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Practicing God's Presence

Sermon
Sermons on the Second Readings
Series II, Cycle B
In the early years of the sixteenth century, a young adventurer named Nicolas Herman left his parents' home near Lorraine, France, to join the French army. Wounded in war, he returned home to recuperate and thus began a process of soul searching that led to Christian commitment.

His quest for closeness to God first led him to life as a hermit. He found that unfulfilling, so he eventually joined a Carmelite monastery where he was assigned to menial duties in the kitchen. Kneading bread might truly seem an unholy task to an ex-soldier, but Nicolas soon found his home in the labor of the kitchen.

In later years, this "Kitchen Saint," as Brother Lawrence was called, would write about how his soul discovered intimacy with God by prayerfully inviting God into each and every assigned task, every conversation, and every relationship. He once wrote that he felt nearer to God in the sanctuary of the kitchen than in the liturgy of the chapel. The experience changed his life and those around him. It was said of him, "He pretended nothing, was compliant with everyone and tended to treat his brothers and friends amicably without being pretentious." His written reflection, titled The Practice of the Presence of God is today considered a spiritual classic. It continues to change lives.1

For the most part, the goal of the human religious quest is a direct encounter with divine being. Various religious traditions have different names for it -- paradise, heaven, nirvana, but the images are similar -- a place of peace and rest, of enlightenment and bliss. Getting there is the journey of a lifetime. For some, it is the reward for a life of obedience, for others a state of conscious connectedness. For most it is a "someday" kind of place, with occasional glimpses here and there along the way. For Brother Lawrence, it was an everyday discipline, breathing divine reality into every loaf of bread and every dish he washed.

What would it be like to know the joys of paradise here and now -- not as a reward for services rendered, but as the serendipitous gift of a generous God? What would it be like to "practice the presence of God" on earth as it is in heaven?

We usually find it easy to encounter God in the grandeur of majestic mountains, in the vastness of ocean waves or the splendor of a clear night sky. But far fewer of us experience intimacy with God in grimy urban streets, in a heated debate of a church board or town meeting, or through changing a baby's stinky diaper. We might send our children to parochial school to learn about God, but hardly ever would we inspire spiritual growth by engaging in so-called "menial" tasks like scrubbing toilets, changing linens, and emptying bedpans. Where is God in that?

The community of believers who first heard the Epistle to the Hebrews was a people struggling to survive hard times and social persecutions. Many had lost their property and lived with the threat of losing even more -- their family relationships or even their lives. Some were giving up, and others were wondering if the outcome was worth the struggle. Through the lens of their culture's wisdom hard times meant either they were doing it wrong or else the opposing evil forces were more powerful than the friendlier ones. Some sought the easier path of a private faith -- believing in their heads and hearts but keeping their commitments secret.

If these believers were to survive the trials and grow in faith, they needed a hope on which to lean. The preacher sought to give that hope using the story of another group of struggling pilgrims -- the Hebrews on their journey to the promised land.

Remember that tabernacle -- the physical signpost of God's continuing presence as the Hebrews traveled to Canaan? God did not send Moses a roadmap and say, "See you when you get there!" God chose to journey with them all the way. But remember the story. Even in the tabernacle and the temple there was separation -- that veil which separated a holy God from mortal humans -- a reminder of human sin and human mortality which kept them from the fullness of God's presence. The cultic sacrifices of the temple symbolized that breach.

But, we have good news, the preacher says. In Christ, God is not waiting beyond us and God is no longer separated from us. In Christ, we have access to heaven here and now. In Christ, the ultimate sacrifice has been offered and the breach has been bridged. In the earthly temple there were no chairs -- the priestly work of offering sacrifices was continual, yet in Hebrews, Christ, the great high priest, is presented in a sitting posture.

The sacrifice is finished and the priestly work is accomplished, so now Christ sits as a king. He is truly a priest-king after the order of Melchizedek, the King of Salem. A new deal has been accomplished as promised by the prophet Jeremiah. Forgiveness has been granted; no more peace offerings are needed. The intimacy with God once known in Eden's garden is now possible for all of us.

