Saturday, July 16, 2016

Be Still

The Word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart. Deut 30:14
I suspect we tend to think of this Word Moses speaks of as Biblical texts. Or, as the commandments themselves – the first Ten with which we are familiar, and the other 603 scattered among the first five books of the Bible, not so much.

Some Christians might go with the Beatitudes, or Sermon on the Mount, as found in Matthew. Or, the two Jesus discusses with a rich young man or scholar of the Law: To love God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your might (Deut 6:4-5); and Love your neighbor as yourself (Lev 19:18).

Yet, the opening verses of the Fourth Gospel stretches our understanding of this Word which is near you: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. John 1: 1-5

So this Word that is so near it is in your mouth and in your heart is God – and as it turns out, in John’s understanding this Word that was in the beginning before anything was made that was made, this Word that was and is God came to live among us as Jesus. I will leave the parsing of all this to the theologians and biblical scholars.

Two wonderful stories illustrate all of this for us. The first in Genesis chapter 18 we find three visitors come to see Abraham and Sarah to deliver startlingly surprising news: after decades of barrenness Sarah is to have a child. The news is so startling that we are told later as Sarah overhears this news she laughs – so hard, some commentators say, she fell over with laughter. And it did came to pass, and they named the boy Isaac which translates roughly, “he who laughs.” And off go the three visitors. The story begins by saying, “The Lord appeared to Abraham….” The same Lord who is the Word in the beginning, who literally speaks creation into being, arrives as three men, three strangers for whom Abraham and Sarah prepare a meal.

Much later this same Word which was in the beginning leaves off telling a story about a Samaritan to a young scholar of the law, walks to another town and enters the home of Martha and Mary. Like Abraham, and according to household custom, Martha sets about preparing a meal. Mary evidently is more interested in sitting at the feet of the Word to listen. Martha asks what at the time would have been a reasonable and conventional question: should not Mary be helping me prepare for you. The Word has other needs it seems. He replies, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10:38-42

This strikes us as rather harsh at first for after all, Martha was about the business expected of all women in their time and place. Yet Jesus, the Word, introduces a revolutionary idea which we might miss if we were not paying such close attention to what he says: choice. He says “Mary has chosen” to be with me. You can choose to be with me too seems to be the sense of it. Also revolutionary is the fact that Jesus has now chosen two unlikely persons in a row to introduce to us radically new perspectives: first in the previous story a Samaritan is the model of compassion and redefines what it means to love our neighbor and be a neighbor; and a woman is praised for not fulfilling her customary social role! To love a neighbor one must first be a neighbor, and it is a good thing to stop doing things others think we are supposed to do and simply sit and listen – listen for and to the Word. The word that is near you. We not only need to do these things, Jesus needs us to do these things – or in the latter example simply sit and be attentive to the Word.

Like Martha we allow ourselves to be distracted as the world competes for our attention with things that are conventionally considered important, dangerous, upsetting, scary, late breaking - all things we call news – news that is in direct competition for what the early followers of Jesus called good news. At all times and in all places, the Word is near us, in our mouths and in our hearts. Like Mary we can choose to put ourselves in a place where we can simply sit and listen.

One way of doing this goes by many names: contemplative prayer, centering prayer, and mindfulness meditation are just a few of the practices which are at the core of all the world’s religious traditions. It is one religious practice we do all share in common – when we choose to do so. It is one of the first things The Very Reverend James C. Fenhagen, Dean of the General Theological Seminary taught us as incoming freshmen. The practice is easy. Find a quiet place to sit. Take several deep breaths to clear the mind and relax the body. Close your eyes. Repeat a word or phrase several times – I use a verse from Psalm 46: Be still, and know, that I, am God. Then sit silently for 2, 5, 10 or 20 minutes. When enough time has been spent in silence, repeat the phrase three more time, open your eyes and reflect on what it feels like to do and think nothing. At first it may feel odd. When thoughts come along in the silence let them, and then perhaps gently push them aside with the word or phrase silently. Over time the Lord will appear to you. You will become aware of just how close the Word is to you in your mouth and in your heart. As a daily practice it helps us to be attentive to the Word that is near to us.

We all want to know what to do about all that is going on about us – just like Abraham and Sarah who were on a journey to they knew not where until the Lord said, “Here you are, your new home.” Just like Mary and Martha waiting to find out what more life had in store for them living in a dangerous and occupied territory. Like Martha, as we hear the news we want to do something, but we know not what to do. We can choose to begin with sitting in silence and just listening – we will hear each breath in and each breath out. We may hear our hearts beat. We just may hear the Word that is near to us in our hearts. In the silence. In the silence. This will prepare us well for whatever else needs doing as we are tossed too and fro like the disciples’ boat upon the tempestuous sea. The Lord will come to us as he did to Abraham, Mary and Martha. Be still, and know, that I, am God. Amen.

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