Ask God What He Can Do In You

Homily for Sunday, January 22, 2017
Second Sunday After the Epiphany
And Trinity Parish’s Annual Meeting

john_f-_kennedy_white_house_photo_portrait_looking_upAs a Massachusetts resident and a part-time history buff, and in light of Friday’s inauguration, this past week I went back to President Kennedy’s inaugural address of 1961, the famous “Ask not what your country can do for you…” speech.   In this speech Kennedy lays his vision for the country.  A vision of “unwillingness to witness or permit the slow undoing of… human rights.”   A vision of the “survival and the success of liberty,” here and around the globe.  A vision committed to those “south of the border,” and our “special pledge…  to assist free men and free governments in casting off the chains of poverty.”  A vision of support for the United Nations, “our last best hope in an age where the instruments of war have far outpaced the instruments of peace.”  A vision of a world in which “civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof.”  A vision of  “both sides [exploring] what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.”   A vision of  “a new world of law, where the strong are just and the weak secure and the peace preserved.”  Anybody remember?  It was – and is – a stirring, hope-filled speech.

Toward the end of his address, President Kennedy said this:

In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course…  In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger.  I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it–and the glow from that fire can truly light the world…

It was a great speech!

2016 was a great year for us at Trinity.  Finally, we put behind us the legislation about the failed roof.  Finally, we sold the property at 1900 Commonwealth Ave.  Finally, the proceeds from the sale are at our disposal and can be used in support of our mission.  I cannot thank enough those who put in countless(!) hours to get us through everything pertaining to the roof and to the sale.  Thank you!  And all this was in addition to the often-hidden but no less significant work we have done to come together as one parish, doing things like: learning new names, adjusting to new clergy, blending two different parish “cultures.”  Some of us had to adjust to a long, narrow sanctuary and communion at the rail instead of in the round.  Others had to adjust to a new version of the Nicene Creed and Lord’s Prayer.  Much has happened in this past year; 2016 was a big year!

Amid these headliner changes was one seemingly small yet significant change that I want to bring to our attention.  In April, our new vestry held a special meeting to talk about where we sensed God was leading our new parish.  In our conversation that morning, we discerned a new vision statement to help guide us in our first years:

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

jfkinauguration_wide-eb7b471020f0504238dd8d6dfdb935bcd69147c0-s900-c85It was a prescient statement.  Little did the vestry know then how important it would be for us now to become “contemplatives in action.”  Just as President Kennedy said that “In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its maximum hour of danger,” so we might say that “In the long history of our lives, few moments have been so important as now for us to become contemplatives in action.”  Now, more than ever, our world needs us to be contemplatives in action.

I’m not saying that “now, more than ever, our world needs us to be contemplatives in action” as a referendum on President Trump.  Rather, the dynamics of the recent election are only a symptom of a deeper brokenness in our society that we Christians can help reconcile.  This brokenness has to do with the polarizations named by the press: Red State / Blue State, urban / rural, college educated / non-college educated.  This brokenness has to do with economic disparities so aptly named by the Pope.  This brokenness has to do with ignorance, with prejudice and with fear.

The way to begin to mend this brokenness – to begin to be the reconcilers we Christians are called to be – is by accepting the vestry’s invitation to become “contemplatives in action.”

contemplation

“What good is becoming a contemplative?” we might ask.  “Wouldn’t our energies be better spent in ‘action’ which actually ‘gets things done?’”  But mission – the work that we do – must go hand-in-hand with prayer – the work that we don’t do.  To borrow an image from the Pope, to undertake mission without first being people of prayer is like an army taking the field without first consulting its general.   Without our “general” our energies – no matter how well-intentioned – will remain unfocussed and ineffective, and we will quickly burn out with nothing to show for our effort.  But if we first pray – if we first open ourselves to the encouragement and guidance and love of our “general” – then, with God’s help not only will we do great things, but we will do the right things.  For then, rooted in God, energized by the Spirit, we will be doing God’s will.  And nothing is more healing for our world, nothing brings more joy and satisfaction to our hearts, than doing the Father’s will.

