Finding God in the Marsh – Br. James Koester

1 Kings 17: 7-16; Psalm 4; Matthew 5: 13 – 16

If it’s true that in spring, a young man’s fancy turns to love, then in summer, this young man’s fancy turns to … the beach. And not just any beach, a particular beach, Lumsden Beach.

As a boy, I grew up spending every summer at our family cottage at Lumsden Beach on Last Mountain Lake in southern Saskatchewan. The lake itself is long and narrow; stretching about 60 miles from one end to the other, but at its widest point is barely 1.5 miles from one side to the other. Our cottage is near the southern tip of the lake and a couple of miles beyond us the lake literally disappears into muck, and weed and marsh before coming to an end in the open prairie of the Qu’Appelle Valley.

In the last number of years the marsh at the end of the lake has been restored and the area has become home once again to many bird species including piping plovers, whooping cranes and pelicans.  As dusk falls at the end of the day, it is not unusual to see flocks of pelicans heading down the lake from their fishing spots, to their nesting ground in the marsh. It’s truly a magnificent sight as these large, unwieldy birds fly gracefully down the lake heading home to the marsh for the night.

Like all marshes, this particular marsh plays an important role in the ecosystem of the lake. It provides a home for rare and unusual birds, as well as the not so rare and not so unusual. It’s a wonderful place to catch frogs or watch birds or maybe even spot a beaver going about its business. The marsh provides a whole other world to explore that is neither lake nor prairie as it acts as a threshold from one to the other and back again. Like so many other similar places, the marsh at the end of the lake is a place of discovery and mystery simply because it is a place of transition. It is a threshold one must cross to get from lake to prairie. It is a liminal place that one must enter in order to pass from one to the other. It may be just a marsh at the end of the lake, but it’s also a place of discovery, a place of mystery, a place of encounter.

But a marsh is not just a marsh. It is a buffer between one type of eco-system and another. It is home to countless species of life which are mutually dependent on one another for life. They may be just marshes, but without them all life, even ours, will radically alter.  That is how important marshes are to the health of our planet, and that is how important marshes are, I would say, to the health of our souls. For just as lakes and oceans have marshes, which act as places of transition and encounter between one thing and another, so to do our souls. Just as lakes and oceans have buffers and thresholds, so too do nations and souls. We see one such marshy place, one such threshold place, one such liminal place, one such thin place, as our ancestors in the faith would have said, in tonight’s reading from First Kings.

At first glance this story of the prophet Elijah seems nothing more than a miraculous feeding whereby the prophet takes pity on a widow and her son in the midst of a terrible drought and ensures that they have enough food to survive a terrible famine.  But that reading alone would fail to do justice to the meaning of the story. For as Jesus scandalously reminded his audience that Sabbath in the synagogue in Nazareth, we too need to be reminded that God’s activity is not confined to our nation, our world, even our church.

“But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.”[1]

Sometimes, like Elijah, we need to step out of one world, our world and into another world, the world of the other in order to come face to face with the living God. Sometimes we need to cross over the threshold from the familiar and known into the unfamiliar and mysterious in order to come face to face with the living God. Sometimes we need to cross over into the mysterious, the strange, the liminal in order to come face to face with the living God. Zarephath was just such a place. In order to get there, Elijah needed to cross the threshold from one world to another. He needed to go from the familiar to the unfamiliar. He needed to go from the known to the foreign and the mysterious.

The story of the Elijah and the widow of Zarephath is a story, not just of feeding, but of God manifesting the divine presence in a place it wasn’t supposed to be to a person who wasn’t supposed to recognize it. That’s why the people of Nazareth were outraged and wanted to hurl the hometown boy off the cliff[2], because he dared to remind them that God’s activity is not confined to particular nations or peoples or even, dare I say it, to particular churches or theological positions.

Those summers at Lumsden Beach were a wonderful part of my childhood. One of the things that made them so wonderful was the marsh at the end of the lake. Each summer, my friend Peter and I would pack a lunch and hike down to the end of the lake. We’d follow the old railway tracks and cross over the abandoned railway bridge. Sometimes once we got there we’d swim, or just lie there or explore the marsh looking for minnows and frogs and all manner of things. At the end of the afternoon we’d return home tired and sunburned. I didn’t know words like liminal then, and hadn’t heard the phrase “a thin place” until many years later, I wouldn’t have known to call the marsh a threshold but I did know that it was strange, and unusual and even a little mysterious. I would now say that it was a place of unexpected encounter.

