A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey Gill on August 7, 2011
Sermon for Pentecost VIII (Proper 14A)
August 7, 2011
Christ Church Andover
1 Kings 19:9-18; Psalm 85:8-13; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33
This past week, I heard someone described as a “spiritual seeker.” What we usually mean by that is someone who is trying different paths, looking for spiritual fulfillment – perhaps a restless soul who is not content to simply conform to whatever tradition in which she or he was raised, someone who is eager to explore the rich diversity of religious beliefs and practices.
It may be for any of a variety of reasons:
- Intellectual curiosity
- Fascination with human diversity and the rich array of spiritual insights and practices than span different times and places
- Or, it could be disagreements with their own church or their tradition of origin
- Or, the pain of rejection from their own or another tradition
- Or, I suppose, there are some people who are just restless by nature and are eager to move on to the next thing.
Sometimes a spiritual seeker is seeking “the truth,” sometimes an experience, sometimes just adventure with no intent of settling too comfortably into any one particular path. Sometimes people are just weary of labels, and don’t want to be pigeon-holed, as if you can tell everything you need to know about someone by what denomination or religion you write on a form asking for your religion. Sometimes people are in search of their identity, or a deeper sense of belonging, and just have not found that where they are.
I guess I would have to describe myself as a spiritual seeker in some sense. I knew as a young person that the world was a lot bigger and more diverse and complex and more interesting than the little slice of it that was my life. Nothing wrong with the life into which I was born – but I was eager to explore what was beyond. Like many of us, I was not content to simply settle into the assumption that the path in which I was brought up was “the right one,” or the best one, and I went off seeking truth in other places. I studied eastern religions in college – Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Shinto, Confucianism, Islam… I visited lots of other kinds of Christian churches, and I was constantly asking myself what it was that would answer my questions and fill the deep spiritual longing inside me.
Some of you here today have a story, too. Whether or not you have ever changed denominations or religions, you’ve been curious, and perhaps you’ve studied other beliefs and other spiritual paths – for any or all of the reasons I’ve just described – and perhaps for other reasons as well. Perhaps you’ve even gone on pilgrimages, or on retreats, or taken classes or sat at the feet of a teacher who could help point you in a new direction, or open up your thinking to new possibilities.
When we hear someone described as or refer to themselves as “a spiritual seeker” we usually assume (and often they do, too) that the thing they’re searching for is in another place – another church, another kind of spiritual practice, or perhaps literally another place geographically – something external to their current reality. After all, when we are seeking, we go in search of something, like we would go in search of a person, or a lost pet, or an adventure – to a place other than where we are right now.
What we’ve heard from the scriptures today offers another possibility for where we might find what we are really looking on our spiritual quest. And these words suggest that what we find may not be external to ourselves, but right within us.
I love the story we heard from the Old Testament today in First Kings. Elijah is an imposing figure. He was a rather mysterious person – a prophet – someone who had a unique relationship to God and to the people around him. Like many of the prophets, Elijah often found himself on the outs with the people in power – in this case with Queen Jezebel. She had sent him a very threatening message, and he knew his life was in danger. He fled for his life. He got as far as Beersheeba and left his servant there, and then he journeyed another day into the wilderness. He was very discouraged. He could not see the fruit of his work. Things just weren’t going well. We shouldn’t make too many assumptions about his special relationship to God as a prophet, because when Elijah was down he even asked the Lord to take his life.
But he kept going, and he went on a forty day journey into the wilderness. You might think of this as a spiritual pilgrimage. His only food was a meal provided him by the Lord at the beginning of this journey. Eventually, he ended up at Mount Horeb, where our reading picks up today, and he spent the night there in a cave.
And then we get this dialogue between Elijah and the Lord: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” And he goes into a big explanation about how he’d tried to do all the right things. He was zealous for the Lord. He had tried to set the Israelites straight – those who had forsaken their covenant with God, and abandoned the practices of their religion. They had even killed the prophets before him. Elijah was feeling all alone, and he told the Lord as much.
