Contemplatives in Action

Sermon for Sunday, June 19, 2016
Pentecost 5
Luke 8:26-39

ascetics-praying-in-cave-sketchThe text for the homily this morning is not so much today’s gospel text itself as it is the text around today’s gospel text.  In particular, Jesus’ rhythm of mission and prayer – Jesus going out on mission, then withdrawing to deserted places to pray – that Luke set up three chapters earlier, in chapter 5:

Many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases.  But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray. – Luke 5:15b-16

The context of today’s gospel is Jesus’ rhythm of going out on mission and then withdrawing to deserted places to pray; Jesus’ mission leads to prayer, Jesus’ prayer leads to mission.  Mission and prayer is the rhythm of Jesus’ ministry in Luke.

But I don’t want to begin there.  I want to begin rather with President George W. Bush’s “faith-based initiatives.”  In some ways “faith-based initiatives” make sense to me:  the Church is often the one with “boots on the ground” and best positioned to help.  Rather than reinvent the wheel, why not support something already in place and working?   But – aside from questions about the government shirking its responsibilities to the poor, and aside from questions about the separation of Church and state – the concern I have with “faith-based initiatives” is that it plays into the false but common impression that the Church is primarily a provider of social services.

descentoftheholyspiritI hope the Church does provide for those in need!  What kind of a Church would we be if we didn’t minister to the poor, the outcast and the needy?  But the Church is much more than a provider social services. The Church is the Body of Christ.  The Church is indwelled by the Holy Spirit.  The Church possesses truth for all people, everywhere, all the time.   The Church stands both in an outside of time, reaching back to the apostles and reaching forward to the Kingdom.   The Church is not just another 501c(3) non-profit, the Church is a “wonderful and sacred mystery” rooted in Christ, who went out on mission AND… who withdrew to deserted places to pray.

In our contemporary culture of action and accomplishment, it is easy to focus on the “mission” part of Church – like our support of the Food Pantry, Salvation Army or B-SAFE – and to forget the other lung through which the church breathes: prayer.

The Trinity Parish vestry recently developed a “vision statement” to help guide our new parish in its first few years.   Our vision statement honors Jesus’ rhythm of mission and prayer, and makes a connection between the Church’s two “lungs.”

Our new parish seeks to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ as contemplatives in action: prayer leading to mission; mission leading to prayer.

We hope that our new parish might become “contemplatives in action,” disciples who follow Jesus’ rhythm of prayer leading to mission, and mission leading to prayer.

When we hear the word “contemplative,” we might think of monks in a monastery and assume that such prayer is not for us.   But, as Thomas Merton writes, contemplation is not “something essentially strange and esoteric, reserved for a small class of almost unnatural beings and prohibited to everyone else.” Merton continues:

635786917632061025-lcjbrd2-04-11-2015-ky-1-a004-2015-04-10-img-img-img-merton1-1-1-1eafj3va-l593958368-img-img-img-merton1-1-1-1eafj3vaContemplation is the work of the Holy Spirit acting on our souls… with special intensity to increase…  our love for Him.   These gifts are part of the normal equipment of Christian sanctity.  They are given to all in Baptism, and if they are given it is presumably because God wants them developed.  (From the opening of  What is Contemplation? by Merton)

If we are Baptized, we have “the normal equipment” for being contemplatives; we have the capacity to let the Spirit act in us to “increase… our love for Him.”

Which is the reason why mission alone is not enough to bring about God’s kingdom here on earth.  Love is needed, too.  Contrary to many of the messages our culture sends us, we human beings are more than doers of tasks.  We have an interior life; we have a soul; we need to love and be loved.  And how much greater is the love we have and show when it is the same love which “has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom 5:5)?  Christ’s love, poured into our hearts, is the love the world craves.  Christ’s love, acting in us, is the water that can quench all human thirst.  The love of Jesus manifest in us is the bread that will give life to this world!  If we truly wish to carry on Jesus’ mission in the world, we will need to do more than good works.  (Even the wicked do good works, says Augustine!)  We must also be people of prayer, so that the love of Jesus may be developed in us – that we might be “contemplatives in action.”

And so James and I and the Wardens and vestry invite us to become “contemplatives in action.”  We invite our new parish to learn to breathe through both of our God-given “lungs,” that of mission and that of prayer.  Our parish already breathes well through our lung of mission – Salvation Army, B-SAFE, and some of us with the Food Pantry, for example.  We encourage you to continue to develop the prayer practices you may already have (e.g., going to Eucharist, reading the Scriptures, centering prayer).  If you don’t already have a regular prayer practice, and you’d like some suggestions, beginning this fall James will offer a series of sessions on different kinds of prayer.  Please watch for the announcements; and please make time in your calendar to attend.  The world needs our good works; it also needs the love of Christ “which has been poured into our hearts.”

transfiguration_by_feofan_grek_from_spaso-preobrazhensky_cathedral_in_pereslavl-zalessky_15th_c_tretyakov_galleryI am going to leave us with a quote from “The Joy of the Gospel,” by Pope Franics – a book the vestry is presently reading – in which the Pope speaks about prayer and mission going hand-in-hand:

Spirit-filled evangelizers are evangelizers who pray and work. [Prayer} without a solid social and missionary outreach [is] of no help to evangelization, nor are… social… practices which lack a spirituality… These unilateral and incomplete proposals… curtail the Gospel. What is needed is the ability to cultivate an interior space which can give a Christian meaning to commitment and activity.  Without prolonged moments of adoration, of prayerful encounter with the word, of sincere conversation with the Lord, our work easily becomes meaningless…  The Church urgently needs the deep breath of prayer,  (Evangelii Gaudium, 262)

Please pray for our new parish.  Please pray that we might be “spirit-filled evangelizers” who live out Jesus’ rhythm of mission and prayer.  And please pray so that the love which has been poured into our hearts might more fully develop, so that by our very lives we might manifest to a hurting world the love that it so desperately craves – the love of Jesus Christ.

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