A Sermon Preached at St. Andrew’s Pentecost Episcopal Church
The Second Sunday of Lent
Texts: Gen. 12:1-4a, 3:1-7, Ps 121, Rom. 4:1-5,13-17, John 3:1-17
March 8, 2020
The Rev. Charlie de Kay
Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve: Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Thank you, Fr. Emeka, for entrusting me with the solemn and sacred honor of preaching from this pulpit, hallowed by your faithful words and prayers and those of all who have preached here. You bless me with your faith.
Thank you, St. Andrew’s Pentecost, for once more flinging open wide your doors to welcome the people of St. Matthew’s. You sanctify each one of us with your trust, a gift beyond measure in these rude and violent times when racism seems to have found public acceptance once again in some quarters. May we stand shoulder-to-shoulder together and with one voice proclaiming that there is no room in God’s Kingdom for such despicable behavior. Not today, not ever.
Thank you, St. Matthew’s for your willingness once again to adjust your Sunday morning routine to attend a different church, in a different part of town, requiring a new parking spot, at a different time of morning, on a day when we are all a little off due to Daylight Saving Time.
You all – Father, Saint Andrew’s Pentecost, Saint Matthew’s – honor me. Thank you! And, more importantly you all honor each other with your faithful trust and rather extraordinary love. We are witness today – right now! right here! – to the steadfast love for God, to a faith expressed in radical hospitality, and increasingly at least in some quarters, to genuine love for one another. While we have been sharing worship for a few years now (this the fourth time I’ve had the privilege of addressing the combined communities from this pulpit), my gratitude grows ever deeper. As the novelty – with its excitement and surprises – wears off, the work of our partnership becomes more real.
What we are doing here today, while not completely unprecedented, is rare and it continues to be a model emulated by churches and faith communities in Evanston, across the Diocese, and beyond. For St. Matthew’s, anyway, this partnership has become a significant source of pride, energy, and life. Beyond St. Matthew’s, well, I can report that outsiders ask about our partnership more often than about any other ministry. It is a rare and beautiful gem, a pearl of great price, a sign of the Kingdom of God, which of course also means that it is costly. The costs will shift over time, but the requirement of a willingness to be vulnerable may never fully leave us.
From the beginning, our communities established a set of nine goals, which continues to guide us:
a healthy relationship based on trust and mutual respect
developing individual friendships across church communities
being communities of mutual support
nurturing an appreciation of difference (such as cultural, food, and music)
to help all our members think more expansively and concretely about the mission of the Church
to pray for each other
to develop shared programs, and, ultimately,
to reduce racism in our community.
Serious, intentional work has been done to further every single one of these goals. Thank you, Partnership Team for all your work! As we are gathered here together today for worship and as it is the season of Lent, it struck me that we might spend a little time now thinking about our goal to be in prayer for each other.
In this time when there is so much to pray for – for our communities, for a cure for COVID 19 the coronavirus, for an end to hatred and violence, for enough food, enough opportunity, and for true justice for everyone – and our prayers are so vivid and passionate, perhaps now’s a time when we might be open and willing to re-imagine just how we pray.
In the Presiding Bishop’s curriculum, the Way of Love, which some of us are studying this Lent – the entire curriculum is available online for anyone who wishes to learn more (I cannot recommend it enough!) – in the Way of Love, the call to PRAY is one of seven holy practices that we are urged to do daily. The Way of Love defines this practice as to “dwell intentionally with God each day.” What a wonderful and marvelous way to frame prayer.
How does this sound to you: prayer as dwelling intentionally with God?
And, as it happens, each and every one of our scripture readings today tell stories – directly or indirectly – about holy people who dwelt with God, and how God watches over, saves, and gives eternal life to those who sincerely seek God with integrity.
In his book Meditations of the Heart, the great twentieth-century African-American preacher, philosopher, teacher, theologian, and mystic Howard Thurman offers readers a vision of “The Inward Sea.” Speaking of how we might “dwell intentionally with God each day,” Thurman wrote: “There is in every person an inward sea, and in that sea there is an island and on that island there is an altar and standing guard before that altar is the ‘angel with the flaming sword.’ Nothing can get by that angel to be placed upon that altar unless it has the mark of your inward authority. Nothing passes ‘the angel with the flaming sword’ to be placed upon your altar unless it be a part of ‘the fluid area of your consent.’ This is your crucial link with the Eternal.”
Thurman explains in part (and please excuse his period use of the term “man” and the male pronoun to speak of all people), “The individual lives his life in the midst of a wide variety of stresses and strains. The only hope for surcease, the only possibility of stability for the person, is to establish an Island of Peace within one’s own soul. Here one brings for review the purposes and dreams to which one’s life is tied. This is a place where there is no pretense, no dishonesty, no adulteration. What passes over the threshold is simon-pure. What one really thinks and feels about one’s own life stands revealed; . . . love is love, hate is hate, fear is fear. Well within the island is the Temple where God dwells – not the God of the creed, the church, the family, but the God of one’s heart. Into His Presence one comes with all of one’s problems and faces His scrutiny. What a man is, what his plans are, what his authentic point is, where his life goes – all is available to him in the Presence.”
Reflecting on Thurman’s Inward Sea reframed our scripture readings for me. What if we were to understand Abram’s journey, for instance, Abram’s response to God’s call to “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land I will show you.” from a physical to spiritual journey? How might it change our understanding? Might we discover Abram’s country, kindred, and father’s house to represent the “wide variety of stresses and strains” of Thurman’s everyday life of the individual and “the land I will show you” to be The Inward Sea? Might a valid reading of this text be a wholly spiritual interpretation of Abram’s and Sarai’s journey to the promised land as a journey of the heart to the Island in the Inward Sea of the Soul, the place where we stand in the Presence of God?
In John’s Gospel, might we likewise understand the spiritual geography of the Kingdom of God, and being born from above, standing in opposition to earthly things, as the inward journey of the heart into the soul to God in prayer? And, if so, that our journey seeking salvation (from death, from existence apart from God, from non-existence), seeking eternal life might we understand it to be an inward one?
Thurman urges his readers to create times of silent contemplation. Silence, he offers, is “a door to God.” No easy task for us today with all the “variety of stresses and strains” of daily life. [I am so impressed! In the entire time I’ve been preaching, I’ve not heard a single cell phone go off; not one!] Creating the time and space in which to connect with the altar on the island at the center of the inward sea can happen only with intention, effort, and time. We, however, are never alone when we seek connection with God.
Another twentieth-century Holy man, the monk and contemplative Thomas Merton wrote this prayer in the early 1950s: My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore, I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
Such spiritual leaders as Thurman and Merton ever remind us that in the midst of all of our uncertainty about the right way to pray and in all of our difficulties in re-orienting our lives to meet God’s will, God is ever with us on the journey, straining to meet us where we are. No honest effort spent reaching out toward God is ever wasted. Perhaps you remember Jesus’ own words concerning prayer from Ash Wednesday services: “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
When we reach out to God “in sincerity and in truth,” and when – in other words – our prayer reflects how we endeavor to “love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind, and with all our strength” we are following Jesus, and that is the Way of Love, the Way to God. As in all things, including prayer, we seek to do so – with God’s help.
Thus, it seems only fitting to pray for this.
The Lord be with you.
Let us pray.
O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
 A Collect for Proper 22. The Book of Common Prayer, page 234. Howard Thurman, Meditations of the Heart, p. 15. Ibid., pp. 17-18. Ibid., p. 18.  Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude. Matthew 6:5-6. Joshua 24:14, cf. John 4:24. Matthew 12:29-31. The Book of Common Prayer, page 231.