February 10, 2013, The Last Sunday after the Epiphany, Solemn Mass, Sermon by the Reverend Dr. Peter R. Powell
Sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, February 10, 2013
By the Reverend Dr. Peter R. Powell
Year C: Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99; 1 Corinthians 12:27-13:13; Luke 9:28-36
The clergy of Westport and Weston, where I live, gathered for our monthly lunch on Tuesday and one member raised a problem he had. His congregants were resisting raising their children as religious and they were telling him that they wanted the children to make their own decisions on faith rather than have to get religious instruction as they had. The experience of religious instruction for them was negative and they didn’t want their children to have a negative experience.
The other clergy all agreed that we face the same problem. We live in an age in which God seems less than immediately relevant. The questions today are transactional. What do I get if I practice religion? For instance, a few years ago a friend asked me if I would marry her and her fiancé on July 4. She and her fiancé are Jewish, but July 4 that year was on a Saturday and Rabbis won’t marry people on the Sabbath. I said that I couldn’t do it either, so she protested that she didn’t want a religious ceremony, she just knew me and wanted me to be part of their wedding. This is her second wedding and her fiancé has been married before too. When I explained that I’d need the bishop’s permission to officiate because it is a second marriage she was dumbfounded. She needed a clergyman; she didn’t want the discipline of the church and had no intention of converting to Christianity, much less to the Episcopal Church. She thinks I’m very strange. Her request, from her standpoint, was straightforward. I marry people, and therefore I could marry her. But I can’t. She has no understanding of what it means to be a priest, or to be an Episcopalian, and her disappointment in me was written all over her face. To her my refusal was my baggage, and she feels sorry for me. I regret that she has no understanding of the holy, of holy time, or of the church.
We as a culture have lost the experience of Holy Time. When we lose the sense of Holy Time then we also lose the sense of why living an observant life is important and today churches and apparently synagogues across the country don’t know what they have to offer when parents, parishioners or congregants complain that they get nothing from worship. So our culture has lost the importance of Holy Time but the church has a memory of it, and I think that that memory can say much to our being the kind of people we want to become. We lead busy lives with too much to do and too little time to do it in. We fret about wasting time. Lent is a time to think about rediscovering Holy Time.
Some years ago I heard a sermon in which the preacher said: If you’re too busy to pray then you’re busier than God created you to be! The phrase arrested me and continues to challenge me as I seek to lead a Holy Lent this year. We live in a culture in which we assume we are created to be busy. That is not why we were created. The church has this gift to the unchurched. We focus on what is foundationally important. We focus on Holy Time.
I usually begin Lent with good intentions and a firm resolve to have this Lent be different from past Lents. I say to myself, this year I am going to stick to my resolve. On the calendar Lent looks doable. It’s really the month of March with half of February at the beginning. But I know that as the days drag on in March I will be tempted to rationalize reasons why I don’t need to stick with my discipline. I will say to myself that Lent doesn’t include Sundays, and it doesn’t. That one doesn’t fast on Holy Days, and I know when all of them are, and that God doesn’t really care about how strictly I observe my discipline. By the time Holy Week comes I’m usually hoping that I can get through at least one week living the way I wish I lived the rest of the year, and I usually fail. Lent has the negative possibility of pointing out to me unmistakably just how hard it is to lead a disciplined life. I hope that this Lent will be an opportunity for me to see how wonderful it is to lead an intentional life, and I invite you this morning to think about how you have spent Lent in the past, and then resolve to make Lent 2013 a holy one for you so that you, and I, can have the experience of seeing how wonderful and freeing a holy life can be.
There are many obstacles to leading a holy life, but: If you’re too busy to pray then you’re busier than God created you to be!
That phrase struck home with me. Often I’m too busy to pray; often I’m busier than God created me to be. You know what I mean. We rationalize by saying that tomorrow I’ll pray, or I was in church just last week, or was it the week before? Or I’ll go next week.
Too busy to pray? Not just to say to God, thanks for everything, or not just to say to God, why me! But to really pray.
Sometimes when working with groups, to get us focused, I’ve asked people to write their own eulogy, or obituary, or the line they’d like on their tombstone. This has the advantage of forcing us to focus on the shortness of our lives. So imagine that you’re dying, what do you need to do before you die?
What you’ve accomplished is important, you hope, but it all hinges on how you are received these last few months. You’re hoping for some immortality. What would you do? Many if not most of us would strive mightily to tie up loose ends. I’d be too busy to pray. Would you?
Jesus wasn’t. In this morning’s gospel he knows that his time is short. He knows that he has very little time left to knock some sense into his misfit disciples. But rather than taking them off on a management retreat, rather than holding a motivational seminar with tremendous speakers, he goes off to pray. He doesn’t simply go off to say to God, how are you, he goes off to pray.
And he takes his disciples with him; they must have thought him very strange. They were tired and simply wanted to sleep. There’s so much to do, action to be taken, and Jesus goes off to pray. He doesn’t see prayer as something to do before he goes to bed; he goes off in the midst of a working day, to pray! Unlike me, and I suspect unlike you, Jesus knew just how busy he was created to be.
