These notes are intended for distribution to members and friends of the Kirk of Kildaire, Presbyterian Church family. While effort is made to give credit for work done by others, the notes may use material for which appropriate credit is not given. Also, the notes may differ from the actual sermon as it was delivered. Remember, sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation; the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
If I were to ask 100 people in any congregation I’ve ever served to use a word to describe me… I bet that very few… if any… would use the word: Contemplative. I know that about myself. I know that the life you see is often described as energetic, passionate, enthusiastic, crazy, busy, fast-I have heard people say that about me… and I confess it is true. I even took golf lessons once (believe it or not) and my instructor said, "Sport (that is what he called me which didn’t help me learn)… Sport-you have quick hands and a fast swing"… slow it down.
Slow it down. And believe it or not, as I’ve gotten older and hopefully wiser, I am learning to slow it down… thanks in part to a important experience in my life. It happened a few years ago when I was on my sabbatical. I had never had a sabbatical in 18 years in ministry. I had been in Newton for a long time and while I didn’t know it at the time, I was burning out… I had been running and working and driving myself hard for several years… and while I didn’t know it at the time, I was running on fumes.
Then came my sabbatical and an experience that changed my spiritual life. It was a 10 day retreat in a Catholic Retreat Center in the Rocky Mountains as part of an Alban Institute clergy event. I had signed up in order to to learn leadership skills, to learn how to deal with conflict, church administration, etc… we would have seminars using powerpoints, discussions, the whole bit-but as part of the retreat, our leader Roy Oswald offered an opportunity to wake up early with body stretching exercises and contemplative music… which was something I had never really done before but hey, I paid for this conference and I might as well try it! Along the way he introduced us to the contemplative life… learning how to journal… leading us through guided meditation… writing dialogues with God… learning how to be still… and silent.
The climax of the retreat was the Sunday morning he took us on a silent walk up a mountain with a drum beat slowly leading the way… inviting us to listen and be aware of the presence of God. I came back a different person with a very different understanding of the spiritual life… I came back seeking to develop a devotional life that included time to be still and to listen… and with a deep appreciation for those who were more contemplative.
For you see, Roy had taken me on a new journey… what Elizabeth O Connor described in a book that has transformed my understanding of the Christian life… what she described as the journey inward. Her book is called "Journey Inward,Journey Outward."
Most of us are familiar with the journey outward… that’s the active journey of walking the talk-of practicing what we preach and teach… of doing a lot for the kingdom of God and the good of our families and the well being of society. The outward journey is what leads us to work to love our neighbor as Jesus commanded…. I know that journey well… and so do you… and it does a lot of good. I will never give up that outward journey. It’s the journey that helps me see my neighbor in need… work for justice… care for others… learn along with others… it is the journey that follows Jesus out into the church, community and world in his ministry of teaching, preaching, healing, caring and forgiving.
But what I have discovered is that the outward journey is not enough by itself to carry me through this life. I need to be on an inward journey as well as the outward journey.
Elizabeth O Connor helped me see this when she says, "renewal cannot come to the church unless we are on an inward journey…(and) renewal cannot come to the church unless its people are on an outward journey… it is a crucial mistake to assume that churches can be on an outward journey without being on an inward one… (and) it is disastrous to assume that one can make the journey inward without taking the journey outward… "
So hear her and hear me clearly, we need both an outward journey and an inward journey to find balance in our Christian life. But today, I want to give some special attention to the inward journey that is, in my own experience, more neglected than the outward one.
To me, it is the harder journey of the two. For it is the journey that takes us on an expedition deep within our minds and souls… where we move into a deep conversation within our souls about who we really are, what are our failings, what are our hopes… what are our fears.
For many, this is a journey into an unknown world. This is why many avoid it. We avoid it by filling our lives with noise… with busyness… with activity… with anything that will keep us from going on this journey. So we offer a time of silence in church or bible study… and it becomes uncomfortable… because what is there to fill the silence but your own voices or the voices of others telling you who you are or who you are supposed to be. Better to put on the ipod and listen to music… better to text message a friend… better to watch tv or get on the computer… that will distract you! Better fill up the schedule and do something to keep me from listening deep within. I know this because I know myself and I know my own tactics to avoid stepping out on this journey within. But sadly, it took me years – decades — before I learned… until… until… I stepped outside of my comfort zone and tried something I never would have tried at home at that retreat… it was only then I learned that it was on the inward journey that I would meet God in a new way…
It was there I would discover I was not really alone in my journey… There was another voice I heard. Christ was there to meet me. Christ… there to forgive me the failures I was afraid to face… Christ whose voice of peace and love would drown out the voices of criticism and complaints and never living up to expectations… Christ would speak to me in the quiet and in the calm…
Which is the goal of the inward journey for the Christian and is the goal of meditation for us. It is to bring us into the presence of God … of Christ.
Today’s passage says it in a beautiful way to me. Jesus is speaking to his disciples just as he is preparing to leave this earthly life… but while he is not going to be present physically… he wishes to maintain the relationship that will feed them and nourish them for the journey ahead. He wants to help us stay connected as a branch is connected to the vine. We can only bear fruit if we stay connected to the source. Then he uses the word "abide"…did you hear how many times he uses that in these 11 verses….
"Abide in me as I abide in you… (vs 4)
"I am the vine and you are the brances. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit…" (vs 5)
‘If you abide in me and my words abide in you…"
"If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love…"
Abide in Christ… remain in Christ… enjoy the presence of Christ… be nurtured by the love and grace of Christ… that is the goal of the journey inward. On the journey inward–the questions, I’ve learned– are like the steps that lead us into the presence of the Christ who listens, who often speaks… who wishes nothing but the best for you as you live your life… He said as much: "I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete."
That is where Christ hopes the journey inward leads you… to a joy… a joy that only Christ can give… not as the world gives… but as God in Christ gives…
"I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete."
Today, I am closing this sermon early so you can enjoy a period of silence to simply rest and abide in the presence of God. I’ve asked Psalm 150 to give us five minutes before we are led in the next song. I know that for some of you that may seem like an eternity. Believe me, you will be okay. For others, you wish it would be 15-20 minutes… (last year after our contemplative someone left an anonymous letter criticizing the service for having too short of time for silence. I’m not a big fan of anonymous letters… but that’s for another sermon on another day… but I heard underneath the frustration the desire for silence)… I just hope that this person will understand that some are just now beginning to learn how to be quiet before the living God.
For those who are like me and are less contemplative by nature, I’ve included a couple of suggestions in the bulletin that might help you as a sort of spiritual guide to the journey inward for the next few minutes. Another suggestion from the spiritual mentors of my life is simply to repeat a holy word or phrase – like "be still and know that I am God"… or maybe even Calvin’s motto, "My heart I offer to you, O Lord, promptly and sincerely" or a favorite passage of scripture (e.g. "The Lord is my shepherd" ) that can be like a map for you along the inward journey… where Christ waits to meet you… to abide with you… and to nourish you… and to give you joy… to sustain you until the time comes for you to continue on the outward journey where we will seek to take Christ with us as we share his joy with the world. Amen.