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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Sandra L. Randleman

July 24, 2016

Before We Can Swim, We Have to Float

Psalm 8, Luke 10:38-42, Colossians 1:24-2:5

The Avowal by Denise Levertov

As swimmers dare

to lie face to the sky

and waters bear them,

as hawks rest upon air,

and air sustains them,

so would I learn to attain

freefall, and float….

Our scripture reading from Colossians reminds me of a story I heard about a church that had invited a guest preacher to preach both the morning and evening worship services. The church bulletin announced that the morning sermon was entitled, “Jesus Walks on Water” and the evening sermon was entitled, “Searching for Jesus.”

The church in Colossae was engaged in a search for the real Jesus. Our verses from Colossians are from Paul’s letter to the church in response to his concern that the community is confused about who Jesus really is.  Paul writes to the Colossians to teach them about Jesus Christ, the true Jesus Christ, so that they might grow into mature Christians.  Paul states that he was commissioned or called by God to make Jesus Christ known to them.  He describes Jesus Christ as the mystery hidden from previous ages and generations and now finally revealed.  Through Paul, the Colossians are the privileged recipients of the message that God’s plan of salvation is revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Paul has never visited the church in Colossae and yet, he writes that he is with them in spirit, and he struggles for the Colossians and those in Laodicea and for all who have not seen him face to face. Paul is struggling with all the energy God gives him in an effort to lead others to know Jesus Christ.  Paul does not want them to be led astray by false teachings, and Paul has heard of teachers present in Colossae, presenting a false message about Jesus.  Paul wants to affirm the correct message about Jesus taught to them by Epaphras, Paul’s colleague in ministry.          

Paul is writing this letter from prison and he tells the Colossians that he is suffering for their sake. Paul suffers physical hardship, and he is also distressed by the sense that the Colossians’ faith is in peril because of the false teachers among them.  Paul does not complain about his suffering.  Instead, he rejoices because his suffering has meaning.  Paul has been given the very important role of sharing the message that God has given the world a gift, the gift of His presence with us through Jesus Christ.  Paul’s mission is to share the message of who Jesus is and the significance of His life and teaching, His death and His resurrection.  By sharing this message about Jesus, Paul hopes that everyone will embrace a faith in Jesus Christ as God’s gift to the world.

Paul’s missionary zeal and efforts and struggles are similar to those of an athlete competing in a contest. He is competing with all his might and strength against the false teachings and influences of the world that would lead the Colossians astray or block the message from even being truly heard and received.  Paul suffers hardship and struggles in an effort to present everyone mature in Christ, united in love and embracing the “knowledge of God’s mystery that is Jesus Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”

Paul’s message is not just for the Colossians of his day. His message is also for us.  We also must be on our guard to receive the true message of Jesus Christ and not be led astray by false teachings and values of our culture and our world that are inconsistent with our Christian faith.  Paul’s message urges us to live in a way that our life becomes a way of sharing with others  the true message of who Jesus Christ is, to reflect Jesus in our words, actions and demeanor, in our vocations, in our relationships with family and friends, in our hobbies, in how we spend our time and money.  Paul’s message calls us to prayerfully seek to live our lives as God leads and guides us.  Before we can hope to share Jesus with our words or reflect Jesus in our actions, we need to know Him.

I love to swim every morning. Six days a week, every day except Sunday, my day begins with a mile swim at a nearby Y.  I learned to swim when I was six years old.  The first lesson of learning to swim is how to float.  Floating is not as simple as a beginner might think.  In fact, earlier this week, I mentioned to the other associate pastors that I was including a discussion of floating in my sermon this morning.  They readily admitted that they find floating to be very difficult.  Their bodies have a tendency to sink in the water when they try to float.  Floating comes more naturally to some people than others.  

To master the art of floating, you must rest on the surface of the water and allow the water to hold you up as you stare into the sky. To be a good floater, you need certain qualities.  First, you have to relax and trust that the water will hold you up.  It helps to breathe air deeply in, slowly exhaling, to relax and keep your lungs filled with air as long as possible.  The floater lets go of control and trusts that when the floater rests on the surface of the water, there is a force that will keep the floater from sinking and drowning.  The floater even loses control over where she is floating.  You are not quite sure where you will end up.  Second, as you let go, you must also remain attentive and aware of the direction and current of the water.  The floater cooperates with the wind and the water as the floater is led.  Third, you have to keep your head back and keep your eyes focused on the sky above you.

