A sermon preached at First Christian Church of Decatur, Decatur GA, on September 4, 2011
Scripture: Matthew 18:20
“Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
What an amazing statement for our Lord to make. He did not say, “Wherever a properly licensed minister of the Gospel shall be, I am there, ” or “Wherever an accredited Bible scholar shall teach, I am there” or anything like that. He promised his presence to Christians — to all Christians! — wherever and whenever we gather in community. Stop and think about this for a moment. We certainly have exceeded the quorum today, so take a moment, look around you at your Christian brothers and sisters who are gathered in his name. Truly, he is present. He is among us. We do not have to wait until we die to experience Jesus’s presence; we do not have to wait until the end of the age to experience Jesus’s presence, nor do we have to consecrate the bread and wine into Holy Communion in order for His real presence to manifest among us. All it takes for us to simple gather as a community in his name. And it doesn’t have to be a very big community, either. In the intimacy of two or three Christians — a family, or a small circle of friends — who gather intentionally to seek his presence, there he shall be, with the assurance that the very Gospel itself provides.
This is more than just a feel-good statement, my friends. Jesus is being profoundly counter-cultural in this proclamation, — if not for 1st Century Palestine, than most assuredly for 21st century America. For ours is not a culture of community; we are a culture defined by the Lone Ranger, the solitary cowboy in the wilderness, the pioneer making his way into a rugged landscape far from the conveniences of towns or cities. Even now, when most of us live in urban areas and would not know a real cowboy if we tripped over one, this culture — or should I say cult — of individualism still defines what it means to be an American. “I’ll do it my way,” sang Frank Sinatra some four decades ago, and just a few years later a lesser known rock group called Loverboy made it even more plain when they asserted “I gotta do it my way, or no way at all.”
Granted, Christianity honors us as individuals, and we should remember that Jesus instructed his followers to retreat into their private rooms and pray in secret. There is a dimension of intimacy in the Christian life that is reserved for each one of us, alone, with God. But we distort the message of the Gospel if we assume, therefore, that Christianity is ultimately about me, and only me, and how I manage to work things out with God. “Have you been saved?” is about as American a religious question as you can get — and what is beautiful about that question is that it calls each one of us to make a choice, a commitment, to God. But there is a shadow side to that question, and it is this: if I am a Christian simply because I am worried about my salvation, I have missed the point that Jesus comes to us most certainly when we gather, as a community, in his name.
In the fourth century, almost exactly 1700 years ago, the Roman Emperor Constantine declared by edict that Christianity would no longer be an illegal religion in the empire. Within just a few short decades, Christianity emerged from the shadows of persecution to become the dominant faith across the land. The impact that this on the faith community is, arguably, still being felt today, in both good and bad ways. But I want to point out one of the unintended consequences of Christianity becoming the preferred faith in the imperial world. For the ink was barely dry on the Edict of Milan before increasing numbers of Christians, frustrated and frightened at how social respectability was changing the faith, abandoned the cities of the empire to withdraw into the deserts of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine, where they chose to live as hermits, devoting their entire lives to prayer, and penance, and hunger for holiness — and the presence of God. Today, we call these heroes and heroines of the faith the Desert Fathers and Mothers, and their writings, teachings, parables and stories have been preserved and are still told to seekers after holiness today.
But what I love the most about the Desert Fathers and Mothers is that they represent the beginning of Christian spirituality, as we have come to know it. In the teachings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers we find instructions on how to live a holy and humble life; we find detailed insight into the nature of prayer, but also instructions on meditation and contemplation. Indeed, if more Christians were familiar with the rich wisdom of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, we would realize that eastern spirituality, such as Yoga or Zen Buddhism, are not really foreign to Christianity, for their spiritual teachings are quite similar to the Christian wisdom that emerged from the deserts of the middle East. Let me give you two examples:
First, a Desert Father named Evagrius Ponticus, who lived from 346 to 399, was an early Christian proponent of what most of us today would call “meditation.” “Do not, by any means, strive to fashion some image or visualize some form at the time of prayer,” taught Evagrius. “Happy is the spirit that attains to complete unconsciousness of all sensible experience at the time of prayer.” In other words, prayer, according to Evagrius, takes us far beyond what we think or what we feel. The summit of Christian prayer takes us to a place of profound inner peace, where, in silence beyond the static of our ordinary minds, we can find our rightful place in the kingdom of heaven.
But as anyone knows who has ever tried to meditate, whether as part of Christian prayer or in some other context, reaching this place beyond the commotion of the monkey mind is no easy feat. Here we can turn to another one of the great desert fathers, John Cassian, who lived from 360 to 435, and who was one of the first Christian teachers to advocate the use of a particular verse of scripture, prayed continuously, in his words, “as an endless refrain” to every moment of life: “O God, come to my assistance; o Lord, make haste to help me.” This comes from Psalm 70. Repeat this verse, or another similar to it, as a continual refrain to your prayer, and you will gradually let go of distracting thoughts and feelings, until you finally reach the point where, as commanded in Psalm 46, you can “be still” and truly know God.
