Thursday, April 10, 2014

Sermon: Commando in the Chapel of Ease

Sermon for April 10, 2014 
11:00 Rite 1 Service
Feast Day of William Law, Priest, 1761
The Rev. Vicki K. Hesse
St. Philip’s In The Hills Parish, Tucson, AZ
For online access to the readings click here.
I speak to you in the name of One God:
Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit. Amen

Today we commemorate William Law,
a priest in the Church of England in the 18th century. 
What do any of you know about him?  Who was this guy?


In the wonderful book Glorious Companions[1],
the author calls William Law a
“commando in the chapel of ease.”
We might call him a bull in a china closet. 
But neither metaphor is completely accurate. 

Law took his faith seriously
and challenged others to do so, as well. 

His work laid the foundation for the religious revival
of the 18th century with one of his books entitled,
“A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life.” 

Published in 1729, it has never been out of print since, which means that there is, even today, a longing to learn
how to take our Christian living seriously.

In his time, this book shook up the
“…bland, lethargic, and complacent tolerance”
of his times and continues to do so today. 

With chapters on
·        the nature of Christian devotion,
·        why, in general, Christians fall so far short of holiness,
·        the danger of not intending to practice all Christian virtues,
·        how, in our employment we still are obliged to devote ourselves to God,
·        how to make a wise and religious use of “estates and fortunes”,
and other stark teachings.

The main thrust of his work was:
“Christian devotion concerns not merely
religious exercises and good works,
but the whole of life –
our use of time and money, every relationship,
every thought and deed. 
It is a life totally given to God and thereby transformed
into the likeness of Jesus Christ.”[2]

When Law wrote A Serious Call,
he did so because he saw a society
whose intentions to live a devout life seemed paralyzed. 

In Serious Call, he said this about “intentions,”
(have someone read from slips of paper)
[“It may now be reasonably inquired,
how it comes to pass,
that the lives even of the better sort of people
are thus strangely contrary to the principles of Christianity. 
It is because men have not so much as
the intention to please God in all their actions…
And if you will here stop, and ask yourselves,
why are you not as pious as the primitive Christians were,
your own heart will tell you,
that it is neither through ignorance nor inability,
but purely because you never thoroughly intended it.”

Law directed his message to those whose religion
was an “add on” to life already full of other concerns.

In our day, Bishop Gene Robinson
uses the metaphor of “inoculation.”

In The Eye of the Storm[3],
Robinson describes how inoculation works:
“You don’t want to get chicken pox, so you go to the doctor,
who gives you just enough chicken pox
to make your body form antibodies to it. 
So you never get a full blown case of chicken pox….”

Could it be, Robinson (and perhaps Law) ask,
that we actually go to church for such an inoculation?

“If we took to heart what we read in scripture,” Robinson says, “…and hear in church,
we would set about changing our own lives
and seeking to transform the world.”

What would it look like to have a “full-blown” case of Christianity?
For Robinson, it would result in
befriending the oppressed,
working for justice, and
offering ourselves sacrificially
in God’s plan for the salvation of the world. 
For Law, it would mean pure devotion.

In many ways, Law invites us, today,
to enliven our intentions .
He invites us, you and me both, to reflect if – and for how much - our religion is an inoculation
that might be “paralyzing our intentions”?

Perhaps Jesus’ words from the Gospel reading were meant to free the disciples from their paralyzed intentions:

Three times he alerts his disciples:
beware how they practice their religion –
to stay alert to their intentions:
are they practicing religion to be seen by others or
for the gifts that God has in mind?

"So whenever you give alms, do not do it…
so as to be praised by others.
"And whenever you pray, do not do it…
so as to be seen by others.
"And whenever you fast, do not do it …
so as to show others that you are fasting.
Do these things (practicing your religion) for God’s glory.
…For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."

In this passage, Jesus emphasizes intentions to the disciples – and to us. 
This is how Law, in his time, and Robinson in our time,
inspire our journey to follow Jesus as we do this Lent.

Yet even our clear intentions and
all that we do are not the full story. 

The good news is that God’s grace
infuses all our intentions, from God’s view.

In the letter to the Philippians, Paul names
this infusion of grace when he contrasts
what he has gained through his own efforts and intentions
to what he receives freely through Christ.  

In his powerful opening lines, he states,
“I regard everything as loss
because of the surpassing value of knowing
Christ Jesus my Lord,” - 
that what he has earned or gained or created through his own efforts are all a loss compared to what he gains through God in Christ. 

The good news today is that while we strive to have good and devoted intentions in our spiritual practices,

God, in Christ, intends to love us even through our paralyzed intentions. 
God, in Christ, clarifies our intentions and puts treasure in our heart. 
God, in Christ, already dwells within our hearts and empowers us to follow Jesus the best we can.

God, in Christ, wants to know us – yearns for our relationship, and offers the power of resurrection. 

And *that* is how we get a full-blown case of Christianity. 


[1] Richard H. Schmidt, Glorious Companions: Five Centuries of Anglican Spirituality, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), 94-104
[2] Schmidt, 95
[3] Gene Robinson, In The Eye of the Storm: Swept to the Center by God, (New York, Seabury Books, 2008), p. 127

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