Friday, August 30, 2013

The Art of Co-operating with Grace

MartinThornton (1915–1986) was an influential Anglican priest, spiritual director, and author. He was an advocate of ascetical or, “applied theology,” which he saw as a body of knowledge and practice that leads the Church and individual Christians to “the Vision of God.” I have found his writing a tonic to the self-indulgent, spiritual sloth to which I am prone and with which I suspect many American Christian have become comfortable. Here are some quotes from his book on English Spirituality: 

The Christian goal is the Vision of God and nothing less will ever do: however long the journey, however remote the end may seem, our eyes must be constantly fixed upon it. We must take comfort in the fact that so long as we progress, however slowly, all is well, but progress is meaningless without a destination. All our methods, disciplines, Rules, fasts, mortifications, etc. are pointless unless we move toward our final glory in heaven, where, as St. Augustine teaches, we shall see God and love God and praise God and rest in God. (p. 22-23)

Ascetical theology is Christian doctrine interpreted and applied by a teacher of prayer together with the mental and physical disciplines which nurture and support it. The experience of the Church, codified by her saints and doctors, assures us that this total discipline is necessary as means to an end. Fasting, mortification, and so on are needed, but they do not constitute ascetical theology, they are subsidiary parts of it. Or we may say with John of the Cross that ascetical theology consists in those methods and disciplines which dispose the soul to receive the motions of the Holy Ghost: it is the art of co-operating with grace.

Needless to say, when we speak of teaching prayer, we mean that total spirituality which controls the whole of human life, that which includes not only liturgical and formal private prayer but also habitual recollection colouring and inspiring every minute and every action of a lifetime. To the Christian, then, ascetical theology is the key to the art of living as fully, creatively, and indeed joyfully, as [humanity] is capable. (p. 24-25)

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Refrain from Trampling the Sabbath

A sermon on Isaiah 58:9b-14 & Luke 13:10-17

I have a couple of fund raising ideas I’d like to run pass you this morning. What do you think of this? I have a niece who is a very good dancer – very good. One of the kinds of dance she does is tap dancing. I think it would be great to have her come and perform here at St. Barnabas. We can sell tickets and raise money. The best venue would probably be right here in the worship space. But, I was wondering where might be the best place for her to dance so everyone can see her and especially her feet. It seems the obvious platform is right over there [motion toward the altar which is made of dark granite]. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? We’d take the Fair Linen off, of course. I can see many of you have a problem with that. Raise your hand if you don’t like this idea. I see.

Well, then, how about this? Every other year, the Outreach Commission sells crafts and jewelry from Kenya to raise funds for the Africa Team Ministry to assist victims of AIDS. I’m thinking that next time we do that we should have the tables of merchandise around the outside of the altar railing [the railing at St. Barnabas in circular]. And whoever is collecting the money can stand behind the altar using it as a counter with the cash box and everything. Who has a problem with that? I see.

You people are so disagreeable, it is making me thirsty [I pull out from the pulpit a bottle of 7–UP and a chalice and make like I am going to pour the soda pop into the chalice]. What?

OK, so you’ve got some scruples about how we treat some spaces and things. How about these? Does it bother you to . . .

Work on Sunday?

Buy stuff on Sunday?

Run errands on Sunday?

Curious, isn’t it? We understand the sacredness of some spaces and some things that have been consecrated for set apart for holy use, but we have largely forgotten the idea of sacred time which is fundamental to both Judaism and Christianity.

There might not be any more telling sign of the Church’s capitulation to secular culture than the fact that outside of sometimes coming to church on Sunday mornings, most American Christians behave on Sunday pretty much like everyone else. Secularism says that all days are the same, one following another in a pointless sequence. That we often live as though we agree is a problem. I’ve become convinced that this is a more serious problem than we have come to think.

It certainly sounds pretty serious in this morning’s Old Testament lesson from Isaiah:

If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the LORD honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
serving your own interests,
or pursuing your own affairs;
then you shall take delight in the LORD,
and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth
(Isaiah 58:13 – 14a)

“Refrain from trampling the sabbath.” Wow! Like, “Refrain from tap dancing on the altar.”

In the Old Testament

·         The sabbath is coded into creation – God created the Sabbath and ‘rested’ contemplating what he had done in all its goodness.

