Sunday, 25 August 2013

Spirituality in the thick of it

What does it mean to be spiritual?  This is a question that pops up from time to time and the previous Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, was speaking about this at the Edinburgh International Book Festival the other week.  He was in conversation with Rabbi Julia Neuberger and talked about how the word spiritual tends to be misused in two ways.  Firstly it is a kind of relaxation therapy, where anything of any bite is removed and it becomes a cosy comfort blanket to make us feel better.  Well it can provide consolation, a sense of security and purpose, but it is no mere child’s comforter.  The other way it can be misused reacts to the first view, standing for something that is unworldly and useless.  Both of our readings this morning challenged a cosy detached view of what it means to be spiritual.

Isaiah begins with a cry for help and the removal of the yoke that oppresses (Isaiah 58:9-14).  Pointing fingers and speaking evil are put away, the hungry are fed and the needs of the afflicted satisfied.  It is only then that the Sabbath is mentioned, that we are entreated not to trample on it or pursue our own interests in it.  There is no place for self-indulgence, no place to retreat from life.

In the gospel reading a woman troubled with a physical ailment for 18 years is healed by Jesus (Luke 13:10-17).  The leader of the synagogue points out irritatedly that there are six days for these matters; the most positive interpretation is a reminder that he needs a break to remember the Sabbath and have space for prayer and renewal.  Well this cathedral is a busy place and people come here constantly.  It can be hard to carve out space for prayer.  Jesus needed to withdraw at times to find time to pray and a bank holiday weekend is a reminder that everyone needs time for R&R.  Rest and filling up the spiritual tank matters because it ensures we have the energy – spiritual and physical – to cope with the demands that press on us.  So I have a certain amount of sympathy with the synagogue leader’s comment.  There are times when people come with their needs at 7.30 in the morning and a voice inside me cries out: ‘give me a break, let me wake up first, can we not just say our prayers first’.  Because Jesus took himself off at times, he would understand that, and because of the manner of the synagogue leader’s words it is clear that he has something else is in his sights than ‘sometimes we need a break’.

The challenge which Jesus gives to the synagogue leader is to remember what spirituality is about.  When we find time and space to pray we pray about life and call on the living God to join up the dots between the faith that inspires us and the life we live.  Like Isaiah, we call upon the Lord, and long for him to say ‘Here I am’.  Prayer is not a cry of ‘stop the world because I want to get off’ even if that is actually your prayer, and it’s certainly mine at times.  That prayer is a shout of how much life can hurt, how difficult it can be, but the call is for God to hold us through it.

Whatever the difficulties that we face, and they can be crippling - be they emotional, physical threats or difficulties, financial pressures we can’t cope with - joining up the dots between faith and life, between God and living, reminds us that God shines light into darkness and there is no darkness that will ultimately have the final word because Christ has conquered even death.  The spiritual is the hope that shapes us and drives us.  It is the way we are held in the most difficult moments of our lives because we know that the world is God’s and this Eucharist is our frequent reminder of that.  This is the Christian faith at its most real.  As we break bread and share wine we proclaim Christ’s victory over death and renew our confidence in his ultimate hold on all things, in his salvation.

When we make space to be still before God, and we need to do this, it is in this stillness that we can enter more deeply into whatever situation is troubling us.  We can allow the noise to be stilled and thereby hear the angels singing behind.  It’s the Christmas carol, ‘Oh hush your noise, ye men of strife and hear the angels sing’.  It doesn’t mean forget about it, ignore it, or pretend it’s not there for a moment, it means quieten it and yourself with it.  This is spirituality in the thick of it, not escaping from it.  The wonderful places of spiritual renewal today are often places that were once at the centre of the hustle and bustle.  Lindisfarne on the North East coast, which today seems a tranquil island off-shore, is on the coast because boat was the safest way to travel.  It is close to the once royal palace of Bamburgh, so by no means away from the centre of power and struggle. It is a holy place because it was where the struggle took place and next to it.  The same goes for Old Sarum in Salisbury, the monastery next to the royal court.  The same goes today for St John’s Church in the city centre here and this cathedral.  We are in the thick of it and spirituality here has to be a faith that engages with life and the struggles and pressures of today.  We are often the place where people call out of hours because nowhere else is open, so some of those pressures come literally to our doors.  Jesus healing the woman reminds us that this struggle is always with us and when we pray we bring it with us into our prayers and should not shut it out.

The synagogue leader probably knew all of this.  He did after all say that there were six days for healing.  His reply is more of a curt response to being upstaged.  Jesus had started to disrupt things with his actions and those of us who have the control of liturgy and manage services don’t really like the spontaneous because who knows where it will lead!  We have to hold the finely tuned, precarious balances of the different tastes and interests and can do without these being disturbed thank you very much!  Jesus is always hard on those of us who lead because he knows that we can very easily lose the plot if we are not careful and remain focused on what really matters.  He calls the leader of the synagogue a hypocrite.  The Kingdom of God doesn’t respect neat boundaries of liturgy and custom.  If ever we are tempted to try to make worship a protected space, free from the pressures and the challenges of life, the Kingdom of God will batter its way through and flatten us if we get in the way.

As we struggle with fracking and environmental challenges, we should not be surprised if these enter our prayers.  The more I hear about fracking the more questionable I find it.  Without some major development in the green generation of power we are going to have to cut down our consumption or watch the fens flood as global warming raises the sea levels.  This is not a part of the country that can be unconcerned about that.  After all we don’t have any hills to head for.  The more we hear about chemical weapons in Syria and the disturbing images of the atrocious attacks on children, difficult questions about the politics of an unstable region must come before us.  We can’t pray for peace and not wonder about justice.

So Jesus, in healing the woman on the Sabbath and responding to the leader’s concern, challenges us with how we understand the spiritual.  It takes us more deeply into the thick of things.  Even when we find still spaces, to hush the noise and hear the angels sing, the unresolved breaks in with the cry for the yoke of oppression to be removed.  The spiritual is not cosy and it’s not useless either.  It is the place where we allow God’s call to meet our lives and change us so that we can embrace his kingdom of justice and peace.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Cathedral, Sunday 25th August 2013

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