The lessons of floating are helpful as we seek to truly know Jesus and to live a life consistent with His teachings and who we are created to be. A spiritual floater must trust in the goodness and love of God and that God is present and active in the world.  The floater must believe that if he surrenders control of his life, he will not drown.  The spiritual floater trusts that God will hold him up and guide and direct him with gentle currents and winds.  The spiritual floater’s task is to keep his focus on God and what God is doing in his life and to seek prayerfully to live in concert with how God is guiding him.  Just as with floating in water, spiritual floating is easier and more natural for some people than others.   Some people are more action oriented.  Yet, we will probably find our actions to be more God-centered and to bring greater joy to ourselves and others if we first take time to draw close to God with quiet times of prayer.  Our actions flow from our time of prayer and listening to God. 

In our scripture reading from Luke, we are presented with the example of someone who knew how to float in a spiritual sense. As Jesus taught, Mary sat at His feet and listened, absorbed in the words and presence of Jesus.  Mary let go of the expectations of her world that she should be working in the kitchen.  It was not considered fitting for a woman to be sitting as a student at the feet of Jesus as a disciple.  Mary was acting as a male in her society.  But Jesus affirmed Mary’s values.  He knew that this was exactly what Mary needed at that moment.  This was Mary’s time to float, and this precious opportunity would not be taken from her.  Mary would not always have the opportunity to be in the presence of Jesus, totally attentive to His teachings.  The time would come for her to engage again in the activities of her daily life.  But when she did so, Mary would be changed by the gift of this time spent with Jesus.  Mary would carry Jesus and His message and take with her the spiritual understanding she had gained.  Before she could swim back into life, Mary needed to float.

If we want to spiritually float, the best way to begin is through prayer and time spent with Jesus and by learning more about Jesus through His life and teachings described in the Bible. There are a number of spiritual practices that have a long history in our Christian tradition, but prayer and Bible study and meditation are among the most important. We begin wherever we are, for wherever we are, God is and He is just waiting for us to notice that we are standing on holy ground.  We just have to pay attention.

The practice of being a Christian was never meant to be a solitary practice. Community is important.  We need one another as we pray for others and as they pray for us.  As we study the Bible together, we are the beneficiaries of the wisdom that God imparts to a community prayerfully reading the Bible together.  We need to combine our resources of talents, abilities, time and money so that together we can do far more than any one of us could ever hope to accomplish by ourselves.  Our community can hold us accountable so that we do not slide into practices and beliefs that are contrary to our Christian faith.     

But the purpose of floating is not to float forever. I learned to float before I learned to swim so that I would understand something about the water and about currents and how my body behaves in the water.  I learned about the buoyancy of my body, but I also learned that if I were not in the right position in the water, I would sink to the bottom.  If I grow tired of swimming, I can rest as I float.  But swimmers are not meant to float forever.  There is no Olympic competition awarding a prize to the person who can float the longest.   The prize goes to the ones who swim the race set before them with skill and speed.

I admire the wisdom of the men and women known as the Desert Mothers and Fathers, a group of early Christians who lived in the mountains and caves of Egypt on bare necessities, praying and sharing their spiritual wisdom with eager students who traveled to their remote locations to receive their teachings. A number of the sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers have been collected and published and are still read today.  Abbot Pastor is one of the most often quoted Desert Fathers.  He once said, “If you have a chest full of clothing, and leave it for a long time, the clothing will rot inside it.  It is the same with the thoughts in our heart.  If we do not carry them out by physical action, after a long while they will spoil and turn bad.”[i]

Paul was one who shared what was in his heart, the message about who Jesus Christ is and the meaning of His life, death and resurrection. We also are called to share what we have received, our Christian faith, the treasures that we accumulate during our times of prayer and study of the Bible.  We need our time of spiritual floating, even daily spiritual floating, for it is during such times of prayer and study that we grow into mature Christians.  Yet, the lessons we learn in floating must be carried forward and be reflected in our lives, as we swim the race God sets before us, or live the lives God gives us.  We can only hope to grow into the spiritually mature Christians that Paul envisions and live and share the message of Jesus Christ, if we stay in touch with God throughout the day.  

Brother David Stendahl-Rast is an Austrian Benedictine monk who wrote a book entitled, Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer.[ii]  Prayer, Brother David says, is not the same thing as prayers.  Prayer, in the sense of communion with God, often happens without any prayers, and it can go on continually.  Prayer, Brother David says, is waking up to the presence of God no matter where we are or what we are doing.  Prayer is when we are fully alert to whatever or whoever is right in front of us, and we respond with gratitude for the tremendous gift of being alive.  When we give ourselves wholly to the moment we are in, then we are in prayer.  Brother David believes that eating a meal with gratitude and appreciation is as much prayer as the blessing that precedes the meal.

