A Holy Lent, A Holy Life

A sermon, based on Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21, preached with the people of the Episcopal Church of the Advent, Spartanburg, SC, on the occasion of the Wednesday Noon Lenten Series on the day of the Lesser Feast of William Law, April 10, 2019

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“If we are to follow Christ, it must be in our common way of spending every day…liv(ing) unto God at any time or in any place…in all times and in all places.”

So wrote William Law, 18th century Church of England priest, philosopher and theologian, teacher, preacher, and mystic, in his still celebrated work, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life.(1)
William Law (1686-1761)

In commemorating the life and legacy of William Law, given his practical, daily devotion as a disciple of Jesus, it is no surprise that the appointed gospel for this day is that of Ash Wednesday. Appropriate, then, as we stand on the threshold of Palm Sunday and Holy Week that we harken back (consider it a penitential refresher!) to the beginning of our Lenten journey with Jesus.

Jesus, speaking of the cardinal spiritual disciplines of Judaism, which were adopted by the Christian church at the end of the first century – monetary charity, prayer, and fasting – warns us of an inherent danger that does not arise if we don’t practice them, but only when we do. Jesus does not say, “If,” but rather “whenever (we) give alms…pray…fast.” And the intrinsic, inescapable danger is that we, to paraphrase T. S. Eliot’s Thomas Beckett, do the right thing for the wrong reason.(2)

Our charity to demonstrate the depth of our generosity…

Our prayer to demonstrate the breadth of our spirituality…

Our fasting to demonstrate the height of our self-control.

As the temptation, sometimes unconscious, is ever-present, whenever we do this, says Jesus, we are hypocrites. From the Greek, hupocritēs, meaning, originally, actor, one who performs on stage wearing a mask; thus, over time, meaning one whose true face is concealed.

As I don’t know you and, thus, dare not speak of you, speaking always and only for myself, even when I am most charitable, I am not altogether generous. There is something in the charitable act for me, even if only the benign self-satisfaction of feeling good about myself. Therefore, when in my charity, I seek to prove to you and to myself the single-minded purity of my generosity (which, given my human nature, doesn’t and can’t exist!), then, I am neither showing you nor seeing my true face.

Now, a greater danger appears. The spiritual disciplines become tools of illusion and self-delusion; therefore, obstacles in the path toward truth and honesty over which we can stumble and break our spiritual necks. It might be saner, surely, safer, if we didn’t practice them at all!

But then we’d miss the reward. The Greek translated reward is an ancient marketplace term meaning that one receives precisely that for which one pays. Nothing more, nothing less. When I practice spiritual disciplines seeking the applause of your approval and my self-acclaim, then I have received my reward. Nothing less, nothing more.

However, spiritual disciplines, as tools of self-examination, offer another, a greater, a truer reward. A reminder of our humanness. Therefore, a reminder that we are not God and that we never can be God. Therefore, a reminder that if we, when we act as if we are other than human, other than, even at our best, always dependent, never self-sufficient, then we are actors, hypocrites.

Thank God that we need never, and only if we choose, don the masks of our own creating, our own pretending. For we, in Jesus, are free to be who God creates, redeems, and sanctifies us to be.

On Ash Wednesday, we the “Dear People of God,” were invited, “in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent.”(3)

Today, nearing Lent’s end, William Law, invites us to the disciplined observance of a holy life, following Jesus “every day…at any time…in any place…in all times and in all places.”

For the rest of our holy Lent, aye, for the rest of our holy lives, may the words of Richard of Chichester(4) be our daily song:

Day by day, day by day,
dear Lord, three things we pray:
to see thee more clearly,
love thee more dearly,
follow thee more nearly,
day by day.

 
Footnotes:
(1) William Law (1686-1761); A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1728) (my emphases)
(2) From T. S. Eliot’s, Murder in the Cathedral. The actual quote: “The last temptation is the greatest treason. To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”
(3) Ash Wednesday Liturgy, The Book of Common Prayer, pages 264-265
(4) Richard of Chichester (1197-1253), aka Richard de Wych, Bishop of Chichester (England)

8 thoughts on “A Holy Lent, A Holy Life

  1. Thank you, Paul. As on many occasions, I am stirred by the depth of your knowledge and understanding of what has gone into building Christianity as devotion and as practice, the nuances of interpretation of aspects of liturgy and spiritual discipline that arise from scripture and have been refined and internalized by people whose stories you know and celebrate, human beings who engaged with what it meant to be followers of Jesus Christ. I had never heard of William Law, but now I will recognize his name and know a little of his contribution.

