Sermons That Work

If You Ever Want…, Lent 1 (C) – 1998

March 01, 1998

If you ever want to find out how much you don’t know about something, take a walk in the park with a real birdwatcher. As you make your way down the path, you will notice that your birdwatcher friend pauses now and again, as definitely as if someone had called her name. She stops, her attention focuses, and she seems surprised by your questioning look.

“Can’t you hear the Carolina wren?” She asks, mimicking its song for you. “Teakettle, teakettle, teakettle!” You try and listen, but before you even have your ears tuned to the right frequency, she has spotted the actual bird.

“Right over there in the underbrush,” she whispers, almost motionless. “See the white eye stripe?”

You are still trying to figure out which bush she means, sweeping your gaze over the mass of greens and browns, of leaves and sticks, when your companion hears a mourning dove cooing and moves on.

Now, you may be in awe of these powers of identification. Or, perhaps you are an old hand at birdwatching yourself, and in that case you know how it is to start seeing more in your ordinary, every day environment than others might. It’s not as if the birds were only available in a zoo, or flew in just on Tuesdays. They’re there all the time, and they’ve been there all along. It’s just that gradually, you found out how to recognize them.

Once it was just a jumble: you heard the same songs, saw the same flashes of color that communicate so much to you now. But all you thought then was: “Must be some kind of bird.” However, as you trained your eyes and your ears to look and listen, the trills and whistles started sorting themselves out, and a white eye stripe began to seem conspicuous and meaningful.

You discovered how much there was to notice. You taught yourself to see and hear. And walks in the park became much richer. The birds were there all the time; it just took someone who knew how to perceive them. You had to become a birdwatcher.

Just because something is there does not mean we automatically see it and understand it. Sometimes, perception takes practice.

In our Epistle reading for today, St. Paul says, “The Word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.” This is a quote from Deuteronomy, and Paul is using it to talk about the presence of God in Christ, and how we access that presence by faith. Christ is near, already part of our world; God is available, not distant or difficult to contact. Yet sometimes we have to train ourselves to recognize him. We have to become God-watchers.

The place to begin looking for God is right where we are. And this may go against our romantic assumptions about spiritually. After all, often we assume that what our hearts long for is somewhere else.

Instead of keeping our eyes open around us and trying, with the calm persistence of a birdwatcher, to notice what we seek in our own surroundings, we keep fidgeting and lamenting. Surely there has got to be some environment where it’s not like swimming upstream to live the way we know we should. Surely there has got to be some place where the Holy Spirit posts explanations in neon lights. If we could just find it….

“I read an article about a sacred hillside somewhere in Peru. If I could only afford the airline ticket, I’ll bet God would speak to me there.”

“It’s the job’s fault. If I ever get to the point where I don’t need to do so much overtime, then I’ll be able to relax and start enjoy life.”

“One day I’m going to get around to making a retreat, and after that I’m sure prayer won’t be difficult any more.”

No, says Scripture: The Word is near you, in your heart and in your lips. The original passage Paul is quoting adds, “It is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask: ‘Who will ascend into heaven for us to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?'”

No, the Word is near us: Christ is all around, the song of the Spirit is constantly sounding, right here and now. But have we learned to perceive that? Do we know how to hear and respond?

On Ash Wednesday we heard those solemn words: “I invite you, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” This is not an invitation to do something unusual or extreme or to leave daily life behind. It is an invitation to train ourselves by the classic spiritual disciplines, so that our eyes can learn to see what is already there.

The Lenten disciplines which our Ash Wednesday invitation recommended to us are some of the church’s most tried and true ways of noticing God right where we are. They aren’t the only ways, but they are among the most reliable. That’s why the church asks us to use them every Lent.

Now, if you don’t want them to work, you can do them mechanically. You can do them with your eyes and ears on automatic pilot. Just read a collect at top speed, and check off prayer. Skip seconds at supper for 40 days, and check off fasting. Let your mind flit over the past week for half a minute before we say the confession in church, and check off self-examination and repentance.

Keep your eyes and ears on automatic pilot instead of open to seeing and hearing God’s presence, and these reliable old disciplines won’t disturb you a bit. You can keep right on moving, and never hear the Holy Spirit singing to you like a nightingale.

Or you can take time and use these disciplines to become a God-watcher. Pray, maybe, by talking to God as if he had spent the whole day right at your side, as if you knew no special church rules, and as if you expect him to keep up his half of the conversation.

Or fast, maybe, on some day when you’ll have a chance to sit down and feel the hollow buzz in your stomach, and then ask what it reminds you of. What else, who else, feels that way?

And for self-examination, maybe, try on the simple questions of a child, things like “How come you lied?” or “Why can’t I be friends with him any more?”

Oh, you don’t have to do those things exactly. Do some other ones if you like. But if you want to become a God-watcher this Lent, get yourself off automatic pilot.

For the next forty days, try taking it on faith: The word is near you, in your heart, in your house, in your neighborhood. And then watch.

Sit quietly, and gently look at the place from which you thought you might have heard a nightingale’s song, until the Presence of God begins to take shape before your eyes. Then you’ll be able to say it for yourself: The Word is near me, on my lips and in my heart. And it was there all along. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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Christopher Sikkema


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