“Finding God in the Ordinary”
A Sermon by the Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church
In Fort Washington, Pennsylvania
Delivered on Sunday, July 23, 2017
Bede Griffiths is one of my favorite spiritual writers. As a young man, he devoured books and passionately pursued the meaning of life. He grew up in England and eventually became a Benedictine monk. He later moved to India, where he created a Christian ashram and spent the rest of his life learning and writing about connections between Christianity and Hinduism. His writings are stunning and at times even mystical.
One day during his last term at school in England, he took a walk in the evening and heard birds singing magnificently and saw the hawthorn trees which were in full bloom. As the sun set over the playing fields, he felt at one with all of creation. He notes, “I remember the feeling of awe which came over me. I felt inclined to kneel on the ground, as though I had been standing in the presence of an angel; and I hardly dared to look on the face of the sky, because it seemed as though it was but a veil before the face of God.”
In his spiritual autobiography entitled The Golden String Griffiths later described that moment as one of the most significant events of his life. It did not occur in a church, but in nature. It occurred in an ordinary setting. He did not seek it. Rather, he received it. He wrote, “I was suddenly made aware of another world of beauty and mystery such as I had never imagined to exist, except in poetry. It was as though I had begun to see and smell and hear for the first time. The world appeared to me as Wordsworth describes it with ‘the glory and the freshness of a dream.’”
This story came to mind this week as I pondered today’s reading from Genesis. Like Griffiths, Jacob was walking across an ordinary landscape when something unexpected occurred. Now Jacob was no paragon of faith. He had bargained for his brother’s birthright and swindled a blessing from his father. Jacob was somewhat of a cheat and a trickster.
He had left Beer-sheba and was heading toward Haran, when he came to what the Bible calls “a certain place” – an ordinary setting where this trickster chose to spend the night, as the sun had set. He took a stone, put it under his head and went to sleep. He dreamed that night that a ladder extended from earth to heaven and angels were going up and down it. Then God himself appeared and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south…”
When he awoke, Jacob said one of the most memorable lines in the Bible, “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!” Then he added, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God and…. the gate of heaven.”
This story fascinates me because it mirrors my own experience that took place in Scotland several decades ago, when I had a revelation of sorts that was given to me when I wasn’t going to church, wasn’t trying to be a good Christian and wasn’t even vaguely looking for God. I was just dreaming of playing professional soccer in a foreign country, when God lifted the veil and provided two mystical experiences that revealed to me a world behind this world. I could see how everything that produced pain and suffering here on earth was leading to a greater good.
It took me a long time before I talked about this experience and began to understand it. But what I have come to learn is that the Bible is a collage of stories about many ordinary people who have encountered God in very ordinary places. God communicates with all sorts of folks. The first to learn about the birth of Jesus were shepherds, who were the most despised people in the Ancient Near East. The question for those of us who seek to know God better is not whether we are good enough or moral enough for God to reveal Himself to us, but rather, can we allow our eyes to be opened so that we can see God in the ordinary moments of our lives?
I sometimes describe the first baptism that I ever performed as the worst baptism that ever took place. Believe it or not, my seminary never taught me how to baptize a baby. They taught us a lot of the theology about baptism, but our professor never taught any of us how to hold a baby. So, the first baby that I ever held was when I conducted my first baptism, and I held him completely wrong. His little head slumped over my arm. I didn’t know that babies had no neck muscles and needed to be supported. So, his head slumped back and he panicked and started to cry very loudly. This made me really nervous. So, I quickly began splashing water all over his head and his face, covering his eyes completely with water. I can still see those little eyes all puckered up and covered with water. Then I held him against my chest, and he screamed right into my microphone. The entire church erupted in laughter, and I wanted to disappear!
But looking back on that first baptism, I realize that there was something really good and right about it. You see, I baptized his eyes, and it is our eyes that need to be cleansed and opened to and by God’s grace if we are to find God in the ordinary moments of our lives. Philip Toynbee says, “the basic command of religion is not ‘do this!’ or ‘do not do that!’ but simply ‘look!’”
The history of our church for 319 years has been nothing less than a ceaseless turning to Christ, who is always trying to help us to look and see. Jesus wants us to be a congregation that sees God at work every day in ordinary moments around us.