Sometimes in our lives we need to be prepared to cross over into strange new worlds in order to come face to face with the living God. We need to enter those liminal places to find the divine presence. We need to enter those places where we have been told that God won’t, or can’t, or shouldn’t be present or turn to people whom we are told shouldn’t be able to recognize his presence and ask them to be our guides and point to us the way.

Elijah crossed over to Zarephath, not because there were no widows in Israel who needed his aid, but to show people that God is not confined by our own prejudices and limitations. Sometimes God is found on the edge, on the margin, in the marsh where worlds collide and mingle. Sometimes God is found when we have the courage to wade through the marsh, to step over the threshold and emerge on the other side.

I loved the marsh at the end of the lake, because it was so different from the sandy shore of the beach where I spent so much of my summers as a boy. I loved the marsh at the end of the lake because it was a place of mystery and encounter with all manner of wonderful things. I loved the marsh at the end of the lake because it was a new and strange world and where I would now say, I could see the hand of God more clearly.

We seem today to live in a world, and perhaps especially a church where borders are not meant to be crossed and where the mud and muck of marshes are only for birds and fish; but if nations and lakes and oceans have borders and marshes that are liminal thresholds, then so too do churches and people.

Elijah went to Zarephath, not because he couldn’t find God in Israel, Elijah went to Zarephath to show that God was present, not just within Israel but outside of Israel as well. Elijah went to Zarephath to show the people of Israel, that there was no place that God was not and no people whom God was not among.

Many have drawn lines on maps, around communities, around different kinds of people, even across their own souls to declare that God is here, but not there; with us, but not with them; when I am like this, but not when I am like that.

But the story of the widow of Zarephath reminds us all that God is present with them, as much as God is present with us; that the divine presence can be known there, as much as it can be known here; that God loves me as much today as God will love me tomorrow, no matter what. What matters is that like Elijah we are ready to cross the border, enter the marsh, and step over the threshold into new and wonderful worlds that are strange and mysterious and as full of the life, and love and the presence of God as are our known worlds.

This summer, when you are at the beach, or alone in prayer, find the marsh and step through it, find the threshold and step over it, find the border and cross it, and I assure you, you will find the widow of Zarephath pointing you in the direction of God’s divine presence even there, where you have been told before, that God could not possibly be.

[1] Luke 4:25, 26

[2] Luke 4: 28, 29

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  1. Patrica on July 7, 2017 at 09:59

    Thank you for your poetry. The marsh came alive for me. Normally I am not a marsh kind of person having grown up on white sandy beaches. But several years ago, attending a workshop on St Simons Island in Georgia, and managing my disappointment at being on the marsh side of the island, I watched the sun rise over the marsh and watched its awakening. Your words today reminded me of that miraculous day. Thank you

  2. Barbara Frazer Lowe on June 2, 2016 at 15:46

    Mr. Anders – you said it. bfl.

  3. Dee Dee on June 2, 2016 at 10:09

    Thank you for this reminder that it is often only when we cross society’s, or even our own self-imposed lines, borders, and boundaries that we are able to experience the fullness and richness of life with God and with others. Even when we feel God pulling at us, it is often extremely hard to muster up enough love and courage to move outside the comfortable lives we’ve built for ourselves, but it is always so worth it in the end. This sermon expresses these ideas beautifully and I am thankful to have heard it.

