ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH SEPTEMBER 22, 2019
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
24 / 7
Romans 12: 1 – 3 & 6 – 12; John 10: 6 – 10
On my recent vacation, we stayed in West Palm Beach County, Florida. That may ring a bell if you were monitoring Hurricane Dorian. WPB is 100 miles directly west of the Bahamas and was in the cone of probability. We were told to prepare. From then on, we lived, breathed, ate, drank and thought “hurricane”. Everyone talked about the Hurricane. We bought water and canned goods. We helped the neighbours. We filled the bathtub and covered our windows with hurricane shutters. It was like living in a cave for 4 days. We caught every update on TV. Much of the time, we’d watch the “fillers” listening to the same explanations, opinions and advice repeatedly. I’d wake up in the night to listen for the wind. We prayed for the people of the Bahamas. Even when I was reading, the hurricane was there in the back of my mind. We wondered and waited. Obviously, Dorian missed us. When we finally went outside, I felt like Lazarus leaving the tomb. But those 4 days were interesting. The experience reminded me of Paul’s direction to “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). If I thought it was impossible to focus on something without ceasing, Dorian proved me wrong. I wondered if I’ve ever been that focused on Jesus. Now, you may be thinking, watching weather reports is one thing, but how do we talk to God 24/7? Prayer is more than words we speak, prayer is living with the awareness that we’re in the presence of God. To pray without ceasing is to constantly be aware of and in communion with The Divine.
God’s plan is not just for us to be saved by grace – it’s for us to live by grace. God’s wants our daily lives to be given, guarded and energized by his grace. Life is a gift. God is the giver. Without God sustaining us, we can’t, don’t, and won’t, continue to live. I’d ask you to close your eyes for a moment. Now, take a few deep breaths and notice your breath as it enters and leaves your body. God gives and maintains the gift of life with every breath. As we take each one, God is affirming our existence. God is gracing us with life now, and now, and now. (You may open your eyes and stop breathing! Actually, you can’t stop breathing which is my point.) God doesn’t just want us to breathe, he wants us to live to his glory – to enjoy this gift of life and live it well. You may think you have a perfectly fine life; Jesus wants to give you a perfectly better life. In John’s gospel, Jesus states, “I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of.” “Abundant life”. (John 10: 10) All of life is a gift. The life Jesus wants for us is full and rich, meaningful and exciting, overflowing with purpose, bursting with joy and love.
But, if we live by grace, why is “life” so difficult? In that same passage, Jesus makes reference to “the sheep stealers” who are “up to no good”; “A thief is only there to steal, kill and destroy” (John 10: 1 & 10). There are dangerous bandits on the loose! They’re out to destroy us by robbing us of the grace of life. Who are these robbers? What is robbing you of abundant life? What’s keeping you from living fully in fellowship with Christ? What do you need to live a real, full, better God-given, God-glorifying life?
Thieves come in many different forms. There are evil principalities and powers – Satan and his minions. There are people who deflate, degrade, betray and wound us. There are structures – governments, work-places, institutions, organizations – which, in the wrong hands, are destructive. There are the unforeseen challenges life throws at us – hurricanes, illness, accidents. With all these thieves, it’s hard to live abundantly. It’s a lot to resist the devil, claim our place as a beloved child of God, oppose oppressive powers, heal, and repent. We need the light and strength of the Spirit flowing through us.
To live abundantly is to live, by grace, in the flow of the Holy Spirit. Like our breath or the air around us, the Spirit is everywhere. As the Psalmist asks, “Is there anyplace I can go to avoid your Spirit?” (Psalm 139:7). Yet, God can be surprisingly hard to find. And if we can’t find or connect with God, how can we live in God’s presence? The truth is, what’s missing isn’t God but our awareness of God. As Augustine said, “It is not God who is absent, it is we who are absent from ourselves.” The perfect time for thieves to strike is when the house is empty, or the family’s sleeping. Spiritually speaking, for many, the lights are on, but no one’s home. We’re sound asleep. When we return to ourselves and awaken, we start to notice the Spirit’s presence.