Do we get it?

Too often in the minds and lives of church folk, salvation is a human achievement. "I got saved" (back when) we say. Too often salvation, or heaven, becomes a consequence of right belief and doctrine or a reward for good conduct. That's really not too different from the preacher's community and their mindset -- right knowledge and proper ceremonial observance and timely sacrifices as the stepping-stones to eternal bliss.

"Don't you get it?" the preacher asks. Jesus has already opened the door. He cleared the path to heaven's bliss through his own life's blood. Anything more is unnecessary and in fact denies his victory.

Therefore, my friends, we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus. We need no longer concern ourselves with manipulating God's favor with right doctrine or right sacrifices or even right behavior. God's favor is already ours through Jesus Christ! We don't have to clean up our act to encounter God; we have been cleansed by Jesus. All the barriers that have kept us from God in the past: the emotional garbage others have laid on us and the sin garbage we have created ourselves. All of it has been swept away by Christ's life and death and resurrection!

So if we no longer are required to invest our lives in acquiring our own salvation, what is left for us to do? Worship!

What's left for us to do? Abide in God's presence. Make passionate love with God in each and every daily task, and passionately love and encourage each and every person who crosses our path along the way.

What would your life be like if you, like Brother Lawrence, "practiced the presence of God"?


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How might your day be different if you were to invite God into each task of your workday and each relationship in your job? Would you use the time differently?

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What if you were to invite Christ to sit with you behind the steering wheel each time you enter the highway? Would your driving habits change?

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What if you invited Christ to go with you to the grocery store or the mall? Would your purchases be different?

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What if you "practiced God's presence" in your leisure time? Would you volunteer more time and talents to help others?

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What if you asked Christ to help you balance your checkbook? (That's the only way some of us get it done!) Would your spending habits change?

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What if you "practiced God's presence" at your child's ball game? Would your attitude toward the umpire change?

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What if we truly practiced God's presence at our church committee meetings and denominational gatherings? Would our decisions be different?

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What if you breathed Christ into every word you spoke? Would your language change? (Particularly at church meetings and your child's ball game!)

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What if you went to church fully expecting to experience the movings of God's Spirit? How often would you attend?


Practicing the presence of God means that when times get tough and the journey gets rugged we do not avoid community nor break away from others, and we don't walk away from the church; we seek it out, we talk it out, and we work it out. When times get tough and the chaos caves in around us we do not run from God but look for God's hand at work. We do not abandon each other but we come together -- to worship. We sing, we pray, we praise, and we intercede on behalf of each other.

What would our daily lives be like if we, like Brother Lawrence, "practiced the presence of God" in the here and now? If we sought daily to do God's will "on earth as in heaven"? Well, it would be heaven on earth, would it not?

In the communion liturgy of the church we recognize Christ in the breaking of the bread as being present in our midst as he promised. But we also anticipate a fuller, richer divine presence that will be ours when we gather around the table of the heavenly banquet that is to come. In the words of a Charles Wesley hymn, we "anticipate that joy below and own that joy of heaven." The messianic banquet is eaten with each Eucharist. In fact, it is tasted each time we dine in Christian fellowship.

So it is also when the community gathers for worship. As we traipse the terrain on the human journey we are invited to rest periodically on the way to experience a foretaste of the heaven to which we are headed. One day all the saints shall be gathered in the realms of heaven to sing praises and shout victory chants to the Lamb of God. But we need not wait to experience the joy of the party, we can gather with our fellow pilgrims to sing praises and lead the cheers of victory even before the journey is complete. Our communal worship anticipates the future home and makes it real, here and now, as we "anticipate the joy below and own that joy of heaven."


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1.ÊBiographical details on Brother Lawrence are from the section by Elmer H. Douglas, in Lawrence's book, The Kitchen Saint and the Heritage of Islam (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 1989), p. 7.
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