Lay Reader = Matthew 14:6-14
6But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company, and she pleased Herod 7so much that he promised on oath to grant her whatever she might ask. 8Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.” 9The king was grieved, yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he commanded it to be given; 10he sent and had John beheaded in the prison. 11The head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, who brought it to her mother. 12His disciples came and took the body and buried it; then they went and told Jesus.
13Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.
We are still in our series looking at how our spirituality can be life-giving. Last week we looked at life-giving fasting, and we were encouraged to remove something from our lives for a time (to fast), and then to replace the time we spent on that to listen to what God has to say to us. That’s how NOT eating something can be the most nourishing thing for your soul.
This week we’re looking at meditation. Now, probably you’re picturing something like a Hindu monk sitting cross-legged, maybe some cinnamon incense burning nearby, softly intoning “Ohm.” But Christianity has meditation as well. We already saw it in our first text – what did Jesus do when he heard that his cousin and friend John the Baptist had been killed by Herod? He withdrew to a deserted place by himself. He meditated!
German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was well-known for his practice of meditation. And when he was asked why he meditated, he replied, “Because I am a Christian.” He saw meditation as an essential practice of our faith. So now that we know that Jesus meditated, and now that we know that meditation could be an essential practice of our faith, our second text outlines the two most important ideas in Christian meditation.
24“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting place, but not finding any, it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ 25When it comes, it finds it swept and put in order. 26Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first.”
27While he was saying this, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!” 28But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!”
Emptying vs Filling
When I was in seminary we were doing a project in the World Religions class. For this project my group got to know a practicing Buddhist – he was already friends with one of the people in the group, so we didn’t have to go yell on a street corner, “Anybody Buddhist around here?” Really helped.
We were talking with him about his religion, and inevitably we got around to meditation. And he said something interesting. He said that he had studied Christian and Buddhist meditation, and his conclusion was that they were the exact same thing. Not close, not mostly the same, exactly the same.
When we asked him to explain, he said that meditation was about emptying your mind and body of distractions and attachments. Getting rid of the everyday concerns that clog your mind. Now I didn’t say this at the time, but I was thinking, “I think you only studied half of Christian meditation if you think that’s what it’s about.”
I mean, let’s take the example of Jesus in our first text today. He went off on his own partly because he was mourning the loss of his cousin. Do you think he went out there to rid himself of his attachment to his deceased cousin and friend? Did he go out into the wilderness alone to make himself STOP caring about John the Baptist? Absolutely not! In fact, when Jesus came back from his meditation and he saw a crowd, he had COMPASSION on them and helped them! That’s not detachment. That’s the highest form of engagement!
In our second text today, Jesus told a parable of the unclean spirit being tossed out of a house. It gets bored and comes back to the same place and brings along some of its friends to trash the freshly cleaned abode. What’s the point? The point is that you can’t just toss out distractions. You can’t just eliminate your attachments and your heart for others. You can’t just stop sinning. Emptying is a nice first step. But it’s only the first step.
After that you have to fill the house with something new. And what is that new thing? Jesus says it at the end of the text we read, “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey it!”
THAT, sisters and brothers, is Christian meditation. Hearing the word of God and then obeying it.
Now it’s really hard to hear God’s word when you’re thinking about the shopping list, and you’re calculating how long it’s been since your last oil change, and you’re wondering when you’re going to get to exercise this week, and (oh yeah!) you need to call your cousin to wish them happy birthday. On, and on, and on we go like this. That Buddhist friend was right about the first step – you have to clear your mind of all of those distractions. But he was wrong about that being the end of the line. For Christians, we are emptying our mind of those distractions SO THAT we can hear what God is saying. And we want to hear what God is saying SO THAT we can put it into practice in our lives.
Those are the three steps of Christian meditation #1 eliminate distractions, #2 listen for God’s word, and #3 put it into practice. Everything else is just implementation details. Richard Foster, who wrote the seminal book on spiritual practices called Celebration of Discipline, said it this way: “Christian meditation, very simply, is the ability to hear God’s voice and obey his word.” That’s it.
There’s no special body position. There’s no holiest of holy chants. There’s not a ritual formula that’s probably in Latin that you need to follow. No! Christian meditation is anything that eliminates distractions, helps you listen for God’s word, and then encourages you to put it into practice in your life.
Now, there are some common forms that have been helpful to people over the centuries. But that’s the only thing that’s special about them – they’ve been helpful to a bunch of people for a long time. They may or may not be helpful to you. If they’re not helpful, find some other way to eliminate distractions, listen for God, and do what he says. Grab a copy of the devotional for this sermon series for some ideas.
