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First Reading = Matthew 26:6-13
6Now while Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, 7a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table. 8But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, “Why this waste? 9For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.” 10But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. 11For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. 12By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial. 13Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
This is the sixth sermon in our series looking at the nine spiritual pathways. These are the ways we were designed to walk toward and love God. You’re not going to resonate with all of them, but we’re trying to help you find your top two or three and have the tools to walk toward God in those ways.
Last week we heard about the caregiving spiritual pathway – loving God by loving others. Those who walk the caregiving spiritual pathway practice active compassion with a selfless attitude as an act of worship. I’ve heard from a few of you who are keeping a daily journal of ways you see God to cultivate that ability to see Jesus in the eyes of those you serve or help.
This week we are looking at contemplatives. Those who walk the contemplative spiritual pathway love God through adoration.
I will caution you – this spiritual pathway is near the bottom of the pile for me. But what is required of me today is not to be gifted at this spiritual pathway. No, my job today is to be able to explain the practices that go into this spiritual pathway. I can do that! Definitely! Hopefully! Possibly? We’ll see!
When I’m leading an in-depth Bible study, I sometimes ask who you identify with in the Bible verses we’re studying. That can lead to some fascinating discussions on texts like the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son. In our first text today – with the woman and the expensive ointment – I have to confess who I identify with. I identify with the disciples who were thinking about the more practical uses of the expensive ointment. How many people could have been helped with that?!? That’s me!
I have a computer science degree. I want efficiency. I want impact. I want logic.
But that’s not what the contemplative spiritual pathway is about. That’s not what adoration is about. The contemplative spiritual pathway has a lot to do with the internal journey of the heart rather than external goals or objectives. King David had a deep internal journey, and we’re lucky enough to be able to view that internal journey through the many psalms he wrote and inspired.
Our text today is one of those psalms that reveals David’s internal spiritual journey. Listen for how David describes his relationship with God. This isn’t efficiency or goals or logic. This is adoration.
1O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. 2So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. 3Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. 4So I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name. 5My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips 6when I think of you on my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night; 7for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy. 8My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me. 9But those who seek to destroy my life shall go down into the depths of the earth; 10they shall be given over to the power of the sword, they shall be prey for jackals. 11But the king shall rejoice in God; all who swear by him shall exult, for the mouths of liars will be stopped.
Presence Over Agenda
Many of you know that I went to the University of Texas. And there are some decorated professors at UT. For example, John B. Goodenough won the Nobel Prize for chemistry for the development of the lithium-ion battery. We use them in our phones, electric cars, cordless power tools, all over the place. If you think your phone’s battery is just barely good enough, you can thank John B. Goodenough. That was a pretty bad pun, wasn’t it? Yeah, I know. That pun just wasn’t good enough.
But there is one professor who is so decorated, so renowned, so famous, his classes have to be barred from people outside the major and the competition within the major is fierce and cutthroat. This storied and sought-after professor didn’t win a Nobel Prize. But he did win an Academy Award. Matthew McConaughey.
They have to restrict his classes, because people who have no interest in screenwriting would want to just sit in the same room as him and listen to whatever he happened to say and maybe make a joke that ends with, “Alright, alright, alright!”
Regardless of the syllabus, people would want to sit in the same room as Matthew McConaughey and listen to him talk. But since he’s actually teaching a class in the Radio, Television, and Film department, and since he’s actually teaching a topic he knows about, they restrict it to “qualified” students. What a bunch of Debbie Downers, right?
Now, I’m not just hyping my alma mater here. Unless you know some high caliber football players, then yes, please hype my alma mater. That impulse that non-film majors would have to just go sit in a room with Matthew McConaughey is a great example of adoration. They won’t ever write a movie script, but they want to sit in a room and listen to this famous actor talk about writing scripts.
That impulse to sit in the presence of the one you adore without having an agenda? That’s a major component of the contemplative spiritual pathway. Gary Thomas, whose book Sacred Pathways was the inspiration for this sermon series, wrote this about contemplatives: “Contemplatives seek to gaze lovingly into God’s face and be caught up in the rapture of a lover’s experience. They are marked by adoration.”
That’s what David is saying in our text today. “ I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.” Like a non-film major wanting to sit and just listen to Matthew McConaughey talk, David just wants to sit and listen to whatever God has to say. Even if it has nothing to do with his goals or plots or plans. Just speak, God. I am listening. I am hanging on every word you say! Speak, God!
One of the main hallmarks of the contemplative spiritual pathway is the desire to simply be in the presence of God without an agenda, without a goal, without a checklist – just be in the presence of God.