And then God said to him, “Go and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Ah! The moment of revelation was here – all will now be revealed! Elijah will find the thing he has been missing! His spiritual search will now come to an end. As Elijah went and stood there, waiting, a great wind came – a magnificent display of nature, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks. But, we’re told, the Lord was not in the wind. Then came an earthquake, and then a fire – but the Lord was not in them.
And then, the most amazing thing – the sound of sheer silence.
The Lord was not in any of those spectacular, external events – but in something much closer, much more intimate, much more interior than all those things outside Elijah. The Lord was in “the sound of sheer silence.” Elijah’s encounter with the Lord took place within the depths of his very own being, when everything else had been stilled; when the noise of the world around him had been quieted; when he at last was able to access the place where God truly was – right within himself. And from there, the way forward became clear.
Likewise, Paul in his epistle to the Romans tries to answer all the questions the people there have about what is right and what is wrong – all the things we ought to be doing or not doing – all the questions about righteousness. And Paul, referring to Moses, says that one way of thinking about righteousness is to think of the law, all those external things that you do or do not do. But the righteousness that comes from faith, he says, is something different. It’s not about externals, but what is internal. “The word,” he says, “is very near you, on your lips and in your heart.” In other words, you don’t have to go looking outside yourself – it’s right within you. Speaking to the new Christians here, he said that “you’ve made your confession of Jesus as Lord” – don’t worry about all the rest! It’s not about the externals! Learn to trust what is within.
In the gospel today, we notice once again, that just before Jesus does something really amazing – in this case, walking across the water in those stormy seas – he goes to a place apart, “by himself to pray.” Jesus understood the importance of cultivating the deep place within where we meet God. God isn’t “out there” somewhere – God is right where we are, and the place we need to go to find God is that place that we just might be avoiding in all of our seeking “out there” in other places, and that is in the depths of our own being, where something of us touches the divine, and the divine finally is encountered. This is the one “in whom we live, and move, and have our being.” (Acts 17:28)
But how do we actually learn to access and cultivate that deep place within?, you ask. It’s true that calming the noise in our lives so that we can actually hear the “sound of sheer silence” does not come naturally to most of us. It takes practice, and it takes intention. Contemplative practices can help, either on one’s own or in a group of people. And many contemporary Christians are finding that these practices really do help us find God right where we are – right in the midst of our complicated lives.
I recently wrote a little article for a local paper that talked about a book written a couple of years ago by one of my professors, Harvey Cox. It’s called The Future of Faith – perhaps some of you have read it. He talks about the move in our own time away from the so-called Age of Belief, where what was most important was getting the beliefs right, to what he calls the Age of the Spirit. He says that as we think about the direction that the church and religion in general are going, we need to be aware of just how deeply people really do desire an experience of God – not just beliefs that reside in the head and the intellect, but experiential faith, and a knowledge of God’s presence in our lives, touching us, and us touching God. I think he speaks the truth. And I really do believe that so much of our spiritual seeking is about that very thing – our very deep desire to experience God in ways that make a difference in our lives.
Can you imagine experiencing deep inner peace? Right where you are? Can you imagine finding a sense of wholeness that even when the world is swirling around you lets you know that you are standing in God’s presence?
Like Peter and those disciples, we want so much to be rescued from these storm tossed boats, battered by the waves of unrest and instability and insecurity in our lives. Peter saw Jesus out there, rising above the storm as it were, walking on the water – and he wanted it for himself. And he took Jesus’ invitation to not be afraid. He wanted it enough to take that first step, get out of the boat and walk toward Jesus. But, like most of us, spiritual beginners that we are, his attention turned to what was going on around him – the wind and the storm – and he began to doubt, and then he started to sink. Together they got back in the boat, and the wind ceased.
The wind ceased. The sound of sheer silence. It is in a place that is very near us, on our lips and in our hearts.
 Harvey Cox, The Future of Faith (HarperOne, 2009).