Sermon for March 7th, 2021.
I want to begin with a little exercise this morning. Humor me for a moment if you will. I want you to take a few moments, before I begin my sermon, and hold your breath. Now I know that many of you wait with bated breath as I ascend the pulpit every week to hear what I have to say, so this will be nothing new. I jest of course. Just hold your breath for 15 or 20 seconds and pay attention to what you are feeling inside, don’t pass out on me though, if you have to take a breath, take one.
Now, I am willing to bet that towards the end there you were beginning to feel a growing sense of urgency inside. Your lungs probably started to send a clear signal to your brain: “hey, we need air!” Even if you have the lungs of an Olympic swimmer and can hold your breath for a long time, eventually you will find the need to breath uncontrollable, literally irresistible. Your body needs air to survive, and if you try to deny it that air, eventually you are going to have a struggle or a fight. This is why lifeguards have to be very carefully when trying to help someone that is drowning. A drowning man or woman will push you under the water in a heartbeat and think nothing of it, they won’t even do it intentionally, that is how desperate they are to breathe. It is a part of our instinct for survival. A living body needs to breathe, and so long as there is life within the body, the desire to breathe is going to be an overwhelming, irresistible desire. Hold on to that thought.
This week I was redelivering and recording a historical sermon. I have discovered lately how much I really love reading sermons from the 18th and 19thcenturies. I’m sure that doesn’t really sound engaging our exciting to most people, but what can I say, I am a bit of a church nerd. You might wonder what an old Anglican divine living in the 1700s with a wig and a robe and starched preaching bands around the neck could possibly have to say to me today, well…quite a lot actually. William Jones of Nayland, this preacher whose sermons I was reading, may not have ever imagined something like the internet, or even electricity, but he understood faith and human nature. He understood what it was like to live in an age of immense political upheaval and unrest in the world (he was preaching in England as revolutions happened in America and in France). And he also understood what it was like to deal with corruption, incompetence and a lack of faith within the church. There were leaders in the church at that time that desperately wanted to make Christianity reasonable and acceptable to the wisdom of the age. They wanted to strip Christianity of its doctrines and its miracles and its sacraments and make it all about mankind improving itself. Their faith was not in the works of God, their faith was in the works of men. And in this sermon I was reading, William Jones, hurls a huge insult to the church leaders of his day. He says:
“’We preach Christ crucified,’ said the Apostle: too many of his successors, alas, might say, ‘we do not preach Christ crucified,’ we have more of the orator and of the philosopher than of the apostle, and have improved the obsolete Christian homily, into an essay upon virtue.”
Now that may not sound like much of a wicked insult, but trust me, it is a wicked insult. Jones is going after the successors to the Apostle Paul who think they are better or more enlightened than Paul. Now Jones acknowledges that the religious fanaticism of a previous generation led many to seek a “more reasonable” form of Christianity, but he points out this has sadly only led to less faith, not more. The culture has abandoned the practice of devotion, in favor of spectacles and theatre and amusement.
Do you still think people in the eighteenth century don’t have something to say to us? Do you still think they don’t have anything to say about the struggle to be faithful in a faithless generation? Oh they do. I might not say things exactly the way that Jones said them, but boy do I understand the feeling behind some of his words. At one point in his sermon Jones says: “If faith is alive in the heart, it will as certainly pray, as a living body will certainly breathe.”
If faith is alive in the heart it will as certainly pray as a living body will certainly breathe.
In other words, if faith truly is alive in your heart; if God really is the source of your life and existence; if you really are a person of faith, and if all of this religion stuff is about your connection to God and not just feeling good about doing nice things, then prayer will be like breathing to you. You won’t be able to resist praying any more than any living creature can resist breathing. It will be so important to your life that it won’t even be a choice. If faith is in your heart then prayer will be as sacred to you as breath, and the act of praying will be irresistible.
