The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
Proper 20 Year B
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a, Mark 9:30-37
September 23, 2018
Draw Near to God
A few weeks ago, something surprised me during the Eucharistic Prayer. At the 10:45 service, we reached the portion where we share in the Lord’s Prayer, and we all started in at our normal pace.
Over time, every parish finds its pace, which is a dance between the priest and congregation. How fast do we say the prayers? How much silence do we leave between movements in the liturgy, like between the sermon and when we stand to say the Nicene Creed. We create a rhythm together.
On this particular Sunday, we all slid naturally into our flow, beginning, “Our Father, who art in heaven…” when I heard them: The two Flack boys, Patrick and Harrison. They were standing with their parents on the front row where they normally sit. I don’t know if they had just learned the Lord’s Prayer, but I heard them for the first time that Sunday, their voices sounding out loud enough for me to hear while standing at the altar.
I listened to them with one ear while also paying attention as we started the prayer together. And I noticed that the congregation was going at a different speed than the boys—much faster, in fact, than the boys seemed to be able to go.
In those few short lines, I felt compelled to see if I could slow the congregation down. It bothered me that the boys were struggling to keep up, and I was aware that no one else could have known this. Folks in the back couldn’t hear what was going on in the front pew.
So, I started drawing out my words…slowing myself down to see if I could match the twins’ pace. I wondered if the almost two hundred others in the nave would slow down as well. While, we weren’t able to slow down that Sunday, I have to tell you that I listen for them every Sunday now. I tune my ear to them to see the pace they are saying the prayer, and I try to align my pace with their pace.
In a community this large, it is a bit like bringing the Queen Mary into port, but it has been my own little, secret liturgical endeavor for the past few months. Now you’re in on it too!
Being aware of this has taught me a great deal not only about the liturgy but also about community life. About what we really mean by “common prayer.” It has made me aware—challenged me—on those Sundays when, honestly, a piece of me is tired after a long week and I just want to get through the service so I can sit down. I know that you have never felt that way… (heh heh).
The twins teach me about the importance of attentiveness, one of the central qualities of a contemplative posture that we discussed last Sunday when we launched the Bicentennial Campaign. How am I attentive to the pace of those around me, to where they are struggling, to how I struggle to remain present to them while also just wanting to move on and get to the next part of the liturgy.
How important it is for us to reflect on our common life this way!
We see a strong connection with such attentiveness in today’s assigned texts. In the reading from James, we hear this strong admonition that “your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” We see the caution against “bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts.” Such wise words for a community of faith.
The writer of the letter pushes quite hard, asking “Those conflicts and disputes that are at war within you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?”
And, here we recognize what we have talked about before, this urge we have to over-rely on our egoic tendencies to grasp, on this tendency we have to seek power and control, to assert our own agendas. We are called to be aware of our own motivations. Our cravings.
We don’t ask the right way, the letter says, because we are really only asking in order to achieve what we have already grasped onto, driven by our loaded agendas.
We have set the pace we will move, and we keep going at it, expecting everyone else to walk our way, at our pace and speed. In our rhythm. Keep up with us.
The antidote to this poison, we see, is to submit. This is not a popular notion in our American and Western world, but like it or not as Christians…well, there you go. To yield our grasping and control, to loosen our grasp and submit to God’s guidance, to the Spirit’s flow, to Christ’s pace and speed in our lives. To recognize when we are driven by selfish ambition, as we said last week in our Baptism liturgy, “when we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.” Draw near to God, and he will Draw near to you. Drawing near to God means aligning ourselves with God’s rhythm.
To ground ourselves in this conversion of life, this constant process of confession and reconciliation. To nurture and form a true spiritual community.
Notice how quickly the disciples themselves fall prey to this ego tendency to grasp, to live by their selfish ambition, and cravings.
Jesus does his best to invite them into a deeper awareness of the cost of discipleship. He opens his heart and shows them that, in God’s sense of accomplishment and achievement, self-denial, self-emptying, self-sacrifice are essential. Only through death can we experience the power of resurrection. These are the hallmarks of the rhythm of grace.
While he is offering them this heart-teaching, they are arguing with one another about who is the greatest among them.
I can almost feel Jesus sigh when I read this text.
The words written later in the Letter of James ring true: “Those conflicts and disputes that are at war within you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?”
Jesus tells them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Sit with that for a minute as we watch the news—and resist the urge you may feel to think “well, that is the real world and we have to function.” Is it really the real world? Again, Jesus tries to show us the cost of discipleship.
Jesus invites a child over and places the child in the midst of them, teaching them a deeper lesson on what it looks like to follow God’s rhythm: “whoever welcomes one such as this welcomes me.”
This is what it looks like to align ourselves with the flow of God’s love in Christ: to ground ourselves in this posture of receptiveness, of attentiveness, resisting our urge to grasp, to seek selfish ambition. As James describes, to center ourselves “in gentleness born of wisdom.”
It seems that our lives are saturated with seeing life as a race, a competitive race between all of us, with a zero-sum mentality. There is just only so much of “whatever is valued at the time,” so I have to compete with you in order to grasp on to mine. My own ambition, my own selfishness. I have to race to get ahead of you so that I can be assured of my own success. This is the race of our lives, it seems.
I can almost hear Jesus sigh.
I haven’t been a priest that long it seems, but I have been one long enough to learn that, if we hold to the image of a race, what the Gospel shows us is that “winning” that race means that we commit to running at the speed at which the slowest person can possibly run. We empty ourselves of this impulse to grasp in a zero-sum mentality, and we ground ourselves in a self-emptying posture, open to the indwelling presence of the Spirit of Christ, who shows us in his own life what the cost of love really is.
In a spiritual community, we commit to slowing ourselves down to match the rhythm of the children who are learning the prayers that will shape them for the rest of their lives.
We ask ourselves a pointed question: what are we hoping to accomplish, saying the prayers or praying together as a community? The difference in those two postures makes all the difference in our discipleship.
I think of our common prayer and work in this community, with the start of this Bicentennial Campaign. I think of all the details that the committees will explore: the Steering Committee, the Campus Vision & Development Committee, the Finance Committee, and the Vestry. I think of how we all are called to share in this dream, bringing our own gifts and strengths to share.
And I know that there will be details with the building, with the campus, when folks will have different opinions, different desires. Colors. Patterns. Designs. Endless opportunities for disagreement! And, endless opportunities for deeper community, for shared prayer, for this experience of just what is possible when we anchor ourselves in a prayerful stance.
Put another way, this campus will be as beautiful as the collaboration of the people who come together and participate in its development. All that we “accomplish” in terms of construction, development, and so on, are an expression of our shared prayer and practice. Perhaps this is a principle of spiritual community at the end of the day that we can focus on. Draw near to God, open your heart to the depths of common prayer.
So, in the end, my heart returns to the children, or to those who are new to the community, those who are searching, those who are wondering, to the way we are called to listen to them and learn from one another—literally and figuratively. My attention is focused on our rhythm, on the pace of our common life. The way we are willing to listen to one another, to hold one another accountable in the formation of a spiritual community.
The way we are willing to make the implicit (our practice of prayer) explicit, seeking to align our rhythm with God’s.
May it be so.