Sunday, February 23, 2014

How many masters have you?

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.' Matthew 6.24

The core message of that text it pretty simple: you can't be the faithful servant of two opposing masters. We, as God's creatures, were created by him to be in relationship with him, and at the end of this life be with him for all eternity. And we cannot serve him and the interests of this world at the same time … we cannot serve God if wealth, greed, money, material success, fame, glory, or the like are the focus of our life. You can only have one ultimate goal: it can either be heaven in the next life or the material comforts of this one, but it can not be both.

And that creates a problem, does it not? Because we have to live in this world. We need to work to earn money to buy food, clothes, keep a roof over our heads, to meet our responsibilities as parents, spouses, or others we have to look after and care for. We can not all leave the work we do, whether it is a job or in the home, and go off and join a religious order or live on our knees in the church in constant prayer, acting as if there were no life outside God's house, or even settle ourselves in the armchair beside the fire in our own homes, with the Bible or a Prayer Book or some spiritual work upon our lap, determined that we will do nothing else all our days other than pray and praise God.

And so we must both work and pray – be Godly and be worldly … yet neither can we compartmentalise our lives … being holy only when we pray and totally worldly the rest of the time … there is a marvellously funny poem on the topic by the Irish poet Oliver Goldsmith that I remember from my schools days called 'An elegy on the death of a mad dog', the second stanza of which sums this point up rather neatly: In Islington there was a man, Of whom the world might say That still a godly race he ran, Whene'er he went to pray. If you lead a holy life only when you pray then you do not lead a holy life at all.

In fact, we are told in St Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians that Christians are to pray without ceasing … which might seems a rather difficult thing to do if you are also to work, meet family commitments, and do other things as well. Monks of the Orthodox Tradition train themselves to the point where they can pray at all times, whether at work, at table, and even in their sleep, using the prayer of the heart … but they are monks – how can we, who live in the world, follow such a heroic example of truly integrating life and prayer, of serving only God while still coping with the mundane realities of the world without letting them interfere with the higher goal?

Well, I came across an interesting quotation while I was preparing this sermon. It is from St Frances of Rome, a woman who lived in the 15th Century, who was not only a saint, but also a mystic, a wife, a mother, and the founder of a religious community. And what she said was this: "A married woman must often leave God at the altar to find Him in her household care." If we leave aside the change in social circumstances from the time in which she spoke and adopt it to our own times what we might come up with is something like this: "A Christian must often leave God at the altar to find Him in their work and other cares." If we are to serve God as we live in this world we must make every word, thought, and deed a prayer to God, all done for his greater glory in the world.

How may we do this? Well, one way would be to begin each day with prayer, and as part of that to dedicate all you will do that day to the Lord; as the day continues, be mindful at all times that every action of your hand, every word that passes your lips, and every thought that goes through your head is in accordance with your vocation as a Christian who serves the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Stop now and again, for a few minutes before each meal for example, to pray again more formally and remind yourself of the dedication you made that morning that you would serve God and him alone. And then, just before bed, consider your day. Honestly appraise it to see where things went wrong … were there times when you acted more out of pride, anger, or greed than love of God? Ask his forgiveness and for the strength to do better.

And then the next day repeat; and the next; and the next; and so on until that final day when you stand before him. And having faithfully served him in this life, then you have every reason to hope you will hear him say: 'well done, good and faithful servant.' It is my prayer that you will. Amen. 

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