Today, I’m going to talk about spiritual practices and finding God in our everyday lives. And we’re going to get to talk about these by way of two paintings. The main painting I want to talk about is the one in your order of service, ‘The Servant Girl at Emmaus, by Diego Velazquez, a 16th-century Spanish painter. But I’m not going to begin with that one; rather, as a point of contrast, we’re going to look first at the painting by Rembrandt on the front cover.
In short, the painting of the Emmaus experience by Rembrandt is a Eucharistic scene. It was painted by Rembrandt in 1638.
- Notice how Christ is seated at the table, as at an altar, and the table is even draped with a white cloth, just like the altar..
- Notice how this “altar” – just as it would be in a church – are in the center, the focal point, of the painting.
- Notice, too, how “architectural” the painting is, with stone pillars on either side and – in the full height of the original painting – a large stone archway, like the apse of the church, framing the altar.
Rembrandt’s painting – meant to capture the exact moment at which the disciples recognize the Lord– makes the connection between God’s presence and Eucharist. This painting speaks to one of the ways – in the Eucharist – that Christians experience the presence of Christ.
But the painting I want to focus on this morning is the one by Velazquez. It was done in 1618, 30 years before Rembrandt’s; it is quite different.
- Here is no Eucharistic scene, but rather an “everyday” scene, set in the kitchen amid a jumble of dishes.
- In this painting, rather than Jesus being at the center, it is the servant girl at the center of the painting. Jesus is off in the left corner and very much in the background. This painting is not about Jesus, but about the girl’s experience of Jesus.
- And notice, too, in contrast to the serenity of Rembrandt’s painting, Velazquez’ painting is one of topsy-turvy surprise.
- See the look of startled recognition on the servant’s face, and how she is bent, ready to stand or leap with surprise
- See the hastily dropped cloth in the center of the table
- See how some bowls and pitchers are upright, but how others are tipped and upside down, suggesting that things are awry and not as they should be.
Velazquez’ painting doesn’t point to a Christ-moment in a conventional place where we might think we would experience Christ (in a church), but it points to a Christ-moment breaking in on the “everyday,” amid tasks in the kitchen. While the Eucharist is consistently a place where Christ shows up for me and for many, it’s the “everyday” that I invite us to consider this morning.
God loves each one of us very much, and God would love to walk alongside us and be invited to say with us, as he was in today’s Gospel lesson. And I suspect that many of us, maybe even all of us, have “God moments” when we’ve noticed God and (at least subconsciously) invited Him in. Maybe…
- the sound of birds singing early in the morning,
- or a beautiful sunrise on our way to work,
- or the flowers blooming
…remind us of God. Or maybe we notice God…
- when we hear the sounds of children playing,
- or when we receive a surprise phone call from an old friend,
- or when we listen to a beautiful piece of music.
Like the servant girl in the painting, I sometimes am surprised by “God moments” in the kitchen. The other day I sliced into a lemon, and the smell… I was suddenly overcome with gratitude: for this lemon, for food generally, for a family to cook it for, for the sense of smell. Another time, I had finished everything else for dinner – the pasta sauce was made, the salad prepared, the table set, drinks poured, even most of the dishes washed – but had forgotten to turn on water for the pasta. But then the unexpected silence, and then the sound of the water getting hotter and finally boiling, turned out to be a wonderful “God moment” at the end of a busy day; I felt held and cared for.
This morning’s Gospel lesson reminds us that Jesus is always and everywhere present, and that he wants to make himself known to us. The gospel lesson also reminds us that we don’t always recognize Jesus when he comes. What can we do, if we want to increase our chances of recognizing Jesus when he makes himself known?
Here’s where we talk about spiritual practices. In a way, the whole point of a spiritual practice is to help us better recognize Jesus when he makes himself known. Going to Eucharist regularly, for example, can help us better recognize Jesus when he appears. So can regular reading of scripture, or setting aside regular time for prayer, or praying the Daily Office, or meeting with a prayer partner, or fasting, or making a regular Confession, or a daily “examination of conscience.” There are any number of spiritual practices that can free us – open our eyes – to better see Jesus when he walks into our life. These practices strengthen the “muscle,” as it were, that opens our eyes to recognize Jesus.
This morning, I invite us to take on a spiritual practice that will help strengthen our souls’ “muscles” to better recognize Christ. I’ve already mentioned several – Eucharist, prayer, reading the Scriptures – but it could be something as simple as
- taking five minutes of silence every day at a set time, maybe closing the door to our office and turning off our phones.
- It could be taking a few minutes at the end of the day to say “thank you” to God for the gifts of that day.
- It could be setting aside regular Sabbath time, not necessarily a whole day, but even an hour here and there, to set aside all work.
- It could be “fasting” from our smartphones and electronics for an afternoon.
- It could be doing at least one nice thing everyday for someone in our household.
- It could be reading the biography of a saint,
- or maybe cooking a healthy meal,
- or regularly jotting a note to a friend.
The possibilities are many. The point is, to find something to do that 1) opens us to God – and I have a hunch that we have a pretty good idea what opens us to God – and 2) that we practice. If we want spiritual practices to be effective, it helps to practice them. If you’re a book person and a book would be helpful, there are a number of good books on spiritual practices. My current favorite is Soul Feast, by Marjorie Thompson. It is approachable and accessible, practical and sound, and written in a warm, welcoming tone. If you’d like to form a book group to read it, let me know.
I’ll close with a little bit of “testimony.” I’ve discovered that when I do a regular “examination of conscience” – that is, taking about ten or fifteen minutes at the end of the day to review my day with an eye to where I’ve noticed God – I’ve noticed that I get better at noticing God. I get better, not merely at noticing God as I look back through my day, but also better at noticing God as my day unfolds: as I get the kids off to school, as I walk to church, as I am on the phone or answering emails. And when I notice Jesus, he does just what he does to the disciples on the Emmaus road: he walks with me, he strengthens me, and he sets me free. I have a long ways to go in strengthening my soul’s “muscle,” but even in the progress I’ve made so far, Jesus brings joy and peace.
I wonder, would we like to better recognize Jesus as he walks into our lives? Jesus loves us and wants to break into our lives; he wants to walk with us, break bread with us, and bring us joy. I invite us, if we would increase our chances of noticing Him, to try a spiritual practice and to see what – or whom – you notice. Maybe our hearts will burn within us; maybe we will experience some of Jesus’ joy.