ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH MARCH 12, 2017
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
SERMON ON THE MOUNT: PRACTICES
Isaiah 58: 6 – 14; Matthew 5:6; 6: 1 – 4 & 14- 21
Today we’re focusing on spiritual “practices” or “disciplines”. The word “discipline” often evoke Ascetics punishing their bodies to subdue their spirits, so the word is less popular than it once was. Yet ‘discipline’ also speaks of the correction or training of the Holy Spirit. “Practice” is a gentler word meaning a repeated action. Whatever term we use spiritual exercises have always been observed by Christians. Brother Theo was transferred to a monastery where the main work was to copy manuscripts by hand. Bro Theo noticed the monks were making copies from copies instead of from an original manuscript. He shared his concern with the Abbot: if someone has made a mistake then every copy will be wrong. The Abbot decided to compare the original manuscript with a copy. A few days later he called the monks together, “Brothers, someone made a dreadful mistake in copying the original manuscript, which has led us astray for 100s of years. It wasn’t “celibate” it was “celebrate”.
A spiritual practice or discipline is any activity, custom or exercise done to please God, cultivate spiritual development and/or evoke spiritual experiences. They’re what we do when we seek to “come to …the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). Sometimes they’re done regularly, such as a devotional time each morning and sometimes they’re continual, such as acts of service. All spiritual development is the work of the Holy Spirit; we can’t foster holiness by our own will power. That only makes what we wish to overcome stronger. Our practices align us with the Spirit, opening us to the process of sanctification and spiritual maturity. The Holy Spirit, works through our spiritual disciplines to change us. Spiritual practices take discipline and spiritual disciplines take practice.
At the root of all practice is desire or will. The beatitude for this theme is: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.” (Matthew 5:6) When we’re physically hungry and thirsty, we’ll stop at nothing to get what we need. The effort we put into our spiritual practices is also proportionate to our desperation. A man came to Socrates asking for knowledge. Socrates led him into the sea until they were chest deep in water. Then he asked, “What do you want?” “Knowledge,” said the young man. Socrates put his hands on the man’s shoulders and pushed him under. Thirty seconds later Socrates let him up. “What do you want?” he asked again. “Wisdom,” the man sputtered. Socrates pushed him under again for forty seconds. The man clung to his answer. Socrates jammed him under again for 60 seconds. As he struggled and bobbed to the surface, the man gasped, “Air! I need air!” Satisfied Socrates said, “When you want knowledge as you have just wanted air, then you’ll have knowledge.” Jesus may have said, “When you want righteousness as you wanted air, then you’ll have it.” When we hunger and thirst for the ways of God, we discipline ourselves to practice them. C.S. Lewis gave us the following insight: “Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink, sex and ambition, when infinite joy is offered to us. We’re like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in the slum because he cannot imagine a holiday by the sea.” Are you easily pleased with something less than God offers? Do you hunger and thirst for righteousness or is your experience more like looking idly in the ‘frig for something you don’t really want or need? My desire for righteousness is neither urgent nor consistent. Whenever I go through a dry spell, I pray that the Spirit will create in me a hunger and thirst for Christ. It’s a risky prayer because God may decide I need to be held underwater in some way to get there, but it’s a prayer God always answers.
In the Christian faith there are numerous spiritual practices: prayer, meditating on scripture, study, daily devotions, worship, confession, service, fidelity, Sabbath observance, contemplation, silence and yes, celibacy, to name just a few. In fact whenever we submit as aspect of our lives to Christ’s will, we have begun a spiritual practice. In the SM Jesus names a few disciplines as examples to teach us how to observe all our practices. As well as prayer, he mentions the giving of alms or charity, forgiveness, fasting and simplicity. In his teaching there are two over-riding messages. First, outward form is useless if we don’t worship God. God isn’t fooled by or interested in empty pious acts. As the prophets continually reminded Israel, God doesn’t want our rituals, he wants our hearts. If our practices aren’t done out of love for God and our neighbour, they’re meaningless. Secondly, the practice of true piety is accompanied by sincere humility. Jesus wasn’t big on showing off. He condemns both those who announce their charitable donations with a trumpet blast as if they were royalty and those who, when fasting, put on long faces and ripped clothes. As with prayer, he suggests people practice their faith in secret. Such acts are private; they’re something personal between you and God. Jesus calls those who do self- adulating things while claiming they have spiritual purposes, “hypocrites” (Matthew 6:2). I’d define a hypocrite as someone who says one thing and does another. This is worse. To use a practice that belongs to God to elevate oneself could be seen as a form of blasphemy. It violates what’s holy. In short, how we practice is more important than the practices themselves. It’s not what we do, but how we do them that makes them spiritual. A life that’s pleasing to God isn’t a series of religious duties, but an intimate relationship with God. Faith centres on God and our spiritual practices give substance to our faith.
Jesus uses the examples of charity and fasting because these were common practices in Judaism. As with prayer, both of these are options open to us today. Charity is one we practice regularly – we bring our monthly donations of food and other items for the poor; we feed the hungry, the poor and the lonely on a regular basis and no doubt many of you give to other worthwhile causes. Fasting is a little more rare for us. Throughout scripture many people fasted at various times – Moses, Elijah, David, Esther, Daniel, Paul and Jesus to name a few. Fasting may be done weekly, monthly or annually as a regular part of our practice. As a student, I fasted every Monday. Each pang of hunger reminded me to refocus my heart and mind on Christ. We might also fast when we’re facing a difficult situation or have a serious decision to make. Fasting intensifies our prayers, particularly our openness to listen to the Spirit.
Of all the phrases in His Prayer, Jesus singles out the practice of forgiveness. Forgiveness doesn’t come naturally; it takes effort; it’s a deliberate decision. Recently I had an experience of forgiveness. I’d done something to a friend and she, rightly, took offense. I felt terrible. I took full responsibility, confessed and asked for her forgiveness. I was worried I’d destroyed our friendship. Later she sent me a text saying “all was well”. I wasn’t sure it was. A few days later she had good news and wrote with enthusiasm to share it. I knew then her forgiveness was genuine. Her grace was like a cleansing shower to my soul. God’s forgiveness is like an ever-flowing river and forgiveness should flow through us as well. It doesn’t and so we need to practice until we forgive readily, thoroughly and sincerely.
The other practice Jesus encourages is letting go of our earthly treasures. Not many of us carry all our possessions on our backs. Our treasure is displayed in our homes, cars, jewelry, art, clothing, stocks or collections. They give us status, power and respect. Jesus reminds us these items can be eaten, destroyed, stolen or fail. Earthly treasures give temporary prestige. What we do with our money and possessions are also a spiritual practice. They indicate what or who we place our trust in. They’re a sign of the condition of our hearts. To invest in God’s kingdom is to place our faith and our identity in something which will last for eternity. This comes more easily when we learn to live with less, to be grateful and satisfied with what we have, to give generously and to be detached from what we own so it doesn’t own us. This is the practice of simplicity.
All spiritual disciplines allow us to place ourselves into God’s transforming hands. Just as a farmer is unable to cause a plant to grow, our spiritual growth is a gift of God’s grace. Yet just as the farmer provides the conditions for nature to create new life, so we can foster the conditions in which God can create new life in us. Spiritual disciplines do that by creating space within us; we are emptied for God, to be free and open to his presence and available for his service. Spiritual practices bring the abundance of God into our living. They are intended for good. Christians today need a new commitment to our spiritual practices. Through them God changes us, gradually transforming us into people of righteousness. Then we shall be filled so that, in the midst of a spiritually parched world, we will be “like a watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.” (Isaiah 58: 11)