December 15, 2019

2019 Dec15

Advent 3 - Year A

A Sermon Preached by The Rev. Ian M. Delinger

 

For those of you who weren’t here, and as a reminder, I first brought out my Emergency Preparedness Kit on the First Sunday of Advent. This wagon-full of stuff represents about 90% of what is suggested in the list published by the California Department of Public Health. This is how we are to prepare for a disaster – because “about the day and hour no one knows” – a line from the Gospel on the First Sunday of Advent.

 

Advent is the season during which we prepare for Christmas. Advent is the time of anticipation of the celebration of the birth of Jesus, the Son of God. It is also about preparing for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. So, this Advent, we’re exploring our preparedness for the Second Coming and looking at what our Sunday readings are suggesting that we have in our Spiritual Preparedness Kit. The most obvious and fundamental elements are faith, hope and love. And the scriptures from the last two Sundays suggested that we need to include patience and perseverance, and humility in our Spiritual Preparedness Kit. I suggested that Centering Prayer could help develop patience and perseverance; and that Franciscan Spirituality could help develop the type of humility before others and before God needed for the Second Coming. So, we are exploring what we should have or develop beyond faith, hope, love, patience and perseverance, and humility.

 

What are today’s readings telling us that we should have in our Spiritual Preparedness Kit?

 

References to the blind are in 3 of the 4 passages of scripture. In Isaiah, restoring sight to the blind, as well as restoring those with other disabilities, was a metaphor for restoring wholeness. The community of the blind represented Israel who would be restored to their wholeness as a nation, both at the end of the Exile and at the coming of the Messiah. The Psalm would have offered a similar allusion to its readers and hearers with “the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.” The reference in Matthew would have had a very similar purpose, to point readers and hearers toward the Coming of the Messiah, but what it really did was apply Isaiah’s eschatological vision to Jesus as that Messiah.

 

Today, the Babylonian Exile is long over. We are followers of Jesus as the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecies. So, what are we being urged to do by hearing these readings many millennia later? We are being reminded to be prepared for Jesus’ return, and to know when it is occurring. We are being encouraged to develop the quality of perceptiveness to include in our Spiritual Preparedness Kit. We need to be able to recognize, see and know that Jesus is among us, and then we need to act and to follow. This requires us to be perceptive of that which will likely not be like anything we have seen or experienced before, and about which we know neither the day nor the hour. We will need to see beyond our own blindness, whatever disables us from seeing and knowing Jesus, so we can recognize the restoration that will be taking place right in front of us when He returns.

 

What is perceptiveness?

 

  • Merriam-Webster defines perceptiveness as “the ability to understand inner qualities or relationships”.
  • The Cambridge Dictionary defines perceptiveness as “the quality of being very good at noticing and understanding things that many people do not notice”.
  • I want to define perceptiveness in the context of today’s readings as “being able to see beyond your own blindness and the blindness of everyone else.”


How do we develop perceptiveness, the ability to understand inner qualities, to notice things that others don’t notice, to see beyond our own blindness? I looked to both secular and religious resources on how to develop perceptiveness. A resource from the World Economic Forum[1] offers 3 ways to become more perceptive at work:

 

  • Become a better listener.
  • Be aware of the person’s background and preferences. In other words, try to experience the situation through another person’s personal and cultural lens or framework.
  • Focus on nonverbal cues.

 

When applied to our faith, we can certainly utilize all of these to improve our perceptiveness. Listening is deeply important to the practice of Christianity and in the deepening of your faith. We are routinely asked to “listen” to what scripture is saying to us, and to “listen” to what God or Jesus us is telling us as we discern various aspects of our lives.

 

Attempting to understand a situation, whether a familiar one or not, from another person’s background and frame of reference is what we do every time we attempt to understand what scripture is saying to us. We are interpreting scripture in a very different context, a different situation, time and place from its original writing. Despite this incongruency, we insist that scripture still speaks to us today, even though we are in a different background and frame of reference.

 

We are also called to go further than that, and to see scripture, and might I add, tradition and reason, from the perspective of others, those to whom we minister or those with whom we want to share in faith. As we endeavor to be more inclusive and more diverse, we must interpret scripture, tradition and reason through different lenses: a feminist hermeneutic, an LGBT hermeneutic, a LatinX hermeneutic, and so on. This is not to change or re-write scripture and history; it is to attempt to understand how scripture and history are received by those who are not like us, to be more perceptive to the spiritual and pastoral needs of a broader and more diverse group of faithful people.

 

The World Economic Forum article has one other bit of advice that we could learn from in the Church and as Christians who are building our Spiritual Preparedness Kits as we deepen our relationship with Jesus. The article states that

 

“Top employees aren’t necessarily smarter, but they’re often emotionally intelligent and highly perceptive.”

 

This means we need to listen to all types of people as we practice being perceptive. Jesus modeled this sort of openness when He instructed His followers to listen to children, when He was reproofed by the Syrophoenician Woman, and when, on the Cross, He received the words of the Penitent Thief who requested, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’

 

So, these secular tips do have a place in our own spiritual lives as we build up perceptiveness for our Spiritual Preparedness Kits.

