Second Sunday in Lent
Year C, RCL
March 17, 2019
North Fork Ministries
Luke 13: 31-35
Some Pharisees came and said to Jesus, "Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you." He said to them, "Go and tell that fox for me, 'Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.' Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, 'Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'"
This morning we sang the words of the Psalmist:
You speak in my heart and say, "Seek my face."
Your face, LORD, will I seek.
What, pray tell, does it mean to seek the face of God? And what does it mean for the Psalmist to acknowledge that God speaks in his heart and commands him to “Seek my face.”
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul, in tears, writes of how for those whose minds are set on worldly things, God is their belly. If we seek God in the belly, then that is the God we will know. If we expect to find God in the satisfying of our cravings and desires, the fulfillment of all we want - the god we will find will be very small and look a lot like ourselves. If filling our minds, filling our bellies, filling our hearts with everything that we desire is our objective in life, then that quest becomes our god. There is simply no room for anything else.
In Genesis, we read of Abram, childless, without an heir and promised by God that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars. Seeking God’s assurance that the promise would be fulfilled, God asks Abram for a sacrifice saying, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon." Now this is really “old-time religion”, not far removed from the primitive faith of the hunter-gatherer, whose God punished and rewarded according to whims or the suitability of burnt offerings.
One of the things that my homiletics professor taught his students was that it’s almost always a bad idea to try to incorporate every reading, the Old Testament, the Psalm, the Epistle and the Gospel onto a single sermon. Choose one, at most two, he would say, there is plenty there to work with. He was right, of course. But this week it is as if the writers of Genesis, Psalms, Philippians, and Luke all cry out in a single voice – “Tell us God, where are you? What are you?”
There is anger and fear in the world. If you haven’t noticed, you aren’t following the news, or you aren’t having heartfelt conversations with your friends and family. One of the most peaceful and beautiful countries in the world, New Zealand, is shaken by the incursion of a violent white nationalist. In Britain, the uncertainty of Brexit, creates an atmosphere of anxiety. And in our country, the uncertainty over the ultimate fate of our president, leaves us pouring over the headlines for the latest troubling revelations.
For many in America, things haven’t worked out as planned. The home they bought to provide shelter for their families and as a promising investment has proven to be a burden financially. For young people the hard-earned education they sought has proven to be a financial liability. In many neighborhoods, mothers are afraid to let their children out of their sight. Blue collar jobs are harder to come by. And fathers grind their teeth at night, dreaming anxiety-filled dreams that leave them restless in the morning.
Apparently it was the same for the Psalmist, who begins his song, by proclaiming, “The Lord is my light and my salvation.” And then, I suspect, with eyes searching the distant hills for whatever adversity and evil lurks just out of sight, he asks, “Whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid.”
And though the Psalmist professes his confidence that the Lord will hide him in his shelter, conceal him under the cover of his tent, and set him high on a rock, his still persistent fear compels him to plead with God to not to forsake him, nor give him up to the violence of his enemies.
And that’s why we continue to sing the Psalms today – because they still resonate with our hope and our fear. At one moment we profess our faith, our confidence that God is with us. And at the next, our fears and anxieties cause us to conclude that we are utterly alone.
This prayer of the Psalmist is akin to centering prayer – a kind of meditation. The essence of centering prayer is to sit in silence, allow the mind to be still, and simply be with God. The problem is, our minds don’t really want to be still. Our minds insist on racing ahead to the fears that we have about what awaits us when we leave the prayer place, or our minds hold on to the anxiety that made the idea of sitting in silence so appealing to begin with.
And so, in centering prayer, we are taught to choose a “holy word”- love, peace, Abba, truth…a simple word to which we can return when we notice that thoughts appear. For me, it works like this: I close my eyes, take a few conscious breaths, bring my attention to a holy word, and…. almost immediately, I begin to think, “Where am I going to find time to write a sermon this week?” or “I haven’t seen so and so in church lately, I need to give her a call.” And then, I remember, “Oh yes, the holy word…and I return briefly to the sweet, sweet silence of the present moment.” When I first began the practice, some 25 years ago, I chided myself because my attention to the holy word, or to my breath, seemed so fleeting. The thoughts in my head jumped around like a bunch of crazed monkeys trampling through the brief intervals of silence. My brain moved constantly back and forth between silence and an unceasing progression of worries and thoughts.
An epiphany occurred when I realized the true nature of the practice. The objective of Centering Prayer wasn’t to banish all thoughts from the mind. The essence of the prayer was to learn to let go of the thoughts and to return to the Word. The prayer is the practice of letting go. The prayer is the return to consciousness, the movement back and forth between distraction and awareness.
And so it is, once we have arisen from our prayers and begin to move through the day. We face a constant barrage of work and worries, concerns that are both petty and life threatening. In life, we are called do what we can to make the physical conditions of existence better for ourselves and others. But for our own well being, our very salvation, we must practice letting go of the anxiety over those things we can’t control.
And when we feel that we have failed at the practice because fear and anxiety and anger overwhelm us, then we thank God for the opportunity to practice, once again, letting go.
You know, I’d like to sing the old hymn, “On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand” with absolute conviction, but the truth is, faith really feels a lot more like shifting sand. My affirmations of faith, like those expressed by the Psalmist, spring more from hope than conviction. And my practice of faith is like the practice of centering prayer. I forget that I am a child of God, that God desires to gather us securely, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings. I’m filled with doubt, anxiety, fear and anger. And then, just as quickly as I traveled to this kingdom of anxiety, the pathway opens to the life-giving breath of the Divine and the sacred cycle resumes. And so it is to live in the house of the Lord.