“A TOUCH OF STILLNESS”
July 28, 2013
God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.
Come, behold the works of the Lord;
see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
‘Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.’
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.
Galatians 5: 1-15
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you. Once again I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law. You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor un-circumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.
You were running well; who prevented you from obeying the truth? Such persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. A little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough. I am confident about you in the Lord that you will not think otherwise. But whoever it is that is confusing you will pay the penalty. But my friends, why am I still being persecuted if I am still preaching circumcision? In that case the offence of the cross has been removed. I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an
opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.
I began my 29th year of ministry as pastor of the Warren Avenue Presbyterian Church on the 1st of July. I am into my 38th year of ordained ministry – ordained to serve churches in Davenport, Iowa and then Evanston, Illinois. In reflecting on all these years of ministry and knowing “I never throw anything away”, I went back to look at some of my original sermons from when I was first ordained.
My first official sermon was delivered to the Department of Candidates back when I was being considered by the Presbytery of Denver for ordination. This was at the Cherry Creek church where Rob Gwaltney was pastor.
This sermon was titled “A Touch of Stillness”. We didn’t have computers back then so my one and only copy of this sermon was typed with lots of scribbles in the margins. I am sharing with you a “reworked” version of that 39 year old message …. and yes, I had to make some cuts because the original sermon was way too long! J
What really amazes me in going back to this old sermon: you will recognize the concepts and themes I have been carrying with me throughout my entire ministry!!!
“A Touch of Stillness”
A middle aged Native American Indian came to Chicago to accept a position in one of the downtown businesses. He spent his younger years on a southwestern reservation. He received a special scholarship, went to college and became a successful man in business.
It was no secret that this man missed the life he left behind him when he was on the reservation with the large family he loved and the heritage that stood firmly behind his existence as a Native American. His culture and his family and his style of living were all things he had to leave behind to survive in the world of a big city and big business. And remember, this was almost forty years ago!
One specific day during his lunch break this man, this Native American, was walking down the street with some of his associates. He suddenly stopped in his tracks, looped his hand around his ear, and listened. His friends were amazed at this strange behavior. This man stood perfectly still as he listened. All his friends could hear were the elevated trains and cars on the busy streets. People were rushing up and down the streets with conversations that made hearing, listening even more difficult. Amid all the familiar sounds of the city, they wondered: What could our friend be hearing?
This man stood still…..waited, and listened to something that his friends could not hear. After a few moments he took his friends into the alley and showed them a little cricket that was chirping away from behind a trash can. This man, by heritage an Native American Indian, was a skilled listener. He was able to hear something of value to him…the chirping of the cricket that was almost completely buried…..cloaked by the sounds of the streets in the large city.
This man and his friends continued their walk in discussing this simple, unusual experience. They had been sensitized to something important to their friend and his heritage. This man learned something about himself….and his past that he could carry with him his entire life. This man also learned something even more important. He was able to experience a phenomenon of being able to commune with his world, the world of his little friend the cricket, and the world that could exist apart from all the noises of the streets of the city and of people running from one place to the next.
“Be Still and Know that I am God”, says the Psalmist. This scripture comes to mind in thinking about hearing sounds that might otherwise go unnoticed. “Be Still and Know that I am God” – is this what we long for? The moments in life when we can hear God? When we can get away from the hassles of a busy life in order to be with and know God. The analogy is in hearing the cricket in the silence of the noises of the streets; or to feel the wind blow; or to see the growth of a small child as he first reaches out for little toy with his or her little hand – something I look forward to experiencing with our grandson Tommy in just a couple of weeks.
There are two aspects of our talking about the presence of God I would invite you to consider with me today. First, of all, we talk about the presence of God in our activities, in our doing things for others, Second, what about the presence of God that emerges from our activities in our being with each other as friends and neighbors. The presence of God in our doing….and the presence of God in our being…the presence of God known in a “Touch of Stillness”.
There is one pre-supposition that can be brought to this discussion. This is a topic and theme I have been carrying with me throughout my ministry. Lodged in the confessional standards of the church and the Westminster Catechism and the question: “What is the chief end of man (or humankind?)” We affirm in the answer that our highest goal and achievement is in “glorifying God and enjoying God forever”. How many times have I referenced this question from the catechism over the years? At least a dozen times if not more…..
Let me suggest we enjoy God and glorify God by recognizing God’s presence with us. God is with us in our activities. God is with us in our relationships. God is with us in our doing and our being.
In this discussion we can also find ourselves amidst personal questions: Where is my life going? Where is God in my life? There seems to be a magnetic longing to enjoy God…enjoy life. Something inside us beckons our giving glory to God. Discovering and affirming God’s presence in our lives is like finding that chirping cricket ….that allows us the freedom to live active, loving, caring, fulfilled lives in all that we do.
The message of active freedom, the presence of God participating in our lives, is found this morning in Galatians. “For Freedom Christ has set us free.” Paul was writing, not as a legalist, but as a free Christian to the people of Galatia at a time when they weren’t enjoying God or glorifying God. They weren’t recognizing God’s active presence with them in their relationships. So Paul says, “You were running well, who hindered you from obeying the truth?” In affect he was saying: You used to be Godly bunch of people. What happened? You seem to be out of touch with the God!
Can we be found like the Galatians running away from the truth that Christ’s love, his affirming presence, sets us free? We look at the Easter Cross. Christ died and then rose for us so that we might be free to live our lives for the glory of God and for the love of neighbor. We at times deny God’s presence with us. Can we ever deny the cross and what Jesus went through for us on that cross?
We are in the position of needing to pay close attention to what Paul teaches. To be in Christ is to be free from all the obstacles that limit us, constraints that can break our relationships, separations that keep us from honestly facing the perplexing questions of life as to how we can actively glorify God or actively enjoy God?
There are many things in the church that excite me. There are people in this church and in my life that make me feel like I am glorifying God and enjoy God’s presence. I cannot deny the reality of these positive feelings. I cannot deny the reality that the power of the Spirit of God is at work in this Church. On the other hand, I cannot deny the fact that there are real things in the world and in the church that are unsettling: sickness, suffering, depression, loneliness….to mention a few concerns that some of you bring to this place.
God is with us at all times participating in our breathing, as the poetic words of one song suggests: “The presence of God is in every breath of air, and in the wisdom of the children, and the graceful way of flowers in the wind.” We can go a step beyond poetic words and music in acknowledging the fact that each of us has real feelings. What are the feelings that come from enjoying God, not in our merely doing things, but in our being together as his people. What are the feelings that come from enjoying God and glorifying God? How does it feel to know God’s presence?
Throughout the years I have spent a fair share of time struggling with my feelings relating to the question of the presence of God. I have found myself at times frustrated in affirming God’s presence in my life. In his presence I ask:
“O God, toward which end should I direct my life so that I can know you? Learn from you? How does being in your presence allow me to be all that I am in loving and caring for my neighbor? What about the times when I can’t do more for my neighbor?”
The psalmist can help us all find an adequate response to difficult questions.
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear though the earth should change, though the mountains share in the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
These are words of intense feeling describing a time of chaos upon the earth. A time of great unrest, anxiety, fear, disruption of life. One reads along and finds amid these images describing God as the ever-present fortress—the powerful words:
GOD IS SPEAKING: Be still and know that I am God. I am exalted among the nations. I am exalted in the earth. GOD IS SPEAKING: Be still and know that I am God.
Let’s give it a try. When things are stirring, the blood is boiling, the anxiety levels rising: Take a deep breath. Be still! Be still! Be still! Search for and know God.