Have I told you lately how much I love you? I love you when we are working together to do something wonderful for our community. I love you when we gather together in worship. I love you when we are all getting along and are treating one another with love and care. And I love you when we disagree and even when we are not getting along. I love you when life is good, and I love you when our life together is sometimes hard. If I love you so much, with my very limited capacity for love, with my human ability – stop and think – try to absorb for just a moment – how much greater, how much more extravagant, how much more steadfast – is God’s great love for you. This great love was manifested to us through the person of Jesus Christ. And in Christ we see one who shares with us this tremendous gift of being fully present for each person he encounters.
In our Thursday night dvd study (which just started by the way, and you can still join us), we were presented with the vision of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and the iconic painting of God and Adam. It is really quite remarkable. You might suppose that Michelangelo would have painted Adam desperately reaching out for God and God lifting one mighty finger toward Adam. But that is not what is depicted there at all. Instead, what you see is Almighty God actively stretching, and reaching, totally focused on getting as close to Adam as possible, while Adam is in a much more reposed position with his finger almost touching the outstretched finger of God. What I would ask you to think about is this. God in his great love for you, is always reaching toward you – if you take time to be fully present in this world you cannot help but notice the form that outreaching takes – in the beauty, and color, and detail of the created world; in the faces of loved ones and those who show us a kindness; in the sense we have in our heart and desire for something more; through scripture; through daily encounters – everywhere and all the time, God is saying I am here. I am present. I am reaching for you.
Being fully present, being grounded is an excellent practice for us as we enter the Lenten season – which starts on Wednesday with our Ash Wednesday service. Now what do I mean when I say Lent? I am not talking about dryer lint, or the lint dust bunnies you find under the bed. I am talking about the season in the Christian calendar that begins on Ash Wednesday and continues for 40 days (not counting Sundays) until Easter. During this time, we are invited and encouraged to contemplate our relationship with Christ. To recall his life, given for ours. It is often a time of spiritual renewal and re-awakening. I encourage you to come to the Lenten lunches during this time, they are on Wednesdays at noon – come for a brief worship and meaningful devotion and a delicious meal. I encourage you to use the Quiet Room for prayer and meditation. During the Sundays leading up to Easter, I will be preaching a series on Soul Building, where each week we explore spiritual practices that may help us on this Lenten journey toward renewal. Today, we consider the spiritual practice of being grounded, or being present. Being grounded means being in touch with and connected to your surroundings, to stand on firm footing. To be aware and present in the present.
In her book, “An Altar in the World” Barbara Brown Taylor talks about the potential of walking a labyrinth, or even just walking with awareness as a spiritual practice that has the potential to connect one to God’s presence. A Labyrinth is an ancient spiritual practice, using a sort of a maze that is laid out in a circle with a curling path inside, which leads to the center. It usually includes switchbacks and detours, just like life; it has one entrance and leads to one center. Have any of you ever walked a labyrinth? There are a number of them in this area including one at Cedarkirk, and at the Dali Museum, and the Franciscan Center, as well as others. The thing about a labyrinth, is that there are no real rules or no set time for walking a labyrinth, it isn’t a task that you can check off a list. It is something that requires your presence in order to have meaning. The first time I encountered a labyrinth, I was completely mystified – why all the walking back and forth, what was the purpose of the switchbacks and turns, why not just walk straight forward to the center? Why couldn’t I just cross the lines and avoid the twists and turns. And then why retrace those same steps to get back out? I didn’t get it. The experience of a walking a labyrinth is an opportunity to ground yourself in where you are. To walk in such a way that you slow down and allow yourself to observe what is around you, to feel God’s presence and to be present. You can accomplish something similar by taking a walk and allowing yourself to be observant and through other practices.
