Speaker: The Rev'd Geoffrey M. St J. Hoare
Jesus said: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.” In a few minutes, Jim/Emily will call us to the observance of a holy Lent by renewing our spiritual practices of self-examination and repentance; prayer, fasting and almsgiving; reading and meditating on Scripture.
In the early 1980s an Episcopal order of monks called the Society of St. John the Evangelist opened a satellite house in Durham, North Carolina from their Boston monastery. One of them, Paul Wessinger consented to serve as my spiritual director. One day he gave me a life-changing gift. I was whining about how boring I was finding my prayer times. He listened for a while and then said, “Geoffrey, you are looking for the effects of your prayer in your prayer time. You need to look for the effects of your prayer in your life.” His diagnosis was completely correct. I was praying mostly in hopes of some kind of powerful or intimate experience of God. But of course, such experiences are by definition gifts of grace. They cannot be conjured or manipulated. Certainly, we can hope for them and recognize how wonderful they are when they are granted, but they are not the point or goal of our prayer or indeed any of our spiritual practices.
In weeks and months to come we will talk of the core practices of Christian community. These include daily acts of service by which we develop the heart of a servant, --one who knows the truth that in service we are freed; the practice generosity, an antidote to anxiety as we learn anew that it is in giving that we receive; and pre-eminently worship by which we are turned to that which is of ultimate worth (--worth-ship--) as we tell and enact the story of what really matters around the table. In and through the regular practice of joining in worship we will find ourselves living with more resilience, more lovingly, more courageously, more generously, more hopefully than we imagined possible. We will learn over time that it is in dying that we know and receive abundant life.
In our worship this day, a solemn fast in our tradition, we focus on that part of the story that addresses our own sinfulness, which at root means addressing our own mortality. This is not so much about an accounting of our moral wrongdoings, --although that is not a bad thing—but much more about how much we have come to accept things in ourselves or in the world, actions, states of being that are soul destroying and deathly rather than life-giving for us and for all whom God hath made. Today we recall how the renewing of our practices has been the response of the faithful to sin down the centuries. Those who desire the imposition of ashes will come forward for a strong and visceral reminder of our mortality, a reminder of the consequence of all that is deathly in life, a reminder that we are not the Immortal One. We will beg forgiveness in litany and psalmody and then, once again, as the forgiven community, the first fruits of God’s new creation, we will stand being raised to the new life of grace, just as we were at our baptisms and just as we are each time we make a general confession. In this community of the forgiven we remember the presence of God in our midst marked by the peace which passeth understanding. We remember the old, old story once more and then return to the altar rail, this time for sustenance, --life-giving bread for the journey. This time we do not come to be reminded of our mortality, but to be reminded of the grace that makes for all life; to remember the truth that all life is a gift of the Love that made us for Love.
In weeks to come we will begin our worship with contrition and confession, not in order to be gloomy or to feel bad, but rather in order to remember that all that we are and all that we have, --life itself—is dependent on grace, a profound gift of Love.
What effect of our practice, done not to be seen by others but as part of our response to that grace we celebrate, --what effect of our practice might we know in days and weeks and years to come. That is for us to discover rather than predict but I expect that in many and varied ways we will find ourselves slowly becoming more the people we were created to be.
Max Beerbohm told a story of the happy hypocrite. It involved a low-life ruffian deciding to woo a saintly young woman. In order to do so he started to wear the mask of a saint. She fell in love with him and they married. Some years later his friends from the old days came across him and decided to unmask him and show him to be the fraud that they knew. However, when they tore off his mask they discovered that his face had conformed itself into that of a saint.
We might or might not be granted powerful experiences along the way, but we will usually recognize grace with hindsight, perceiving how we have grown as the effect of our spiritual practice, part of our response to the gospel.
I offer this in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.