On Approaching God
July 17, 2022
O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?
Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart; who do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends, nor take up a reproach against their neighbors; in whose eyes the wicked are despised, but who honor those who fear the Lord; who stand by their oath even to their hurt; who do not lend money at interest, and do not take a bribe against the innocent. Those who do these things shall never be moved.
Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Today’s sermon is titled On Approaching God.
Sometimes I wish I didn’t have to sleep so much. I need nine or ten hours of sleep to feel my best and if I could just add an hour or two to my waking time, I imagine I would be even more productive and I would finally have the sense of being on top of things. In college I tried to slowly wean myself off of so much sleep and I ended up with a very bad flu. I was in my mid-forties before I was finally able to go to bed routinely early and that’s when I started being able to get up early, before anyone else was awake, to have a little time to myself.
I would light a candle and make a cup of tea, do some breathing exercises a friend had shown me, and read poetry or something uplifting. I had never cultivated a daily practice before and at first I did not love it, but after a few months of making myself continue, I began to really look forward to it. In the same year, I started to go to church again after a 30 year hiatus. It was not long before I added a practice of reading a daily devotion each morning. Each devotion was one paragraph with 2 or 3 scriptures listed at the end. I borrowed a Bible from church and began to look up the scriptures; ones I really liked, I wrote down in a little blank book and that became another part of my morning practice.
It’s been twelve years now. I’ve filled up the blank book with my favorite scriptures and added four more devotionals to my stack. I’ve added in focused prayer time to pray over the list we generate together each Sunday and I also added in 12-minutes of exercise so now I spend about half an hour with my morning devotions. There have been times over the years when I read less or not at all, but I have always come back around to it for one reason. I feel closer to God when I take that time. And when I can start the day feeling close to God, then more of what I do and say and think throughout the day is influenced in a more positive way. On really great days, I can carry that sense of connection with me and I can tell you that it changes my relationships, and it changes the way I see the world, all for the better, and all because I have trained myself to set aside that time. By setting aside the time, I approach God. By setting aside the time, I create a space for the love that is God to draw near.
Our readings this morning started out with two questions from a psalmist who is also seeking to draw near to God, asking, “Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?” We received a long list of answers: “Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart; who do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends, nor take up a reproach against their neighbors; who stand by their oath even to their hurt…” The psalmist concludes, “Those who do these things shall never be moved.”
This is precisely the kind of prescription that we have been trained to turn to, a list of dos and don’ts that we can follow. In organizing ourselves as a society, we have created over 30,000 laws* for our safety and prosperity. Every major religion lifts up teachings from prophets that instruct us on morals and ethics and right living, much like the words we heard from Psalms this morning. But there is something more that is available to us if we are willing to work for it. What is available to us is the perpetual presence of the Divine; what that Presence provides is peace…peace in every circumstance of our lives.
From what I can tell, this is not something that just happens. Now, I do not claim to be an expert on God, not by any measure. What I have observed and experienced is that God is a force and that force can not be imposed or wielded by us effectively. We have a long list of wars and Inquisitions and acts of religiously motivated violence to prove this. We must learn to work with the force of God. How do we do this? Through spiritual pursuit, through setting aside time to read, to study, to pray, and a commitment to practice in our relationships and as we move through our daily lives…this is how we learn to work with the force of God.
This is not something we have to do, Friends, this is something we can choose to do if we wish…if we wish for peace within, even in the midst of our hectic and violent world…if we wish for deeper wisdom, even in a world that makes no sense…if we wish to be agents of change but need strength and direction…if we wish to understand death even as we learn to fully live.
Teachers across the ages and from many cultures have held the light for us to follow. Some are still among us, like the theologian Frederich Buechner. He writes, “If I were called upon to state in a few words the essence of everything I was trying to say, it would be something like this: Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because, in the last analysis, all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”**
Muktananda, the founder of Siddhi yoga, tells us, “If you consider that every job is a mode of worshiping God, then you’ll attain God even while you’re sweeping the floor; you’ll attain God even while you’re washing dishes.”***
In the story we heard today from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is coaching Martha and Mary about this way of living with an awareness of God. This story has been interpreted widely and mistakenly, in my opinion, as Jesus favoring Mary’s choice to sit and listen over Martha’s choice to cook and make preparations. Jesus does not fault Martha’s choice, but he does point out that she is “worried and distracted by many things.” Jesus then says, “There is need of only one thing.” Many scholars have interpreted this as Jesus instructing Martha that the one most important thing is what Mary is doing, setting aside all other cares to sit at his feet. But this does not sound like the teacher we know. Biblical scholar Matthew Skinner provides a different interpretation. He writes that both Mary and Martha are devoted to Jesus, but they express their devotion in different ways, Mary with her attentiveness to his teaching and Martha with her cooking and preparations. It is only when Martha becomes frustrated and resentful, to the point that she is visibly upset, that Jesus says “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.” The original word, translated as “distracted” is the Greek word perispaomai; it would more accurately be translated as “cumbered, hindered, overwhelmed.”
Jesus guides Martha back to the object of her devotion by saying, “There is only one thing.” There are many forms of devotion, including cooking and serving, but only one object of devotion. Martha had lost touch with why she was doing what she was doing. Jesus is leading her back to what should be the source of inspiration for all of her choices and decisions. And Friends, that is what I am aiming to do this morning in reminding us all, myself included, that if we want peace and assurance and strength in these challenging times in which we live, we must be willing to make an effort to approach God, to set aside the time and space for God to enter in.
What I have found most helpful is to consider how much time I make each day to read or listen to current news and then try to balance that with time for some forms of spiritual practice. For me, lighting a candle, reading, praying and mindfully exercising my body are the ways that, lately, I have found to be very helpful. I encourage you to identify something you, too, can practice. If you want to talk over ideas, please reach out to me.
In closing, I pray that as we move through our days, we will, more and more, invite the presence of the Divine to influence what we say and do and think. Our teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, reminds us that “There is only one thing.” Do not get distracted by what others are doing or are not doing. Instead, let’s do all we can to make time and space for the force of God to enter in. In doing so, we change ourselves and in changing ourselves, we bring change to the world. So be it. Amen.
**from Resonate With Stillness, teachings by Swami Muktananda and Gurumayi Chidvilasananda
God of wholeness, I thank you for the power of love that dissolves the boundaries between us. I thank you for sending Jesus and all the divine wisdom he embodies as a radical example of a higher love, a deeper acceptance, and a commitment to service that we can always find ways to more fully emulate. Free us from our tendencies to limit, to judge, to exclude. Remind us, Lord, of the ways of Christ and help us to not be discouraged by the limited awareness that surrounds us in humanity, but rather empower us to look for the best in ourselves and the best in others. In Jesus’s name we pray this prayer that he gave to us…Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever and ever. Amen.
I leave you with these words from Colossians, chapter 2:
“May your hearts be comforted and well-equipped in all the riches of complete understanding so you may know the mystery of God, the Father of Christ Jesus, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”