Whenever a person in our congregation dies, we lose a dear friend. One person who died last year ago won our hearts with her beautiful spirit, her whimsical way and her concern and compassion for others even when she was suffering from cancer. Cynthia Cheston used to sit right there every Sunday, beside her beloved husband Morris. She joined The Bible Challenge while she was battling cancer. One day while I was visiting her alone at home, she told me about her “dates with John.” I got kind of nervous about whether Morris knew about these “dates with John” until I realized that it was “the Gospel of John,” which she was reading each day. Reading the Bible helped Cynthia to see God all around her. Later that summer, when her family visited her at their home on North Haven Island, Maine, she put aside the Bible for a few days to focus on her grandchildren. She wrote to me these words,
Instead of fretting that I am not doing a “daily read”, I decided to “connect” in another way by watching ospreys, eagles soar, examining the gorgeous sea urchin, mussel shells, feeling the warmth of the stones from the beach on my face, lying on the spongy mosses, lichen with my grandchildren asking what cloud creatures they see. Showing them that God is EVERYWHERE! Because of reading the Bible, I am now so much more aware of HIS gifts to ALL of us and how much fun is it to teach the grands, cousins etc. to “observe”.
All of Jesus’ ministry begins with observation. Jesus looked and saw someone who needed healing or hope or help. The most important thing that God asks each of us to do is to look. When ordinary people like us begin to find God in ordinary moments of time, then we realize that God is everywhere, and we become the Church outside of this building. And that is God’s greatest dream for us.
The Church believes in seven sacraments – baptism, Eucharist, confirmation, ordination, reconciliation of a penitent, marriage and anointing of the sick. A sacrament is defined as an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. But I actually believe that there are an endless number of sacraments or what I call “windows to God,” and the sacraments of the Church are meant to open our eyes to find God in the world all around us. As we truly come to experience God in the Eucharist here, hopefully we can begin to find God with us around the family dinner table or whenever we share a meal with friends or even with a complete stranger.
Years ago, when I participated in a class called EfM or Education for Ministry, a class that many of you have taken, I had to give a spiritual autobiography. It was somewhat intimidating, but it turned out to be a great experience. As I prepared it, I realized that there had been a series of events in my life, places that I had visited, people I had met, books that I had read, experiences that had taken place and even a few sermons that I had heard, which were like pearls on a golden thread that led me to believe in God. Each of these people, events and experiences helped me to look at the world differently and to see and find God in the ordinary moments of life.
The Celts called these special moments thin places. They were moments where heaven and earth seem to touch and where our eyes our opened and we discover God in ordinary moments of life. We discover God is with us while giving a bath to a child or visiting an aging parent in the hospital or like my friend Jim Fenhagen, who was walking on the beach in Pawley’s Island one day when he realized that his heart was beating to the same rhythm of the waves crashing to the shore, and he felt a oneness with all creation. This is not to write off the Church or the Bible or what we do in worship. Indeed, all of these help us to see God outside of the church in the ordinary moments and places of our lives.
Years ago, theologian Karl Rahner wrote a moving essay in the form of a letter from Ignatius of Loyola to a modern Jesuit. I close with an excerpt focusing on Ignatius’ experience of God.
I was convinced that first, during my illness in Loyola and then, decisively, during my time as a hermit in Manresa I had a direct encounter with God. This was the experience I longed to communicate to others…. All I say is I knew God, nameless and unfathomable, silent and yet near, bestowing himself upon me in his Trinity….
I knew God himself, not simply human words describing him…. This experience is grace indeed and basically there is no one to whom it is refused…. When I say that it is as possible to encounter God in your age as in mine, I mean God really and truly, the God of incomprehensibility, the ineffable mystery, the darkness which only becomes eternal light for the [person] who allows him [or herself] to be swallowed up by it unconditionally.
So, I leave you with a challenge for this week ahead. I invite you to open your eyes wide open and look for the Holy One in very ordinary places, even in those very difficult and challenging moments of your life where you feel that God is not present. Then take a moment to write and send me an email or a letter or tell a friend or a family member about your experience of finding God in an ordinary moment of life. As we share our stories and encounters with others, we can say together, “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it! How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God and…. the gate of heaven.” Amen.