This is the message I preached on Sunday, June 3, at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC, for our Homecoming Service. I hope it blesses you! If you find yourself in or near Pittsboro, please join us! Hanks Chapel has Sunday school at 9 AM, with worship beginning at 10 AM, and is located at 190 Hanks Chapel Loop, Pittsboro, NC.
John 7:37-39 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
37 On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, 38 and let the one who believes in me drink. As[a] the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” 39 Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit,[c] because Jesus was not yet glorified.
O Still speaking God, open the eyes of our minds and ears of our hearts, that we might see and know what Word you have for us in these words of Holy Scripture. In Christ’s name, Amen.
Life has a way of pushing us, stretching us out, leaving us exhausted. At times it is like winds that blow against us, threatening to uproot us and toss us to and fro. At other times, we feel parched, dried, and emptied, without the resources to move forward in life.
There are storms in life that can shake us to the core. There are trials and challenges God might call us to face head on which can drain us, leaving us at the limit of our own strength, wisdom, or power. Even at times the ordinary struggles of work,of caring for family members in need, can stretch us all. And even trying times of transition can occur in our churches, families, and wider community. We certainly have seen some of these this year, haven’t we?
This happens to the best of us. In his autobiography, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King tells of when this happened to him during his fight for equal rights for all:
‘Almost immediately after the protest started we had begun to receive threatening telephone calls and letters. They increased as time went on. By the middle of January, they had risen to thirty and forty a day…
‘As the weeks passed, I began to see that many of the threats were in earnest. Soon I felt myself faltering and growing in fear. One day, a white friend told me that he had heard from reliable sources that plans were being made to take my life. For the first time I realized that something could happen to me…
‘One night toward the end of January I settled into bed late, after a strenuous day. Coretta had already fallen asleep and just as I was about to doze off the telephone rang. An angry voice said, “Listen, nigger, we’ve taken all we want from you; before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.” I hung up, but I couldn’t sleep. It seemed that all of my fears had come down on me at once. I had reached the saturation point.
‘I got out of bed and began to walk the floor. I had heard these things before, but for some reason that night it got to me. I turned over and I tried to go to sleep, but I couldn’t sleep. I was frustrated, bewildered, and then I got up. Finally I went to the kitchen and heated a pot of coffee. I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. I sat there and thought about a beautiful little daughter who had just been born. I’d come in night after night and see that little gentle smile. I started thinking about a dedicated and loyal wife, who was over there asleep. And she could be taken from me, or I could be taken from her. And I got to the point that I couldn’t take it any longer. I was weak. Something said to me, “You can’t call on Daddy now, you can’t even call on Mama. You’ve got to call on that something in that person that your Daddy used to tell you about, that power that can make a way out of no way.” With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory: “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m right. I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now, I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage. Now, I am afraid. And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”
‘It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even until the end of the world.” … I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me alone … Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.’
I don’t know about all of you, but even though I’ve not led such a historic and risky fight for justice as Dr. King, I can relate to that feeling he described of being worn out, reaching the end of his powers, and not knowing the way forward.
In today’s reading, Jesus invites us to the same realization Dr. King came to: ultimately to sustain ourselves through life’s trials, through its challenges and changes, and even through the work God has called us to do, we must discover and drink deep of the living waters Jesus alone can give. Without regularly connecting with the living waters Jesus offers, drinking deep of and being renewed by them, we cannot keep the energy, perspective, and strength we need to stand firm, to continue to make a difference without faltering, and to live out each of our callings.
Psalm 1 uses similar language to Jesus’ own: “Happy are those …. [whose] delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper. The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away …”
The “living waters” Jesus speaks about in our reading is the same Holy Spirit we spoke about both last Sunday and on Pentecost Sunday, who is described in Genesis 1 and Psalm 104 as the source of life itself: the One who moves over what is or has become barren, dry, and dead as dry bones, reviving it with fullness of life, until it is green, vibrant, and renewed. This Holy Spirit also is the one Jesus promised in Acts 1 would be the source of the power for us to be Christ’s witnesses, sharing His love by word and deed and transforming our lives, communities, families, and world.
In the next several weeks, I want to look at different practices we can put in place in our everyday lives to connect with this Spirit, practices that work like planting a tree by living water, so we can put down roots and grow
Like Dr. King had to learn to stop, pull away, and reach out to God, so do we. The Bible suggests a number of ways we will look at over the next several Sundays through which we can plant ourselves close to the Living Waters of the Spirit.
Two things happen when we learn to connect with the Spirit, drinking of the Spirit’s Living Waters.
First, we put down deep roots. These roots automatically grow for a plant in the right soil, right sun, near a source of water, giving ready and ongoing access to the waters that give them life. When in the right environment, the tree sets roots which both let it drink deeply of the water it needs to thrive but also make it hard for it to be shaken or knocked down by wind or rain. We too can put down roots, becoming rooted in God’s Spirit, daily refreshed for all we need.
This naturally happens when we regularly choose to connect with the Spirit, in some of the ways we will explore. This becoming rooted, so we can grow strong, tall, and unshaken by life’s storms is beautifully pictured by the words of spiritual writer Marianne Williamson. She writes, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” When we set down roots, we stand tall. And our standing tall calls other to set down roots of their own, discovering their strength and stability in God.