    I like thinking of you at Church of the Advent, a church I know somewhat, even being a choir member there for a short time many years ago. My most beloved teacher was a lifelong Church of Advent member, and I can’t ever think of the church without remembering him.

    From once-again very snowy (as of an hour ago) Minneapolis, I send you late Lenten greetings and thoughts, with thanks for your meditation today. The thoughts about illusion and self-delusion give me reason to pause and ponder the ways in which I may be caught up in those snares in my own life. In today’s world I find it sometimes difficult to feel very confident that I am not deluding myself that I am on the path of love and grace I intend to follow. The distractions and temptations are many.

    Love and blessings,

    Karen

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  2. My dear Karen, you, as always, are kind to me.

    And, regarding illusion and self-delusion, it is, I think, an inescapable aspect of our humanness that we, even at our best and most aware, cannot know where and how and why we trip and fall from our best intentions and clearest direction. Here, I think of the psalmist: Who can know who often s/he offends, cleanse me, O Lord, of my secret faults” (Psalm 19.12) As I ponder anew these words, I realize that I have difficulty enough in seeking to corral the worst outcomes of the faults of which I am aware; let alone the ones of which I am unconscious. I also think of Thomas Merton, who, among many sage words wrote, and I paraphrase: We stumble constantly even when enlightened, but true spiritual darkness is not to know we have stumbled. Hence, I think, to be aware of our failings, far from being an act of useless, unproductive self-flagellation is, rather, a work of self-honesty.

    Blessings, dear sister, in dealing with the continuing Minnesota-winter.

    Love always to you, Ted, and Emilia,
    Paul

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  3. Paul,

    Thank goodness we can be forgiven when we are hypocrites!! I’ve often given charity to others but my heart wasn’t in the right place. Now, if I don’t feel it’s coming from the place that God intends, I don’t give it. I can’t even find the right words to say how wonderful it has felt to give money to the homeless during Lent and I met some wonderful human beings during the process. I feels just like I believe we are supposed to feel when giving… all warm and fuzzy inside.

    I agree with Karen.. it’s good to know you’re on the right path… or at least for me, trying hard every day!!

    Much love to you Paul!! And to you Karen!!!

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  4. Loretta, your and Karen’s comments about knowing and trying to be on the right path reminds me of another story. This one, told about Teresa of Avila, the 16th Spanish Carmelite nun, theologian, and mystic…

    She was alone in the chapel praying, “O my God…” she began. Then, her eyes catching sight of dust in the corner, she stopped praying, saying to herself, “I must attend to that soon.” Again, she began to pray, “O my God…” Then, looking up, she saw a panel missing from one of the stained glass windows. Again, she stopped praying, saying to herself, “I must attend to that soon.” Once again, she began to pray, “O my God…”, then ashamed that she allowed herself to be so easily distracted, she continued, “O my God, I am sorry that I am so wretched a servant of Thine majesty.” Immediately, she heard the voice of her God, “My child, suffer not your anguish. For each time you stopped, you soon returned to speak and to listen to Me. Yours, I declare, is a righteous perseverance.” At that word, Teresa’s heart was at peace.

    So, my beloved sister, I believe our Christian walk of discipleship, as another sage soul once put it, is less about successfulness and more about faithfulness. Let us, then, carry on!

    Love

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    1. YES Righteous perseverance!!! Love it!! I can do it!!

      Much love!!

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  5. I’m eavesdropping on your response to Loretta, Paul. I LOVE that story. It humanizes Teresa, whom I have never been able to quite conjure as a relatable figure. It also makes me feel a WHOLE lot better about my often “rabbity-running mind,” as my mother and grandmothers used to phrase it (thank goodness not too often about me!). “Faithfulness over successfulness….” That’s going to be my new mantra for a while, I think. Thank you!!!

    Love,

    Karen

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  6. I’m thankful you eavesdropped on our conversation!! We are are great together!!!

    Much love!!

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    1. Always, Karen and Loretta, you have my immense thanks! Love

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