Thomas Merton captured this when he said, “The fact remains that contemplation will not be given to those who willfully remain at a distance from God, who confine their interior life to a few routine exercises of piety and a few external acts of worship and service performed as a matter of duty… God does not manifest himself to these souls because they do not seek him with any real desire.”
Seeking the presence of God is one of the hallmarks of the contemplative spiritual pathway.
Love Over Obedience
Contemplatives also recognize a pattern in Jesus’ words. Jesus said the greatest commandment is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” So the greatest commandment is about love. Not obedience. Not service. Not understanding. Not music and a sermon on Sunday. Love. Those other things flow from love, but the greatest commandment is about love.
Jesus also told his disciples in John 15, “I no longer call you servants…instead I have called you friends.” A servant is defined by their function – what they can do for you. A friend is defined by who they are and how you interact with them when you’re together. A servant is about “doing.” A friend is about “being.” There are different words for “love” in Greek, and there’s actually a word for the kind of love that exists in a friendship that is different from other kinds of love. So a friend is about love as well, not function or capability.
You know I’m preparing for my sabbatical after delaying it last year. And we had a very useful discussion at our staff meeting this past week as we prepare for my sabbatical starting June 1. Carol asked about backup plans. If something happens, and Mary can’t lead the music one Sunday, what do we do? What’s our backup plan? If Elinor can’t print the bulletins one Sunday, what’s our backup plan? If one of the preachers becomes unavailable for some reason, what’s our backup plan? If Chris can’t run the audio-visual setup one Sunday, what’s the backup plan?
Really useful discussion, and a great question from Carol. And as Mary pointed out, it’s actually a good idea to have these backup plans even when I’m not on sabbatical. It’s just a good idea!
And here’s the interesting thing. We were able to come up with a backup plan for every scenario we could think of. Of course, if we need some kind of backup plan, Murphy’s Law dictates that it will be something we didn’t think of ahead of time. But we have a lot of backup plans! Even for the preachers! We could bring in the pinch hitter or the relief pitcher for every role in an emergency.
You can find someone else to do everything I do at this church. They may be better than me, they may be worse, they may be about the same, but you can find someone to do it. You can find someone else to do everything that anyone does at this church. It may not be ideal. It may not be as good. But there isn’t a single task that is completely unique to anyone here or any other church.
But there’s one thing that literally no one else on this planet can do for you. No one else can love God for you. No one else can love Jesus for you. No one else can fulfill the greatest commandment for you. That’s on you. That’s on me. That’s on each of us individually and personally. We can’t outsource that.
In fact, the contemplative spiritual pathway realizes how emphatic Jesus was that the spiritual life God wants is based on love, not laws. Jesus talked a lot about behavior and obedience and doing God’s will, but he based it on love, not laws.
That’s kind of the same idea for Mothers’ Day, I think. I mean, do you think it would work for me to say, “Oh, I outsourced Mothers’ Day to my brother this year. Maybe I’ll take it next year?” No! My brother demonstrates his love for my mom in his way. I demonstrate my love for my mom in my way. We can’t outsource that to anyone else. I can’t hire someone to do that for me!
Side note, that would make a great TV scene. “Sorry I couldn’t be there this year, Mom. But don’t worry! I hired a look-alike to stand in for me at the brunch.” That’s comedic gold waiting to happen. I’m picturing a particular actor for that role: Matthew McConaughey. Yeah, I think he would be good enough…
But I digress. The contemplative spiritual pathway is marked by a focus on love and being rather than a focus on laws and obedience and tasks.
Heart of Prayer
But I’ve saved the biggest one for last. Almost every spiritual practice of the contemplative spiritual pathway is a form of heart-felt, introspective prayer. This isn’t praying for God to do stuff for you. This is an inner journey in dialogue with God. Big difference. Huge difference!
Saint Teresa of Avila is one of the best examples of the contemplative spiritual pathway. Her contemporaries actually forced her to write down what she was doing, and she wrote some of the seminal books on the inner journey of the contemplative. If you’re a reader, her book Interior Castle is often considered the most important description of the contemplative approach to God.
I want to give you a little snippet of how different contemplative prayer is from every day requests. Teresa describes the soul as “a castle made entirely of diamond or of a very clear crystal, in which there are many rooms…and in the very center and middle is the main dwelling place where the very secret exchanges between God and the soul take place.” She taught people how to enter this castle, how to pray, to commune intimately with God.
If that resonates and makes your soul sing, then you might have some contemplative spiritual pathway in your bones. If that makes your brain melt then you probably don’t have a lot of contemplative in you. But we got 8 other pathways, so we’re good.
Teresa of Avila described seven dwelling places within the Interior Castle of the soul. The first dwelling place is where the soul begins to pray, and the seventh dwelling place is where the soul is united with God.
