Throughout Lent we are being introduced to the five streams of Christian response (as identified by the Rev. Dr. Janet Gear) that are commonly found in the United Church of Canada. Sunday’s service is shaped by Contemplative Christian tradition (“Spiritual” within Janet’s model), and the message is built on a three-step Lectio Divina reading of the gospel. The first reading was simply to get a sense of the scripture; the second reading was to note if a word or phrase presented itself. This was the third reading.
For a third time, we hear from Matthew chapter 4. After this reading there will be a longer time of a silence – a couple of minutes – to ponder what call or invitation God has for you in the word or phrase you heard earlier, or in something new that quietly emerges in this third reading:
4 Then the Spirit led Jesus up into the wilderness so that the devil might tempt him. 2 After Jesus had fasted for forty days and forty nights, he was starving. 3 The tempter came to him and said, “Since you are God’s Son, command these stones to become bread.”
4 Jesus replied, “It’s written, People won’t live only by bread, but by every word spoken by God.”[a]
5 After that the devil brought him into the holy city and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, 6 “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down; for it is written, I will command my angels concerning you, and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.”[b]
7 Jesus replied, “Again it’s written, Don’t test the Lord your God.”[c]
8 Then the devil brought him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9 He said, “I’ll give you all these if you bow down and worship me.”
10 Jesus responded, “Go away, Satan, because it’s written,You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”[d] 11 The devil left him, and angels came and took care of him.
Two minutes of silence ensued. With the sound of the chime, you are invited to return your attention to this room, and this gathering of seekers….
In true Lectio Divina fashion, that would complete the message – though each of the silences would have been significantly longer – or perhaps there would be a brief well-chosen reading, or there would be a time to journal your experience. What I wish to offer this morning, though, is just a couple of paragraphs that tie together this time of contemplation, with the story of Jesus on this first Sunday in the season of Lent.
New ways of a people being in relationship with God emerge from the wilderness. This is the case in many faith traditions which include some form of “vision quest” and is part of our history in the three “Abrahamic” faiths. The Hebrew people were delivered from servitude and then shaped, with Moses, by forty years of communal testing in the desert. The prophet Muhammad received Divine revelation in the cave at Hira and returned there regularly to seek Holy guidance on how to address the troubles of his society. Jesus went into the stark badlands near Jerusalem, the Judean wilderness, for forty days of fasting, relying solely on the grace and provision of God, before even beginning his Ministry.
Time with God in the stark reality of wilderness, challenges you to realize your utter reliance on God, clarifies the meaning of life, and names the artifice of affluence and comfort. The lessons learned by withdrawing from the things that usually capture our attention, and being both challenged and absolutely loved by God, equips us to see the joys and sufferings of human living and our own journey through God’s eyes, and to respond with clarity and grace. That solitary holy time may be as heart-wrenching as what Jesus experienced in the wilderness, a time of profound challenge in your life; or it may be as simple and intentional as setting aside prayer time in your day, or going to a retreat centre. Through it all, God is there.
We begin this season of Lent with a willingness, then, to set aside the distractions and diversions of life, to seek God’s guidance. That may call us to specific courses of action, bringing Christ’s energetic engagement of the world into our lives, or it may simply be a time of restoration, remembering that even in the hardest times of life, we are beloved of God, or it may engender a rhythm of action and reflection. May these 40 days plus 6 Sundays be an uncluttered, spacious time for you, and for us as Church, to discover and embrace whatever God has for the here and the now and the next. Amen.
Gear, Janet. Undivided Love. Altona, MB: Friesen, 2022.
© 2023 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church
NOTE: Earlier in the service, the “Spiritual” (contemplative) stream was profiled:
Theological Banquet, week one: a Contemplative, Spiritual Response to God
In her book, Undivided Love, Janet Gear describes five different modes of Lived Faith that we commonly find in The United Church of Canada. Using the extended metaphor of a Theological Banquet, each of these five modes can be pictured as a table setting at Christ’s banquet.
I’ll say more about her overall model next week when we don’t have quite so many things going on in the service, but I will say before we begin that her intent is not to label folks or make value judgments about one mode expression over another; her intent, rather, is to help us recognize that there are many ways to faithfully respond to the One God who calls us all.
The table setting we meet today is what Janet calls “Spiritual” or what I would call “contemplative.” In her words (p.195) those inclined to a Spiritual response “are walking gently and attentively on the earth, seeking and practicing harmony with all living things, gathering to celebrate, to mourn, to support, and to befriend one another, seeking and sharing wisdom, allowing art and creativity to meet and express the ineffable, praising the great mystery at the heart of the universe.” Though she describes this as a fairly uncommon group in most congregations, because many folks so inclined find there is little room for them in the Institutional Church, it’s quite common in our Ralph Connor family, largely because of Evensong, which fits the description we just heard almost word for word; Healing Pathway and Threshold Choir and Green Exodus also inhabit a similar space.
So what would this Spiritual/contemplative response to Christ’s calling look like in Worship? Well, the first answer would be to log in to Evensong on Zoom, this Wednesday at 7:15 PM, and experience it for yourself… but the other answer, is to imagine a service of Worship in which the space between the words is at least as important than the words themselves… where chant and repetition are commonplace, where meditation with gentle guidance or with absolute silence replaces a sermon, where the readings come from many sources – poets like Mary Oliver, ancient mystics like Rumi, Psalms from the Bible or Sacred Stories from Indigenous Elders. These various sources of primary content create a spaciousness of thought and spirit and room for deep, gentle response to emerge.
The primary place of worship for those who identify as Spirituals will be a mindful nature walk; in Church, the symbolic nature of the sacraments may touch the heart in a special way. The words and ways of Celtic Spirituality, and of the Taize community, fit well with the Spirituals’ response to the Holy. No one mode of human response to the Holy is complete, and for those who are drawn to a Spiritual contemplative response, interaction with the other four types of response may help them to take the benefits of contemplation and put it into action; but there is a depth here, an unhurried willingness to be in the presence of God, that is of benefit to the entire gathered community of faith.
Today’s service will both describe this Spiritual way of being in response to God’s calling, and be shaped by it. And we begin that by doing something each Sunday that reflects this way of being: sitting comfortably in your pew, relaxing your shoulders, closing your eyes if you wish, and taking three deep cleansing breaths to open us to God’s Holy presence… within us, between us, around us, O God, may you truly find a home. Amen.