The stretching of spiritual ligaments: A Sermon

The stretching of spiritual ligaments

Stuart Higginbotham

October 16, 2022

In the newcomer’s or refresher class, we have spent a lot of time reflecting on a deeper understanding of religion. I could have just started listing off this or that fact or aspect of The Episcopal Church, but I think we are living in a time when we must be more conscious of why we do what we do on a much deeper level. I don’t have patience for something that is overly focused on “membership.” I think the church is being challenged to ask itself if what we do within any particular context actually nurtures transformation. Put another way, any “Episcopal 101” class must be rooted in a “Human Spiritual Life” framework.

Such an awareness grounds us and helps us see how what I would call “deep religion” is never fixed. We never reach a moment when we can say “this is it,” or “this is the apex we have been wanting to reach and we need never change again.” That is a marker of fundamentalism, which exists in both a so-called conservative expression and progressive expression. Grasping is grasping, and the urge to control is universal in its potential.

When we see or hear anyone–or notice ourselves–rigidly claim that we should grasp onto some particular viewpoint, I always pay close attention to who, in that moment, has power and seems fearful of losing it.  When do I feel that way? And, what does it tell me when my anxiety or fear is driving my decision-making? If my primary motivation is fear or anger, should I be suspicious of my decisions?  Fundamentalism thrives in a zero-sum worldview where we create a sense of scarcity–and then systems arise to control whatever the resource is that we crave at that moment. These are such important dynamics for us to explore today.

If we can pause just long enough, and if we can engage in practices of self-awareness and reflection perhaps we can see what is motivating us–and what our deeper desire is for wholeness. This is why I think having a contemplative practice is so essential, a daily commitment to some form of silence, stillness, and solitude that allows our heart to notice where we truly are, and to listen.

Religion is a primal phenomenon, an embodiment of the deep yearning within us to make meaning and relate to the Source from which we sense we derive our existence. Just glance again at today’s Psalm 121 and the way we see God’s presence all around us–and how we orient ourselves toward this presence as a guiding point. We look for God, we notice God, and we pay attention.

Religion is the developed framework of rituals, images, texts, customs, and practices that we nurture–and that nurture our awareness of God’s presence in our lives. As we noted in our class, the word religion itself has its roots in re-ligio, or re-ligare, which has the same root as another word you may recognize: ligament. Ligaments connect and join together the skeletal structure that enables us to stand and move. So, religion (good religion if I can say so), enables the movement of our searching spirits in our lives. So, we may dare to say that some religious expressions can become arthritic or even crippled, and movement is halted. It stretches the metaphor, but maybe you get what I am saying. 

To take it a step further, when I hear people say that they are “spiritual but not religious” that is what I hear: that they have experienced a religious space that has felt, as we say back in Arkansas, “stove up.” Unmoving, cutting off the flow of life, brittle, shut off. 

In this same vein, when someone shares their story of how they cannot believe in God, and they describe to me whatever image of God they are rejecting, inevitably I respond to them that I, too, do not believe in such an image of God. And we begin to re-imagine together a spacious and enriching–even exciting–awareness of God’s presence in their life.  

Look closely at the Gospel for today to see an example of how Jesus nurtured a more expansive image of God–one that was not constrained by our experiences and limitations of human frameworks. “And will not God grant justice,” Jesus says, not in a way understood like the human judge, but in a way defined by God’s indwelling presence.

Today’s reading from Genesis calls us to look at this dynamic around religion in a powerful way. It is one of those pivotal stories from our tradition that holds such meaning, and I want to focus more on it this morning.

Jacob wrestling with the angel, by Rembrandt

Jacob is moving his household, and he sends them ahead of him. I’m intrigued by this from the start: what compelled Jacob to stay behind and have this time of solitude? He encounters “a man” with whom he wrestles. We always imagine this as an angel, but the text is ambiguous about it, leaving room there for our imagination. 

When the man sees that “he did not prevail against Jacob,” he strikes him on the hip and puts his hip out of joint. Fascinating. Jacob demands a blessing from the man, and the man gives Jacob a new name: Israel, which itself means that he has wrestled with God. Then Jacob asks the man for his name, but the man deflects the question. Fascinating. He blessed Jacob, now Israel, and Israel walks to meet his family, limping as he goes, naming the place of the encounter Peniel, a word which itself means that he has seen God face to face.

