I wonder where you’re at this morning. Calm, serene, joyful, chilled, tired, anxious, stressy. We’ll all be in different places, different spaces.
The focus of my sermon today is trying to help us think about being more contemplative in our lives – I’ll unpack later what I mean by that – but to start, take a deep breath – maybe two and relax. Be present to this time and this moment.
Whether you’re facing trails and tribulations or joys and laughter – we’re all here together in this place, in God’s presence. Let’s be open to God and one another.
Let’s give a little context to today’s readings:
When Paul was writing the letter to the Ephesians that we heard a section of today, he was in prison for preaching the gospel. When Jesus spoke the words of today’s gospel to the disciples – bot the twelve and the wider group – he was not far from his trial and crucifixion.
Neither Paul nor Jesus were writing easy platitudes from easy situations. They were in the thick of it – in situations where their lives were in peril, where they were in difficult circumstances – circumstances that would have required resilience, endurance and a lot of guts.
It’s easy to speak powerful words from positions of ease, but for Paul to write “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power”, from prison – rather than a fancy hotel room, or a lovely retreat centre – is quite another thing.
But there’s a danger that we think that Jesus and Paul were types of super heroes and that it’s not possible for us to reach their levels of confidence and inner strength. They were special. We are just ordinary.
And you know what, at some levels that’s right. They were special and most of us would react very differently to these kinds of situations.
However, every week, I hear stories from this congregation of people who are facing serious trials and tribulations and who work through them in quite heroic ways.
The pattern is not always the same. People deal with their situations in very different ways.
Sometimes people find a way through because they are stoical – the type of person who grits their teeth and just gets on with it.
Sometimes they manage because they are philosophical and thoughtful – able to analyse what they’re feeling and make some sense of it.
Sometimes they get by because they are joyful – able to see brighter sides when most of us would not.
Sometimes they overcome because they are full of determination – failure is not in their vocabulary.
Sometimes they get through because they are trusting – despite what’s going on they trust God and leave the problems at his feet.
I could go on. There are dozens and dozens of ways in which we cope with what life throws at us – many of our responses are to do with our personalities and our life experience.
And much of the way we react is good and commendable – often shaped by our Christian faith and our commitment to God.
But over the last few years I have been more and more challenged about the balance of the way we live our lives.
The balance between activism and contemplation.
I feel like I am only at the beginning of my thinking about this and so today’s sermon is essentially a sketch for things I’d like us to think more about as a church.
And straight up, I want to say, this is NOT my area of expertise. But I have been working on it for over 15 years.
Naturally, I’m a talkative, active, extrovert – who loves stimulus, fun, interesting things and struggles with deep quiet. I can be quiet for 30 minutes (which I couldn’t do 10 years ago very well), but I need a lot of help to get there.
But my central realisation is this – if we want to grow in depth in our Christian life and show characteristics like peace, grace, love, compassion – it’s not just a question of acting like this – there’s a need for us to strengthen our contemplative muscles – so that we can abide in Christ and cope better with all that life throws at us.
We need to learn what it means to be a Christian.
Being a Christian.
Do just doing the stuff of a Christian.
But my central thesis is this (and it’s not original to me – it’s a theme of dozens of writers and Christian thinkers throughout Christian history as well as contemporary theologians), but my central thesis, idea is this:
These qualities that we want to display in our lives – truth, righteousness, peace, faith, the themes of today’s passage from Ephesians, if we want to experience ‘abiding in Christ’ as the Gospel states in today’s reading, we must seriously stop and up our game in terms of contemplation.
What is contemplation?
Now this is a tough question and I wish I hadn’t asked it.
Because it’s a bit like asking, what is a kiss. We can talk about the physical act of kiss, but it’s hard to convey the sensation. And it’s hard to explain the difference between a peck on the check, a kiss on a baby’s head, the kiss between two friends and the kiss between two lovers. But we all understand that there’s kissing… and then there’s kissing.
Some kissing is perfunctory and other kissing is like a ballet.
And contemplation is a bit like that. It’s hard to describe. It may take a bit of time before we’ve got there.
Because contemplation is
- more than being still.
- more than being quiet.
- more than a minute or two’s silence.
It’s trying to settle ourselves quietly in the presence of God – to commune with God’s spirit at a deep and transformative level.
But that takes time, commitment, practise.
And it’s not necessarily exciting.
But it is absolutely essential.
It’s trying to settle ourselves quietly in the presence of God – to commune with God’s spirit at a deep – and transformative level.
We begin to walk down the path towards contemplation when we gaze at the beauty of the stars, when we become quiet and reflective in an art gallery, when we are moved to wonder by a stunning piece of music, when we are caught up in worship, when we receive holy communion.
But my fear that today’s society – with its crazy working patterns, mad social media distractions, speed and pace is absolutely DRAINING our ability to contemplate and our societies ability to contemplate – basically even just to stay still for more than 5 minutes is at an all time low.
And when I say still, I don’t mean, slumped in front of the TV, I mean still, present, alive and open to God’s transforming presence.
We’re racing ahead and we feel frazzled and frayed.
That’s the bad news.
But the good news is that what I think is at an all time high, is an awareness that we need more stillness in our lives. We need to find activities that are mindful, meditative, grounding. Activities like Pilates, running, sewing, cooking, gardening, mindfulness, adult colouring books. More and more we see the value in the calming activities that help restore our sense of well-being.
And I think that is very important.
But contemplation – as the Christian Mystics talk about it, is a deep connection with God. That energises our inner being – so that we are more attune to God’s love, peace and grace – which in turn energises our actions.
We need to slow down – for sure!
But as Christians we need to take the next step of spending more time in deep contemplation.
Trying to settle ourselves quietly in the presence of God – to commune with God’s spirit at a deep – and transformative level.
We have to do this beyond what happens on Sunday morning. Beyond a hurried prayer as we rush into the day.
We need to set aside times to regularly (let’s say 3 times a week), sit, without distraction and be conscious of God’s presence.
During September and October I’m going to try to up my commitment to contemplation – and write about it in weekly emails to you.
I’m a novice, a beginner.
I’m a talkative, extroverted, activist.
I’m not naturally contemplative.
My bumpy journey will be honest and maybe helpful.
But let’s start together.
In September and October let’s try for 5 minutes of absolute, undistracted, relaxed silence three times a week.
May God give us the grace to do this. To be this. Amen.
These are the sermon notes from Sheridan’s sermon on 26 August 2018. It’s a theme she’s planning to return to… hope you find the notes helpful.