But what are some of those helpful forms? Well, we’re in Colorado, and that helps with one of the helpful forms – meditating upon God’s Creation. Every year we have our high school seniors share their faith story with the church, and I think it was two years ago one of them said she sees God every time she looks West to the mountains. We’re pretty lucky here. One way to meditate is to go for a hike in the mountains. Turn off your cell phone. Maybe write down a few verses from Psalm 8, which says, “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”
What a way to connect with the God of All Creation! What might God say to you up on the mountain? What might the Creator of the moon and the stars say to you, a human being, a mortal that God deeply cares for? That’s meditation upon God’s Creation.
Probably the most foundational meditation form is meditation upon Scripture. Now meditation isn’t Bible study. Meditation isn’t devotional reading. Meditation is something else. Related, perhaps, but a little different. Because one of the biggest dangers in meditating upon Scripture is to go too quickly. To take too much Scripture at once. You don’t generally meditate on a whole chapter of the Bible. More like one verse, or even a half a verse, or two words from a verse.
I remember in high school I was sitting at the lunch table eating Gobstoppers – a hard ball of candy. And I was taking them down with excessive gusto, because when I went to finish the Gobstopper it slid down my airway and I had absolutely NO way to breathe. Luckily I was able to do a kind of self-Heimlich and it shot out of my mouth. Also, luckily for my friend sitting right across from me, I stretched out my hand and caught it right before the Gobstopper-turned-projectile smacked her in the eye.
When you meditate on Scripture, you don’t want to choke on too much spiritual food at once. You want it to slowly dissolve on your heart and mind. When the angel appeared to Mary to tell her she was going to give birth to Jesus, the Bible says she pondered and treasured all of these things in her heart. That’s meditation on Scripture – you slowly ponder and treasure these words as if they were a personal letter written by a loved one. Don’t choke on a Biblical Gobstopper, slowly ponder and treasure the words of God’s love letter.
Another form of meditation uses the palms of your hands. In fact, we can try this now. First off, take a deep breath. All together now, deep….breath. Don’t rush into meditation. Deep…breath. Now you can close your eyes or keep them open – whatever is less distracting to your mind and heart.
Imagine that you are walking up to a desk, maybe one of those big, roll-top desks. And you roll up the top and reveal a messy, full, desk with papers all over. Your stack of bills is on the right, your to-do lists are scattered around on different colored post-it notes. There’s a stack of thank you cards you were supposed to have already sent. Fill that desk in your mind with all of your burdens. All of your worries. All of the things that make it hard to be still. Got it?
OK, now pick up one of those things in your mind. It’s in the palm of your hand. Turn your palm down. You’re not throwing it away. You’re not recycling it. You’re putting it into someone else’s hands – into Jesus’ hands. Drop that worry, drop that burden out of your hand and into the hands of Jesus. Your palm is down to signify that you are releasing it, you’re dropping it into more capable hands.
Now you’re walking away from that messy roll-top desk in your mind and you walk into the kitchen. You open the pantry. And you notice there are a lot of bare shelves. There are some things you need. And I’m not just talking about some funky spice you need for just one recipe and then you’ll forget about it for the next nine years. No, you’re missing things like flour. Salt. Basics. Necessities even. Maybe you need to feel loved. Maybe you need to be able to love. Maybe you feel abandoned and alone. What is missing from your pantry?
With one of those missing items in your mind, turn your palms up to receive from Christ. Imagine Christ’s love pouring into you. How is Christ filling your empty palm? Filling your pantry?
You could repeat that process of palms down to release things to Christ and palms up to receive from Christ however long you want. But I know you want to get to lunch at some point, so we’ll stop there for now. You get the idea.
Regardless of the form, how can you eliminate distractions, listen for what God is saying, and then do what he says? That’s meditation.
Leading up to this sermon on meditation I have been, shockingly, meditating. I’ve been trying to hear what Jesus has in store for this church and for the people in it. And sure enough, I believe Jesus has started to speak.
I have been here for two years, two weeks, six days, and this morning, and we’ve come a long way in that time. When I arrived, we were in a very tight spot financially. Now we’re doing OK, and after we get rid of the parking lot debt over the next two years we’ll be in a pretty good spot.
When I arrived, we had seen some worrying drops in membership and worship for a few years, now we’re doing OK. Last year we added exactly as many people as we lost.
When I arrived, we had a few options for adults to grow in their faith but overall we had a pretty low percentage of our church participating. We’ve added more options and more people are participating, so now we’re doing OK.
Now, I haven’t done all of this. YOU have. JESUS has. That’s where credit is due.
If you look at the other churches in America, we’re actually doing better than OK. We’re in the top 15%. That’s a solid B! 85% of the churches in America are in decline – many of them in steep decline. 9% of churches are staying about even and 6% are growing. We’re in the 9% staying even. That’s something to celebrate.
But is that our goal? Is Jesus calling First Pres Littleton to be a “solid B” church? Is Jesus satisfied with us getting to “OK?” I’m grateful and even excited for the progress we’ve made, but I don’t think our new slogan is going to be, “First Pres Littleton – we’re OK!” That’s not gonna cut it!