Also, Psalm 1 tells us that when we plant ourselves near to the living waters, drinking deeply of them every day, we will “yield … fruit in due season”. One reason trying to answer our callings – whether we are called to activism, being a witness, helping and serving others, being a good neighbor, spouse, parent, caregiver, or even trying to become a better person in how we speak, act, and treat others – can leave us so worn down, especially in the midst of trials, is it feels like so much work. Yet Scripture does not talk about these good actions and attitudes as things we work up and do in our own power, but rather as fruit the Spirit naturally produces in us, just like fruit trees planted by streams of living water naturally produce fruit . Think of it. If you plant a tree in the ground and it has regular water, sunlight, and fresh air, does the tree grit its teeth and with great effort work really hard to force fruit to be produced, til the tree falls out in sheer exhaustion from the effort of fruit making? No, when it is time, in its season, fruit naturally comes, as natural as the sun rising or setting.
This is the same with us – too often, we push ourselves, work really hard, grit our teeth , trying to force this or that work or attitude in the face of trial, only to find ourselves falling out in sheer exhaustion, frustrated and empty. Yet, if we regularly participate in practices that connect us with the Holy Spirit, the Spirit will naturally strengthen us, nourish us, and transform us, in ways that don’t happen all at once but over time, coming not by our gritting teeth and trying through painful effort, but instead coming just like a plant naturally growing, producing leaves, blossoming, and in the right time, producing fruit.
In future weeks, I want to look at some different ways we can practice connecting with the Spirit in our daily lives so we can grow, be transformed, and also become people able to help heal, comfort, love, and bring justice in other’s lives and in our world; so we can be rooted, able to stand strong and secure through all the winds and storms of life.
For now, I wonder, do any of you have any spiritual practices that you find particularly helpful in renewing yourself through life’s trials or to do what God calls you to do, which you’d like to share?
I want to mention two practices which I feel our Scripture suggests, one of which we will join in together.
First, we have the practice of meditation, which Psalm 1 mentions.
Meditation deals with one of our first barriers to connecting with God’s Spirit: how distracted we are. So much of our life is being busy, busy, busy, with our to-do lists. We are constantly on the go, constantly thinking about a thousand different things – worried about what to do next with work, worried about the people in our lives, thinking of what to cook for dinner; sometimes swamped with fear, anxiety, and heartache to a point we can barely think, let alone notice God’s presence or listen for God’s guidance in our lives.
This practice of meditation is primarily about clearing out the clutter and noise of your day and of the world, so your mind and heart are quiet enough to look for and listen for God. This is pointed toward in the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 19. Overcome by emotion, fear, anxiety, and exhaustion, Elijah leaves the noise of the crowds and goes up into the mountains alone. While there, his heart is too full still of worry and heartache to hear God. Then he looks out and sees a frightening earthquake, a wind so strong it breaks apart the rocks on the mountain where he stands, and a blazing fire that threatens to burn down all around him. Yet God is not any of these noisy, flashy things Elijah sees. No, God instead is found in a sound so quiet it is like silence which, on hearing, Elijah is so overwhelmed by the presence of God at hearing it he has to cover his head.
You see, to connect with the Spirit, sometimes we need to quiet the wind, earthquake, and fire in our hearts and minds some, because only then can we hear the still small voice Elijah did.
When we have our time of confession at church, this is why I have us pause for silence to look and listen for God. To truly hear what God is calling us to do, we need to silence ourselves, we need to put aside worry and noise.
There are two main ways I’ve seen Christians meditate.
In one form of meditation, breath meditation, people take deep breaths and pay attention to their breath. Folks take time to notice how they feel all over their body, beginning on the top of their head, and then, moving down their body, through their jaw, neck, shoulders, all the way down to their toes. As you do this, the busy noise in your minds and hearts will hit you and you will pay attention to those thoughts and feelings, and then let them go, like letting a leaf fall on your hand, looking at it a second, and then letting it go again. Then you will take deep breaths, pay attention to the breaths and as you do so, again notice the thoughts, feelings, ideas, that pop up, not holding onto them, but in a way where you notice them, and then let them go.
Another form of meditation — meditation on Scripture — follows a similar process but instead of focusing on your breaths, in this meditation you pick a short verse of Scripture, like “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength,” “Be still and know that I am holy”, “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me”, or “this is my son, whom I love, in whom I well pleased,” and repeat that verse slowly over and over again throughout your time of meditation, focusing carefully on each word, what it means, and what it brings up in your mind and heart.
I tend to do this second form of meditation the most in my own life and it seems to be what Psalm 1 is talking about when it speaks of meditating on the Law of the Lord. I find as I continue to pay attention and let go of the thoughts and feelings that pop up during meditation, returning to focusing on the Scripture I am meditating on, on my better days I either feel a greater peace that clears away the noise, a peace in which I can simply rest knowing it is God’s presence surrounding me, or I begin to have thoughts enter my mind that are no longer about the business of the day but instead about things I can pray for, or that are insights about things I’ve prayed about already, looking for answers. Often these insights feel like the beginning of answers to questions or concerns I have prayed about that, when I follow through on, help me discover and walk into what God’s will is for my life. I usually move from this clearing up of the noise of the day through meditation to praying by listening for and speaking to God.
Another practice that I think flows directly from this language of drinking deep of the waters of life is communion. In communion, we use bread and a cup of drink to remind ourselves that our ultimate source of strength and nourishment is, as Dr. King discovered, not anything of this world, but God – Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit. When we eat the bread and drink the cup, we remind ourselves that ultimately we must look to God for our source of strength, our wisdom, our direction and that our way to come to God is through Christ whose body was broken and blood shed.
So to conclude this sermon, I want to invite you to join us in a service of holy communion.