The last in this year's installment of the Church Fathers by Daniel Harrell (I'm on vacation for the month of August. See you in September!)
Well, the congregation has spoken. I asked you to vote which Church Father starting with the Letter I would be the topic of this Sunday’s sermon and you did. For those of you new tonight, eleven years ago I embarked on a month-of-July sermon series concerning the Church Fathers, those personalities who over the course of church history fashioned our faith and codified what we have come to embrace as orthodox Christianity. As there have been numerous noteworthy Church Fathers (and Mothers) it seemed sensible to tackle them a letter at a time. However, since many of the patristic heroes cluster around the letter A, I’m only this year getting to Letter I. So far this year we’ve looked at the early second century martyrdom of Ignatius of Antioch and the influential third century theologian, Irenaeus of Lyons. As I had morning duty last Sunday, I gave you a choice of I-Father for this week since I could only preach one: either Ignatius of Loyola, (the founder of the Jesuits), Innocent III (the founder of the imperial papacy), or Isidore of Pelusium, an early desert father. The winner, with a convincing 61% of the total, is Ignatius of Loyola.
Granted, only 42 of you managed to click an opinion, including the three of you that voted for the iPhone. It may be your were swayed by your penchant for the 1986 movie classic The Mission, or maybe you’re a student or alumni of Boston College. Either way, you know about the Jesuits, or officially, the Society of Jesus. A religious order of the Roman Catholic Church, the Jesuits number 23,000 brothers “ready to live in any part of the world where there is hope of God’s greater glory and the good of souls.” Jesuits work for social justice and promote education, having founded Boston College as well as a host of other schools such as Georgetown, Marquette, Holy Cross and all the colleges and universities with Loyola in their name. If your experience of the Jesuits hasn’t been through the movies or school, perhaps it’s been through an experience of spiritual direction. Ignatius’ popular handbook The Spiritual Exercises, is still widely used for spiritual direction and retreats 460 years after its first publication.
Spiritual discipline is not something unique to Catholic orders. Plenty of Protestants have found following Ignatian exercises an invaluable help to reinvigorating their own prayer lives and bringing them into deeper intimacy with God. Stretching all the way back to Leviticus, a strong spiritual life has always depended upon rules and ritual to keep the human heart tuned to God. Some of these ancient guidelines, refined by the rabbis of Jesus’ day, appear here in Matthew 6. Giving to the poor fostered generosity and kindness, pulling your focus away from yourself for the sake of serving others. Generosity reminds the heart of the generosity of God; we give because God so lavishly gives to us. Fasting fostered self-control through self-denial. By subjugating your bodily desires to spiritual ends, you rein in your selfishness and better resist worldly distractions and temptations. Prayer is holy communication. As God and His Spirit abide in His people, so prayer is the primary way God’s people participate in that presence; prayer is the natural, unselfconscious language of relationship.
Yet, Jesus, in addressing giving, fasting and prayer here in chapter 6, nevertheless warns that even these deeds designed to guard the heart may ironically be corrupted by the heart. “Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven,” Jesus said, but “Be careful not to practice your righteousness publicly, in order to be seen by others. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” Human sin can be uncanny. Which is why we need to pray rightly.
I want to think with you specifically about prayer tonight because prayer is so central to our relationship with Christ and thus so central to Ignatius’ own life—but also because I find prayer so hard to do. I find giving and fasting hard to do too, but at least they’re more tangible. You can see the results of giving and feel the results of fasting. But with prayer that’s not always the case. My mind wanders at times when I pray. I get impatient. I doubt. I don’t get the answers I want. People will tell me it’s because I don’t have enough faith. And that’s true, but at least with less faith you get less disappointment. I can’t tell you the number of pious folks I’ve had to coax back from the edge of apostasy due to unanswered prayer. Because our expectations of prayer can be so high, it’s easy to understand how easy it can get to try and get something else out of it when God’s giving you nothing. Faking it in public at least gets people thinking you’re a good Christian.
Of course if that’s what you’re after, Jesus says that’s all you’ll get. But if what you’re after is something more eternal, then Jesus says you’d best do your praying in secret, in a room with the door shut. Now understand that Jesus employs hyperbole here. Given that most ancient Palestinian homes only had two rooms, praying in a room without anyone knowing would have been as difficult as your left hand not knowing what your right hand is giving. Likewise, few Jews deliberately prayed in the streets any more than they announced their giving by blowing trumpets. Jesus’ point gets back to the heart.
Motivations matter when it comes to prayer, perhaps even more so than faith. In fact, if you’re like me, much of your prayer is prayer for faith. In verse 7, Jesus issues a warning against praying like pagans—idol-worshippers who babble on and on because they think they’ll be heard if they say enough words. Granted, you have to talk a lot if you’re trying to get an statue to do anything, but that pagans persisted indicates they had plenty of faith, it was just aimed in the wrong direction. By contrast, Jesus says, “your Father knows what you need before you ask;” the implication being that weak faith and inadequate words will do. Moreover, presuming that God knows your needs even better than you do, a further implication is that God sometimes gives despite what you ask. To receive such undesired gifts from God requires that we trust God knows what he’s doing, that like any loving Father, his concern is more for our ultimate well-being than for our immediate wishes.
Such faith goes to the matter of unanswered prayer. We all experience disappointment with God. Perhaps that’s intentional. God did not come to earth as an impoverished, scandal-ridden and finally executed carpenter to impress anybody. We become Christians only to suffer trouble and brokenness and end up dead on this earth. Talk about disappointment. But maybe God doesn’t always answer prayer like you’d like because God wants you to want what He wants—on earth as it is in heaven. He wants you seeking after his Kingdom and after his righteousness. He wants you disappointed enough with this worldly existence so as to eagerly hope for your life to come. This is the reward Jesus alludes to here in Matthew 6.
