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Sermon for June 26, 2016

By Anna V. Copeland based on Psalm 16

Hear the good news for you and for me this day. God is our refuge and our strength, we have nothing to fear. God is our portion of good, our cup overflows. We want for nothing.

Desiring God

“Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge.

I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.”

           

When my husband and I travel, one of our favorite things to do is to hike through wildlife refuges. We love crossing marshy bogs on wooden bridges to observe some species of duck or crane, to glimpse hatchlings in some high nest, safe in the sanctuary from harms way.

When David begins this Psalm, he calls upon God who is his wildlife refuge. In God, David lives secure. He calls to God for protection, and for shelter, within the refuge of his God centered life. We can do the same.

Whatever you’re up against, God will shelter you. This shelter does not mean that nothing bad or unpleasant will ever happen to you, but it does mean that your best life is made possible by the freedom of living in the refuge of God’s care.

We are happiest when we live within God’s borders, and God is happiest when our loyalty is with God. Another way to think about what it’s like to live within God’s border is that life is easier and more pleasant when we keep to the trail. Those of you who know me well, have heard stories of wilderness adventures. Like any hike through a wildlife refuge, we can get into trouble when we leave the trail. We may think life is too predictable or boring when we stick to the marked terrain, but in fact the opposite is true. It is only when we hold steady the course that we can find our way. This doesn’t mean living a boring, predictable life. The way of Christ is the path of God, the boundaries God creates not to encumber us but to set us fee.

I think so often of the woman found dead near the Appalachian Trail after stepping off path, becoming disoriented and losing her way back. Distracted and focused on other things, she could not see that in fact, the path to freedom was close at hand. It’s a sad and haunting parable for all of us.

            When we walk the path of life within God’s pleasant boundaries, every ordinary moment becomes extraordinary. The Benedictine’s understand this. Benedictine spirituality embraces the holiness of prayer, work, study and hospitality. They believe that experiencing the holiness of ordinary things transforms our lives.

            One of my teachers in this tradition is Joan Chittister, a Benedictine Sister, teacher and author of “Wisdom Distilled from the Daily.” Though written decades ago, writer Judith Valente reviewed the book again last year during a conference on ancient spirituality at Penn State.

Pl su!She wrote a reflection on how the Benedictine way of honoring ordinary things changed her life: “To say Joan Chittister captivated me in the first paragraph would hardly be an exaggeration. She begins with the story of young monk who boasts that he has achieved such high spiritual abilities; he can actually walk on water.  An elder gently reminds the monk that even the inarticulate fish in the sea can do the same. “These abilities have nothing to do with real truth,” the elder says. Then he suggests they not skim across the surface of the water, or even fly in the air like birds, but just sit where they are and have a spiritual discussion.

“This wisdom story spoke to me on two important levels”, she wrote. “All of my life, I’ve suffered from a dual diagnosis: workaholism and over-achieverism. In my career, I was like a champion sprinter in a constant race to claim my prize. On one level, the story reminded me that my self-worth doesn’t come from great feats of journalistic accomplishment—the equivalent for me as a writer of walking on water. And furthermore, that the real material for spiritual growth is right in front of us, what we encounter in the course of ordinary life. That is why the monk says, sit here with me and we’ll speak of spiritual things. Or, as a wise Benedictine sister once remarked to me, “There is no need to go elsewhere, because everywhere is here.”

She continues a refrain that speaks to many of us, “for too long in my life, I defined my self-worth almost exclusively in relation to my personal and professional achievements. But success at work, she reminds us, is not the same as success at life. While it is good for us to have purpose in our work—indeed that it is essential -- it is equally important that our lives have meaning. Having one without the other is like having the tree without the fruit, or a bird without flight.”

The writer of our Psalm for this morning understood this keenly. He encouraged us as hearer to perceive that how we do what we do matters. When we offer each ordinary task as an offering to God for God’s pleasure, it is received with delight and also gives us joy.