Brother David’s thoughts on prayer are akin to those of a lay brother in the house of the Carmelite monks in Paris more than 300 years ago. Brother Lawrence described what he called his practice of the presence of God in notes and letters that he left behind after his death.  The letters were written at the request of his abbot with the understanding that they would never be seen by others.  But following Brother Lawrence’s death, his abbot published the letters and notes in a little volume called, The Practice of the Presence of God.  In his letters to the abbot, Brother Lawrence admitted that he was only confused by the books on prayer and the set hours of prayers and meditation required of the monks, and did not find them at all helpful.  Instead, Brother David determined that he would give himself wholly to God no matter what he was doing, and live with the awareness that he was in God’s presence at all times.  Brother Lawrence prayed as he worked in the kitchen as he served the brothers of his monastery.  He blended work with prayer and maintained an habitual, silent and secret conversation of his soul with God and sought to do nothing or think nothing displeasing to God.  His life was so marked by such a sense of the presence of God that even the abbot of the monastery sought counsel and instruction from this humble servant of God.[iii]

Only one step away from the principle of seeking to practice the presence of God as we go about our daily lives, is the surprising miracle of where God allows us to share His presence and love. It is often in the living of our daily lives and right in the midst of our pots and pans, or our offices or school classrooms, in the car filled with boisterous children that we are taking to the swimming pool or in the retirement home as we visit an aging parent or friend.  God is carried by and through us from the sanctuary into our homes and workplaces and grocery stores.  God can use the words we write in a note or text or email.  God can speak through a touch, a smile, a word, even in our silent presence with someone for whom no human words can provide comfort. 

I felt I heard a message of comfort from God while on a walk around Radnor Lake one summer morning. I was a third year student at divinity school and I was pondering what the future held for me.  In my early 40’s, I had left a wonderful job as an attorney to follow what I sensed was a call from God to enter into ordained ministry.  It is always difficult to verbalize how a sense of call or a nudge from God is experienced.  Some people responded to my change in life plans with skepticism and questioned my wisdom.  God had not provided me with a long range plan for my future after graduation.  I was simply trying to move prayerfully step by step.  Although I had a deep sense of underlying joy and gratitude, I also had times of struggling with the question of what I would do after I graduated.  Would I find a job as an ordained pastor?  Would I be able to earn a living?  Where would I go?  What did my future hold?

As I pondered these questions on my walk, I was not fully alive to the beauty of nature around me. Suddenly, I saw a woman coming toward me on the path.  As I moved to one side and we prepared to pass, I smiled and said, “Hello” and began to move past her.  But she stopped and said, “With a smile like that, you will never lack a job.”  Then she walked on by me as I stood astonished. 

In her words, I heard words of assurance and comfort. Tears came to my eyes and questions filled my mind, “Who was she?  How did she know that I was worried about my next job?  Did she know what her words meant to me?  Was she a messenger of God? ”

I will never know who she was and what inspired her to say those words to me, but I knew I was standing on holy ground. In her words, I heard God saying with a smile, “Do not be anxious about your life, child.  Trust me.  Keep your eyes on me, and watch and see what I will do next.”  God used her words to offer me encouragement to walk with peace and greater faith and joy the path He had opened for me.  After graduation, the way opened for me in the form of a call to ministry in this church that continues to bring me great joy.  All that I needed was provided in God’s time and God’s way.  I am deeply grateful.

The most effective way we can preach the gospel will probably not be from the pulpit, but in the ways we live our lives and interact with people, including our closest family members and friends. The gospel we preach in words and deeds is that of the love of God, shown to us through Jesus Christ.  In Jesus Christ we are given hope that His light shines in the darkness and that even death is defeated by the gift of eternal life.  It is the true gospel of the Good News of the love of God shown to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  

                      God speaks in amazing ways.  He reveals Himself and sometimes only we know that we have heard the word of God, if not with our ears, then with our hearts.  God can use us to speak His divine language.  He may give us words to use or He may place a loaf of bread in our hands to deliver to the new neighbor across the street.  In such moments, a soul can be won or lost and it may be, just possibly, our own, if only we dare to let go and float before we swim.

[i] Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert (New York: New Directions, 1970), 42; cited in Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 93.

[ii] Brother David Steindl-Rast, Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer (New York: Paulist Press, 1984), 40-59.

[iii] “Brother Lawrence” in Devotional Classics, edited by Richard Foster and James Bryan Smith (New York: Harper San Francisco, 1993), 81-84.


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