NOTE: These are my worship notes from Sunday, July 16, 2017 in the on-going
No one likes to consider sin: the very word makes us uncomfortable, anxious and angry – especially so in our 21st century personas. For reasons both excellent and absurd, we contemporary believers have long abandoned our tradition’s concern with human sinfulness in both its personal and social manifestations. Too many of us have been wounded by self-righteous religious bigotry – beaten up with the Bible and demonized by moral midgets – who may have been well-meaning in the abstract but became abusive and cruel when their words became flesh in our lives.
From our misogyny, homophobia and racism on the macro level to our petty obsessions with who does what to who in our bedrooms, there is good reason for 21st century Christians to quit talking about sin. I’ve done so for decades. The only problem with such a commitment, however, is that sin doesn’t go away just because we avoid talking about it. And to make matters worse, when Christians don’t have a healthy and grace-filled way of addressing and healing sin, the Church becomes a caricature of its true self. H. Richard Niebuhr, brother of Reinhold, use to tell his social ethics classes at Yale Divinity School that in our current incarnation, the American Church “teaches a God without wrath who brings men and women without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” So, as you may have gathered by now, I’m going to try to talk with you today about the reality of sin and what our historic Reformed tradition offers as a healing way to do so.
Specifically, for the next three weeks as a part of my spiritual practices series for the summer, I want to outline for you a cleansing and liberating way to both own the brokenness of sin in your lives and renew the blessings of God’s grace within you. This was an integral aspect of Christ’s ministry as St. Paul tells us in this morning’s reading: Those who enter into Christ’s being-here-for-us no longer have to live under a continuous, low-lying black cloud of guilt and fear. A new power is in operation. The Spirit of life in Christ, like a strong wind, has magnificently cleared the air, freeing you from a fated lifetime of brutal tyranny at the hands of sin and death … It stands to reason, doesn’t it, that if the alive-and-present God who raised Jesus from the dead moves into your life, he’ll do the same thing in you that he did in Jesus, bringing you alive to himself? When God lives and breathes in you (and he does, as surely as he did in Jesus), you are delivered from that dead life. With his Spirit living in you, your body will be as alive as Christ’s!
To do this let me first tell you a little bit of church history that has long been forgotten; second give you a form or template to use each week in addition to your daily prayer if it is helpful; and third remind you of Christ’s blessings found in today’s Scripture, ok? Three essentials for this morning that we’ll amplify and practice over the course of the next three weeks. So would you take a moment to be grounded with me now in prayer?
Church history question number one: WHAT is the difference between Puritans and Pilgrims? And there are bonus points in glory if you can add why this matters? The simple answer is: The Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock were Separatists from the Church in England while the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay colony were non-separating Christians who believed the Church of England was the one true church. Puritans were loyal to England, but not all the ways they worshiped.
And when it comes to spiritual practices why do you think this matters? Pilgrims rejected almost ALL of the established Christian tradition – they only looked to the Bible and their very selective reading of it – in their new churches. Puritans, however, understood it was wiser not to throw the baby out with the bath water and looked to reform and reshape the pre-Reformation practices of Christianity. And while our roots are with the Pilgrims, our practice has been much more Puritan focused. Howard Rice, in his essential book, Reformed Spirituality, reminds us that Puritans were connected to the Pietist movement that swept through Europe in the mid-16th century. He writes: “Puritanism was the British manifest-tation of continental Pietism and as such was a protest against religious formalism, dogmatism and lack of spiritual passion.” He goes on to say that within our Reformed Puritan tradition, “the word that was used most commonly to mean spirituality – or spiritual practices and disciplines in our daily lives – was piety… and piety has to do with the pattern by which we shape our lives before God in grateful obedience to the grace God has given to us.” Are you with me? He adds: “Our piety – our spirituality – is the way we exercise our Christian freedom as people whose lives have been touched by grace and who are thus keenly aware of being responsible to God. Our piety is the way we live our lives responding to God’s presence and attending to that presence carefully.”
Puritan patience suggests that our lives in faith can be simultaneously emotional and rational, inward and outward, sacramental and intellectual without sacrificing our unique heritage. Historically, there were three emphases in Reformed Puritan spirituality: Righteousness – meaning living justly in right relationship with our neighbors. Frugality – living as compassionate and wise stewards of God’s resources in the real world. And holiness – what theologians speak of as sanctification – meaning taking regular note of where we hit the mark as well as missed it. Joseph Driskill of the Pacific School of Religion speaks of piety like this: We have been called by God’s love “to evaluate our spiritual lives… looking at the fruits of the Spirit in our actions and discerning whether our actions and deeds flow from love and compassion.” St. Paul makes the same point in Romans 8: if God himself has taken up residence in your life, you can hardly be thinking more of yourself than of him… and if you who welcome him dwells within you even though you still experience all the limitations of sin you yourself experience life on God’s terms. If the alive-and-present God who raised Jesus from the dead moves into your life, God will do the same thing in you that he did in Jesus, bringing you to new life by love.
This is why, of course, when I started this summer series with you I began with the Beloved prayer, right? If we don’t fully trust and honor that we are God’s beloved through Jesus, we will NEVER risk looking at our sin. And if there is one empirical spiritual truth that we can see everyday unless we’re delusional, it is that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God – all – no exceptions. So, before I give you a working resource for evaluating where God has been present and where we have decided to ignore God, let me ask you again personally: what did you experience last week with your smart phone call to prayer? I’m NOT going to ask how many of you are DOING this prayer – that would be shaming and not akin to grace – just what did those of you experience or notice when you let your day be interrupted with reminders that YOU are God’s beloved?
