**I just returned home after attending the annual Apprentice Gathering. This year’s theme was “The Joy of Kingdom Living,” and all the large group gatherings and workshops focused on the six traditions of Christian spirituality outlined by Richard Foster in his 1998 book Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith. In keeping with this year’s theme, I thought it might be worthwhile to post a series of sermons on the same subject I preached back in the spring of 2012. Each week during the series, I included a bulletin insert with some suggestions for trying the practices of each tradition, based on suggestions at the end of each chapter of Foster’s book. This is the sixth and final week’s sermon, on the Incarnational Tradition.
May 20, 2012
As You Go
Matthew 28:16-20; Acts 18:1-4
Once upon a time, three or four hundred years ago, there was a very unhappy monk. He had joined a monastery in the hope of being constantly in the presence of God, intending to devote his life to prayer. But as the low man on the totem pole, so to speak, he was put to work in various menial tasks—cooking, cleaning, laundry, weeding the garden. (He actually learned that all the monks worked at some kind of task for the good of the community.) So he was unhappy, because he went to the monastery to pray and be in God’s presence, not to sweep and pull weeds.
I don’t know what changed Brother Lawrence’s attitude. Maybe an older, wiser monk saw him moping around and had a talk with him, or maybe the insight came to him in the Great Silence that falls over all monastic houses after the last prayers of the night have been said. At any rate, what he decided to do was to offer whatever task he was doing, whether it was cooking lentils or washing robes, as a prayer and service to God. And you know, before long, he found that not only did those tasks not keep him from praying, did not keep him from being in God’s presence, but he was able to experience the presence of God at any moment, no matter what he was doing.
Eventually, toward the end of his life, Brother Lawrence’s insights were gathered into a little book called The Practice of the Presence of God. It’s an easy book to read, and it can be had for free at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library, if you’d like to have a look. Although Brother Lawrence lived in a monastic community centuries ago, his discoveries about offering his work as prayer can help us understand how we can live in God’s presence, no matter what we happen to be doing.
Today we take up the final of the six streams of Christian spirituality, the Incarnational tradition. Now, of course, Incarnation is one of the main ideas, main pillars, main beliefs of the Christian faith. Incarnation is the theological term for God putting on flesh and living among us in Jesus Christ. Jesus came to earth and lived a regular human life, with a family and friends. He learned a trade from his father. He participated in the religious life of his people, learned the Scriptures, attended synagogue. He chafed under the rule of a foreign empire. He was tempted by all the things that tempt human beings…although, unlike us, he resisted temptation.
Incarnation means God present in everyday life—once, in the flesh, in Jesus Christ; and now… well, that’s the matter that’s before us today.
Brother Lawrence thought the best way to live in God’s presence was to escape from the world. Because of that he resented being asked to do the unglamorous, everyday work necessary to maintain the life of his monastery. But he eventually realized he had it wrong. In offering up even the smallest, even the most menial, even the most tedious task as a gift to God, he discovered the presence of God made incarnate in everyday things.
That’s part of the beauty of monastic life, really, part of the genius of the Rule under which men and women religious live: true prayer, true service, true living in the presence of God may be found in the midst of a community of human beings, in the everyday routine of work, prayer, rest, and having to get along with a set of human beings who each come with a unique set of gifts and flaws.
But we don’t live in a monastery—actually, we tend to think of monastic life as being something only Catholics participate in, and the rest of us don’t need it, maybe don’t even want it. But every monastic house welcomes guests, without regard to whether or not they’re Catholic, to participate in the community’s life for a time if they wish. And some of these guests may choose to become “oblates,” sort of an associate membership in which they attempt to carry the realities of the monastery or convent out into the rest of the world. An oblate lives as best as he or she can according to the rule of the house, even though she or he does not physically live in the house.
Not only that, but there is a movement among even non-Catholic Christians nowadays, the “new monasticism,” where groups of Christians are setting up communities where they live, work, and pray together, and serve their neighborhoods. Shane Claiborne is a leader in this movement; he has written about and teaches the things he has learned as a member of a new monastic community in which he and his fellows live among and serve poor and homeless people in the inner city. Fascinating stuff. Incarnational stuff—Shane likes to say that we are literally the hands, feet, voice and heart of Jesus Christ alive in the world today.
But even if we are not able to be part of new monastic communities like Shane Claiborne’s, there are ways for us to bring Jesus Christ to life in the lives we lead. Maybe we do seek to participate in some of the activities of a community like his, gathering regularly—maybe even daily—for prayer or worship. Or maybe we just try, like Brother Lawrence, to figure out ways to offer our everyday activities to God as prayers or acts of worship. The things we do in support of our church, of course, are gifts to God and God’s people. But what about the rest of our time?
Ray Miles, in his little book of offering meditations, tells of a Christian gentleman, a baker by trade, who encountered, on a train, a zealous woman anxious to spread the Gospel. The woman asked him if he was a Christian, and he said yes. She gave thanks for that, then asked him, “And what do you do to serve the Master?”
And he said, “I bake.”
“I did not ask you,” she responded, “about your trade, but about the service you return to the One who gave you life.”
His reply was, “I bake, madam.”
Here was a man who saw his everyday task as a way to make God’s presence known in his corner of the world. How are our everyday tasks revealing God’s presence in our corners of the world?
It all comes down to stories, really, when we talk about incarnational spirituality. Once upon a time, so Fred Craddock says, a new resident in town sought a veterinarian to look after her pets. She asked around, wanting to be sure the chosen vet was a Christian; and one was recommended to her. She went to meet the doctor and asked her how her faith and her work intersected.
The vet said, “I am a Christian, so my service to God comes first. After that, my duty to my brothers and sisters. Once those obligations have been met, then and only then do I turn to the animals.”
The new resident said, “Thank you very much for your honesty. I will keep looking.”
How does a veterinarian serve God? By caring for animals. That is the veterinarian’s ministry and calling… and of course this applies to their staff, as well. Offering care even after hours, with gentle hands and kind words, putting in extra time when there’s a crisis, tirelessly seeking the answer even though the animal cannot say what’s wrong. Sometimes it even means helping end a creature’s suffering through death, when that’s the only available way to do it.
It’s not just a job when it’s offered as service to God; and when that’s the case the vet’s hands—our hands, as the case may be—clearly become the hands of the Good Shepherd, and our everyday lives and everyday tasks proclaim the Gospel.