All Saints Margaret Street | Evensong & Benediction Sunday 11 March 2018

Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 11 March 2018

LENT 4, 2018  EVENSONG – Sermon preached by Fr Alan Moses, Vicar


Tonight we come to the last of our series of sermons on the disciplines and practices to which the Church calls us in Lent:  Reading and Meditating on Holy Scripture. 

On the Sunday before Lent, I  preached at the Grosvenor Chapel in Mayfair. My sermon was one of a series on the Liturgy of the Eucharist and my subject was the Liturgy of the Word: readings and sermon. 

When I was preparing that sermon and thinking ahead to this one, I took down from the shelves in my study a collection of essays called “The Art of Reading Scripture.”  On its cover is Rembrandt’s painting of the Prophetess Anna. Dressed as a wealthy 17th century Dutch bourgeois lady – she is reading a large copy of the Hebrew Scriptures.    This is a classically Protestant icon –  the individual believer searching the scriptures.  

But before Scripture is read in private, it is heard in public.  For most Christians throughout the ages and even in the world today, the norm is listening. Very few early or medieval Christians could have owned a Bible.  Before we are people who read the Bible, Christians are people who hear it read to us. The Church is a community which listens to hear something; which understands itself as a community which exists in response to a word of summons which requires to be answered.

That priority of hearing is found even in Archbishop Cranmer’s Collect: 

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them; that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life. 

Even in a largely literate society like ours, our private reading of Scripture takes place and is understood against the background of this public reading..  The Church is in the language of the Bible an “assembly”, “convocation”, or an ekklesia.  Its basic character is seen when it listens to the act of calling together.   In listening to Scripture, the Church sees that it is not the creation of its members and their thoughts and ideals. What we hear is not just information about people long ago, or some improving thoughts to support our better intentions or our efforts at self-improvement. What we hear in scripture is a summons to come together as a community that understands itself as called and created “out of nothing.”   As Jesus says in John’s Gospel: “You did not choose me, I chose you.” 

But let me return to Rembrandt’s old Dutch lady and her Bible. The Church of England probably reads more scripture in its public worship than any other Christian community: far more than many of those churches which would claim to be more “biblical” than us; more of the gospels than many of those who would claim the label “evangelical” as a mark of spiritual superiority. 

But before we start preening ourselves, the questions we should be asking ourselves are perhaps these: 

  • Do we read the scriptures outside church? 
  • Are they part of our prayers and life for the whole of the week? 
  • Do we pray over them, reflect on them, meditate on them? 

The Anglican system of worship which sets our reading of scripture in the context of the Eucharist and the Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, has its roots in the practices of Benedictine monasticism.  In that tradition, the communal reading of scripture is accompanied by personal reflection on it,  in what is called Lectio Divina – or “sacred reading”  That is a slow, deliberate, prayerful, meditative, patient,  mulling over of a passage, even a word; a rumination, like a cow chewing of the cud, which yields depths of meaning.  Without that accompanying reflection, we miss something vital. There is something lop-sided about our hearing and reading of scripture, so it is good that this form of prayer is being rediscovered and practiced anew today. 

There are resources to help us in this, and I will get to them in a moment. But first, we need to think about the different ways in which we read, because not all of them are suitable for meditation on scripture. 

One spiritual writer has contrasted two different approaches to reading: the functional and the relational.   

The functional is to acquire information for a task – say from a newspaper or a manual.  The basic purpose of this functional reading is to acquire information which will allow us to do something. 

There is a role for this in our reading and reflection on scripture.  In my study, as in Fr. Michael’s and Fr. Gerald’s, there are shelves of commentaries on the scriptures; the tools of a preacher’s trade. In them we find the fruit of the labours of scholars who have studied ancient languages and cultures, history and thought, to illuminate the background and meaning of what we read. Such studies guard us against reading our own ideas into scripture or using it as a quarry for theological rocks to throw at those who do not share our opinions. 

The relational approach to reading is much more like reading a letter from a friend or a loved one we have not seen for some time.  We may read it through quickly to catch up on their news, but then return to read it more slowly to discover how it is with one who is dear to us.  We will treasure it and take it out again and again.  The words of the letter bring a sense of our friend or loved one’s presence into our lives. They have a almost sacramental quality. 

Spiritual reading is much more like the relational than the functional.  What makes this so is both the intention, attitude, and manner we bring to reading and the nature and content of what we read.  Spiritual reading is reflective and prayerful. It is concerned not with speed and volume but with depth and receptivity.  Such reading is like pondering over the meaning of a poem; and there is a lot of poetry in the Bible. This is because its purpose is to open ourselves to how God may be speaking to us in and through this particular text. 

We are seeking formation not information.  Information allows us to control things or people, events or situations.  Formation controls us. It has to do with change in our hearts; change that reshapes us into the kind of beings God intends for us to be. It is about conversion and sanctification.  As this occurs, our personal behaviour, our relationships will be affected for the better.  Those who practice listening to God, are often good at listening to other people, too. 

Underlying all this is something Paul wrote to the Romans: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”(Rom. 12.2).  For Paul, it is having the humble, love-centred “mind of Christ” in ourselves that effects this transformation (Phil. 2.8).   Formation means being shaped ever more deeply according to the mind of Christ who reveals and offers to us our full humanity.  Through spiritual reading we seek a living, transforming relationship with God in Christ. 

So spiritual reading is a meditative approach to the written word. It requires unhurried time and an open heart, if the purpose of our reading is to hear God speaking to us, we will need to practice attentive listening and a willingness to respond to what we hear. 