Jesus in our passage today offers an incredible illustration of presence. The passage begins, “when Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him.” (Mark 5:21) Jesus has just crossed back over to the “Jewish” side of the sea of Galilee, into the region known as Galilee, from his wild visit to the “other” side of sea – the Decapolis side. That is where he encountered the demoniac, who was completely out of control, living among the tombs, unrestrainable – from whom he called out the many demons. You may recall that the demons entered a herd of pigs, that then ran off a cliff, rushing into the sea. People were amazed, and frightened, and they did not know what to think and so they begged Jesus to leave. It was quite a frenzied, emotional visit. And so, now, Jesus has crossed again and returned to the Galilee side where his reputation as a teacher and healer has been building.
Think about this – he has just come from a highly charged event, and is immediately surrounded by crowds demanding his attention. A high level leader of the synagogue has approached him with an urgent need regarding his gravely ill 12 year old daughter. As he goes with Jairus to care for the girl, a large crowd continues to follow and press in upon him. Yet, Jesus is so aware of the present moment – even in the midst of what must have been a chaotic scene, with many sounds and much jostling and touching – he is so aware, that he can discern precisely when a woman touches him and is healed. Verse 30 says, “Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my clothes?’” Can you imagine that? To be so fully aware? The disciples can’t believe it – what do you mean, they say, everybody is touching you. But the woman knows and comes forward and Jesus says, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed” (Mark 5:34). Jesus then shifts his attention to the little girl. By now, word has arrived that she is dead. Unrattled, Jesus continues on and finds himself again in the middle of a commotion, where he is able to be fully present. I love the way the passage ends – with another spiritual practice – hospitality as he tells them to give her something to eat. (Do you think that is why we Presbyterians like to eat so much, after all it is a spiritual practice)
Please realize that we have not fully developed today’s text, this morning. There are some incredible themes within this rich text from Mark that focus on faith and life, on healing and nurture; we will explore them another day, because they are also important. But for today, we focus on Jesus and how he deals with life’s interruptions and upheaval. A teacher once remarked, “You know…my whole life I have been complaining that my work was constantly interrupted, until I discovered that my interruptions were my work” (Henri J. M. Nouwen, Reaching Out, p 36). Perhaps we can see in Jesus’ own personal touch to each interruption, the importance of being present.
Jesus is interrupted repeatedly in Mark: by Peter when he is at prayer, by a leper when he is preaching in the synagogue, by a paralytic when he is “speaking the word”, and by a sick woman while on his way to heal a dying girl. In each case, Jesus is sensitive to each need, patiently caring for each. Perhaps, his model of being present can help us.
One thing we notice about Jesus is his keen awareness of his earthly presence, while at the same time he maintains a high level of connection to his heavenly father. He is so aware, that he notices, within the crowd, this touch or power going out to the woman. That is nearly impossible to do in a large crowd. Perhaps you have experienced this yourself. For example, have you ever been to Disney World during the busy season? You know what it is like! People jostling and pushing and shoving, why you can wind up walking away with the wrong family if you aren’t paying attention. There is no way you can identify one jostle over another. Then, there are a lot of other occasions where we are not as aware of the present moment as we could be. For example, do you ever get in the car and drive and the next thing you know you are at your destination without even fully knowing how you got there, perhaps because you are so deep in thought that you missed the present moment? Or a common malady today, is being so engrossed in what you are doing on your phone, that you miss everything that is around you. Recently I was near USF for an appointment and students were standing on the corner waiting for the light to change so they could cross – every single one of them (I am not kidding) was looking down at their phone. Or perhaps you sit and think and worry to the degree that you miss what is happening around you, or the people around you, to the point that you lose all enjoyment or awareness of the present. Our fascination with the past and agonizing over the future often wrap us up so tightly that we entirely miss the present, often shutting our not just God, but the people we love, as well. As we enter this Lenten season, perhaps you would like to develop a stronger sense of being grounded in the present moment – put aside your phone, take a walk and truly notice what is around your, give your full attention to someone, give your full attention to God. And then, ponder the image of God reaching toward you finger outstretched, and you will – perhaps, hopefully – in turn reach out to recognize God’s great, steadfast, extravagant love and presence in you – here and now and always.