Fates of Lost Seeds (part two)
Sermons from Silverside
Fates of Lost Seeds, Part 2
August 2, 2015
Preacher: David Albert Farmer, Ph.D.
Years ago when I was a youth minister in a church in Maryville, Tennessee, the women's organization for that church called the Women's Missionary Union (comparable to an organization that was with Silverside most of its history, the Ann Judson Society) had leadership for a Sunday evening worship service; a number of the women in the organization took part with readings and testimonies and reflections and singing and such. Of course, no woman preached; nor would she have been permitted to. Women knew their place at home AND at church--and still do down there! :/
There was one of the WMU ladies who spoke; I had hardly ever seen her around the church in my year or so on the staff by that point in time. I believe she spoke longer than any of the ladies who were always at church, and the primary theme of her speech was how much closer she felt to God in the mountains outdoors than she did inside a church building. The pastor nearly had a conniption fit; you could hear him repeatedly coughing and clearing his throat along with dropping his hymnal a time or two, and since I perceived him as a rather uptight tyrannical sort, I thought what she said and how he reacted made for a delightful comedic situation. I was only about twenty years old, so take my immaturity into account.
Of course, now that I’m a pastor concerned with church attendance, I wouldn’t find what she said appropropriate, much less funny, either! I would probably react about the way Rev. Smith did, minus the hymnal dropping. To the speaker’s point, and I’m pretty sure the mountains are open at times other than mid to late Sunday mornings, there certainly is for many people a connection between place and inspiration, which is often a pathway to spiritual experience.
There’s a difference between inspiration and spiritual experience. We may realize based on recurrence what inspires us, and that may be a prelude to the more intense spiritual experience; so we can repeat the circumstances of inspiration, and many of us do.
Some people are inspired by nature; others by poetry or other well chosen written and/or spoken words; others are inspired by music; others by art--some by images, some by color; others are inspired by meaningful movement such as dance; others by simply being in the presence of someone whom she or he takes to be a living inspiration--such as the Dalai Lama :) or, Mike Huckabee :/ There are those who are inspired by memory as well as those who are inspired by something anticipated in the future. What inspires one person, to state the obvious, doesn’t necessarily inspire another, but inspiration is a preliminary to spiritual experience.
There are places where some people, I would guess many of us, feel more of a sense of God's presence--whatever we might call it--than in other places. There are places where I may feel closest to God and many more places where there's almost no way I would ever feel any connection to God.
I can’t say I feel closer to God outdoors in the mountains than I do in church all the time, but having been raised in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, I feel lured back there from time to time. I rarely go to Tennessee to visit my family there without finding a little time to get to the mountains and breathe some mountain air. If I miss the Smokys then I will typically catch the Blue Ridge Mountains on my way to see my friends in Georgia.
What parent has not frequently felt a closeness to God when slipping into a sleeping child’s bedroom to make sure all is well before attempting some sleep herself or himself? Or what spouse has not turned over in the night to catch a moonlit glimpse of a beloved’s face or hear the steady breathing and failed to sense an unusual closeness to God, basking in unconditional love shared with a life partner?
I sometimes feel a special closeness to God in my car--except on I-95! It’s quiet. I rarely listen to music unless I’m on a long trip, and my incessant multi-tasking has to stop.
The towering Boston preacher from the early 1940’s to the early 1970’s, Theodore Parker Ferris, in the last third of his long Episcopal pastorate, said that instead of easing up on hospital visitation as he aged and the demands of the church continued to grow so that his associate clergy could easily have taken over most pastoral hospital visitation he spent more and more time doing hospital calling because he felt an especially powerful sense of God’s presence with sick folk, which he ultimately was able to share.
I have been walking into this sanctuary a few times a week for fifteen years, and I have never--even if it’s just a run in to see if I left something on my pulpit chair--failed to be inspired by the serene beauty of this space. The stained glass, especially the panels in the ceiling, along with the stone walls, beckon me to linger and, perchance, wait on the Lord. Of course, I often don’t have time to wait on the Lord or anyone else, and so I have this agreement with God that I will give God my undivided attention at set times that Blaine and God work out on my calendar.
In the ancient Hebrew world experiences with God were clearly associated with specific places--for example, atop Mount Sinai or in the great Jerusalem Temple’s inner sanctum, which they called the Holy of Holies. Many people in that place and time thought if someone had an intense experience with God in one place it was, unlike lightning, more likely to be a place where God would visit again rather than some random spot where God had never yet made God’s presence known.
If you had a meaningful, moving experience with God in a given place--and it wasn’t always thought of as a calming connection by the way--then coming back to that place would be a way to improve the possibilities that you would experience God again, as before. The concept become more broadly applicable, and a number of people believed the same thing could happen to someone other than the original person who felt God’s presence in that locale.
In either case, shrines were often established in a place that had been holy ground for someone. Here are some instances where that was the case.
Abram believed that God called him to go out in search of a new land rather than stay where he was living when the call came. The purpose of the move was to get to a new place from which God would pour out blessings upon him and his family and, ultimately, cause them to become not just a family but a nation that would share the blessings of God with all people on the face of the earth. Pretty exciting stuff!