  4. Michael on June 2, 2016 at 10:02

    The idea that Mystery is beneficial and liminal spaces allow some of that mystery to creep into our consciousness is a wonderful notion. We work diligently to construct order and precision in the world, but perhaps we we need to rethink those thresholds in our lives and what they might have to often our too often buttoned up world view

  5. Christopher Engle Barnhart on June 2, 2016 at 07:50

    My wife owns 50% of the family ranch in the Trinity Alps in Northern California. The ranch is small about 5 acres consisting of a meadow and forests of oaks, firs, cedars and pines. There is also a ditch which runs along the upper edge of the property which at one time provided water for hydrolic mining by the Chinese for gold of the gullies. That ditch also provided water for the forest trees and meadow grasses. It is as you say a “thin space.” Deer, bear and small animals depend on the ditch as a source of water. As I walk the ditch and work to keep it free of pine needles, leaves, twigs and small branches, I sense the presence of God all around me. I sense the presence of those spirits who were there before me. My wife’s parents and grandparents and those who mined the gullies long ago. It is a “thin space.”

    • Christina on July 7, 2017 at 08:52

      How wonderful – it sounds like Iona. Christina

  6. Cathy on November 22, 2014 at 22:50

    Beautiful evocative sermon. Thank you from one marsh lover to another… from the Charles River fens to the intercoastal waterway to the Delaware shore… something about the smells and sounds that resonate with the most basic elements of our being…

  7. the Ven. Ralph Leavitt on November 22, 2014 at 09:12

    Summers at the family cottage on a Laurentian lake in boyhood were truly a sacred time in my life. Many moments of discovery and fun. And later discovering the changing seasons and the utter beauty of a still winter’s afternoon in winter in the middle of the woods. God puts these geographical imprints deep in our soul and we can always return to them to find the sheer wonder of God’s creation and God’s work in our life. Thank you for your sermon, may I continue to revel in liminal moments and grow closer to God.

  8. Dorothy on November 11, 2013 at 23:25

    Our church is looking hard at interfaith dialogue. We began with some Bible studies of encounters with outsiders: Abraham and Abililech, Jesus and the woman at the well, the story of the Good Samaritan. We have always been called into the marsh and often we don’t know what to do when we get there. We should anticipate the possibility of discovery and wonder of what life is like at the edges.

  9. Sally S. Hicks on November 11, 2013 at 20:53

    Thank you so much Brother James. For many little mundane reasons today, I put off reading this until time to close up shop – so to speak – and say “Compline” – one of those marshy places I love. Thanks for the descriptor and the wisdom of the metaphor. Sally Hicks

  10. Margaret Dungan on May 21, 2013 at 12:27

    Thank you Brother James,

    The right word at the right time is always so amazing.

  11. DLa Rue on May 21, 2013 at 11:35

    As one who functions in an academically limnal situation, and not by my choosing (I knew what I wanted and how to do things in a more structured setting as well) this is a call to deepen in the truth of the place where I find myself and to make the contributions I feel called to make as they may be nurtured from the richness of where I am.

    Le bon dieu vous benisse.

  12. Terry Dougherty on May 21, 2013 at 10:59

    Lovely to see marshes contemplated in this context! There is nowhere like one to force us to stop, and look, and look again. From the so very small part to the so very large picture, the sheer complexity and interconnectedness of all the life our gracious God breathes is there (and there abundantly!). Thank you for the inspiration; I’ve had a marsh walk today, but just may have another.

  13. Anders on May 21, 2013 at 10:56

    It´s a wonderful gift to be able to shift our energy from fear of the muck and uncertainty to welcoming it as a portal for depth and discovery. Thanks.

  14. Christina on May 21, 2013 at 08:05

    Brother James: Thank you for this morning’s words.
    A couple of years ago, I went to Iona – it had been a long time in happening. But a week there was extraordinary. A thin place. What seemed to be an unexceptional landscape became one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. My time there is difficult to put into words. When I try to tell people what it was like, my words cannot convey how it was.
    People would come over for the afternoon from Mull and explore the very small area around the village, and go to the Abbey. But, I was sorrowful for them because it is not a place to be for just a couple of hours or so. I, and those on the retreat with me, discovered that God revealed himself/herself over the days. Our time and his time were not the same, but were wonderful revelations for us all.
    Would I go back? At the time, I said ‘Yes.’ but now I am not so sure. Perhaps I have to explore another marsh.

  15. Mary Lee Wile on June 13, 2010 at 19:14

    Yes! Edges and margins and thin places — scary places — sacred places. Thank you for such an eloquent reminder of God’s presence in even the most unexpected places.

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