I could easily preach this entire sermon on the wisdom of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, but I mention them to point out that they represent the origins of the most profound and transformational dimension of Christian spirituality – in other words, what has come to be known as Christian mysticism.
But these hermits of the Desert, while they lived their lives devoted to the most profound experience of prayer and meditation and contemplation, while they searched without compromise for the gift of true humility and authentic holiness, discovered something that undermined their very way of life. They realized that to be Christian, at the end of the day, involved a call far higher than the impulse to live in solitude. So within just a few generations of the Desert movement, the great Fathers and Mothers of Christian spirituality and mysticism abandoned their hermitages and formed intentional communities of faith. “Where two or three are gathered, there I am among them.”
“If you live alone, whose feet shall you wash?” asked Saint Basil the Great, and it is a question the Desert Christians answered by forming communities where they could live out their faith in relationship with one another. This is a question that you and I may well ponder for our lives today. If we live our Christian faith in solitude, then who shall we serve? Whose feet shall we wash? Where is the neighbor whom I may love as myself?
So within a generation or two, the Desert Fathers and Mothers abandoned their hermitages to form communities, and so the first Monasteries were born. A monastery, after all, is nothing more than an intentional community of people who take their faith seriously enough that they are willing to give their entire lives to others for the sake of the Gospel.
If you want to talk about the history of Christian spirituality — and, indeed, of Christian culture in general — for a thousand years, from the sixth century until at least the sixteenth, you need to be talking about the monasteries. In other words, from the fall of the Roman Empire until the Reformation, the monasteries kept Christianity alive, a beacon of light shining through what historians have rather uncharitably labeled “the dark ages.” And during those same so-called dark ages, century after century produced great men and women who, through writing and art and music, communicated something of the mystery of God and how God’s presence transformed and transfigured their lives. These are the great mystics, and some of their names will be familiar to you: Hildegard of Bingen, Bernard of Clairvaux, Francis of Assisi, Julian of Norwich, Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross. And there were many others – and nearly all of them either lived in monasteries or were profoundly influenced by the lives of those who understood that to be a Christian meant to be part of a community. “Where two or three are gathered.”
Perhaps no one figure is more important in Christian spiritual history than Saint Benedict, who lived from 480 to 547. Born four years after the fall of the Roman empire, Benedict lived in a time of political upheaval and chaos as the barbarians overran the Eternal City. With the empire in tatters, Benedict abandoned the lure of the city to basically replicate the life of the Desert Fathers, only in his case by living a hermit’s life in a cave some 40 miles east of Rome. But his reputation for holiness spread, and before long other hermits were asking him to be their teacher, or “abbot” as monastic leaders are known. Benedict not only abandoned the solitary life for community, but in the early sixth century composed his Holy Rule for Monasteries, a document brilliant in its moderation and common sense, that became the charter for Christian monasteries throughout the western world. Indeed, our local monastery in Conyers follows that very Rule of Saint Benedict. Now, I promised Paster James that I would be giving you a Latin lesson as part of my sermon, and so here it is. If you ever visit a monastery that follows the Rule of St Benedict, you will learn that the heart of Benedictine Spirituality is “Ora et Labora,” a Latin motto that means, simply, “Pray and Work.” Ora is a Latin word for prayer: think “oratory” or “oral hygiene.” Labora, of course, means work – after all, what is tomorrow: “Labor Day.”
So if you’ve managed to stay awake during this history lesson, what I’d like for us to do now is to think about the relationship between prayer and work in our lives. This seems to be an auspicious time to do this, considering that this is Labor day weekend. And I’d like to suggest that ora et labora as a motto for Christian spirituality can be meaningful even for those of us who do not live inside a monastery cloister. I would like to submit that any kind of community of faith – whether church, or family, or monastery, or any other gathering in the name of Christ needs to be anchored in a balance between Ora et Labora, between the pure prayer of worship, or Holy Communion, of Bible study and personal prayer and meditation, and then the work of building the Kingdom of Heaven: of caring for those in need, and responding to the suffering of the world, and even just taking good care of beautiful churches like this one so that they can be beacons of hospitality in a world that, frankly, seems to be heading toward a new dark age. To be in community means to work together, to find a rhythm balancing Prayer and Work as the two key tasks that bind us together, as we gather in His name — confident that, where two or three or more gather, there he is, present among us.
