Well, there’s no question but that the theme for our Liturgy today is “persistence!” Jesus commends the widow for continually crying out to the unjust judge “day and night” until she is given justice. (Luke 18:1-8) The author of the Second Letter to Timothy (3:14-4:5) tells the young pastor to “continue in what you have learned…to proclaim the message (and to) be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable…and (to do so) with the utmost patience…”
Even our Collect, or prayer for today, asks God for help so that the “Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith…” Persistence and perseverance is the name of the game apparently! It’s sometimes hard for new converts or people who have just had a dramatic renewal of their faith to understand this!
In the first blush of conversion or renewal, it all seems so simple! God seems close at hand, prayers get answered, and the need for perseverance and persistence just doesn’t seem necessary! But the Christian faith is not intended to be a “sprint.” It’s a “marathon!” We’re in this for the long haul and sometimes God doesn’t seem so close. Sometimes those prayers don’t seem to get answered. And it’s at those times that we need persistence and perseverance in our faith that only comes through that dreaded word: “discipline!”
I don’t know when “discipline” became such a bad word. Maybe we associate it with being punished, “disciplined” as a child. But the word “discipline” comes from the same root word as “disciple” and it simply has to do with being a “learner” or one being “taught.” We speak of the “academic disciplines” as areas of learning, as a body of knowledge. So, to be “disciplined” is simply the only way to “learn” or to be “formed.” Just as Jesus’ disciples were formed by him as they spent time with him, day by day and week by week.
We live in a culture of “instant gratification,” of course, and that does not make our task any easier. We click our “remotes” through scores of TV channels from the comfort of our easy chairs. We send off an e-mail halfway around the world and expect a response within minutes, or at least hours! And we can “google” an answer to almost any question within the space of a few seconds! So, it’s easy to think that life is really like that! That things really come that easily! And that the deep things of life should be just as readily available as our Facebook page! But, my friends, it just…”ain’t”…so!
Psalm 119 (from which we had a portion appointed for today) is the longest psalm in the Bible, and it’s all about meditating on, and internalizing, God’s Word…often called in the psalm God’s “law.” Today we read, “Oh, how I love your law/ all the day long it is in my mind. Your commandment has made me wiser than my enemies/ and it is always with me. I have more understanding than all my teachers/ for your decrees are my study…”
This is a classic reference to what the Jewish people call “Torah study.” Today, it often takes on a kind of ritualized role very much in the context of prayer. A specific place – the beit midrash, or “house of study” – is a designated room set aside in many Jewish communal buildings where set times during the day or week are dedicated to “Torah study.” Prayers are said and then portions of the first five books of the Bible (the Torah) are not just read, but dialogue and discussion and even argument takes place about the meaning of the texts and how they apply to our lives today. It can be very lively! This is what the Psalmist means by singing “Oh, how I love your law! All the day long it is in my mind.”
And this leads to what Jeremiah means this morning by quoting God as saying “…this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (Jeremiah 31) This is the kind of prayerful discipline that true “disciples” are called to engage in!
Susanne and I spent last weekend with the Sisters of the Transfiguration in Cincinnati who I serve as Bishop Visitor (or “Advisor”). Like most religious communities the Sisters gather four times each day for prayer: Morning Prayers and the Eucharist begin at 6:30 a.m.; Noonday Prayers precede lunch; Evening Prayer before dinner; and Compline before retiring for the night. It’s a similar pattern to what Brother Michael-Benedict follows here in the Cathedral each day.
For most of us, of course, that is the kind of discipline far beyond our ability…or even our desire! But, if we are to develop the kind of consistent and persistent prayer symbolized by the widow in today’s Gospel…or the kind of perseverance Timothy was being challenged to demonstrate in the Epistle…or that wonderful, dialogical “Torah study” of the Jews, we need some kind of commitment to a spiritual discipline.
Historically, for Anglicans like us, that means two things – the Bible and the Liturgy! Word and Sacrament. Daily Bible study and weekly Eucharist. We need to read some portion of the Bible each day in the context of prayer. And we need to receive Holy Communion every week…on Sunday, the Lord’s Day…the day of the Resurrection.
There is a daily lectionary beginning on about page 936 in the back of your Prayer Book which would take you through almost the whole Bible in a year if you read those texts every day. In fact, there’s a link on our parish web site called “the Daily Office” which brings up those daily texts on the screen if you click on it! Now THERE’S a creative use of technology! I like to do my daily Bible reading early in the morning, but you may come up with a better time for you.
And then, there is the Eucharist. If reading the Bible feeds the mind, I believe that it is Holy Communion which feeds the heart. We call it “spiritual food” and believe that, when we receive the Bread and Wine of the Eucharist, we are receiving into ourselves the very Being and the Life of Christ which feeds our spirits and strengthens that Holy Spirit within us. How could anyone willingly stay away from that experience which we offer here every Sunday?
The Bible and the Liturgy. Word and Sacrament. Daily Bible study and weekly Eucharist.
Two ways for God to put his Law within us, and to write the New Covenant on our hearts. Two ways to say with the Psalmist “How sweet are your words to my taste/ they are sweeter than honey to my mouth.” Two ways to be persistent…so that God may grant even us…Justice!