A sermon on 1 Kings 19:11-13 and Mark 1:35 for Sunday, October 17, 2021 at Mosaic Gungahlin.
Today we continue with our series entitled, ‘Finding Balance’.
The metaphor we have been playing with is that of a tight-rope walker. We have noted that it requires movement to stay in balance on both a wire – and in life. If we are to live whole lives before God it will mean that we will constantly move from one good gift of God to another and back again.
Last week we considered the good gift of of the environment under the title, ‘Nature, Wonder & Awe’. Today we will consider God’s good gift of communion with God under the title, ‘Prayer, Meditation & Silence’.
I’d like to begin with a poem by one of my favourite poets, Mary Oliver. It is simply entitled, ‘The Summer Day’:
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean –
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down –
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Mary Oliver’s ‘one wild and precious life’ seems to have been dedicated to our topic today, ‘Prayer, Meditation & Silence’. Perhaps of all her poems, ‘The Summer Day’ brings this into focus.
The poet begins with what is perhaps the biggest of questions, ‘Who made the world?’, and immediately whittles the same question down to one tiny aspect of creation: the grasshopper in her hand in this moment. It clearly fills her with wonder as she notices her eyes and her alien jaw as she eats, washes and then ‘floats away’. In response to this tiny miracle, the author confesses to ignorance around the nature of prayer: ‘I do not know exactly what a prayer is’. Yet, the poet does claim to know focus, play, and casual wonder at the beauty of the day she occupies. Oliver contemplates what more she should have done to enter into ‘prayer’ than notice as closely as she has this grasshopper and this day – especially in the knowledge of her question: ‘Doesn’t everything die at last, and all too soon?’ Oliver has spent this passing day engaged with the fleeting life of a grasshopper. Her final question asks what you will do with your ‘one wild and precious life?’ Oliver, it seems, desires to spend hers pondering the one who made the entire world – by paying attention to the present moment – the miracle in front of her.
I want to suggest that this is a vision of a person meditating on a ‘sacramental universe’. Yes, the term is one more readily used in the Catholic world that ours, but it is a beautiful way of approaching today’s topic. A sacrament is anything that beckons us into communion with God. A ‘sacramental universe’ insists that everything in creation has the potential to draw us into this most important and mysterious relationship – if only we will take the time to notice.
The Bible is brim full of stories and moments that invite us into communion with God. From the very beginning, Adam and Eve spent at least some of each day in conversation with the God who seems to have strolled the garden beside them. From the Genesis account, it seems that it was not unusual for God to walk through the garden of Eden with ‘Adam and Eve’ (See Genesis 3:8). Throughout the creation account there is conversation between God and people both before and after they rebelliously eat from the ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ (Genesis 2:17).
From the opening of our story – and when we engage in both good and bad – we have a God who desires to talk with us!
Of course, this is not an invitation isolated in the creation account. The great leaders Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses were all people of prayer. And it is not just the powerful. Hagar, the pregnant foreign slave of Abram’s wife Sarai, is visited by an angel of the LORD with a message. Afterward she boldly names YHWH in line with her own experience: ‘The God who sees me’. Abram names their son ‘Ishmael’ or ‘the God who hears me’. Later God answers the prayer of Abraham’s servant through the finding of Rebekah and her willingness to marry Isaac. At the beginning of the first book accredited to Samuel, the once barren woman, Hannah prays her memorable prayer of praise. Indeed, the longest book in the Bible, Psalms, is all prayer.
In the New Testament, as we have just heard, we see Jesus himself waking before the sun to find a deserted place to pray. On numerous occasions he taught his disciples to pray through example and parable; in his sermon on the mount and from the vulnerability of a Roman cross. The Apostle Paul is constantly reminding his communities that he is in prayer for them and asking them to do the same for him. While writing to the Thessalonians he urges the community of faith to ‘Never stop praying…for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus’ (1 Thessalonians 5:17-18).
Somehow the Bible insists – through a myriad of stories and teachings – that we are capable of, created for – and through Christ, welcomed back into – a profound and unending communion with God.
Clearly this is something far beyond words. Yet, I wonder if many of us narrow this communication with God down to prayers-of-request. I have no desire to play these down. As many of you know, throughout the recent lockdown, Mosaic was invited to join a brief Zoom prayer-time each day at mid-day. Our purpose was primarily – and unashamedly – to prayerfully bring Canberra, our leaders, and our frontline workers before God in corporate prayer over this season. It was structured and oriented around the call to bring our requests and concerns before God.
Yet prayer can be so much more than this. The Psalms open with a poetic invitation to constantly ‘delight in’ and ‘meditate on’ the story of God. These descriptions convey a profound joy in contemplating God’s stories and work – a constant re-visiting and re-considering, of their meaning and implications for world we inhabit and the God we worship. All this in the hope that we might live a life of constant engagement with the one who is behind everything. As we saw earlier this year, the Psalms urge us to come before God at every moment and through every experience: fear, wonder, awe, praise, repentance, sorrow, loss, and every emotion in between.
We just read about the most extraordinary encounter with God. In it Elijah is initially confronted by a ‘mighty windstorm’; then an ‘earthquake’, and; then a ‘fire’. These are big symbols of power before which people are humbled and all too readily associate with an omnipotent God. Yet following each of these is the repeated reminder that the LORD was not in these dramatic displays of strength. Strangely, God is found after these have receded in ‘the sound of a gentle whisper’.
Only then does Elijah hear the still small voice of God. Perhaps we can conclude that – at least sometimes – we have to be silent in order to hear what God is saying.
It throws my mind to the end of Psalm 46: ‘Be still, and know that I am God!…The LORD of heaven’s armies is hear among us…’ I am far from convinced that every – or even the majority – of encounters with God call us to respond with words. In fact I wonder if the pinnacle of communion with God might actually be our stunned silence.
Is it any wonder the church has always made space for silence before the God we worship?
I wonder if our title today is helpful in putting ‘meditation’ and ‘silence’ alongside the more familiar ‘prayer’. I hope it pulls our vision of communion with God into a reality infinitely beyond words or requests. I hope it challenges you to hold more closely to the mystery of our magnificent potential – and the extraordinary invitation that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection has made – to reconnect with the creator of everything.
After all, if we inhabit a ‘Sacramental Universe’ then everything is calling us in this direction.
So I wonder what conversations-with-God such a perspective might invite you into this week? Conversations – perhaps beyond words – with the God who loved you enough to suffer, die, and rise again in order to call you back into the relationship that gives you life – life eternal, undeserved, and – I pray – balanced.