1st Sunday in Lent
March 13, 2011
The Art of Spiritual Practice: Waking Up to God’s Presence
Jacob’s family finally hit the wall. His sneaking and conniving with his mother had wrested the blessing from his blind father, but his brother Easu was now out to kill him. Jacob headed for his mother’s brother’s house over in Syria, where all the cheating and conniving would continue. There he was, out in the desert alone. Exhausted, he lay down to sleep using a convenient stone for a pillow. God could easily have wiped him out right there, but instead Jacob had a dream. The heavens opened and angels walked up and down a ladder of light, which came right down to the place where Jacob was sleeping. God stood at the top of the ladder and promised him that the land on which he lay was his inheritance and that his descendants would be a blessing to the world. “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go. And I will bring you back to this land, for I will not leave you until I have done what I promised.”
When Jacob awoke, the air was still stirring with God’s breath. Astonished, he set up the stone on which he had been sleeping, poured oil on it, and called the place Beth-el, the House of God. “Surely God was in this place and I did not know it,” he exclaimed.
In these weeks of Lent, I want to spend some time talking about the Art of Spiritual Practice. I’m sure you’ve heard of these practices, maybe you’ve even tried some – learning new ways to pray or to meditate, learning the practice of tithing, fasting, going off on retreat to renew and refresh. Lent is a time when we are encouraged to deny ourselves something important as a way of staying in touch with Christ’s suffering, or trying to add some kindness to our daily life as a way of remembering God’s grace. I would like to suggest that spiritual practice is like Art, as we enter into it, we are pulled more deeply into the mystery of God’s will and work. We think we know where we are going, but our intention changes even as we engage in the practice, and we find our hearts and minds enlivened and awakened more deeply than we expected. The Art of Spiritual Practice can change your life forever. Something you learn can become a permanent part of your life of faith. You never know until you start.
This morning I want to begin by listening to Jacob’s story to learn waking up to God’s presence. We all come here expecting to find God where we have lifted our voices, prayed together, baptized babies and shared the meal in which Jesus promises his presence. Outside of here, maybe you have shared prayers with someone in a time of joy or sorrow and seen the face of Jesus looking back at you, assuring you that you are heard and seen and loved. Maybe you have given a hand or a loan or a bag of groceries to someone who didn’t expect it and been the face of Jesus, and known by the tearful thank you that you have been part of God’s presence to that person.
Here in the Northwest we have mountains and forests and velvet nights filled with stars which tell us of the Creator’s loving touch, but we are not always able to see the face of Jesus in the person who needs our help or the person who touches us with healing hands. We can see the wonder in a baby’s tiny hand, but we are not always aware of the presence of the Holy Spirit in this community, seen in the prickly person next to us complaining about the hymn.
It is said that on the wall over the tub where Mother Teresa and her sisters washed the fetid bodies of dying street people, there was a sign that said, “This is my body.” And the leader of an army of cooks and servers prayed before the hungry came to eat at a soup kitchen, “Lord, we know you’ll be coming in for lunch today, we’ll smile at you.” This is just what Jesus suggested in the story from Matthew’s gospel about those who are invited into heaven: they fed the hungry, the thirsty, clothed the naked and visited those who were sick and in prison, because they were doing it to Jesus himself. You don’t have to go to India or even to a soup kitchen to see Jesus. What about the simple act of looking at the person who bags your groceries, recognizing that this is a child of God. What I am suggesting is that when you suddenly wake up to being in the presence of God, you stop a minute. You can notice where you are, who you are with. You can think of setting a stone, an altar in that moment and thanking God for being so surprising, so present. And you can begin to pay attention, to wake up, expecting God to show up when you least expect it, because God is there, of course, everywhere you are.
This practice will not save you, even if you get really good at it. It is God’s love and mercy that save you, cover over your imperfections and sins and bring you through the waters of death to new life in Christ. But it will wake you up the promised presence of God in that new life which has been granted to you, and can send you on your way rejoicing and praising God at any moment.
Now may the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.
This sermon series is inspired in part by Barbara Brown Taylor’s “An Altar In The World” (HarperCollins, New York. 2009)