger. Have you been there lately? They’re in the midst of rearranging most of the inventory. So, I was just there for cauliflower for a recipe and planned to pick up some toothpaste but that was the extent of my list. But when I turned from the produce section to head to the pharmacy I realized the health food section was gone and the flowers had been moved forward. Then I realized that all the aisle had been rearranged. And they were not done yet but are still in the middle of this transition.
What ensued was hilarious. Since I had such a short list and plenty of time, I decided to meander through each aisle checking out what was where and making a mental note so that I would be able to find my usual products next time I came. What I found was the usual 5:00-Friday crowd and everyone was lost and confused. One man stopped me and asked in exasperation if I knew where the jelly was! Another woman was on the verge of tears because she couldn’t find the flour and another was outraged that they had moved the toilet paper in with the pasta sauce! It was chaos! Then I bumped into a friend and we chatted and laughed about the chaos of these lost and wandering shoppers.
We always seem to be seeking something that is lost. And we treat God this way, as if God is lost. God seems fully other, out there, somehow lost to us and we tend to blame ourselves for our sinfulness with the wrong idea that God has abandoned us or punishes us. That is, when we’re not blaming God for our perceived punishment and cursed disorientation.
Friends, God is not fully other. God is not punishing us. God is deep in our hearts. Each and every one of us. That is where we need to look, and the way to find this ultimate love is through listening prayer, not the busy-ness of good works or strong faith, or ego or self centeredness, certainly not through thoughts-and-prayers or even wordy intercessory prayer but through slowing down, quieting down and learning to listen.
I spent last week at at Centering Prayer training working on my own practice of this type of prayer. It is often called “being present to the Presence” among other names. Present to the Presence. I found out that there are many names for this one thing and that one thing is our communion with the Holy Spirit through listening prayer, contemplative prayer, centering prayer. Whatever you call it, it is a way of recognizing God within us, the Kingdom of God within each of us.
We think of Christian discipleship as doing the right thing. Like, we have a to-do list from Jesus. We push ourselves to be ethical, loving, and always seeking ways to serve others. We also work hard at not sinning. We have a list of behaviors that is around the stuff of “thou shalt nots” and we strive to not do these bad things and then when we sin we repent, say we’re sorry and try again. That is the basic recipe for Christian discipleship of the past several centuries.
And all of that is good and true.
But there is a recent movement in the Church in which we are being asked to dig a little deeper, to look outside the box of these lists of dos and don’ts and inside our hearts instead - or maybe as well.
And it is simply about prayer.
Well, we already know about prayer, right? We know how to pray. We’ve been praying since we were children, most of us. We’ve been talking about that a lot lately in this pulpit, about how The Lord’s Prayer is a formula for all the thoughts to use when reciting what I’ve come to call “Dear God” letters. And that type of prayer is good, and true and it is enough.
We pray with words through our beloved prayer book, in the prayers of the people we use at each Eucharist, and in the Eucharistic prayers themselves. This is all good.
I am not suggesting we change any of that. But there is another way of praying that is less about our list of intercessory prayers and wish lists and the like.
I am asking you to consider with me though, a posture of prayer that is more about listening than speaking as a way of enhancing our relationship with God, a way of enhancing our discernment of what God then wants us to do.
In the course I have just taken we learned how to quiet our minds and allow our spirits to rest in a wordless communion with what most Christian contemplatives call the Ultimate Reality (Thomas Keating).
So, I plan to teach you what I have learned because I’ve been transformed by this way of praying and I want to share that with you. I’m excited about how we might find a new Christian expression through this new, yet ancient, posture of silent prayer. Come to the 9:15 formation class on third Sundays this Fall and find out more.
In spite of our experience of being lost in this world, of always seeking something that seems out of reach to us, we must learn to remember that God is not the distant wrathful God of our ancestors. Jesus came to transform us with the baptism of water and also with a baptism of fire. We must remain aware of the challenge of discipleship and we must do so through prayer. I have found, especially during times when I felt I had lost everything, and at times when I felt I was lost in my journey, that the best way home is through listening for God in centering prayer.
And this is the way we “run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” We persevere through the strength of our hearts. The strong heart of a conditioned runner.
For the Kingdom of God is within us. We don’t have to go looking for it out there. It is in here. All we must do to find the Ultimate Reality of the Love of God is to be present to God’s Presence.
 Markham, Ian S.. Lectionary Levity (Kindle Locations 4266-4272). Church Publishing Inc.. Kindle Edition.