SAVING PLACES, SPACES, AND PRACTICES
GROUNDEDNESS: The Practice of Walking on the Earth click here for audio
Genesis 12:1-9, Luke 4:42-44
Pastor Marty Raths
Saving Places, Spaces, and Practices
GROUNDEDNESS: The Practice of Walking on the Earth
Early on in the Book of Genesis God says to a man named Abram, “Go from your country . . . to a land that I will show you.” From the very beginning the biblical faith has been a pilgrim faith, a faith that gets people moving. Again and again in the bible people are called and sent by God, and Jesus’ first words to his disciples were not “stay where you are” but “follow me.” So as his disciples we are not stayers but followers, meaning we are going somewhere, or at least we are supposed to be going somewhere.
And this makes for one of the most important practices in life, and in the life of faith: figuring out how we get from here to there, and the here and the there can be many things. It can be stages in life, going from childhood to adolescence to adulthood to older age. It can be circumstances in life, going from being single to being married, or from being married to being divorced or widowed, or going from school to work, or from work to retirement. It can be a psychological or a spiritual movement, going from guilt to forgiveness, from shame to acceptance, from injustice to justice, from conflict to peace. There are a lot of heres and theres in life. So how do we do it? How do we make our way from the heres to the theres?
How did Jesus do it? In her book An Altar in the World Barbara Brown Taylor makes the rather obvious observation. Jesus walked. In our reading from the Gospel of Luke the crowds are again pressing in on Jesus, and they do not want him to go, which may have been the first time in his public ministry but far from the last when his followers wanted him to stay put.
Spiritual inertia is every bit as strong as its physical counterpart. How often have we responded to a call from Christ by saying in as many words, “You cannot be serious, Lord? You want me to go from here to there? But I rather like it here, Lord, holding on to my hurt, my anger, my resentment, my familiarity, my certainty . . . It has become such a comfortable place for me. You want me to get over my guilt, Lord? I know it may not be the best use of my conscience, but it gives me such a good excuse not to do the hard work of forgiveness and reconciliation. Stop reminding me of all the injustice in the world, Lord. I really would try to do something about it if only it did not mean having to make changes in my own way of life.”
But to that first crowd, and to every follower since, Jesus says, “I am not staying here. That is not why I was sent. I was sent to proclaim the good news of the kingdom, and if you want any part of this good news, then you need to follow me. So let’s get going.”
And Luke tells us that Jesus went throughout Judea with the message of the kingdom. And as Taylor points out, he went from town to town, and from synagogue to synagogue, by walking. But she makes more of this than the simple fact that Jesus walked. She makes special note of how Jesus walked, and of what his walking allowed him to do.
His walking gave him time to see things, she writes, like the milky eyes of the beggar sitting by the side of the road, or the round black eyes of birds sitting in their cages in the market. If he had been moving more quickly, she concludes, these things might have become a blur to Jesus.
Now a lot of us know about blurry vision. It is how a lot of us are making our way through life. We are moving along alright, going from here to there, and there to here, but so much of life along the way is just a blur. We are so preoccupied with other things, or so distracted by schedules that are too full and technologies that are too many and too fast. Linda Stone, who writes about technology, suggests that the disease of our internet age is “continuous partial attention.”
Continuous partial attention. Does that ring true for any of us? Or am I the only one? Let me ask it a different way. How often are we at full attention in life, seeing what is really going on inside of us, or what is really happening in the lives of others, or what is really taking place in the world around us. How often do we see all that with our undivided attention?
Sure multitasking is the way many of us do things in our day. And it may allow us to get a lot of things done, and we may think that we are being really efficient, and maybe we are sometimes. All Taylor is saying is that that was not Jesus’ way, and I would add that, despite the benefits, there are also costs associated with our partial attention.
I was on a retreat once in a small town, and one afternoon I went for a walk around the downtown. And along the way I entered a large antique store, and about midway into the store was this island sales counter, and behind the counter sat the owner.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hi,” she answered.
And then I noticed on the counter a bird cage with a pair of beautiful little birds inside.
“What kind of birds are they?” I asked.
“Zebra finches,” she said.
Now inside the cage up in the corner was an artificial nest, and curious person that I am, I peered inside, and to my surprise I saw three little eggs.
“Are those eggs real?” I asked.
“Will they hatch?”
“No, there’s too much commotion in the store,” she said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“With all the people coming in and out of the store, there’s too much commotion in here,” she said. “It distracts the birds, and they don’t keep the eggs warm. So they never hatch.”
There’s a sermon illustration here, I thought to myself. Too much commotion. They get distracted. The eggs never hatch. Welcome to life in modern America. Too much commotion, and too much distraction. We all know about that. But the behavior of the birds makes me wonder as well what all is going unhatched, or being still born, for lack of attention. There are some things in life, some very, very important things, that need our full attention if they are ever going to come into being.
