Sermon 9-11-2016; Streams of Living Water – ‘Contemplation’
Richard Foster, Streams of Living Water – Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith, HarperCollins, 1998.
John Chryssavgis, In the Heart of the Desert – The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, World Wisdom, 2008.
Where do you go when you want to ‘get away from it all’ – even for a few minutes? When you need peace and quiet, rest and relaxation, a place to connect with your deepest self, or with God? It might be as close as your front porch. It might be your favorite fishing hole. It might be a good book. It might be a walk around your neighborhood, or a hike in the mountains. Each one of us, if we think about it for a while, could name a place that gives us a sense of peace… whether it’s a mountaintop or a river valley, a place nearby or far away.
For Antony, it was the desert. But he did not go there just to escape. He went to the desert intentionally, focused on devotion to God. He’d heard a scripture reading in worship, “Go, sell all you have and give to the poor and you will have treasures in heaven. Then come, follow me.” [Matt 19:21] Settling the estate of his dead parents and arranging for care of his younger sister, Antony moved to the desert. He was not to return for twenty years, and then – only for a brief while. Hebrews 11 speaks of those who ‘wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground… and were commended for their faith…’ Antony was one of those, and has become known as the first of the Desert Fathers.
His solitary lifestyle drew people to him, yearning to know more about Christ, and the discipline of contemplation. ‘Adherents to this faith were considered outcasts and ostracized by the very fact of their conversion.’ [Chryssavgis] The irony of chosen ostracism, when so many Christians were already ostracized for their faith, made this intention far more significant. That Antony would choose to spend time alone with God spoke deeply. Antony was not running from life, but running to the life-giver. He was not running to avoid, but running to fill the void. He was not running from God and all that God asked of him, but running to God for sustenance and strength, companionship and compassion, in order to live fully a ‘with-God-life.’
In his book, “Streams of Living Water – Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith”, Richard Foster tells of the strengths of the Contemplative Tradition:
It constantly calls us back to our ‘first love’ – loving God with all that we have; heart, soul, mind, and strength and to be vigilant in that love
It forces us past profession to possession, as Fox would say… interaction rather than intellect; Thomas Merton writes “The contemplative is… he who has risked his mind in the desert beyond language and ideas where God is encountered in the nakedness of pure trust… in the surrender of our own poverty and incompleteness…”
Contemplation brings an emphasis on silence and unceasing prayer; Brother Lawrence called it ‘abiding in his holy presence… a wordless and secret conversation between the soul and God which no longer ends’
A recognition of our responsibility for developing a personal history, our own story, with God
One of the great perils of the Contemplative Tradition is the thought that a contemplative, prayerful life must be separated from our everyday life. That we, like Antony, need to move out to the desert, to the mountains, to our favorite fishing hole, in order to have a ‘close encounter’ with God. That is just not true. It might be easier, but it just isn’t practical. And one who has shown us the way, is The Way… Christ Jesus.
In our reading this morning, Christ is stuck. There is no way he can get away from life – or death. At the fullness of his work and ministry, Christ is also at the height of suspicion with those who govern the synagogue, and manage the status quo. Something has to change. He has met with his closest followers and told them that he will soon be betrayed to the authorities. They all go to a place called Gethsemane… an olive yard or garden at the foot of the Mount of Olives. Jesus tells his disciples to stay – to sit and wait for him - and he goes deeper into the garden to pray. He moves in… to the garden, to God, to contemplation. Right then, smack dab in the middle of life, Christ moves away from it all, and moves toward God. Not for a quick chat, but for deep conversation. To a place of first love, of deep surrender, of silence, and persistent, unceasing prayer.
We are in tight places in our lives, more often than we’d like to be. Where do we go to ‘get away from it all?’ Where is our desert? Our Gethsemane? Quiet, inner solitude… still and centered places filled with God’s spirit, contemplative places of remembrance of God’s love for us, and our love of God. Places where we try on God’s love, if we’ve never felt it before. Places that prepare us for the stark realities that we face. Places where we enjoy the pleasure of God’s company. Places where we honestly tell God how we feel – just like Jesus did. Places where we find gratitude for God’s presence and faithfulness. Places where we are glad to be able to go!
In the study portion for today’s sermon series, suggestions are given to help us become more prayerful, more contemplative. Here are some of them…
Set aside five or ten minutes for silence each day.
Set aside five or ten minutes for prayer each day.
Write a prayer or a letter to God; tell God about when you feel God’s presence most profoundly and when you don’t feel it at all.
Pray a short prayer many times throughout the day, such as “Be still and know that I am God.”
Learn to appreciate God through creation – stop to notice the beauty around you – the power of storms, the light of the sun, the depth of the darkness, and thank God for God’s presence.
Set aside fifteen minutes at the end of the day to say thank you. Name as many things as you can think of to be thankful.
You may already use some of these practices in your own life. Perhaps it would be helpful to try something different… to go to another place for a while. Or perhaps it would help you to reaffirm your need for contemplation – for a quiet place in the midst of your life. And for those of you whose lives are too quiet… let your contemplation be filled with sound! Pray out loud! Sing out loud! Listen to all the sounds you hear when you take a walk, or sit by your window. Let your contemplation be filled with the voice of God’s spirit, speaking into your life.
Please join me now, as we enter into our own time of contemplation after the manner of Friends. If God speaks into your heart, listen and hold it in silence. If God speaks for everyone through you, please be obedient, stand, and share it with the Meeting. Join me in singing this meditative prayer as we move into contemplation…
Be still and know that I am God…