But she saw a key distinction between the contemplative journey and the ascetic spiritual journey. We’ll talk about ascetics another week, but basically they love God in solitude. They withdraw. They like to be alone.
But Teresa saw contemplatives taking the love made manifest in their inner journey and sharing that love with the world. She said that spiritual progress is measured neither by self-imposed penance nor by the sweetest pleasures of mystical experiences but by growth in constant love for others and an increasing desire within for the will of God.
So an ascetic withdraws alone, but a contemplative grows in their inner love for God and then shares that love with others. In fact, Teresa saw a willingness to suffer for others as a sign that one’s inner contemplative journey was drawing closer to the peace of Christ.
So deep, heart-felt, introspective prayer is kind of the defining spiritual practice of the contemplative spiritual pathway.
As we have done with all of the spiritual pathways, we are going to highlight some of the common pitfalls of the contemplative spiritual pathway.
We already mentioned one of them. Teresa of Avila maintained the need the take the inner love of God and demonstrate love toward others. But it’s easy to forget that step and just focus on the inner love to the exclusion of the outward love. One of the common pitfalls of the contemplative spiritual pathway is to delight in God without delighting in the people and world that God has made.
Another common pitfall for Christian contemplatives is emptying without filling yourself with Christ. I’ve mentioned this before, so I won’t dwell on it too long, but many Eastern meditative practices are about emptying yourself of worldly connections and temptations. That’s a great start, but we are called to keep going and fill ourselves with Christ who lives within us. The goal of the Christian contemplative is to be emptied so that you can be filled with the Holy Spirit and the presence of Jesus. So just emptying yourself is a common pitfall.
A third common pitfall is very similar to what we talked about with enthusiasts who love God with mystery and celebration and experience. It’s pretty easy to get addicted to the “feeling” of the presence of Jesus. To use a Biblical analogy, those who walk the contemplative spiritual pathway probably have a few mountaintop experiences like Peter, James, and John witnessing the epic transfiguration of Jesus and his conversation with Elijah and Moses. It’s a common pitfall to just keep searching for the next mountaintop experience instead of living down in the plain. If you find yourself wandering from church to church or from Bible study to Bible study, you might be chasing a feeling instead of chasing the presence of Jesus within your heart. That’s a very common pitfall of this spiritual pathway.
So to recap, the contemplative spiritual pathway seeks the presence of Christ and focuses on growing in love for God and love for others. This journey happens through heart-felt, deep, introspective prayer. But contemplatives can get too focused on the inner journey to the exclusion of loving others, and contemplatives can chase a mountaintop feeling instead of seeking the presence of Jesus wherever they are right then.
You can see several ideas for practicing this on the back of your bulletin, but I’m going to have us practice one of them right here. Don’t worry, I know there are plenty of non-contemplatives here, so we’re not going to spend thirty minutes in introspective prayer. I know my audience. Relax.
We’re going to give you a taste of a centering prayer today. If you’re joining us online, go ahead and do this where you are.
First thing is body posture. Sit up like you’re paying attention, not slouching. We’re trying to enter the presence of the Living God, so let’s sit at attention but keep your shoulders and neck loose. You want to be attentive but not tight.
You can close your eyes or keep them open – whatever helps you focus your mind.
So now we’re going to empty our minds and hearts and souls of the clutter. So take a deep breath, and as you breathe out try to empty yourself as well. Another deep breath. Breathe out the clutter. Keep breathing slowly and deeply.
Now we’re going to center ourselves. There are many centering words we can use to signal our intention to be open to God’s presence, but since it’s Mothers’ Day we’re going to center ourselves on Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Focus on the word Mary. It usually helps to repeat the word you’re using to center yourself. So repeat Mary in your head or whispering aloud. Mary. Mary. Picture Mary. Imagine Mary. Focus on Mary. As you repeat “Mary,” open yourself to the presence of God. Continue breathing slowly and deeply. Mary. Mary. <LONG PAUSE>
You can keep doing this on your own, but that’s the basic idea. There’s a link on the back of your bulletin with more centering words and more tips on using the centering prayer to settle into the presence of God.
As long as you intend to enter into the presence of God and let God talk or act instead of you, you really can’t do this “wrong.”
Sisters and brothers, the contemplative spiritual pathway seeks the presence of Christ and focuses on growing in love for God and love for others. This journey happens through heart-felt, deep, introspective prayer. This spiritual pathway focuses on love rather than tasks. And this spiritual pathway focuses on one’s inner being, not just one’s outer behavior. This pathway seeks to cultivate a beautiful soul. That’s hard to measure in a database. But it’s a beautiful thing when you experience it or see it in someone else. Amen.