Sunday, February 06, 2011

The Spirit at the Center

Labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 6, 2011. The lectionary readings are Isaiah 58:1-9a, (9b-12), 1 Corinthians 2:1-12, (13-16), Psalm 112:1-9, (10) and Matthew 5:13-20.

Salt and light are strong images. They gain even more strength in the teaching of Jesus. He ties them to faithfulness and suggests that by resembling salt and light we will not only be useful to him and to God, but we will please God, and will be a part of what Jesus calls the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s easy to see why these images have guided Christians for centuries. But taken out of context and blown out of proportion, salt and light become destructive and imperialistic.

As the Puritan John Winthrop sailed towards the Massachusetts Bay Colony, he preached a sermon on the ship entitled, “A Model of Christian Charity.” Winthrop said, “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.” The words have been used again and again by preachers and presidents to inspire and to encourage. The trick is to remember that they are words having to do more with service than privilege. There is such a thing as too much salt. And light can sometimes blind rather than lead.

St. Paul’s words to the Corinthians moderate some of the possible zealotry of the Gospel.

When Paul approaches the worldly and urbane Corinthians, he does so not as though he’s got the light and they’re living in the dark. He does not as though rubbing salt into a wound. Bur rather, he approaches them simply, as he says, presenting Jesus Christ crucified. Paul describes his approach as one of weakness, fear, and trembling. Of humility, really. He trusts God more than he trusts his own words or wisdom.

Paul describes beautifully the word of the Spirit of God—the Spirit being that part of God’s movement and energy in the world that appears when words fail, that soothes when answers are hidden, that accomplishes when plans fail. The Spirit is the sometimes our last resort, but it’s often God’s first choice of presence in our lives. “The Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.”

And then Paul does an interesting thing, he relates this Spirit of God to the mind of Christ. In that Jesus Christ was fully God and fully human, his mind was filled with God and the things of God. And so, to be like Jesus Christ, to set our mind on the things he values and teaches and lives out, that is to allow our mind to be filled with God and the Spirit of God.

Filled with the Spirit, we discover a funny thing: all of a sudden, we are acting and thinking and living like the people Jesus has described in the Gospel. With the Spirit of God pouring through us, we shine like light for others—not in a self-conscious or self-aggrandizing way, but in a way that comes from God. And we become salty, as well—not in a way that overpowers or offends, but in a way that is distinctive and delights. If you cook at all, you know that too much salt overwhelms a food and so you taste nothing but the salt. But just enough, and the salt encourages other flavors, and the whole dish is made better. It’s that way in the world, as well. Empowered by the Spirit of God, we add our own Christian perspective and find that it adds rather than obliterates, it promotes rather than dominates.

And that second part of the Gospel, about the commandments remaining firm and how, if we should break a commandment or teach others to do so we will be “least in the kingdom of God” but how, if we keep the commandments and teach others to do so, we will be “great in the kingdom of God”—all of this sort of takes care of itself. Enlivened by the Spirit of God, we realize it when we fall or fail or break a commandment. And so we say we’re sorry. We might go to confession. We stop and re-evaluate and pray for the grace to carry on. It’s not the focus of our faith, but a by-product of living faithfully.

How do we get this mind of Christ? How do we get the Spirit of God?

At baptism, the Holy Spirit is given to us. But we spend our lives living into the Spirit of God, through the process the church sometimes calls sanctification—a way of being made holy. And one way of allowing the Spirit room in our lives is through prayer.

From time to time, we have offered what is known as Centering Prayer at All Souls. We don’t currently have a communal time for this, but many of us continue to practice Centering Prayer or something like it on our own. It works very simply. One sits still in a chair or on a prayer stool or a mat, and one opens oneself to the Origin of all that exists. When a thought shows up, simply let it pass on through. Just return to the silence, the space, the place where you are inviting God to be. Sometimes a “centering word” is helpful. It can be anything like “grace,” or “blessing,” or Jesus’ word for God, “abba” or perhaps “amma.” The word isn’t the focus, it just reminds you to come back to center and simply “be.”

Centering prayer usually happens for about 20 minutes or more. It takes practice because it is counter-cultural in so many ways. In such prayer, we’re not struggling to keep up with emails, with news, with tasks, with people, with expectations, with hopes. We’ve not even paying attention to our own faith, or beliefs, or prayers. It’s a time for being quiet, for practicing the quiet. As Cynthia Bourgeault describes it, “What goes on in those silent depths during the time of Centering Prayer is no one’s business, not even your own; it is between your innermost being and God; that place where, as St. Augustine once said, 'God is closer to your soul than you are yourself.'” (Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, p. 6)

We are called to be salty, bright, freed and forgiven people, living in the Spirit of God and sharing God’s love with any who will have it. Helped by one another, may we continue to live into the Mind of Christ.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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