·         The sabbath was a great leveler. Whether you were the king or the poorest peasant, on the sabbath you were equal in dignity and obligation.

·         Relatedly, keeping sabbath was a matter of justice. Slaves and servants could not be made to work. On the sabbath there were no masters or no slaves, no employers or employees. Even animals and the fields got to rest without human interference.

·         There was no buying or selling on the sabbath

·         The sabbath was a reminder that God is in control and you are not. Lauren Winner has written, “When we cease interfering in the world we are acknowledging that it is God’s world.”

·         The sabbath was also reminder of liberation. In Deuteronomy 5, the sabbath is connected to God's deliverance of the people of Israel from bondage in Egypt.

·         Early on, for reasons we don’t have time to go into, the Church shifted its observance of sabbath from Saturday to Sunday (See: Eight Days a Week). I will just say that given that it was on a Sunday that Jesus rose from the tomb liberating us from the bondage of sin and death and inaugurating a new creation, it makes sense.

And it makes sense that we not treat this day just like any other.

In Exodus 20:8 – part of the Ten Commandments whose authority we still claim to recognize – we hear, "Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy." Keep it holy, set apart. Like a chalice. Like the altar.

Jesus does not contradict this basic Old Testament revelation. He reorients it. He asserts that the sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath. It is not a day to obsess about many detailed rules. Certainly not a day to obsess about whether your neighbor is doing it right – no “pointing of the finger” like the synagogue ruler in this morning’s gospel.

It is a day when it is good to do good like Jesus did. And it is a day when we can be liberated from the burdens we bear like Jesus liberated the bent over woman.

Some of the early teachers of the Church interpreted this gospel passage metaphorically in ways that are instructive when thinking of the Sabbath:

St. Augustine suggested that the woman represents humanity that has bent itself over looking at the world and temporal concerns rather than looking up to God. The result is crippled souls.

Augustine’s mentor, St. Ambrose, likened the woman to people who are weighed down with the burdens of this life – money, family, work, school, etc. Worry over these matters weighs people down.  We all know the feeling, “It feels like a giant weight on my shoulders.”

Maryann McKibben-Dana, in her book Sabbath in the Suburbs, describes this well, "Life felt like a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle with 600 pieces."  She was caught up in a frenetic suburban existence –a relentless list of work, errands, carpool, dishes, email, bills, yardwork, etc., etc., etc.

Weighed down, with our eyes on our own temporal concerns, serving our own interests, and pursuing our own affairs without interruption will bend our spirits and make it more difficult to see God.

If we really want to be counter-cultural, if we really want to resist the secularization of the church, if we really want to “ride upon the heights of the earth”, if we want to stand up straight, one place we should start is by reclaiming the liberating discipline of keeping Sabbath.

That discipline might well take various shapes. Given the realities of the society in which we live it might be truly difficult for some, if not impossible, to dedicate all of Sunday. But, I doubt that there are many here for whom that is the case. For almost all of us it would require a kind of commitment, discipline, and planning that we are not used to. So take baby steps if you need to. But here are some ideas to refrain from trampling on the Sabbath:

·         Attend worship. Be here on Sunday morning.

·         Refrain from paid employment,

·         Refrain from commercial activity – no buying, no selling

·         Refrain from running errands – pursuing your own affairs

·         Refrain from the Internet – This is one I have found particularly difficult, but also one that I have come to value. I dare you to try it. And that means your iPhone as well.

·         Refrain from watching the News – turn off CNN. Turn off Fox. Turn off MSNBC. The usual madness of the world will go on whether or not you witness it or worry about it. Remember, the world is in God’s hands.

But keeping Sabbath is not just about refraining from some things, important as that is. It is also about investing in other things – investing in things that matter.

·         Invest time in relationships

·         Take a nap – some rabbis have suggested that if you are married, you might do more than nap.

·         Celebrate creation – go for a walk in the woods

·         Do things that refresh your spirit

·         Meditate on God’s goodness and give thanks

·         Reflect on the past week – did you tend to things that really matter? Pray for the week ahead

·         Feast – Sunday is not a fast day. Enjoy some good food.

·         Invest in intentional acts of kindness.

·         Rest. Be refreshed.

Saint Augustine famously wrote in Confessions, "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you."

If we want to rest in God, why not start by “refraining from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing our own interests on God’s holy day.”