 “As for the holy ones in the land, they are the noble, in whom is all my delight.” To allow ourselves to get all caught up in the accomplishments of the world means that we miss what matters. Chasing after false Gods, we miss the show.

As the Psalmist said, “Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows; their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out or take their names upon my lips.” The Psalmist doesn’t want to be the one who squanders life on things that don’t matter. He continues, “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage.”

            All our lives, whatever we choose to do with the measure of our days, we hunger for meaning. “New York Times columnist David Brooks distinguishes between what he calls “resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues.” Resume virtues are the skills we bring to the marketplace. Eulogy virtues are the qualities people will recall about us after we die: Were we kind, honest, courageous, faithful? Were we capable of deep love?

Eulogy virtues mirror the values to which St. Benedict pointed his followers centuries ago: listening, community, hospitality, humility, balance, mindfulness, gratitude. Like Brooks, Benedict believed that happy people are made, not born. That happiness emerges from recognizing that there is no division between the holy and the mundane.  

So here’s the deal. God has given you this garden of delight, this pasture with pleasant boundaries to keep you safe, to protect your heart and your life. You are free to live, to be useful for God’s glory and your joy. The things that matter do not lie somewhere far in front of you, when you get a new job, when your last child leaves home, when you retire and do what you really want to do, when you go on that trip next year, when you finish this critical project. The holiest thing you will ever do is open your mind, your heart and your hands to each waking moment of every perfect day. Begin with this one.

Breathe the holiness as you listen deeply to the music during the morning offering. Contemplate the pleasure of sharing from God’s provision when the plates are passed. Hold your hymnal with devotion and sing the closing hymn with unbridled joy. Greet someone or many with the gladness of heart of one who has just now noticed a long lost friend approaching across the room. Transition from this sacred space to the holiness of simple food shared with friends, or earthy hands pulling weeds in the garden, or the Sabbath pleasure of reading a good book on a summer’s afternoon. Ride your bike or walk the beach or barbecue a chicken to God’s glory.

If you find your life too distracting to do so, change your life. If you get to the end of the day and have the nagging sense that you missed it, stop what you’re doing. Because God creates pleasant boundaries in which we can live, we can quit chasing false gods that only give us the illusion of safety. We know in our heart of hearts that certain things we do cannot give us life.

At a recent wedding I met a couple about my age. Peter was a Financial Advisor all his life. Next month they are moving to Ojo Caliente, New Mexico, from Boston. It’s a place so small that if you blinked you’d miss it. In case you need a reference, it’s near Abique. I know, if you’ve never been there, it sounds like Mars. It’s desert and spare landscape looks like it, too. Whatever could possess a person to do such a thing?

            As he speaks of it, Robert one day realized that what he did best as a financial advisor was listen to people, and what he found most interesting was not what they wanted to do with their money, but what they wanted to do with their life. He started commuting to seminary and prepared for his new work as a spiritual director. His wife Joy is a Yogi, and together they will open a healing center. When I asked her what they would do there, she looked surprised. “We’ll live.”

A colleague, Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us to do the same with whatever we have in front of us. “To make bread or love, to dig in the earth, to feed an animal or cook for a stranger—these activities require no extensive commentary, no lucid theology. All they require is someone willing to bend, reach, chop, stir. Most of these tasks are so full of pleasure that there is no need to complicate things by calling them holy. And yet these are the same activities that change lives, sometimes all at once and sometimes more slowly, the way dripping water changes stone. In a world where faith is often construed as a way of thinking, bodily practices remind the willing that faith is a way of life.”

Just for today, notice that you have already inherited the life you seek. Discover your refuge in the wildlife sanctuary of God’s holy love. Release the false gods that encumber you. Embrace the holiness of ordinary things, and live, for God’s pleasure and your joy.

“I bless the Lord who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me.

I keep the Lord always before me; because God is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.

Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also rests secure.

You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”

May it be so. Amen