Another thief is self-reliance. A student says to his master, “I want to be your star student. How long must I study? The master says, “Ten years.” To which the student replies, “That’s too long. What if I study twice as hard?” The master answers, “Then it will take you twenty years.” If living fully is going with the flow of the Spirit, why are we so compelled to prove ourselves by swimming upstream? Richard Rohr writes, “Faith doesn’t need to push the river, because faith is able to trust there is a river. The river is flowing, and we are in it.” We don’t need to push the river. We can’t push the river. One of my favorite memories is white water rafting on the Ottawa River. At the end of the day, we jumped out of the boat wearing our life jackets and were carried by the current. Spiritually, we need to let go and, through faith, trusting the river is there, float on the current of God’s grace. Faith isn’t a concentrated force of telepathic brain waves designed to convince God to intervene according to our will. Faith is a channel of child-like trust opening us to the transformation of the Spirit.
Then there’s the thief named “fear”. I once went spelunking in a narrow cave which grew increasingly restrictive. The tighter it grew, the more panicked I grew. We came to a tunnel in the rock, which was passable only by getting on your stomach, arms at your sides and pushing with your feet. The guide tried to talk us through it. He reminded us he’d done this before, and he was right there. All I could hear was the voice of my rising anxiety. To avoid a full blown panic attack, I crawled backwards out of the tunnel, which did not please the people behind me. I’d have done better if I’d stopped focusing on my fear and listened to the voice of my guide. What voice do you listen to? The Good Shepherd speaks to us. He calls us by name. Can we hear his voice? The Spirit longs to flow in our minds all the time, leading us beyond our fears to green pastures and freedom.
What do you think living 24/7 in the Spirit looks like? Is it dedicating our day to God before getting out of bed, doing our devotionals, going to worship and Bible study, serving dinner for the poor, praying while making and eating dinner, then heading back to the church for a meeting and ending the day with evening devotions? Those things are worthwhile – they help us to connect with God and to think beyond ourselves. They may even energize us and bring us to life. But is that what Jesus had in mind when he spoke of abundant life? Did he want us all to live like monks? Most of us couldn’t sustain that kind of discipline without it getting old, fast. Or do the words, “abundant life” bring to mind a life of decadent extravagance, huge houses, travel, extreme sports, adventure, danger or fame? Is that what Jesus had in mind? Does Jesus want us to live like the cast of Jersey Shore? We may not think so, but I imagine that would also get old, fast.
Abundant life isn’t separate from the world. Life in Christ happens in the midst of everyday living. Martin Luther said, “What you do in your house is worth as much as if you did it up in heaven for our Lord God.” How does the Spirit flow is your house? The wife of a colleague spoke the dreaded words, “we need to talk”. She sat him down and said, “when our marriage is at it’s best, we share responsibilities; we know the details of each other’s lives; we’re spontaneous, we listen and laugh. We build each other up. We have each other’s back. Lately, we haven’t been like that together, I want our marriage to be like that.” He responded by listing all the pressures he faced and claiming he was doing his best. She said, “No, you’re not.” Not the sympathetic response he expected. He said he went away and sulked because sulking is his spiritual gift. Paul describes the abundant life quite thoroughly in Romans 12. Those who live in the flow of the Spirit are loving and real, good and humble, they make friends with nobodies and everybody. They aren’t stuck up. They don’t promote themselves. Fueled and aflame with joy, they live with hope and cheerful expectancy. They help others and have an open door. They know how to be supportive through life’s joys and sorrows. They’re prayerful people who hold no malice – they bless everyone. They’re strong enough to endure the hard times. When we live in the flow of the Spirit, love, joy, care and spontaneity are the qualities of our lives.
It’s interesting Jesus used the metaphor of sheep to depict those who live abundantly. Sheep don’t do much to make abundance happen in their lives. They listen to the Shepherd’s voice, find safety in the fold, and go in and out to the pasture. Some of you know that I have a bit of a competitive streak in me. I gave up yoga because they don’t keep score. Fishing would be great if there was a winner. Rock, scissors, paper drives me crazy. The trouble with these activities is that trying harder doesn’t help. It’s like trying harder to relax or to go to sleep or to be joyful or to live an abundant life. We either flow in the Spirit or we don’t. But we live by grace and by grace we can begin to notice where the Spirit is flowing. We can become part of that flow by recognizing and participating in what God is doing. We can open ourselves attentively to the presence of God, the movement of the Spirit and the voice of the Shepherd. When we do, our lives become a prayer to God. And a life lived in the presence of God, is the most abundant life possible.