To become a “contemplative” is not hard.  We become contemplatives simply by allowing our hearts to rest where they naturally want to rest, in Jesus.  Thomas Merton writes that contemplation is for all the Baptized.

Contemplation is not something essentially strange and esoteric, reserved for a small class of almost unnatural beings.  Contemplation is the work of the Holy Spirit acting on our souls through the gifts of Wisdom and Understanding with special intensity to increase and perfect 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 to be developed. – (What is Contemplation?, ch 1.)

The vestry’s vision for us at Trinity, then, is that we utilize this “equipment” of Christian sanctity, that we develop our gifts of contemplation, gifts that we all have by virtue of our Baptism.   We develop these gifts in traditional Christian practices such as:

  • weekly attendance at Sunday worship
  • weekly attendance at the Wednesday evening service
  • regular practice of Centering Prayer (about which Fr. La Macchia is currently leading a workshop)
  • Praying the Daily Office (which any of the clergy are glad to show you how to do)
  • Taking regular Sabbath time (in which we might turn off all our devices and forego all work)
  • Taking a few minutes each day to read a small portion of scripture, maybe try starting with the Gospel of Mark or the Psalms
  • Maybe reading a paragraph per day of the Pope’s book, The Joy of the Gospel

centeringprayerAbout prayer practices, I want to say three things:  1)  Prayer is not so much something we do as it is something God does in us.   To paraphrase President Kennedy… In prayer:  “Ask not what you can do for God – ask what God can do in you.”  A key word for prayer, then, is “let” or “allow.”  2)  Start small, with reasonable expectations, lest you become discouraged.  When I first moved to Santa Barbara in my late 20’s, I joined the nearby gym.  It was a small gym, and the owner himself gave me a free training session.  After about 20 minutes, he said, “OK.  That’s enough.  We’re done.”  But I had been used to lifting for 35 to 40 minutes.  The owner, seeing the surprise on my face, said, “I don’t want you to get hurt; I don’t even want you to get sore.  I want you to come back and to keep you as a client.  So go home!  And come back tomorrow, only increasing when you’re ready to increase.”  So it is in our Christian practices: just do a little bit at a time, increasing only gradually, so that we do not become discouraged.  3) President Kennedy in his address said: “All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days.  Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet.  But let us begin.”  We may not see or feel the results of our prayer for a long time.  But do not be discouraged by the lack of visible results!  Prayer is a relationship, and just as in every relationship not every day can be fireworks, so in prayer not every day will be be flooded with feelings of love, joy and peace.  Indeed – as Fr. La Macchia reminds us in the Centering Prayer workshop – the measure of our prayer is not what happens during our prayer, but what we do after our prayer.

If this last week as a Massachusetts resident I went back to President Kennedy’s inaugural address to hear again his vision of our country, so this past week as a Christian I went back to the book of Revelation to hear again God’s vision for our world:

And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.  Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’

la_nouvelle_jerusalem-625x515This new Jerusalem is the goal toward which all humanity is moving.  Regardless of who our President may be, regardless of our country’s circumstances, God can use the President, God can use our circumstances, to accomplish God’s will here on earth.  And God needs us – God needs you, and God needs me – to do God’s will.  “In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course.”  In our hands raised in prayer, lies the success or failure of our course.  And ”the energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our [parish], and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.”

Now is the time, more than ever, for us to become contemplatives in action.  Whom God has created us to be, whom our hearts truly desire to be, and which, if we become, will bring us joy and satisfaction far exceeding anything we could ask or imagine.

My fellow Christians (ahem!):  ask not what you can do for God – ask rather what God can do in you…  With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth from this place and be the Christians God created us to be: contemplatives in action, with our prayer leading to mission, and our mission to prayer, “all the while asking His blessing and His help, and knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”

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