Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Fire in the Belly

Pentecost 15, Proper 21, September 25, 2011, St. Christopher's Episcopal, Rev. Paul Moore

Beloved member of our parish, Russ Hantke, when he was growing up he always wanted to be a pony soldier.  When he grew up he quit college early and joined the Army, and he became a pony soldier.  We all have dreams like that, dreams of doing things and going places, and as long as we dream about them they are out there, far away, whose call forms us more than the reality.  It may be the Holy Land, or Paris, or Australia, it may be to climb a mountain, or write a book or learn a piano piece.  One of my dreams, ever since I knew about the place, was to go to Iona, off the coast of Scotland.  I've wanted to go there more than Jerusalem or Rome.  But when I actually saw the ancient Abbey across the sound it moved me almost to tears.  To stand beside St. Martin's Cross that has been standing as a Christian beacon for 1200 years, to feel the ancient stones of the Abbey and to pray where so many Christians have prayed before me, was an experience that made all the waiting, all the yearning and dreaming worthwhile, and the imaginings, the dreams and the hopes cannot compare to the real, flesh-and-blood experience of the place and what it means and is.

Our faith is rooted in events that happened 2000 years ago, and we read about it in the Bible and in history books, we hear the stories preached and acted out, we study the documents that describe our faith, and we learn about the places that were formative in it.  But there is just no substitute for a flesh-and-blood hands-on experience of the faith.  Like being a pony soldier or going to Iona, except infinitely more important, it makes it all come alive, and grants it the power to transform our lives immeasurably for the good.

You may ask, "How can that be, since Jesus lived so many years ago?"  And I can tell you that the Holy Spirit comes to live in each of our lives at Baptism, so Christ's spirit is within you, and that the moment that comes real to you is an amazing thing you'll never forget.  But that still won't do it.  All I can do is lead you to the water.  Just like for Russ to become a pony soldier he had to join the Army, and for me to come to know what Iona is I had to get on the airplane, for you to have a fire-in-the-belly experience of your faith you have to do the things that your faith requires.

And what are those things?

There are three broad categories of things, and all you Cursillistas will understand them instantly.  The first is the life of prayer.  Prayer is any conversation in which God is a partner, either directly or indirectly.  So prayer is an arrow prayer of gratitude and relief shot to heaven when some jerk just missed your fender in heavy traffic.  Prayer is a quiet moment of silence in which you allow the voice of the Spirit to break through the business of daily living and anchor you in peace.  Prayer is gathering with the faithful on Sunday mornings, Wednesday evenings, and at other times to sing the songs of our faith, to hear Scripture read and preached, and to respond to God in sacramental actions.  Prayer is huddling with others of like concern and voicing a common joy or pain to God.  You may feel uncomfortable with one or more of these things, but the important thing is to do what you can.

The next is the life of study.  Can you tell me if these quotes are in the Bible or not?

Create in me a clean heart.
      Come, my love.
      All we like sheep have gone astray.
      God so loved the world.
      The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.
      Come, Lord Jesus.

All of those are in the Bible.  The first three are in the Old Testament, the second in the New.  You say I’m supposed to know that, but you, could, too!  It is important to know what is contained in the Bible, and in the Book of Common Prayer.  It is important to maintain a diet of good godly books written about the spiritual life.  But it is equally important to let the written word become God's spoken word in the secret places of your heart, to allow the words to sink in, to challenge and change behavior, and to open your heart and your mind to new dimensions of God's truth.  Find it hard to get traction on this?  Come to Sunday School!

Finally, there is the life of action.  Putting feet on the love of God in some fashion or other in the world is an essential expression of our faith.  There are those in the parish who set the example, who volunteer at social service organizations in town and abroad.  Some teach anger management classes, parenting classes, or counsel with those who struggle with life.  Others teach our Sunday School classes and other Christian Education events in the parish.  Some sing or play an instrument or serve at the altar.  Others help clean up, organize and lead, or do a host of other things.  Again, you may feel uncomfortable with one or more of these options, but the important thing is to get out there and do something.

People speak of the blind leap of faith.  The blind leap of faith is not so much the mental effort of believing something you find difficult to accept, as doing something you might not ordinarily do, something that is consistent with the faith you espouse, something done as an act of faith.  There is just no substitute for showing up, being there and getting involved.  Armchair religion is easy, it is relaxed, undemanding, and safe.  First-hand experience is always more dangerous.  There is no telling when the fire will start in your belly, when it will begin to transform your life, and through you, transform your world.

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