The readings we heard today were, for all practical purposes, selected for us in 1969. That is when the first three-year lectionary was crafted, the schedule of readings on which all subsequent versions in Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant churches are based. I think anyone who has been an Episcopalian for awhile probably has at least one story to tell about a reading from the lectionary, taken right out of the book, chosen ages ago, that perfectly addressed some current situation. It was fun a couple weeks ago at the 1662 Evensong to see the reactions of some of our guest choral group, ecco, as they experienced this phenomenon for the first time.
Our readings, so often, are directly on point, and often in ways we wouldn’t have invented. So if you actively practice your faith in a church like ours, one of the spiritual skills you end up building is attentiveness to what God is doing in the texts that are given – the lessons, the hymns, the bits of a prayer you’ve heard a hundred times but that light up today for some reason. This is not a skill that is common in our current culture, but it is one that it’s important to develop in order to be active, conscious participants in a liturgical church.
People at Emmanuel often remark to me that I sing along with many hymns without using a hymnal. Now in part that’s just because I’ve been repeating these texts since I was in college. I mean, 2000 Sundays, which is about what it’s been, is a lot of repetition. But it’s more because by now there are so many hymns that God has lit up for me in connection with particular moments that certain phrases have become unforgettable. And the same is true of the Prayer Book and the Bible; that’s just how it works to live in this spiritual system. You develop a catalog of memories of times when God used a given text to address your context, times when by his grace you and your opinions were redefined by the larger and more challenging world God opens up to us. These sacred texts are a voice from beyond the echo chamber, which is something I at least have deeply needed for the past few weeks.
Eventually, as you get used to what that voice sounds like to you, and as you experience it working over and over, you begin to understand something of what Christians mean when we talk about Scripture having authority. The words begin to gain for you personally, internally, the authority Episcopalians say we believe they have in our classic phrase “I believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be the Word of God and to contain all things necessary to salvation.” Maybe you don’t believe that yet, or maybe you aren’t sure enough what it means to decide if you believe it. That’s fine, of course; this is the Episcopal Church; although we’re here in order to help you grow in Christ, we don’t check your opinions before inviting you in the door. But we proclaim what we proclaim out of centuries of experience; it’s not just verbiage. When the church says about Scripture that it is the Word of God and contains all things necessary to salvation, we’re describing something real.
It’s real, but it’s certainly not simple, and our liturgy deliberately doesn’t simplify it, either. We do not present only a verse or two and then take 30 or 40 minutes teaching specifically about that statement; we open up these books and offer big chunks of them on their own. We read far, far more Scripture at Mass than there’s time to explain -- and that means we leave a lot of it wide-open and free to speak as it will. People sometimes get spooked by some of the trappings of liturgical churches, the vestments, the titles, and think that our clergy must have a lot of power; the power that frightens me more would be choosing what Bible passages people get to hear and telling them what to think. It is a delight to me when, as happened last week, someone comes and tells me that something that had nothing whatsoever to do with my sermon or anything I said or did was the most meaningful thing in the service to them. When someone says that, I know that God was at work.
In the February course on Praying the Collects, along with videos, we’re using quotations from two recent books about this particularly Anglican way of expecting God to act as he sees fit in the readings and prayers and actions of our liturgy. This expectation is part and parcel of the system the Prayer Book gives us, and these two books approach it in different ways. They’re both by laypeople, one an IT professional and one an editor: Inwardly Digest: The Prayer Book as Guide to a Spiritual Life by Derek Olsen, and Beyond Smells and Bells by Mark Galli. The cover of Derek Olsen’s book, Inwardly Digest, shows a battered, well-used Book of Common Prayer served up on a dinner plate as if to be consumed. And I can’t recommend Inwardly Digest enough as a field manual for Christian life in the Anglican mode. There’s nothing quite so good available if you want to get equipped to benefit from the Prayer Book system of spiritual formation. Which, as they say in the 12 step programs, works if you work it.
Our first lesson today from Deuteronomy points out that we have to choose life. It doesn’t just happen. Getting aligned with God is, ultimately, life. Heading further out of alignment is, ultimately, death. We all would say that of course life is better, and that we desire life, but our actual behavior shows that we usually want to have it both ways. A little growth here, a little decay there. A little compassion here, a little snark there. Which is why we have to choose life, over and over, and accept all the help we can get at acting on our choice. That’s what Inwardly Digest is designed to be: help in an Episcopal mode at choosing life.
Derek Olsen begins the book by talking about his spouse, who is a marathoner and a running coach. He writes, My wife tends to get annoyed when I just go out there and run. “But what are you trying to accomplish?” she will ask me. “I dunno,” I respond…. She is trying to remind me that… if I am running with the idea that it is part of a whole life plan to stay fit and healthy, this sort of aimless occasional activity really isn’t moving me toward my goal. If you want to enjoy the kind of life that comes with being physically healthy, you have to choose each small part of the routine that will move you in that direction. If you want to enjoy the kind of life that comes with being spiritually healthy, life in God, you have to choose each small part of the routine that will move you in that direction. Olsen clarifies, The training has to be tailored to the goal. …It takes the same kind of discipline and consistency to progress in the spiritual life as it does in physical fitness.
We are in a time now where many people are stressed and rushed and driven to multitask, and if you have already been investing in the kind of quiet, ordinary discipline and consistency he is talking about, if you have been slowly engaging in choosing life at the ground level, both when you do and when you don’t feel like it, you are at a real advantage these days.
Although I suppose God can do anything in the twinkling of an eye, if you’ve slowly been building skills at how to pay open attention to the readings at Mass, you’re at an advantage in coping when you need out of the echo chamber. If you’ve slowly been learning how to check out of the spinning of your own thoughts for probably first 3 minutes of contemplative prayer, and then 10 minutes, and then half an hour, you’re at an advantage in finding a still point when your emotions are overwhelming. If you’ve slowly been practicing how to discern the presence of Christ in others, you’re at an advantage in not being at the mercy of reactivity when the person on the TV is making you want to scream.
Why would you have been practicing all that? Because those are the tools of choosing life day to day. It boils down to the same question Derek Olsen’s wife asks him when he randomly feels like putting running shoes on for no particular reason: What are you trying to accomplish? When you put yourself in the presence of God’s word in Scripture, as all of you have this morning, why did you do that? You could have done it for no particular reason, or you could have done it because you’re trying to decide if you are ready to invest in church, or you could have done it as part of your training routine, one of the tools by which you day by day choose life. It just depends: what are you trying to accomplish?