So Abram and entourage set out on the journey to a place that had not been specified, and their first major stop was in Canaan at a place called Shechem, known for a huge tree within its borders at Mamre. God wasn’t checking in the Abram and clan on a daily basis so it was of great significance that while they were at Mamre, God appeared to Abram for the first time since he had set out on this trek to who knew where. It was such a stirring experience that Abram set up a shine there. He built an altar to God, which he used for worshiping God--an altar that others would be able to use after him since the the expectation was that since God had come to Abram there, God would do the same for other faithful types who set foot on that locale.
Also from the ancient Hebrew world comes one of several defining-moment stories about Jacob. In this story, he is traveling toward Haran, and when night began to fall he decided to stop and rest for the evening. He found a very smooth stone, made it his pillow, and seems to have drifted right off to sleep. He began to dream, and he dreamed that there was a ladder with its base on the earth and its top all the way up into heaven. God and God’s messengers were moving up and down the ladder. In the dream God was suddenly standing beside Jacob, and God said,
I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.
When Jacob woke up, he thought back through the dream, and he became convinced that something more than a dream had just happened. He believed that God had actually visited him, causing that message to fix itself in his consciousness; he was overwhelmed so he blurted out:
Surely the Lord is in this place--and I did not know it! How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God and gate of heaven.
Here’s the shrine part. In his state of spiritual stirring, Jacob took that stone pillow, set it up on its end, and anointed it with oil--a rite of sanctification. And even though the place already had a name, Jacob gave it a new name, which eventually caught on. The new name was Bethel, meaning what he had already described it to be in his exclamation: house of God.
A similar kind of response came from Jacob when he believed he wrestled with God throughout a sleepless night in the desert; he called that place Peniel, meaning face of God. Same thing after he bumped into a band of angels; that place he called Machanaim--meaning two camps, the dwelling of humans and the dwelling of angels had come together. Place.
Judah Halevi was a Spanish Jewish poet--a philosopher and a physician too. He lived in Spain right in the middle of the Middle Ages and became a noted spiritually-focused person in his time and beyond. His first poems were based on secular themes, but there came a time in his life when he let go of materialism in preference for the treasures of spiritual sensitivity.
H was stirred by memories of what life had been like for his Jewish ancestors when they were in places of connection to God. Halevi was also stirred by images of future times when his people would again have the most important place of all, Jerusalem--Zion--which during much of his lifetime was controlled by the Muslims.
Perhaps you will also be inspired by an excerpt from his “Ode to Zion” in which he makes reference to three of the ancient shrines to which I’ve just referred. Also notice the moving ways he describes experiencing God:
Zion! will you not ask if peace is with your captives
That seek your peace -- that are the remnant of your flocks?
From west and east, from north and south -- the greeting
"Peace" from far and near, you take from every side;
And greeting from the captive of desire, giving his tears like de
Of Hermon, and longing to let them fall upon your hills.
To wail for your affliction I am like the jackals; but when I dream
Of the return of your captivity, I am a harp for your songs.
My heart to Bethel and Peniel yearns sore,
To Machanaim and to all the places where your pure ones have met.
There the Presence abides in you; yea, there your Maker
Opened your gates to face the gates of heaven.
And the Lord's glory alone was your light;
No sun nor moon nor stars were luminants for you.
I would choose for my soul to pour itself out within that place
Where the spirit of God was outpoured upon your chosen.
So, our sower in Mark 4 we identified last week as a careless chap. He lost lots of seeds. Most of his lost seeds died off rather quickly. Last week we talked about a few of the many ways that efforts at spirituality fail.
Today we're at the other end of the spectrum, and we're considering bumper crops in terms of spiritual harvesting. These are the experiences, unexpected opportunities, that bring us more profound joy and insight and inner peace than we could ever have imagined.
We must make ourselves aware of is this fact: there are no guarantees when we plant a garden, even if we do it by some master gardener’s direction and advice, that the result is going to be adequate or good or, most rarely, phenomenal. Spirituality is not a science. There are no rules that work for all people all the time; there are no rules that work for any one person every single time.
Dr. Douglas Shrader, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the State University of New York at Oneonta, presented his perspectives on seven characteristics of mystical experience--I would say mystical experience and spiritual are one and the same--to the International Conference on Arts and Humanities in 2008. Among those seven characteristics is this one: People who have spiritual experiences realize that they did not and could not have forced them to happen.
We cannot force or manufacture these feelings or sensations--though some worship traditions are structured around the notion that they can and must happen for most of the worshippers most of the time. Christian mystics such as the Desert Mothers and Fathers and later Teresa of Avila and Bernard of Clairvaux, among many others, knew and taught the necessity of waiting for God to act in one’s life.
So, in our spiritual gardens we can plant in hopes of humongous returns, but there are no guarantees. What we have some control over is keeping ourselves inspired. Accumulated inspirational moments may act as a kind of non-organic fertilizer for seeds that may produce beyond capacity to the benefit of the gardner and those who share life with her or him.