Scripture has been compared to a lake whose depths we can never plumb. On the surface it looks like any other lake. We see human words like those in other books.  But when we jump in and swim downward we cannot find the bottom.  These human words become transparent to some mysterious and infinite depths we can never fully grasp.   

In traditional Christian understanding, scripture is both God’s Word and human word. It is part of God’s self-revelation, familiar and yet strange at the same time.  The Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton wrote that, in scripture we discover: “the strange and paradoxical world of meanings and experiences that are beyond us and yet often extremely and mysteriously relevant to us.”  

If scripture has this character, then we can expect to encounter the divine presence in its pages.  It not that words magically and mechanically contain God’s presence, but that, as we allow the same Spirit through which the scriptures were written to inform our listening, the presence of God in and beyond these words becomes alive for us once more.  

This relational nature of spiritual reading is conveyed in words of the 12th century Cistercian abbot, William of St. Thierry: 

“The Scriptures need to be read and understood in the same spirit in which they were written….You will never understand David until by experience you have made the sentiments of the psalms your own. And that applies to all Scripture.  There is the same gulf between attentive study and mere reading as there is between friendship and acquaintance with a passing guest.” 

There is a real sense that in spiritual reading, it is not so much we who read the Word and the Word which reads us.  “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than a two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”  (Hebrews 4.12)) 

If we are open, God’s Word will penetrate to our very depths, discerning and laying bare our secret motives and intentions.  As the “sword of the Spirit”, (Eph. 6.17), God’s Word reveals us truthfully to ourselves and lays us open to radical transformation at those points of our unlikeness to Christ.      

When we meditate on such a passage we become aware that our task is not so much to master the text as to be mastered by the One who is its source.  

Lectio Divina or Sacred Reading in the monastic tradition, which goes back to Benedict has four basic elements: 

  • lectio or reading
  • meditatio – meditation
  • oratio – prayer
  • contemplatio – contemplation 

These should not be seen as rigidly separate: One flows into another. 

Lectio is that reflective, gently-paced, a little at a time, kind of reading.  We allow the words’ meaning to sink in, expand, and nourish us.  We read scripture expecting that God will address us directly and personally. That message may be uncomfortable as well as comforting, but that may be what we need to hear,  

Meditatio – Methods of meditation or “mindfulness” are popular today. Many have their origins in Eastern religions, where meditation involves moving beyond concepts and images to the nameless experience of divine reality.  

Christian meditation differs in that it involves an active mind engaging with God’s self-revelation in Christ and in scripture.  The type of mental work is quite specific.  It is not a critical, analytical world of Bible study – which may inform meditation but remains distinct from it.  It moves us to reflection on where we are in the text.  Active imagination can help is find connections between our life stories and the great story of God’s redemptive work with us.  Meditation engages us at the level of the “heart” in its biblical sense, where memory, experience, thoughts, feelings, hopes, desires, intuitions and intentions are joined.  This is where we are likely to discover what a passage means in our lives personally or as a community. 

In the early church, meditation was a simple repetition of the word received from reading. The word was repeated in the mind, or even on the lips, until it formed the heart. The word received in reading was taken up and carried in meditation through the day’s activities.  It was a process of assimilating God’s word over time. 

Oratio referred to spoken prayer; a prayer that flows naturally from our meditation. It is our first response to what we have heard and assimilated in the first two phases of spiritual reading. It is the direct cry of the heart to God that rises when we have heard ourselves addressed personally through the word.

  • Perhaps the word has touched our pain, and we cry out in hurt, anger, frustration;
  • perhaps God has revealed our sin, and we whisper in confession and repentance;
  • perhaps it has evoked gratitude and we respond in thanksgiving;
  • perhaps it has sparked joy and we sing out in praise. 

Being Anglicans, we are perhaps rather reticent about speaking to God about much of this, but anyone who prays the Psalter regularly knows that it gives us permission to say all sorts of things which may not sound very pious or proper, but do express the way we are or feel.  Psalm 14 sung in tonight’s service is a good example. 

Contemplatio – This does resemble those eastern forms whose purpose is to move us beyond thoughts and images to a kind of emptiness or purity of heart. It is rest, play, sabbath-time in God’s presence.  Prayer in its different forms moves into rest in God.  Psalm 131.  

A related but slightly different form of meditation is found in various systems of meditation associated with Franciscans like the Spaniard St. Peter of Alcantara, a contemporary of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, and the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. Building on earlier methods, these have a particular emphasis on use of the imagination to enter into a Gospel passage:  picturing the scene and its characters and events; placing ourselves in that scene; asking what God is saying to us through it; responding in prayer to that request; resolving to do what he is asking through it. Meditation issues in action. 

The different methods might be summed up in this way:

1.  Prepare by prayer: the Collect for Advent 2 in the Prayer Book which I quoted earlier; the Collect for Pentecost; the Collect for Purity which we say at the beginning of Mass. 

2.  Picture – Read a passage carefully, picture it as if you were present. Try to see what the words mean – what the author wanted us to understand. 

3.  Ponder – Think of the meaning of the passage as it applies to yourself; what difference it ought to make to your life. What is God wanting you to learn or asking you to do? 

4. Pray – Talk to God. Ask for grace to live by the light of God’s word and for the virtues or graces needed to do that. 

5. Promise – resolve to do something for love of God and your neighbour. 

This is not just about stress management or self-improvement; it is for the glory of God and the salvation of the world.