Proper 20, Year B, 2006

You know what makes me nervous?

What makes me nervous is when I read passages from the Bible that describe ungodly cultures that sound exactly like our culture today.

In our passage from Wisdom today, the author is describing a culture that has made Death its friend, rather than the life giving God.  The author describes the society like this:

Come, therefore, let us enjoy the good things that exist, and make use of the creation to the full as in youth. Let us take our fill of costly wine and perfumes, and let no flower of spring pass us by. Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds before they wither. Let none of us fail to share in our revelry; everywhere let us leave signs of enjoyment, because this is our portion, and this our lot. Let us oppress the righteous poor man; let us not spare the widow or regard the gray hairs of the aged. But let our might be our law of right, for what is weak proves itself to be useless.

Anyone who gets excited about Oprah’s annual Christmas gift giveaway show or ever seen an episode of My SuperSweet Sixteen or is concerned about our foreign policy or believes the aftermath of Katrina showed an ugly class and racial divide can’t help but read this passage and go “Gulp”.

I dreaded writing this sermon all week.  I like when passages are all about how much God loves us no matter how screwed up we are.  Like anyone, I don’t like facing up to how my life–or my culture–may not be faithful to God’s principles.

This passage has been keeping me up at night, making me wonder, “What if they are right?”

What if the fundamentalist Muslims are right and our culture of greed and sex and violence is corrupting the world and we deserve to be wiped out?

What if the evangelical Christians are right and the secular culture of promiscuity and alcohol and drug use and eroding “family values” are against God’s will and those of us who don’t subscribe to their narrow Christianity are all going to hell?

What if the leading scientists and Al Gore are right and American pollution is causing global warming, leading to irreversible destruction of the polar icecaps, warming of the oceans, and ultimately more and more natural disasters like Katrina, killer heatwaves, and massive coastal flooding?

What if the political left is right and the war in which our country is engaged is based on a complicated schema of lies and political maneuvering and is inherently unethical?

What if the political right is correct and if we don’t engage in these sorts of wars, we’re giving power to terrorists and all they stand for?

Ugggggh.

We’re living in a maelstrom of conflicting public opinion, values, facts, religious beliefs and political maneuvering. 

How do we, as Episcopalians, who value the Bible, but also tradition and reason, wade through the morass before us to develop a coherent ethical response?  How do we bring our concerns before God and discern a path to follow?

(Pause)

I don’t know!  That’s why I didn’t want to preach about this text!

In all seriousness, I do think there is a way for us to find a way of holiness amidst all the confusion and pain and fear of our present.

In the first chapter of the Wisdom of Solomon, right before our passage today, Solomon describes a godly society,

Love righteousness, you rulers of the earth, think of the Lord in goodness and seek him with sincerity of heart; because he is found by those who do not put him to the test, and manifests himself to those who do not distrust him. For perverse thoughts separate people from God, and when his power is tested, it exposes the foolish; because wisdom will not enter a deceitful soul, or dwell in a body enslaved to sin. For a holy and disciplined spirit will flee from deceit, and will leave foolish thoughts behind, and will be ashamed at the approach of unrighteousness.

A holy and disciplined spirit. . .that’s not the sort of thing we Episcopalians usually talk about.  We’re the “fun” branch of Christianity.  We get to dance and drink and have money!  We get to dress well and drive nice cars!  We’re Catholic “lite”; Lutheran, but without the guilt!  We’re more likely to have dinner parties than prayer groups, cocktail hour than an hour of Bible study.

And while I do think the Christian life is a life of celebration and joy, and I am certainly not going to stop going to dinner parties, I believe God is calling us, as a church, back to the Spiritual disciplines. 

I recently went to a conference in Atlanta, in which Phyllis Tickle spoke about the crisis of the modern church.  She talked about how every 500 years, the church goes through a major rummage sale and cleans itself out.  Five hundred years ago, we experienced the Reformation.  500 years before that the Eastern and Western Church split.  500 years before that, a bunch of Monks, the desert Fathers and Mothers, moved out to the desert and began a new kind of contemplative Christian practice.  500 hundred years before that, came Jesus.  500 years before that the Temple in Jerusalem is destroyed and rebuilt, 500 years before that, the Israelites decide they don’t want to be ruled by Judges so God sends them a King.  500 years before that Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt and they wander in the desert for 40 years.  500 years before that Abraham is sent out in faith by God to be the Father to a new group of God’s chosen people.  The pattern is incredible

Phyllis Tickle’s point was, that at the present moment, the modern church is experiencing just such a shift, the emergent church-those large churches with small groups, praise music, non traditional church buildings and conservative theology–gain more power than the main line Protestant churches.   Since the time of Darwin, the church has been redefining itself-sorting through its beliefs and moral and ethical underpinnings.  She reassured us that the Protestant church isn’t going anywhere, but we will experience change, just as the Catholic church did 500 years ago, and the Eastern church 1000 years ago. 

Despite this massive historical context in which she placed our current church crisis, her call to us was simple and ancient:  to return to the Spiritual disciplines. In times of turbulence and change, God calls us back to him.  God reminds us that we cannot control the world, but that we can submit to him, and try to stay aligned to his ways in our day-to-day lives.

Ms. Tickle’s preferred spiritual discipline is saying the Divine Hours.  Saying the Divine Hours is an ancient practice that began with the early monastics.  It consists of saying prayers are assigned times of the day, using assigned words.  This is not the time for personal prayers, but a time to align oneself with God and with all the other Christians who are praying at the same time of day.  However, saying the Divine Hours is not the only way to practice Spiritual Disciplines.

I commend Tickle’s work to you, and also the work of Richard Foster.  Twenty-five years ago Foster wrote The Celebration of Discipline, a book designed to help Christians find a way to live the Spiritual disciplines in a meaningful way.  He divides them into three groups:  The Inward Disciplines, The Outward Disciplines and the Corporate Disciplines.

The Inward Disciplines consist of meditation, prayer, fasting and studying.  The Outward disciplines of simplicity, solitude, submission and service.  The Corporate disciplines are confession, guidance, worship and celebration.

I don’t recommend trying to begin a dozen spiritual disciplines at once!  That cannot end well.  I do, however, recommend saying a prayer with the list in front of you, and choosing one or two.  

Spiritual disciplines are just that-disciplines.  They aren’t necessarily fun, or even rewarding right away.  Like any discipline, results can only be observed after a long time of practice.  But what these spiritual disciplines do is align us with God.  And in this time of uncertainty, both religious and political, we cannot afford to engage with the world on our own strength and wisdom. 

Instead of worrying about whether we are on the right side of all these political and religious debates, God invites us to take a deep breath and reach back to ancient and timeless practices to stay rooted in truths that came before and will come long after all our current crises have faded away.

Amen.

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