Ora et Labora also functions as a clue to how we can pray more effectively, and work more effectively. Monks call their daily cycle of prayers and Psalms “the work of God.” In other words, true prayer is a form of work. For that matter, monks also seek to do their manual labor in a prayerful, meditative way. In other words, when approached in the right spirit, good hard work can be a form of prayer. I realize this is a paradox, but Christian spirituality is often paradoxical. But monastic spirituality can inspire all Christians to see prayer and work as two sides of the same spiritual coin. To work is to pray, and to pray is to work. If we take this seriously, we have been given a key to understanding – and obeying – one of the shortest, and most challenging, of instructions in the New Testament: I Thessalonians 5:17, in which Saint Paul instructs us to “Pray without Ceasing.”
If you haven’t visited the Monastery in Conyers, I’d really like to encourage you to go out there some time. Don’t be intimidated by the fact that it is a Catholic monastery. After all, in terms of their heritage for Christians, monasteries are part of all of us. If you want to be a monk you need to be a Catholic, but if you simply want to appreciate the silence and the solitude, the Monastery is for everyone. And there’s a lot to be thankful for when we think about what monks have done for us over the centuries. After all, nearly all of the fruitcakes made in the United States today come from monasteries! Monks from different monasteries also make excellent fudge, biscotti, preserves, cheese, and even beer and brandy — will I get in trouble for bringing up alcohol in this pulpit?
But aside from the great products that monks all over the world make for us all to enjoy, I’d like to focus on two gifts that have particularly come down from the monasteries of the Middle Ages. First of all, monks gave us mysticism, and monks also for centuries were the custodians of books.
I’ve already talked a little bit about the relationship between monks and mysticism. Now I know mysticism is kind of a scary word, but please, think of it this way: Christian mysticism is just another word for a fully embraced Christian spirituality. There’s an old saying that “Christians pray, and Christian mystics mean it when they pray.” So if you are interested in having a richer, deeper, fuller appreciation of Christ’s presence in your life, the great mystics are your guides. And from the Desert Fathers and Mothers all the way down to great mystics of the last fifty years, like Thomas Merton or Thomas Keating who is still alive, generation after generation of the great Christian spiritual teachers have been monks – in other words, Christians who value the place of community in their spiritual lives. You don’t have to be a monk in order to be a mystic, just like you don’t have to be a monk – or a mystic — in order to be a Christian. But for those of us who aren’t monks, I believe we owe a debt of gratitude to the monks of every generation who lived profound lives of Union with Christ in God – and then wrote about their experiences and their wisdom, so that we can learn from them, centuries later.
But that leads me to the final gift that the great monasteries of Christianity has bestowed upon us today: for centuries, it was the monks of Europe who kept the art of writing alive, and so we can truly say that monks gave us the gift of books. I’m honored to be with you this morning as part of the Decatur Book Festival, and if you have never been to the Festival, I hope you’ll take time to come hear some of the speakers this afternoon. We are blessed here in Decatur to have one of the largest Book Festivals in the United States, with well over 300 authors from all over the place here to share their words and wisdom. There are events for children, and featuring both fiction and non-fiction – with categories ranging from cooking to mystery to wellness to parenting to science. There’s something for everybody at the Decatur Book Festival. But for those of us who belong to the community of Christ, let’s remember as we enjoy the many offerings of the Book Festival, the untold lineage of monks and nuns who painstakingly kept books and literature alive for centuries in the so-called “dark ages.”
Now in the face of all this praise for monastic community, I am not suggesting that we should all run off and become nuns or monks. I like being married, and I’m sure most of you enjoy your everyday relationships and responsibilities. No, instead of us going to join the monastery, I think the challenge for Christians here in the twenty-first century is to take seriously the message in the Gospel: Christ is present when we gather together. So what kind of communities of faith are we called to create?
There are many young Christians, mostly evangelical, who are experimenting with new forms of community, looking at ways to be of service to the poorest and most vulnerable members of society. Individuals like Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, or even a Presbyterian Pastor named Troy Bronsink here in Atlanta, have been experimenting with new forms of community that are now known as “neo-monastic” communities: not monasteries in the traditional sense of celibate monks who spend hours every day in prayer, but new kinds of communities, helping each other and reaching out to people who are the most in need. These visionaries remind us that Christ is always calling us to new ways of forming community and coming together, in his name, to make the world a better place.
I wanted to mention this “new monastic” movement because what we are seeing among young people who are forming new types of Christian community is a renewed interest in contemplation: in the very kinds of prayer and meditation that go all the way back to the Desert Fathers and Mothers, seeking to pray continually, hungry for the presence of God. So what is new and exciting in the Church today often has very deep spiritual roots indeed.
It’s an old cliché that love is work made visible. So as we celebrate Labor Day tomorrow, think about how your work is an expression of love, including the love you receive so graciously from God, and the love you share with other Christians, and with your neighbors as yourself. And consider how you can make this loving work a way of praying in your life. Simple little steps like t his, where we learn to consecrate the ordinary moments of our days to God, will go a long way toward helping to see the presence of Christ in our lives. We know by faith that He is here. May our work, and prayer, and all our community relationships, help us to see and know his presence in our lives. Amen.