I like Lent. It’s a busy time of year, especially in the church. Attendance will be up in Lent, adult education will be supported in Lent, and we all feel like we need to be here on Sunday.
Lent is typically the one time of year when I’m not too busy to pray, and I keep praying that some year my Lenten Discipline will spill over into the rest of the year when I am too busy. When time is short, and our time is short, we do what is important. The trick is figuring out what is important.
Jesus tells us the story of the unjust steward to show us how we should react when we know our time is short. The unjust steward is one of those parables that just doesn’t seem fair. To remind you of the story, a steward is caught embezzling. The people of Galilee, Jesus’s audience, would’ve applauded the unjust steward for embezzling because he was embezzling from an absentee landlord. So they listened to Jesus tell the story with great attention. But they didn’t like where the story ended up. The parable as we have it, talks about shrewdness, and the bible does not normally say good things about shrewd people. Knowing that he will be fired the steward calls in everyone who owes his master money, and he settles accounts. To ingratiate himself with his master’s creditors he settles accounts for 50¢ on the dollar, or less, without his master’s permission. He knows that this will ingratiate him to the creditors so he will have friends after he’s fired, and Jesus uses this as a positive example, because it is a positive example of taking seriously what one does when time is short. Do you know that time is short? Can you act accordingly? Or are you too busy?
To counteract a culture of busyness and to teach us how to pray, the church teaches us three disciplines: the first is the Discipline of the Church and means taking the time and having the motivation to be present and worshiping at the church. St. Mary the Virgin offers you many opportunities to worship. We’re here every Sunday. Unlike most churches, we’re here every day. Ashes will be imposed all day Ash Wednesday. For me the singing of Allegri’s Miserere is one of the highlights of my year. I wish it would go on forever. We say Morning and Evening Prayer daily. Mass is celebrated daily. Fridays in Lent feature the Stations of the Cross. I urge you for your Lenten discipline to add one or more of these events to your weekly worship. If you can’t get here you can say Morning Prayer on your own at home in about 15 minutes. If you’ve done these things in the past, and have fallen away from them, Lent is a great time to renew practices which have energized you previously.
The second discipline is the Discipline of the Book. Read the bible. Reflect on what it means to be a Christian. We’ll be studying Romans on Sunday and Wednesday evenings there’s a class on Zechariah. If you’ve never read the bible, or if you’ve always gotten bogged down in the begats, I recommend you start with the Psalms. In The Book of Common Prayer they take up about 200 pages, so you can read all of the Psalms in Lent if you read 5 pages a day. Most sermons from now through November will be based on Luke’s gospel. You can read it in Lent in its entirety once if you read one page a day, and you can read it through several times if you read ten pages daily. But don’t simply read Luke or the Psalms simply to have read them. Take time to reflect upon what you read so that it can become a part of you.
The third discipline is the Discipline of the Heart. Where is your heart? If it’s not in prayer, and I mean a lot of prayer, then it’s not where God created it to be. There are many good books on prayer but if you’re looking for something challenging that takes advantage of literature I recommend Soulmaking: The Desert Way of Spirituality by the Very Rev. Alan Jones, the former dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Dean Jones’s book is readable, enjoyable, and challenging. Everyone I know—myself especially—who has worked through this book has been transformed.
I know that whenever I neglect any of these disciplines I begin to feel cut off and my life is out of control. I know that when I abide by these disciplines I know who I am and whose I am and I like the changes in me.
How long to pray? Set aside at least 15 minutes in a part of the day when you’re awake and alert. Use the Prayer Book, Hymnal, or anything else which helps set the mood for you. But then move on and free yourself from the book and really communicate with God. God wants to be in conversation with you, and God listens even when you pray fitfully or inarticulately.
If we’re not sure who God is, that is, if we’re not in relationship with God, then we lose ourselves. Lent is a time of finding yourself. It’s a time of not being too busy to do that for which you were created.
The wonder of taking some time to pray is that prayer begins then to spill over into the rest of your life. You begin to have faith that your prayers are actually heard.
What to pray for? Be specific. Pray for what you want. Perhaps you’ll have to start praying for faith in praying!
The gospel today is the story of the transfiguration. It shows that Jesus put ultimate importance on praying. We are not fully taking advantage of the grace which brings us to church if we’re too busy to pray because we’re being busier than God created us to be.
This is the last Sunday after the Epiphany. The transfiguration stands as a pointer behind and before. Epiphany is about God revealing Godself to us. In Luke this revelation occurs only in prayer. In Lent we set out in the certainty of God’s revelation to us and journey to the cross. It’s a quick journey and we know the destination.
You’ve heard the phrase, getting there was half the fun? You can get to Easter without Lent, Protestants have been doing that since the Reformation, but Easter won’t be very much for you if you do. It won’t be all that it can be for you.
But if you’ll embrace the three disciplines, the Discipline of the Church, the Discipline of the Book and the Discipline of the Heart, your Easter will be immeasurably enriched.
So I invite you to challenge yourself with the refrain of this sermon. Am I too busy to pray, or am I busier than God created me to be?
Copyright © 2013 Peter Ross Powell
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