And so I’ve started to see that, while we’re doing most things OK, and a few things well, we aren’t aligned around a common vision. We aren’t structured toward a common goal. We aren’t focused on a shared understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus in Littleton, Colorado in the year 2017 and beyond.
I am starting to see that we need to focus our church structure around the basic concept that you see in meditation – how can we build everything around helping people hear from the Living God and put it into practice in their lives? That’s what discipleship is. That’s what it means to follow Jesus. But that’s not how we’re setup.
Let me show you what I’m talking about. Get ready to raise your hand, and be honest. Raise your hand if you have ever volunteered to do something at this church because you felt guilty or you were worried that no one else would do it? Raise your hand if you’ve ever done that. Thank you for your honesty.
But what if that didn’t have to happen? Picture that with me. Imagine what our church would look like in that scenario. What would be the same? What would be different?
I see two things that would need to be different to reach that vision. One, we would need to be really focused with what we’re doing. The more random stuff we do in the name of the church, the more random volunteers we need to keep it going. We need to be focused on what Jesus has called us to do. That would help a lot.
Second, we would need some more people, right? Wouldn’t that help to reach that vision? If there are more people around, you are less likely to be guilted into volunteering because it’s more likely SOMEONE ELSE is actually EXCITED about doing it. Are you with me?
If we have more focus on what Jesus is calling us to do in our church and in our community, and if we have more people to be Jesus’ hands and feet to make it happen, then instead of saying, “we have another slot to fill on the ushering team or on the elder board,” we could help you figure out your spiritual gifts. “Oh, Sue, God has wired you to be excellent and passionate about making people feel welcome. Could you put that into practice by helping those coming to worship feel at home? That’s what an usher does.” Or “John, you have the gift of administration. Would it excite you to help organize one of the Community Dinners?” Or “Sandy, you are an outgoing person wired for invitation. Could you put your faith into practice by helping us find people who are wired and called to be teachers at VBS this summer?”
Do you see the difference? Instead of asking you to fill a slot, could we help you discover your God-given wiring and see how Jesus can unleash your passion and abilities on our community and in our church?
I mean, I know some of my gifts. I am a decent administrator. I am a leader. I am a teacher. I’m not great at being a shepherd caring for his sheep. Pastor Carol is a thousand times better at that than I am. Our Deacons have that same wiring – they are way better shepherds than I am. You are better cared for if you have a Deacon or Carol in the room than if I’m there. So in that ministry, I’m a foot soldier, not a general. I ask Carol to tell me who I should visit or who I should call each week. That doesn’t come naturally to me. I bet almost every one of the former pastors here was more naturally gifted in that shepherding, caring role than I am.
But I can lead, and I can organize, and I can teach. I can make sure we have a healthy system to care for people. I can help the Deacons focus on their main task. When I got here, the Deacons were worried that they were scattered in too many directions. We’ve taken things off their plates and helped them focus on providing spiritual care, visiting people in the hospital or when they can’t leave their home. The things THEY are wired for that I am not. Are you with me?
I don’t have all of this figured out, but I think that’s what needs to happen across our whole church. Focusing very specifically on what Jesus has called us to do, and then unleashing the people who have the right spiritual gifts to do that ministry. As I have meditated recently, that’s what Jesus has shown me.
Maybe you think I need to get my eyes checked. Maybe you think I’m off my rocker. Maybe you’re right. But I don’t think First Pres Littleton is called to be an “OK, solid B” church. I think Jesus has a LOT more in store for us than that.
I know this is a lot longer than my normal sermons, and I’m sorry. If you’re a guest today, the whole second half of this sermon has probably bored you to tears or given you a chance to practice your meditation, but I think this is important for us.
I see it kind of like this. I feel like we’ve made it through the long winding line for a roller coaster. We no longer have to complain about the wait. We’re no longer baking in the sun. Now we have some options. Looking at the ups and downs and twists and turns, are we going to skip the ride and say, “No thanks, we’re OK?” Looking at the ups and downs and twists and turns, are we going to run away and say, “I’m getting on that ride over my dead body?”
Or looking at the ups and downs and twists and turns, do we say, “That looks like fun?”
I think we’re at the start of something fun. Do you want to go for a ride? Do you want to invite your friends on the ride with you?
If so, please, I beg you, pray for clarity. Pray for Jesus’ vision for this church to emerge. I don’t have it yet. I’m seeing glimpses. I’m seeing a fuzzy outline. I don’t have all the details yet. I can see the tree, but I can’t see all the leaves. I need your help to see more clearly. Pray for clarity.
Sisters and brothers, now you see that Christian meditation is a dangerous thing. If you eliminate distractions. If you really listen for God’s voice. If you resolve to do what God tells you. Then Jesus is no longer your co-pilot. He’s flying the plane and you’re along for the ride. But the thing is, I’ve regretted some of the decisions I’ve made when I was trying to fly the plane and control my life. I’ve never regretted letting Jesus take over. Are you ready for the ride? Amen.