Benediction Online

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Living the Holy Life

Micah 6:1-8
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Matthew 5:1-12
Psalm 15

There is a BBC radio program, Desert Island Discs, which is so popular that it’s been running since 1942. Each week a celebrity is asked to choose eight records which they would want to have with them if they were stranded on a desert island. They are also asked to identify a book and a luxury. (When I was growing up it was two books and no luxury was mentioned!) Almost invariably the celebrity would choose either the Bible or Shakespeare, and often both. If I were asked to choose eight Bible passages that I would want to have on a desert island I think this morning’s readings would be close to the top of my list.

Together they go to the heart of discipleship. They talk of what it means to live a holy life and as such they provide a place where the Christian faith meets other faith traditions. Not in the field of theology, but in compassionate living in relationship with God and all beings.

In the first reading, the eighth century prophet Micah, writing at the same time as Isaiah, sums up the ancient covenant between God and God’s people. It is written like a conversation: God reminds the people of all that he has done for them and calls them back into covenant relationship. The people respond with a note of sarcasm - what can they do which will be adequate for such a demanding God – perhaps they should bring thousands of rams, thousands of rivers of oil - perhaps God wants them to sacrifice their first born sons or even their own bodies – would that be enough? And in response comes that amazing prophetic statement, which has resonated through the millennia,

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice and love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

The second reading was taken from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, one of his earliest letters. The Gospel we preach doesn’t make sense to the world in which we live. It didn’t make sense then and it doesn’t make sense now. Paul writes, “Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified”. I wonder how we might add to that list, “Jews demand signs, Greeks desire wisdom and Americans lust after power”, or “Jews demand signs, Greeks desire wisdom and Americans yearn for security”. However we complete the sentence, Christ crucified does not seem to meet the need. Paul goes on “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world…”

In the topsy-turvy world of the Gospel weakness is strength, walking humbly is power, the God-man shamed and crucified is our security. It doesn’t make sense.

If it made sense it would be easy. Living a holy life would be simple. But instead it is a quest which has called to the heart of humanity for thousands of years. The desire for holy living has sent humans to live in isolation in the desert or on the topes of poles; to live in communities or as hermits; to take to the road with vows of poverty, depending on others kindness; to seek wise teachers and spend hours in meditation, fasting and prayer; and in our own time to read books and attend workshops.

Some of us are using Joan Chittister’s commentary on the Rule of Benedict to deepen our spiritual understanding and increase our ability to live holy lives. She tells a teaching story:

“What action shall I do to attain God?” the disciple asked the elder.

“If you wish to attain God,” the elder said, “there are two things you must know. The first is that all efforts to attain God are of no avail.”

“And the second?” the disciple insisted.

“The second is that you must act as if you did not know the first,” the elder said.[1]

This is the paradox. Closeness to God is a gift not the result of our efforts. Yet we must still seek it. We are called to live a holy life but by the very nature of who we are that alludes us. Yet the very quest is in itself important. As we seek to “do justice and love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God” so the God we love and serve will draw closer to us, and we will become more nearly the Christ-like beings we are called to be.

Although there is a long tradition of going away to monasteries and other places of retreat, the holy life is one which is to be lived wherever we are. Unlike some other traditions, Christianity calls us to live a holy life exactly where we are and in exactly the circumstances God has given us. This is the message of the Gospel reading. Jesus was not talking to monks or priests or holy men, Jesus was talking to the common people as he gave this amazing sermon, often called the Beatitudes.

Gandhi and Mother Teresa are famous examples of people who seem to have lived the beatitudes, but there are many more who are quietly living humble lives; people who recognize that true power comes from defenselessness not from pre-emptive strikes; people who have no need to push themselves forward because they know that they have committed themselves to God’s service and God will use them wherever God wills.

Last Saturday I was in England for the 80th birthday celebration of my spiritual father and mentor. At the end of his birthday Eucharist he invited us to say a prayer together. It is the Methodist covenant prayer based on one which John Wesley wrote. I found it quite stunning in its level of commitment and surrender. We often get the impression that if we seek God good things will happen to us and so when we have times of pain and difficulty we wonder if perhaps God is ignoring us. This prayer makes it quite clear that a life of service to God may mean suffering and may mean being apparently useless.

I will read it to you now, and I have included it in your service leaflet. You may feel ready to pray it, you may not. It is not a prayer to be taken lightly.

I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will,
rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing,
put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you,
or laid aside for you,
exalted for you,
or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours.

[1] Joan Chittister, The Rule of St Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century, Crossroads 2010, p21,22


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