The early Puritan/Reformed church leaders like John Calvin in Geneva, Ulrich Zwingli in Germany, Elizabeth Singer Rowe, Richard Baxter as well as the hymn writer Issac Watts in England, and let’s not forget Jonathan Edwards over in Northampton, MA all used a form of daily prayer that has come to be known as the Prayer of Examen. It has its origins in the spiritual practices of St. Ignatius of Loyola – founder of the Jesuit Order in 1534 – but was never limited to just Roman Catholics. Calvin as well as many of our early faith leaders insisted upon a regular examination of conscience as a way of honestly and humbly honoring grace as God’s beloved. They did it daily, but given the busy nature of our lives – and my commitment NOT to add burden and insult to injury – I am going to suggest a 21st century modification by calling it a WEEKLY prayer of examen. There are six simple parts to this prayer – and let me lay them out for you clearly – as they are outlined in my resource and then answer any questions.
First, we’re invited to become aware of God’s presence or reality. You can do this in a variety of ways – breathing in and out silently, lighting a candle, listening to a treasured song, praying the Lord’s Prayer, making the sign of the Cross, using your prayer beads or even a reading from the Psalms or Scripture – whatever helps you slow down and listen deeply to begin with is what you should use, ok?
Second, you review the week’s experiences and activities with gratitude. Did you hear that word gratitude? It is essential – not shame or disappointment – not failure but thanksgiving. This part of the prayer is a way to remember what happened during the week and what it might mean for you. Where were you blessed? Where were did you meet challenges? Who was a part of your life? Who did you share meals with? You might need to review your phone or your calendar to see where life took you in the week. I know that doing that helps jog my memory – and please do it with gratitude.
Step three is to pay attention to what you feel as you remember the week: where do you feel joy? Were there times of anxiety? Sorrow? Grief? Did you take a person or a blessing for granted? What does that feel like to you now as you remember? This is where you are likely to discover missing the mark – what we have traditionally called sin or brokenness – and naming and owning with your feelings is one way to make it real. Don’t be afraid of being honest with yourself. Calvin’s personal motto was: Knowledge of self is knowledge of God and knowl-edge of God is knowledge of self. If we want to let God’s grace love and cleanse our sin, we have to own it.
Fourth, feel where you have been in cooperation with God’s grace this past week?what act of service and love did you share? What in your reading or what music or movie or TV program or conversation opened your heart to the way of compassion? Try to be as specific and clear as possible so that the very word of God is cherished in your flesh. What are you truly grateful for from this past week?
Fifth, were there areas of your week where you feel you resisted God’s presence? Or didn’t listen carefully? Or actively chose to go against the rule of love? Were there actions or thoughts that call you to ask for God’s for-giveness? Are there parts of your life you sense God is calling you to give over to the Lord? To ask for a change of heart? A new awareness? Release from guilt?
Then bring your prayer to a close with a time of silence. You may want to close your silence with a formal prayer like a Doxology of praise – or the sign of the Cross – or even a hymn of gratitude. As your prayer closes you might be aware of something you can do as a consequence of this time with God – an action or an insight – that calls for follow-up.
Is that overview clear? Six simple steps that can be done in a modest amount of time that help clarify the places God is speaking to you each week. Tell me what you are thinking or feeling about this resource: what do you think might be gained for you by using it?
Howard Rice of San Francisco Theological Seminary used to say that “our desire to hold on to the façade of our own importance, our determination to take care of ourselves and our need to be strong and independent are so deep seated it often takes a crisis in our lives to be broken open to a new vulnerability… so long as we cling to the notion that we are ultimately in charge of everything in life we do not really need God and will not make the space to pray. We will view our weakness as a disgrace rather than an open door for God’s love and will only pray in moments of extreme desperation.”
Spiritual practices are a slow but tender way of getting to vulnerability without a crisis. That is one aspect from today’s gospel that St. Matthew asks us to affirm about the way of Jesus: The sower – Christ Jesus – shares the seeds of faith, hope and love abundantly and without hesitation, right? This might better be called the parable of extravagant sowing as “the sower scatters his seed carelessly, recklessly, seemingly wasting much of the seed on ground that holds little promise for a fruitful harvest.” New Testament scholar, Elizabeth Johnson writes: “Jesus invests in disciples who look just as unpromising (as the soil.) He squanders his time with tax collectors and sinners, with lepers, the demon-possessed, and all manner of outcasts. Yet he promises that his profligate sowing of the word will produce an abundant harvest.”
His mentor in the Old Testament, Isaiah, says much the same thing: as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
In the course of every life – and every congregation – there are times when we’re ready for God’s new life and it will grow in good soil; at other times we’re too distracted and the busyness of life chokes off all possibility. Sometimes, we’re so wounded that the seeds of love blow away and we remain in a harsh, dry and broken place; yet at other times we get all jazzed and excited only to give up and quit when the going gets rough like seed up shallow ground. I think Jesus is asking us to remember that God’s seed is abundant – God’s grace doesn’t quit – just like Jesus didn’t quit on his disciples when they fizzled out or even betrayed him. My hope and prayer for this week is that you embrace the practice of this new/old prayer of examen like our Puritan ancestors did; let it help you receive the blessings the one who created us as beloved forever and let go of whatever else gets in the way.
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