Centering on Christ

labyrinth2A sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 9, 2020. The scripture readings are Isaiah 58:1-12], Psalm 112:1-9, (10), 1 Corinthians 2:1-16, and Matthew 5:13-20.

Listen to the sermon HERE

This morning’s first scripture reading is from the Prophet Isaiah.  At first hearing, it can sound like a rousing encouragement to join in the noise of the day, to jump into the argument, launch a new Twitter account, and let loose—all in the name of God.  Using the images from today’s scriptures, we might be tempted to throw salt into the eyes of the evil ones, and then blind them with the light of truth!

“Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to [everyone, everywhere] their sins. Yet day after day they seek me . . .  as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God …”  Those are preaching words. Prophetic words.  Words that easily find their target in our day.

It’s tempting to yell and scream and raise our voices to match the volume of those yelling around us.  And the temptations are going to grow stronger in this year of a presidential election (though I’m not sure there has been much break in the angry volume of words in the last three years.) And so, as people of faith, what do we do? Do we join the fight, Bibles in hand?  Do we go to the other extreme and check out completely?  The Biblical vision is one that integrates—justice with mercy, freedom with responsibility.

Isaiah’s encouragement is as much for looking inward as it is for looking outward.  He’s reminding people that if they claim to follow God, that faithfulness needs to be evident in the nitty-gritty, the everyday, the right-here, and right-now of life. Religious practice is done to show off and be seen, but it’s hollow on the inside.  In words that we will do well to remember when the Season of Lent begins in a few weeks, Isaiah reminds us that we’re all called to practice fasting—but not to show off our religious practice; not as a means of self-improvement, but the fast God desires is one of humility, humility in action.

To lower oneself so that one can see those who have been thrown down—and then to work with them to alleviate injustice, to free the imprisoned, to feed the hungry, and house the homeless.

Isaiah says that if we try to live like God’s people, then light will break forth like the dawn and healing will take place all around.  Isaiah is trying to get people to understand the mind of God, the Spirit of God, which God has planted in each one of us.

In the second scripture reading, St. Paul describes this Spirit of God—the Spirit being that part of God’s movement and energy in the world that appears when words fail.  And he says that if begin to forget what God is like, we simply have to look to Jesus, to seek the “mind of Christ.”

In that Jesus Christ was fully God and fully human, his mind was filled with God and the things of God. And so, to be like Jesus Christ is to set our mind on the things he values and teaches and lives out.  To be like Jesus is to allow our mind to be filled with God and God’s Spirit.

Filled with the Spirit, we discover a funny thing: all of a sudden, we are acting and thinking and living like the people Jesus has described in the Gospel. With the Spirit of God pouring through us, we shine like light for others—not in a self-conscious or self-aggrandizing way, but in a way that comes from God. And we become salty, as well—not in a way that overpowers or offends, but in a way that is distinctive and delights.

If you cook at all, you know that too much salt overwhelms a food and so you taste nothing but the salt. But just enough, and the salt encourages other flavors, and the whole dish is made better.

It’s that way in the world, as well. Empowered by the Spirit of God, we add our own Christian perspective and find that it adds to, rather than obliterates; it promotes rather than dominates.  Salt is strong enough to stand on its own, and that’s just the way our faith ought to be.

If we are centered on the Spirit, allow God to make us light and salt, then that second part of the Gospel really sort of takes care of itself.  The second part talks about the commandments of God remaining firm, and how, if we should break a commandment or teach others to do so we will be “least in the kingdom of God.” If we keep the commandments and teach others to do so, the Gospel says, we will be “great in the kingdom of God.”  All of this takes care of itself. Enlivened by the Spirit of God, we realize it when we fall, or fail, or break a commandment. And so we say we’re sorry. We might go to confession. We stop and re-evaluate and pray for the grace to carry on. Keeping the commandments is not the focus of our faith, but it becomes a natural by-product of living faithfully.

And so, how do we get this mind of Christ? How do we get the Spirit of God?

It begins at baptism.  There and then, the Holy Spirit is given to us. But we spend our lives living into the Spirit of God, through the process the church sometimes calls sanctification—a way of being made holy.

Another way of allowing the Spirit room in our lives is through prayer.

Some of you are familiar with the type of prayer known as Centering Prayer.  There are other forms very similar—Christian meditation, Buddhist and non-religious meditation, and others.  Centering Prayer works very simply.  One sits still in a chair or on a prayer stool or a mat, and one simply opens oneself to the Origin of all that exists. When a thought shows up, simply let it pass on through. Just return to the silence, the space, the place where you are inviting God to be. Sometimes a “centering word” is helpful.  It’s a little different from a mantra, which would be repeated over and over.  In Centering Prayer, the silence is welcome and the “centering word” is simply used to bring one back to center.

It can be anything like “grace,” or “blessing,” or Jesus’ word for God, “abba” or perhaps “amma.” The word isn’t the focus, it just reminds you to come back to center and simply “be.”

Centering prayer usually happens for about 20 minutes or more. It takes practice.  It’s counter-cultural because in such prayer, we’re not struggling to keep up with emails, with news, with tasks, with people, with expectations, with hopes. We’re not improving or producing or creating.  We’ve not even paying attention to our own faith, or beliefs, or prayers. It’s a time for being quiet, for practicing the quiet. As Cynthia Bourgeault describes it,

What goes on in those silent depths during the time of Centering Prayer is no one’s business, not even your own; it is between your innermost being and God; that place where, as St. Augustine once said, ‘God is closer to your soul than you are yourself.’ (Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, p. 6)

Whether it’s Centering Prayer, meditation, a good cup of tea and quiet few minutes, or a particular walk in the park—I encourage you to find something that centers you, that calls you again to the Spirit of God within you.  Each us is called to be salty, bright, freed and forgiven people, living in the Spirit of God and sharing God’s love with any who will have it.

Especially when we get caught up in the news of the day or simply get overwhelmed with our own lives, we can pause and seek the mind of Christ.  We can slow down, breathe, notice, and give thanks for the integrating, healing, renewing, and loving Spirit within us.   And then, we allow God to use us to change the world.  In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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