And if prayer is sacred, and vital to the life of faith, then the places where prayer is wont to be made are also sacred and vital to the life of faith. Why was Jesus angry with the money changers? Was it because they were breaking some arcane religious rule or law? Not really, they were there because the worshipers in the temple didn’t want to break the commandment about graven images; they didn’t want any pictures of the emperor on the money they used in the temple. But you know how humans are, we often will take one commandment and elevate it above the rest to the point where we ignore the others. Don’t get me wrong Jesus respected and obeyed the commandments, but is the real problem the money changer’s coins, or is it that they are turning a place where people make a sacred connection to God into a business? The temple is important to Jesus because it is a sacred place of prayer. It is supposed to be a house of prayer where people are changed by being reconnected to the life of their God, and instead what Jesus sees is a whole bunch a people that only care about change if it is in their pockets.
But, I hear some objecting, can’t we pray anywhere? Do we need these expensive crumbling buildings? Why can’t we just meet on zoom indefinitely? It would be a lot cheaper. Well if this year has taught us anything it is, yes, of course, we can pray anywhere. We can pray everywhere, and we should. Jesus did. Jesus prayed at the dinner table. He prayed on the side of the road. He prayed in the wilderness. He prayed on the mountain, and on the plain, and on the boat and on the shore. Jesus prayed liked he breathed, and STILL, he was mightily offended when he saw a place of prayer being treated profanely. Because prayer is sacred. If you are a person of faith then prayer is as important to your life as the air you breathe. And yes, if you are a person of faith, you will pray no matter where you are; the powers of this world can burn down and tear down and lock up temples all they want, and God will not be easily hindered, but that does not mean that we don’t do harm to ourselves by not recognizing and respecting NOT only the power of prayer, BUT ALSO, the power and importance of sacred spaces where prayer is made.
Jesus was God incarnate, in the flesh. The father dwelt in him more fully than anyplace else on earth, and still, and STILL, Jesus made a point to go to a sacred place to pray and to worship. Jesus was and is a living temple of divine life, but he still respected the temple that was made with human hands.
These buildings we have. They are a pain. They are a huge, huge pain. There are plenty of days when I would just rather go have church down by the river and be done with it, God is everywhere after all. But then I think about the fact that Jesus is present here in a special and unique way in the sacrament on the altar. I think about how many times the rafters have vibrated with the praise of organ and song. I think about the number of sermons that must have been preached from this pulpit, or how many times the scriptures have been read from that lectern. How many candles have been lit in this space by people with broken hearts, or worshippers desperately seeking God’s intervention in their life? How much has the incense seeped into the paint and the wood? You see it isn’t just your prayers that fill this place with life, it is the prayers of everyone that ever prayed here before you, and the prayers of everyone that will pray here after you. That is why these buildings are important. This is not just a business we are running. We are not here to maximize profits, we are here to connect people to the life of God, and to sing God’s praises while we do it.
I am reminded in scripture, in my study of old sermons and in my daily life, that there will always be people, both inside the church and outside it, that just don’t get what happens in here. There will always be people who look on faith as foolishness, and who see this as wasted space that could be put to better and more lucrative use. The world doesn’t understand, the impulse and the desire to pray, much less the importance of prayer in sacred spaces. It was that way in Jesus’s day; it was that way in Paul’s day; it was that way during the late 1700s with William Jones of Nayland; and it is that way in our own time. The powers of this world are never going to understand or fully accept what happens in here, and that is OK, as long as we do. Yes, there have been and will be times, like we have had this year, when it will be necessary to be outside of our sacred spaces, but it should never feel normal. Like holding your breath when you dive under water, refraining from public worship and prayer may be necessary for a short while, but it should never be comfortable. For a person of faith, it should be unbearably uncomfortable. For a person of deep faith, returning to public prayer and worship should feel like a diver returning to the surface of the water and taking that first breath.
Because, as William Jones so eloquently pointed out, if faith is truly alive in our hearts we will as certainly pray, as a living body will certainly breathe.