Monday, September 20, 2010

Seventeenth after Pentecost, 2010

Sermon preached at the 4:30 p.m. service of Choral Evensong, by the Rev. Dr. Steve Wilson, Senior Pastor, Oakmont Presbyterian Church, Oakmont, Pennsylvania

Daily Office Year Two, Proper 20
Psalm 34; Esther 3:1 - 4:3; Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-18

I have a nice office. It has a table and four chairs where I can meet with a few staff or a member family or couples planning a wedding or a funeral. And I do have a LOT of books. Recently, I emailed the president of our trustees and said “I have piles of books in my office. I would like to request two more book cases.” In time, they arrived and I’ve put my books on the cases.

There are commentaries on Scripture, Calvin’s Institutes and like books that explain Christian belief, I have books that focus on some of the practical matters of stewardship, prayer, forgiving others. One of my favorite shelves has poetry, lives of saints and different translations of the Bible. One section is dedicated to different hymnbooks. Were you to visit you would likely recognize a special little, red prayer book with which many of you in this church are familiar.

Often, when people visit for the first time they say, “my you have a lot of books!” and then ask “Have you read them all?” “Not all,” I say, “but many of them.

“Why do I have so many books?”

Partly because

• I’ve always been excited to learn.
• I preach three out of four Sundays which requires a lot of thinking, praying and a fair amount of reading.
• Partly because the Christian life is so fascinating and hope filled that I’m excited to order a book with the title of The Solace of Fierce Landscapes or Renovation of the Heart or Help My Unbelief or Leading Lives that Matter.

Thinking of today’s Gospel reading, what would I lose were I to have those books just for appearance and not read them…or just scan the jacket covers for clever quotes?

I would miss Calvin saying that the knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves is so intertwined that it’s impossible to say which comes first.

I would miss the hand of Mother Teresa writing “Love is a fruit in season at all times, and within reach of every hand”.

I would miss the insights of the brightest thinkers and the stories of spiritual ascents. In short I would miss the singing of the saints.

So, Jesus warns against focusing on the external appearance of our spiritual actions.

In Peterson’s The Message,

1“Be especially careful when you are trying to be good so that you don’t make a performance out of it. It might be good theater, but the God who made you won’t be applauding.

Our ancestors in faith have developed spiritual practices through which they have resisted the sinful life (which comes so easily) and pursued the spiritual life (which is a narrow gate). Mordecai and his people wore the rough cloth from goat or camel hair. As they sat in “sackcloth” with ashes they mourned the proclamation that all the Jews should be killed. The rough cloth worn without undergarments was also an expression of repenting and mortifying their sinful nature in hopes that God would save them from death.
In our New Testament reading, Jesus spoke about some of the practices of faith: prayer, alms and fasting. Jesus assumed that his followers would take part in such disciplines. They are time honed ways that Christians have opened their hearts and minds to God’s working in and through them.

But our perception can become distorted so that we think that doing the practices is the purpose. Rather, think of a boat, Spiritual practices are ways that we raise our sails so that we may catch God’s wind and the Spirit can move us forward in the life of faith.

Jesus warns us that what is important not that we have a boat, nor that we’re in the boat, but that our sail is trimmed so that we can catch the movement of the Spirit.

So why do we do things for the appearance of others?

• None of us thinks our spiritual life is as vigorous as we would hope; we may put on the spiritual “dog” out of guilt.
• Pastor Pete Scazzero says that many people today live off the spirituality of others: perusing a prayer journal, but not praying; reading about retreats, but taking none; seeing a movie on a spiritual journey, but never planning a pilgrimage.
• We may also fear where God will take us if we allow God open access to our heart and mind. I remember a Methodist pastor who had been a Marine. I was never sure whether he was more pastor or more Marine, but one thing he said that I’ve never forgotten. “The last thing I want from God is the gift of speaking in tongues, but if God wants it for me, it must be good for me and so I’d accept it.”

God does want what is good for us…the real fruit of faith: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control! Knowing that urges me on to embrace spiritual disciplines.

In recent years some wonderful books have been published on spiritual practices. Our staff is reading and discussing with a wonderful book called Spiritual Disciplines Handbook. Its subtitle is “Practices that Transform Us”. It has spiritual practices for reaching up to God, reaching inward to our true selves, and reaching outward to others. In planning our fall discussions I asked people to chose one discipline that they wanted to learn and lead with our staff. Then one staff member playfully suggested that we assign topics to each other (with love, of course). And we did. There are wonderful practices in addition to prayer, alms and fasting: honoring the body, silence, telling the truth, care of the earth and control of the tongue. Practicing each discipline not for outward appearance but for inner development is an exciting journey of faith.

What love Jesus has for us that he would warn us about the dangers of an appearance-only piety. Against just looking busy in our spiritual boat, Jesus urges us to observe Christian practices, to lift our spiritual sails and feel the power of the Holy Spirit moving us toward God and God’s good gifts.

An introduction to the spiritual disciplines can be found in any/all of the following: Dallas Willard’s Spirit of the Disciplines, Tony Jones’ The Sacred Way, Marjorie Thompson’s Soul Feast, Dorothy Bass’ Practicing Our Faith, and Adele Ahlberg Calhoon’s Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices that Transform Us

Rev. Dr. Steve Wilson
Oakmont Presbyterian Church
415 Pennsylvania Avenue
Oakmont, PA 15139

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