Sermon preached May 17, 2015
Texts: Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53
Bob Dylan, “Watching the River Flow” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zhgZibLRQ0E
The Byrds, “Ballad of Easy Rider” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r8jC1lRZGTU
Loggins and Messina, “Watching the River Run” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MTe0zebrFT8
John Lennon “Watching the Wheels” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Da69-pu_pqc
Bob Dylan turns 74 this week (b. May 24, 1941). I first encountered Bob Dylan’s music through a songbook used by a Christian youth group. When I wanted to explore new ideas and music in my high school days, Dylan was a starting place. I remember buying two albums, Greatest Hits and Greatest Hits, v. 2. The very first song on the Greatest Hits, 2 was this: “Watching the River Flow”
Many of Bob Dylan’s songs were made more popular by others and one group that recorded a lot of his songs was a group called The Byrds. They recorded a lot of their own songs as well, like “Ballad of Easy Rider.”
And if you knew something of The Byrds, you would soon discover that at about that same time in LA there was another pretty remarkable band with people like Neil Young, Stephen Stills, and Jim Messina, Buffalo Springfield. Messina later went on the work with Kenny Loggins – Loggins and Messina and here is one of their early hits – “Watching the River Run.”
But if you grew up in the 1960s, even if you were only ten at the end of the decade, you could not be interested in music without being familiar with The Beatles. After the group broke up, each had some success as solo artists, and not long before he was killed, John Lennon recorded new music, including this: “Watching the Wheels.”
All this is a long detour back into the Scripture readings for this morning, and a theme found there. In the reading from Luke, the resurrected Jesus is conversing with his disciples, teaching them again, but for the last time. Then he gives them a charge. “You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised, so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” The disciples have a task, but the first step is to wait, and to watch. They watch as Jesus is taken away.
In Paul’s letter to the early Jesus community in Ephesus, he has been observant. “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.”
Waiting, watching – the river flows, watching the river flow, watching the river run, watching the wheels go round and round.
I have to admit, I find this attractive. In fact, I would like to think of myself as “easy going,” but I remember one time a number of years ago sitting with a group of clergy for some deep conversation and I had to confess that while I would like to think of myself as easy going, it is not a very complete description of me. I can be easy going, particularly with others. With myself, I am often more driven than I would like. I make lists of things to do, and love the feeling of checking things off my list. When I have a project, I often go at it like a tornado. Being driven has often served me well. It got me through my doctoral program as I kept plugging and pounding away at my 400 page doctoral dissertation.
But along the way, I have learned, and keep wanting and needing to learn, about the grace that comes with waiting, watching.
Over eighty years ago, two brothers, both Christian theologians, engaged in a public debate in the pages of The Christian Century. The issue was whether or not the United States should intervene in the Russian-Japanese war of the early 1930s. The brothers, Reinhold and Richard Niebuhr, took different sides. Richard entitled one of his essays “The grace of doing nothing.” Richard Niebuhr argued for a certain kind of “doing nothing,” a radical Christian kind where we are invited to deep self-reflection. Reinhold argued that sometimes in the midst of complex social realities, action was necessary along with reflection. I tend to be more of a Reinhold Niebuhr person. I wrote one chapter of my dissertation on his theology of political democracy. But, with Richard, I also believe there is such a thing as “the grace of doing nothing.”
Just this week an article on church leadership came to my inbox – “Noticing – Unhurried, Unafraid Curiosity.” The article invites congregations, in their planning, not to get so caught up in their strategic plan that they forget to notice the world in which they are engaged in ministry. The author encourages “taking it slow” sometimes. It would be good, sometimes, to be more curious than to be quick and convinced. The article reminded me of a leadership theory I read about a few years ago, “theory U,” which invited creativity by going deep, by seeing in new ways, sensing in new ways, being present to others and the world in new ways (Senge, Presencing; Scharmer, Theory U).
The grace of doing nothing. Watching the river flow and run. Waiting. I have come to believe that this is part of the rhythm of a healthy spiritual life in Jesus. It is not the whole of that spiritual life, and the precise rhythm of watching-waiting-reflecting-slowing with acting will be different for different people. Yet in our rather frenzied, harried world it may be this part of the spiritual life in Jesus that we most need to revive for our own lives.
The grace of doing nothing is not really about nothing. There are things that happen in this quiet time, watching time, that are vital, and I want to say a brief word about some of this.
When we wait and watch, we can go deep within where there is important work to do in our lives. The German Christian mystic Meister Eckhart reportedly wrote that “there is no such thing as a spiritual journey.” Taking his cue from Eckhart, John O’Donahue goes on: “If there were a spiritual journey, it would only be a quarter inch long, though many miles deep. It would swerve into rhythm with your deepest nature and presence.” (Anam Cara, 89-90) When we open the depths of ourselves to God’s Spirit, we have the opportunity to have “the eyes of our heart enlightened.” We can know more profoundly the hope to which God has called us and the immeasurable greatness of God’s power in our lives (Ephesians).
When we wait and watch, we can begin to see more broadly and deeply. I appreciate the take on faith offered by writer and therapist Michael Eigen. “Faith supports experimental exploration, imaginative conjecture, experiential probes” (Faith and Transformation, vii). Faith, in the grace of doing nothing, opens us up. Waiting, the disciples understanding of the Scriptures is deepened. Taking time, Paul sees the Ephesian followers of the Jesus way from some fresh perspectives.
Waiting and watching also encourages seeing that for which we can be grateful. Paul gives thanks to God for what he hears about the Ephesian Jesus community. Meister Eckhart once wrote, “If the only prayer you ever said in your whole life was ‘thank you,’ that would be sufficient” (Brian MacLaren, Naked Spirituality, 49).
I have said that prayer many times, but I also struggle sometimes with the way gratitude is encouraged. Have an attitude of gratitude – but sometimes the advocates have most everything going for them. Sometimes they seem oblivious to the pain, hurt and trauma that can be part of being human, or oblivious to the injustice, terror, and harm happening in our world. Sometimes gratitude seems shallow, at least that’s how it comes across. Sometimes joy seems no deeper than the redness of the lips a smile seems pasted upon.
Here’s where I appreciate someone like Anne Lamott. It is easy to thank God for life when things are going well. But life is much bigger than we give it credit for, and much of the time it’s harder than we would like. It’s a package deal, though. Sometimes our mouths sag open with exhaustion, and our souls and minds do, too, with defeat, and that saggy opening is what we needed all along. Any opening leads to the chance of flow, which sometimes is the best we can hope for, and a minor miracle at that, open and fascinated instead of tense and scared and shut down. Thank you God. (Help Thanks Wow, 44-45). Now here is someone I trust when she talks about gratitude. There is thanks caked with dirt, joy caked with mud. Here one acknowledges pain, hurt, trauma, terror, injustice, destructions, and acknowledges that we will feel that and it’s ok, and yet leaves room for joy and gratitude – even if it is sometimes only the possibility of joy.
There is a rhythm to a healthy Jesus spirituality – work and rest, action and reflection, moving along and watching the river flow. It takes wisdom to get the rhythm right for our lives and for our life together. Digging deeply, this rhythm is one deeply rooted in grace. We can watch the river flow sometimes because we trust deeply in the goodness of God. When we act, we act out of a sense that we are joining in God’s work of justice, beauty, reconciliation, peace and love.
And that rhythm to our spiritual lives, we will get it wrong sometimes. I get it wrong sometimes. Here, too is grace. I will get it wrong, but it will never be my last chance.
I wish us all wisdom, enlightened hearts, and times to watch the river flow – all rooted in the grace of God in Jesus. Amen.