Sitting with this text, I couldn’t help but notice how these rich images resonate with how I feel in my own life these days, especially the dynamic of needing to name things, needing certainty, and struggling to hold onto something that feels more solid when so much feels chaotic. 

We will see the same dynamic later on when Moses encounters God on Mt. Sinai, in his own moment of uncertainty. He asks God for a name, and God doesn’t give him a straight answer there either; rather, God offers Moses a deeper insight into the nature of God’s own being rather than providing a name that Moses can use as leverage in his fight against Pharoah’s oppression. 

We will see the same dynamic again when Elijah flees from Queen Jezebel and takes refuge in a cave. When he gets a message to go and stand in the entrance and see God pass by, there is a series of phenomena that he encounters: shaking earth, roaring fire, and rushing wind. But Elijah learns that God’s presence is not confined to any of those; rather, he experiences it in the whispering sound that rests within the silence that envelops him. 

We see the same dynamic as well so many times with Jesus, don’t we? Think of how many times someone asks Jesus a question and, instead of giving a direct answer, Jesus responds with a parable–a word that literally means, in Greek, “throwing alongside.” The insight isn’t going to come from a straight answer, but rather with and through the experience of a transforming encounter.

What we see in today’s text with Jacob is a hallmark of our own human spiritual struggle: we always feel uncertainty, we always feel anxiety or fear, and there is something in us that craves assurance and something to grasp. And, this being the case, our religious frameworks are always fraught with tension, because while they are, in their deepest sense, oriented toward the Great Mystery we feel connected to, they are loaded down with our own human baggage. 

St. Paul described this tension later with images like “treasure in clay pots” and how we see now through a mirror, dimly, but will at some point see face to face. In other words, we wrestle with our limitations in this realm of existence but will at some point experience the fullness of awareness. 

So, we see how this story with Jacob is so important for us in our human struggle, because what actually happened is that the spiritual ligaments, if you will, of Jacob’s life were stretched in his encounter with this mysterious figure. Something was put out of joint, moved out of its fixed place, and his walk changed. His pace and sense of movement changed. His encounter with God left a mark on his life, which should tell us something very crucial about spiritual practice: its primary motivation is not comfort but transformation.

Jacob becomes an incredible icon for us, doesn’t he?

Now, if I can, let me close by bringing this even closer to home here. If this dynamic of transformation and stretching of our souls is true–which I wholeheartedly believe it is–then it demands that we ask ourselves how we understand the grounding or purpose of our common prayer. In other words, how can the church today nurture this deeper sense of transformation, because that is the point of what we “do” here: invite, nurture, and encourage deeper encounters, a deeper awareness, of God’s indwelling presence in our lives. 

Our authentic religious practice seeks to nurture this sense of reconnecting  us, re-ligio, with this deeper sense of our own meaning and purpose. So, our spiritual practice is not just a part of what we do at certain times in the week. It becomes the grounding element of our lives. 

To be blunt, this is why I still have faith in the church as your rector, as a priest, and as a human being. I believe it is a space that can always return to these deep roots, to the true meaning of what we share together as a spiritual community. 

So, here is how this “plays out,” if you will: this time of year we have our stewardship campaign for next year’s budget. It comes around each year, and for me it has always brought a sense of dread or anxiety. Will we make the budget, will the community contribute, etc. But, if I can speak plainly, here is why I think the church at large does this wrong. There is something in our culture that sets us up to believe that we are contributing to something outside of ourselves, that we are “giving to the church,” and if “the church” isn’t providing for what “we want,” then we aren’t going to give to “it.” It is a blatant imposition of Western consumerist values that thwarts the deeper meaning of spiritual community. 

Looking at today’s text, we must immediately ask ourselves what it is that “we want.” Do we want answers? Certainty? Comfort? Or deeper down, if we can dare to be honest, do we want transformation and wholeness? That takes us to a much deeper space with how we understand “church,” and it is a direction that we must go, so to speak, if configurations like this have a longer future.  

So, what I want to invite you to consider is this: rather than thinking that we give to the church, realize that “the church” is actually us, ourselves, gathered together to nurture this transformation that will bring healing and wholeness. This is what we “give to”: our own deeper yearning, like we see with Jacob, for a blessing in times of struggle and wrestling. 

This is what we share here together, as we nurture such a space that allows for our spiritual ligaments to be stretched, expanded, so that we walk differently in the world today.

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