Regrettably, promises of incomparable glory don’t always make for sufficient motivation to follow Christ in the meantime. Which is why even the most heartfelt Christians mix their motives. We give to the poor because God gives to us, but also to assuage our guilt and because helping other people makes us feel good about ourselves and gets us a few props. We fast to hone our spiritual attention, but if that doesn’t work at least we lose some weight. However prayer doesn’t offer the same sort of side benefits. This isn’t to say that our motives can’t be mixed when it comes to prayer, particularly when it comes to what we pray for. There are those who compare prayer to yoga or meditation to make it seem more normal, but do it in out loud and in public and I guarantee most people will think you’ve lost your mind. I think this is part of prayer’s design. As holy language reserved for God, there is a sort of human foolishness about it.
Ignatius of Loyola was born in 1491 into Spanish nobility. Europe of the late 15th Century was a world of discovery and invention. Explorers sailed west to the Americas and south to Africa. Scholars uncovered the buried civilizations of Greece and Rome. The printing press fed a new hunger for knowledge among a growing middle class. It was the end of chivalry and the rise of a new humanism. It was a time of radical change, social upheaval, and war. The latter opened up career opportunities for Ignatius. The youngest of 13, all the other jobs had been taken. So Ignatius entered the military. In 1521, during a quixotic battle with the French, a cannonball shattered his leg. During the long weeks of his recuperation, he was extremely bored and asked for some romance novels to pass the time. However, the only books available were a Bible and books about the life of Jesus and church fathers such as Augustine, Basil, Bede and Francis of Assisi. These had an unexpected effect. Moved by their example and faith, Ignatius confessed his sins, donated his fine clothes to the poor, fasted and took vows of poverty and chastity.
Determined to devote his life to Jesus, he joined a monastery and tried his hand at severe asceticism, but it failed to get at what he sensed God wanted to do with him. So instead, he just got depressed. That happens sometimes. He tried making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to work as a missionary, but that didn’t work either, so sadly decided to do what so many do when life hits a dead end: go to graduate school. On the way, he stopped to spend the night in a cave but became so engrossed in prayer that he remained there ten months. It was camped out in that cave that ideas for his Spiritual Exercises began to take shape. It was also there that he had a vision which he regarded as the most significant moment in his life. Ignatius never revealed exactly what the vision was, but it was an experience that enabled Ignatius to see God’s presence in all things. This grace, finding God in all things, is one of the central characteristics of Jesuit spirituality. By finding God in all things, all times are times of prayer. Even graduate school. Ignatius made it to graduate school (the same one where John Calvin was studying), was ordained a priest and with others, founded the Society of Jesus in 1534. One of their early emblems was the same as the one at the center of our sanctuary cross. The three letters “IHS” are the Latinized version of the first three letters of Jesus’ name in Greek.
The Spiritual Exercises is a simple set of meditations, prayers, considerations, and contemplative practices. It proved an important tool in countering the Protestant Reformation by shoring up the Catholic rank and file. Anyone can do them. The Exercises recognize that not only the intellect, but also emotions and feelings help us come to a knowledge of the Spirit’s action in our lives. Based on four movements, the Exercises encourage a deeper conversion into life with God in Christ by allowing our personal stories to be interpreted by being subsumed in a Story of God. The first movement works on purifying the soul, the second movement on gaining a greater knowledge and love of Christ, the third on freeing the will to follow Christ, and the fourth on releasing the heart from worldly attachments. Ignatius wrote, “ask the grace of God our Lord that all our intentions, actions and operations may be directed purely to the service and praise of His Divine Majesty.”
Ignatius taught that imagination could be employed as a powerful tool in prayer. One of his exercises invites you to imagine yourself as a character in a Biblical encounter with Jesus. The idea is that by empathizing with a character, you can be guided into your own real conversation with God. I thought it might be interesting to try this exercise, both to give you a taste of Ignatian spirituality, but also perhaps to help you pray.Make yourself as comfortable as you can. The idea is to hold yourself still so you can listen to God. I will read this account of Jesus walking on water, then we’ll listen in silence a few minutes, after which I will read it again to refocus. At the end, I will close by praying a prayer of Ignatius. As you listen, the idea is to place yourself in the story. What is the scene like: the water, the boat, the storm? What’s the temperature? What do you smell? How do your feet feel? What expressions are on other people’s faces? What sounds do you hear? What do you feel inside? And what does Jesus say to you as you imagine yourself there with him? Let’s try it. Get comfortable. Close your eyes. And listen.
“Lord Jesus, speak to us through your word.”
Jesus insisted that his disciples get into a boat and cross to the other side of the lake. He went up into the hills by himself to pray. Night fell while he was there alone. Meanwhile, the disciples were in trouble far away from land, for a strong wind had risen, and they were fighting heavy waves. About three o’clock in the morning Jesus came toward them, walking on the water. When the disciples saw him walking on the water, they were terrified. In their fear, they cried out, “It’s a ghost!” But Jesus spoke to them at once. “Don’t be afraid,” he said. “Take courage. I am here!” Then Peter called to him, “Lord, if it’s really you, tell me to come to you, walking on the water.” “Yes, come,” Jesus said. So Peter went over the side of the boat and walked on the water toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind and the waves, he was terrified and began to sink. “Save me, Lord!” he shouted. Jesus immediately reached out and grabbed him. “You have so little faith,” Jesus said. “Why did you doubt me?” When they climbed back into the boat, the wind stopped. Then the disciples worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God!”
“Take, O Lord, and receive my entire liberty, my memory, my understanding and my whole will. All that I am and all that I possess You have given me: I surrender it all to You to be disposed of according to Your will. Give me only Your love and Your grace; with these I will be rich enough, and will desire nothing more.”