 

On the religious side of this exercise are none other than Spiritual Exercises. These Exercises are the foundation of Ignatian Spirituality. They were crafted over 2 decades by the 16C warrior-cum-monk Ignatius of Loyola who founded the Society of Jesus, which we know today as the Jesuits. There aren’t Anglican Jesuits like there are Anglican Benedictines and Franciscans. However, the Society of St John the Evangelist, or SSJE, in Cambridge, MA is an Order of The Episcopal Church that is rooted in Ignatian Spirituality.

 

The Exercises draw upon imaginative contemplation and a deep diving into the life of Jesus in the Gospels by inserting oneself into the stories. As one joins the Jesuit Order, the full form of the Spiritual Exercises is necessary, which requires 30 days in silent withdrawal from ordinary life. As a retreatant goes through the Exercises, there are 4 unequal sections referred to as ‘weeks’. The themes for the ‘weeks’ are repentance for sin; meditations on the life of Christ; meditations on Christ’s Passion; and meditations on Christ’s Resurrection. Within these themes, and as part of the Exercises, the retreatant incorporates reflections on their own life. This draws out their priorities for working on their relationship with God. Ignatius meant the Exercises to be ‘the ordering of one’s life ... in freedom from any ill-ordered attachment’, a sort of “Jesus therapy”.

 

This intense form of retreat hopefully leads one to see past their blind spots and increase their perceptiveness, to be so engaged with Jesus through the Spiritual Exercises and on into daily life that were Jesus to return in the retreatant’s lifetime, s/he would be ready and perceive Jesus’ real presence. The 30 days of Spiritual Exercises are an intense means of engaging with the Risen and Ascended Jesus through the 4 themes in a way that requires the retreatant to reach beyond their known limits of spirituality and draw from deep within the self to expand the boundary of their relationship with Jesus. There are shorter retreats, and many now engage in an 8-day retreat on the Spiritual Exercises. Long or short, a retreat on the Spiritual Exercises is far from a nice time in pleasant surroundings and a handsome and engaging retreat leader with a lovely voice. It’s explicitly and rightfully life-changing stuff. Through the Spiritual Exercises, one should be able to develop the quality of understanding relationships in a deeper way, to begin to notice and understand things that others do not, and to learn to see beyond their own blindness and the blindness of others.

 

Ignatius also gave us a way to deepen our spirituality in a less intense, yet just as meaningful way, and that is to pattern one’s daily life around becoming more perceptive to the presence of Jesus: twice-a-day Examen. This is a 5-step prayer process that Ignatius himself practiced. The 5 steps are to

 

  1. Become aware of God’s presence.
  2. Review the day with gratitude.
  3. Pay attention to your emotions.
  4. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it.
  5. Look toward tomorrow.

 

Just reviewing the 5 steps, you can see how Examen not only deepens your spirituality and relationship with God, but how Examen is an exercise in perceptiveness. It’s a way of developing psychological congruence and emotional intelligence while focused on God and remaining within the physical world. Let me list the steps again:

 

  1. Become aware of God’s presence.
  2. Review the day with gratitude.
  3. Pay attention to your emotions.
  4. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it.
  5. Look toward tomorrow.

 

Twice-daily Examen – at noon and at night – can help you develop that perceptiveness that you need for your Spiritual Preparedness Kit. Ignatius’ own personal story and encounter with Jesus is how the Spiritual Exercises and Examen developed. It’s definitely worth looking him up, if you are not familiar with his life. It’s one dramatically changed by, and intensely focused on Jesus Christ.

 

Having “the ability to understand inner qualities or relationships”, having “the quality of being very good at noticing and understanding things that many people do not notice”, and being able to see beyond your own blindness and the blindness of others is a special spiritual gift. Ignatian Spirituality may be a way to develop this quality of perceptiveness, and, as we read in the passage from James: to “Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.” The Jesuits have other prayer and spiritual development resources that you can find on their website, ignatianspirituality.com.

 

Jesus said to John’s disciples,

 

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.

 

Jesus healed many and brought them to wholeness. When we read these healing stories, they are for us metaphors for the work we have to do within ourselves to see beyond our own blindness in order to recognize what other don’t: that moment when Jesus is in our midst. Jesus is calling us to be perceptive to His presence. Ignatian Spirituality might help you develop that.

 

As you go through Advent and look toward Christmas and pray for Jesus’ return, as you practice Examen and insert yourself into the Gospel stories, re-read this one and remember the perceptiveness for your Spiritual Preparedness Kit. You’ll then realize that Jesus was not the model of perceptiveness; it was John. From prison, he recognized the work of Jesus as the Messiah who was the fulfilment of the prophecy of Isaiah. Not in a royal palace wearing soft robes; not in a position of temporal power and authority, but a simple prisoner whose perceptiveness made him the greatest and most prepared messenger.

 

[1] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2015/09/3-ways-to-become-more-perceptive-at-work/

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