“Lord Jesus, have mercy on me” A Sermon for August 9

 

Lord Jesus, Have Mercy on Me

August 9, 2020

The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham

 

Last week, I told Jeremy that I was struggling to give my sermons on the live stream in a mask.  With the intensity that we all feel, and our desire to model good, sane behavior, we need to wear masks when we are together in a space.  That being said, it is difficult to communicate with only our eyes with something as intimate as sermons, and until we get the new equipment in, we cannot zoom on the camera.  I felt like I was going to hyperventilate last time I gave a sermon, so we came up with this idea: we can come in on Thursdays and record our sermons alone in the nave, without a mask.  Then, we will plop the video into the live stream at the appropriate place on Sunday.  I hope it works.  And I am grateful for Jeremy.

Intensity seems to be a key word for us these days: the intensity of the ongoing pandemic, with school now beginning to start up and the uncertainties there.  The intensity of this election cycle and the insanity that we seem to watch at every turn.  The ongoing intensity of our grief at being removed from our patterns and routines, our normal way of worshiping, the inability to be together and give a hug or shake a hand.  Intensity does seem to be an appropriate word for what we are all feeling.

So I find it particularly interesting that two pivotal stories land with us in today’s readings in this season of our lives: Elijah’s encounter with God in the cave on Mt. Horeb and the disciple’s encounter with Jesus in the storm.  Both of these are intense experiences with God, powerful theophanies, and they have a great deal to offer us.  

To start, I want to return to a phrase that Cynthia mentioned in her sermon last week, describing Jacob wrestling with the angel at Peniel.  You’ll remember that Jacob had this encounter with “a man,” the text says, after which he received a new name: Israel, because he has striven or wrestled with God.  In her sermon, Cynthia noted how crucial this image of wrestling with God is in how we understand our practice of faith.  

I want to build on that by saying that the way we wrestle with God is inextricably linked with how we wrestle with ourselves.  Our image or understanding of God is bound up in our image or how we understand ourselves.  If our image of God is removed  and far away as an all-powerful king, then we are lowly servants here on this side, separated as it were from God.  If God is an all-loving, indwelling creator of life who infuses our very being, then we are a co-creator, a participant in the divine life here in a relationship of mutual indwelling.  See how it works?  

We wrestle with God and we wrestle with ourselves.  We cannot separate the two facets of our practice of faith.  So, today’s texts offer us crucial opportunities for reflecting on how we understand this intimate relationship with God, this encounter with divine grace that is the ground of our existence.  

To begin, we see Elijah hiding for his life in the cave, with Jezebel out to get him.  He craves for some affirmation of God’s presence in his life.  A reassurance.  As he stands there, in that place of hopeful expectation that we all know so well, three possible manifestations pass him by: a mighty wind, an earthquake, and fire.  But it is in the fourth that he encounters God: the sound, or a voice, of sheer silence.  And at that point, Elijah wraps himself in his mantle, because he realizes he has encountered something profound–underneath the clamor.  

Once the storm and wind and earthquake and fire had passed, in that space of waiting, God’s presence fills him and reassures him that all is held, all is known, and all is loved.  The silence and the stillness ended up being the most intense experience Elijah had, and he trusts this.  This intense moment, in the quietness and stillness, is where Elijah encounters the Creator.

Now, flash ahead to the Gospel text for today and we see Jesus.  Keep in mind that he has just received word that his cousin John the Baptist has been beheaded.  Then, he was called to feed those who needed to be fed.  Then, he sent the disciples ahead in a boat.  Then, the storm hit hard and made them fear for their lives.  

I love the way the text describes their experience.  They were battered on the waves, “for the wind was against them.”  Let that sink in for a moment and see if that connects somewhere in your gut these days.  

In the morning (Did you notice that, “in the morning,” not immediately when the storm started?) Jesus came walking toward them on the lake.  They were battered and tossed around, so in their traumatized state they don’t recognize Jesus for who he is.  They think he is a ghost.  But the thing they initially fear is actually the source of their redemption, once their eyes adjust and they hear Jesus calm them down.  “Do not be afraid.”

In the middle of the storm, they encounter the still presence of Jesus, calmly walking on the water out to them, to reassure them that all is held, all is known, and all is loved.  

Now, here is where these stories speak to my life in these days.  How do we feel battered and tossed about by wild winds?  How are we like Elijah taking shelter in a cave and hoping for some reassuring presence in our lives?  How are we like the disciples, shaken in the storms of our lives, wracked with fear on the waves that throw us around?  

What are your storms these days?  What has driven you to take shelter in a cave?  What are the honest prayers of your heart when you slow down and pay attention, listening deeply for the Spirit and taking a risk to name aloud your fears and anxieties?  Do we desire to transmute our suffering into a prayer, like Mary Demmler described a couple weeks ago in her sermon looking at the psalms and how they give voice to the cry of our hearts?

This cycle, as we look at this text, the experience of the disciples really hooks me.  There they are, in the middle of a storm, afraid, and wondering when Jesus would come back.  And into that storm, Jesus himself is this centered, still point of reference for them.  He is an anchor, a counterweight to chaos, if you will.  

These past few weeks, I have learned something important–and painful–about myself.  I have been convicted by the reality that I have talked a great deal about cultivating a practice of prayer for many years.  I have been fortunate to teach and speak in many places–all carefully groomed and planned and organized.  I have relied on the external structure of Sunday School to talk about prayer, to study prayer, to reflect on prayer.  

Then, I lost that external support structure and was left with…the desire to actually pray in the middle of these storms.  I have realized that my practice of prayer has only come alive, if you will, in the midst of this struggle.  It has been painful, but it is an honest struggle that is showing me the true potential for a practice of prayer, a still point in the chaos.  Not outside of the struggle, but within it.  Within it.  

Particularly, I have been drawn back to an ancient practice of prayer from our Christian tradition, known as the Jesus Prayer.  The desert mothers and fathers encouraged the practice of this prayer, that builds on the cry of the disciples tossed in their boat: “Lord, save us!”  In the prayer, the longer version is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  The shortened form that I use is “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me.”

To go a step further, and explicitly link it with my body and where I feel tension, on an in-breath, I pray “Lord Jesus,” taking Jesus into myself, imagining that still, calm presence of Christ within me.  And on the out-breath, I pray, “Have mercy on me.”  I don’t rush the breaths, I just let them fall where they are, focusing my attention on the prayer and my breathing.  

“Lord Jesus, have mercy on me.”

“Lord Jesus, have mercy on me.”

It is a prayer that means a lot to me when I feel stressed, frustrated, angry.  When I can be honest with myself and name aloud why I feel so tense at a given moment.  And in that moment of tension or pain, suffering or fear, anxiety or anger, can I pause.  Can I claim the need to enter into this practice and watch my breath and focus my attention on God’s indwelling presence.  

Like Elijah, I enter into a cave, particularly the cave of my own heart where I can be still and know that God is God, and that God is within me and all around me.  A still point in the storm, like the disciples encountered in Jesus calmly walking on the waters that they were so afraid of.  

Friends, we need a practice like this these days.  We need a way to anchor ourselves when we feel tossed to and fro.  We need a way to pay attention to the tension we feel as well as the grace we experience when we take time to pause, to sit down, to be silent and still, and to open our hearts and pray.  

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

  

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