07.16.2017 Preaching Text: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” (Romans 8:2)
I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that you are self-involved. How do I know this? Because we all are. And that’s because we’re human.
Every year I offer the same example of sitting in this sanctuary for three hours on Good Friday, from noon to three, the time tradition has it Jesus hung on the cross.
And though every year is different, it’s also in important ways the same. Meaning that each year I experience the same transformation as the year before, though admittedly in differing ways.
The first 15 or 20 minutes of silent prayer end up as anything but edifying. Because it’s Holy Week and because it’s a busy time of preparation for Easter Sunday, my mind is always full of anxious striving.
It flits from one thing to the next. Whenever I try to focus I drift off into another unrelated obsession. I can’t sit still. Worse still, I’m unable to focus on God. In short, I’m too self-involved.
But then, like clockwork, I eventually settle into an entirely different frame of mind. Suddenly God’s Spirit seems present to me. My restlessness and anxiety disappears and is replaced by an unexpected calm. My thinking becomes clear and focused. I see with a new light, with a new set of eyes.
This feeling of centeredness has the effect of placing things in their proper context. Rather than being dragged to and fro by the immediacy of everyday demands and problems, of being vulnerable to every distraction or inducement, I experience life from the inside. I see beyond and through the surface-y externalities. I am able to calmly assess the world from a place devoid of anxiety and compulsion.
It was Blaise Pascal, the French philosopher, who once said that “all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Failing this, we are indeed vulnerable to everything and everyone we encounter during our day, pulled and prodded this way and that.
There’s a marvelous phrase in the English language that advises us to “hold our peace.” I love this. Not that the phrase was intended necessarily to speak to the things of the Spirit, but I think of it that way.
Not only should we cultivate a godly sense of inward calm and peace, in other words, but we should hold on to it steadfastly, not giving it away as we so often and easily do. We should carry this peace with us as we go about our day, and not falling prey to life’s ever-present distractions.
For the world has a way of pulling us into its orbit. We almost can’t help ourselves. Everywhere we turn there is one insistent voice after another demanding our attention, if not our allegiance.
Take the media, to cite one obvious example. How often is our perspective defined by what we see or hear from mass media?
A couple of months ago I saw a Boston television station flash a color-coded map showing the areas where there was the “greatest risk” for rain. The Cape’s color was an ominous red, signifying that we were in the greatest danger! Then again, I like rain. Besides, it’s a good thing for us and the earth!
In the grand scheme of things, this is a fairly innocuous example of how our moods and perceptions can be altered by outside forces. The antidote, as I say, is to secure that sacred center which allows us to experience and interpret life with spiritual insight and calm.
In Paul’s 8th chapter of Romans, apprehending and nurturing this sacred center is seen as key. He is saying, among other things, that there’s a difference between the mundane way in which the world interprets life and the way God does. When we’re able to find that quiet place beneath all of life’s clutter, a whole new way of viewing reality results.
As it relates to the Law, Paul is saying that if we approach life from a worldly, purely legalistic frame of reference, we miss the point. For not only can’t we ever fully satisfy the demands of the law, but we are forever doomed to a defeatist attitude as a result of our repeated, inevitable failures.
But if we allow God’s Spirit to enter in, to dwell within, to create a place of quiet and calm within, we will interpret life altogether differently from those around us.
As I’ve said before, Linda and I love going to St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, MA, a Trappist monastery just west of Worcester. We like to sit in the visitor’s chapel in the church and take in the deafening quiet of the place. And if you get there at the right time, you can witness the brief daily services they celebrate interspersed throughout the day. Along with scripture readings they chant their faith.
Every time I go there I invariably drive down the hill from the church at half the speed as I drove up it. Likewise, I always dread reaching the main road as we’re leaving. There the traffic rushes past, headed for God knows where, yet hell-bent on getting there as fast as possible.
I truly feel a kind of revulsion at having to re-enter the rat race, knowing that soon the quiet and calm, as well as the spiritual peace inside of me will soon dissipate and, in time, fade into memory.
Sitting in that dark candle-lit stone church, just as on Good Fridays here in this sanctuary, there is a clarity of thought that emerges out of the silence that can only be attributed to the Holy Spirit.
And within the guiding light of that same Spirit is found God’s truth, God’s love, God’s plan for life. There comes with this the blessed assurance that all is well and that God is in charge of life, beneath, that is, the swirling events and clamorous distractions of everyday life.
In this state one is far better able to experience God’s “prevenient grace.” In this theological theory, God has already acted in our lives, prior to any awareness on our part. Our task is to perceive, to discern, where God has already acted. Here we are free to choose in each moment the direction God has already set out for our lives.
In the centered calm of God’s silence, we open ourselves up to the true “law” of God, the “law of the Spirt,” of that which God truly desires of us. This replaces the old, stiff, and rote obedience to worldly logic (or as Paul puts it, “the law of sin and death”) and frees us to receive and act upon God’s life-giving, ever-present Spirit.
And there is no earthly law that can contain that. Amen.