As I said, there are costs to our continuous partial attention, and as Taylor reminds us it was not Jesus’ way. He walked from here to there at a pace that allowed him to notice things. I once read a book in which the writer said that Jesus walked at a “savoring pace.” That is an interesting way to put it. Jesus walked at a savoring pace. The word “savor” comes from a Latin word meaning “to know.” So when we savor food, we are attentive enough to what we are eating to know what it tastes like. Now apply that to other experiences in life. Food tasted better at the pace Jesus set, Taylor writes, stories lasted longer, talk went deeper. Jesus was a walker, not a rider, she goes on to write. He took his sweet time.
That too is an interesting way to put it, isn’t it? Sweet time. We can savor time too. And what would it be like for us to savor our time with our children or grandchildren, or our spouse or partner, or our aging parents, or our close friends. What would it be like for us to savor our time together in worship or study or service, or to savor our alone time with God. What would it be like for us to savor whatever we most love to do, tending a garden, preparing a meal for others, sitting down with a good book, traveling, helping others. You choose the whatever. Just ask yourself, what would it be like to savor that? tasting all the sweetness that it has to offer? Then ask yourself, when was the last time I experienced that? when I really gave something or someone my undivided attention?
Another one of those practices is presenting itself here, like the one Josh practiced in the story I shared a few weeks ago. It is the practice of walking at a pace that allows us to notice what is really going on around us. Jesus’ walking allowed for that. Much of his ministry came about as people crossed his path in some way, but only because he was going at a pace that allowed him to stop, listen, teach, feed, heal. Jesus’ walking was a physical walking, but more than that, it was how he made his way through the world, how he got from the heres in life to the theres. And it is the way we need to take as well, Taylor writes. For the risk is, as she states in the quote at the bottom of our bulletin, that we can be so preoccupied with where we have been or where we are supposed to be that we miss where we are. We remain ignorant about the most important time and place in life, the here and now.
It is really a way of knowing that Taylor is advocating here, an epistemology, to use the fancy philosophical term. Walking connects us to the earth, it grounds us, and what we know. “Sometimes we do not know what we know,” Taylor writes, “until it comes to us through the soles of our feet . . . touching the truth with our minds alone is not enough sometimes.” Some truth has to come to us as embodied truth, as incarnational truth. “Let me see your hands and your side, Lord,” Thomas asked. “Then I’ll believe.” And Jesus showed him that embodied truth that is at the very heart of our faith, his crucified yet risen body. And only then did Thomas believe.
We know with more than just our minds. “The heart has reasons that the mind knows not,” Pascal wrote. And there is an even deeper knowing. The Irish poet William Butler Yeats once wrote, “There are some things we know, or must know, in our marrow bones.” And we have a similar expression. I just feel it in my bones, we say when we are absolutely sure about something. Now that is deep knowing, bone-deep knowing, and we only come to that sort of knowledge by way of walking, by being fully aware, fully attentive, fully embodied in the here and now.
Perhaps it is reflective of my age. But I got my first pair some years ago, and I believe that as followers of Jesus we need a faith that allows us to see with spiritual bifocals. We need to be able to focus on both the future and the present. There are times when we need to focus upon the promises of God. We are a people of hope after all, and we need to remember that we are not bound to the present, that the future can be different, by the grace of God and our own faithful working with that grace. And focusing upon the future, upon the promises of God, can help us to get beyond present circumstances, and there are times when we very much need to get beyond them.
But even with our sights set upon the promises of God, we still need to live out our faith in the here and now. Discipleship is not just a waiting game, until we get to heaven. It is also a walking game. “All the way to heaven is heaven,” a faithful Christian once said, meaning that our earthly walk matters. “Go from your country . . . “ God said to Abram. “Follow me,” Jesus says to us. In other words start walking.
Now we may think that this walking just comes naturally to us. But it does not. And I am sure that by the end of the fall you are going to be so tired of Donna and I saying this, but the truth is that this walking takes practice. The sort of walking that Jesus wants us to be doing, it takes practice. The sort of walking that shows compassion toward our hurting world, it takes practice. The sort of walking that enjoys the company of others, or that delights in the world around us, it takes practice. The sort of walking that speaks a timely word of kindness, or forgiveness, or encouragement, or hope, or truth to power, it takes practice. The sort of walking that hears the cries of a blind man beside the road, that helps to feed a hungry crowd of people, that overturns the tables of money changers in the temple, it takes practice. It takes practice, practice, practice.
Lord Jesus, you never cease coming to us in the midst of our daily lives. Whether in the midst of all life’s commotions, or in the quiet moments of our days, you come to us and say, “Follow me.”
Start walking, you say to us. Start walking from where you are to where I need you to be. But walk slowly and with gentle steps, for there are needs and opportunities and blessings all along the way. Do not miss then, you caution, or you will miss out on the abundant life that I have promised to you.
We are walking, Lord, but show us the way. You know the way, you remind us. Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. Love God and neighbor and self. Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, think on these things and keep doing them.
Be with us, Lord. Trust me, you say.
Bless to us, O Lord, the good earth beneath our feet.
Bless to us, the way upon which we go, your way, bless to us this day and in all our days.