Looking for a map

This is a sermon for the eighth Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is Psalm 119:129-136.

If you’ve been following the news, you’ll know that the most recent census data has become available not long ago; and fine minds all over the country are analysing that data for its significance.  In church circles, I’ve heard much comment on the fastest-growing category of religious belief; which is, more accurately, having no belief.  Of course, many of the people in that category aren’t hardcore atheists, but fall more into the camp of being “spiritual but not religious.”  They think there’s probably some sort of God, they’re interested in questions of meaning, they want to make a difference, not just a living; but they’re not convinced about religious institutions providing them with reliable maps or guides.

We can take that on board in various ways, some more optimistic than others.  I suggest that one thing we might give thought to, is actually checking the value of the maps and guidance we offer; because if what we offer has little value, why would anyone want it?

So what I want to think about this morning is really, what do these things – being spiritual or religious – mean?  What does it mean to be spiritual? And if we are religious, what does that imply about spirituality for us? Perhaps spirituality is a smorgasbord of ideas and behaviours and practices from which we can pick and choose to fashionably accessorise our faith? Or indeed is it a matter of fuzzy thinking best ignored by the wise?

Well, I think it is possible to be religious without being spiritual. But I also think it is dangerous; that way lie dogmatism, fundamentalism, legalism, and institutionalism. We’ve all seen the damage that these approaches to a life of faith can do, and I’m sure I don’t need to encourage you to avoid them.

At the same time, though, it is definitely possible to have a spirituality which isn’t firmly anchored in a relationship with God, and that’s just as dangerous in its own way. That way lie the occult practices which the Bible explicitly forbids, as well as pursuit of whatever makes us feel warm and fuzzy inside, perhaps at the expense of our emotional maturity and indeed our common sense. That way, too, lies the risk of projecting our own psyche onto the universe and then wondering why the universe seems so muddled!

There might actually be some clues to all of this, in this morning’s psalm.

The psalmist wrote, “Your decrees are wonderful… I long for your commandments… I may keep your precepts… teach me your statutes… your law is not kept.” On the face of it, this psalm can look like an obsessive-compulsive’s hymn to legalism. Over and over the psalmist focuses on God’s law as the heart of his faith.

And yet we should notice amongst the mentions of the “law,” words about grace and light and freedom.  And we might also ask, how it is that the psalmist found these things in the law?

The thing is, the word we translate as “law” – Torah – is not about a legal system. It has at its root the Jewish verb for “to teach” or “to instruct.”  And the word we have as “statutes” originally related to something engraved in stone.  For the psalmist, then, light and grace comes from accepting God’s unchanging (reliable and trustworthy) teaching, rather than living within a set of “rules.” That teaching is not just a set of moral or behavioural precepts; it refers above all to God’s revelation of Godself to Israel. But notice that the psalmist does not treat God’s teaching as fixed or finished; he asks that God continues to teach him. This is a faith which expresses itself in a relationship which is open, trusting and dynamic.

More than that, but this isn’t a psalm from someone who is sitting quietly amongst his scrolls, shut away from the world.  The person who wrote this was facing real life with its challenges and difficulties, and – we can see from the way he writes in places – the questions and criticisms of those who don’t share his belief.

The psalmist’s spirituality has what has been described as a “warm doctrine of God.” The God of this psalm is not withdrawn or neutral; he is present and available to the person who reaches out to Him in times of challenge or perplexity.

The psalmist had a faith very firmly grounded in what he knew of God. His spirituality wasn’t something he made up as he went along, but at every point he turned back to let his life be formed and re-formed according to the word of the Lord. For us, at a point in history after Christ’s incarnation, our knowledge of God has expanded to include what that brought to our understanding; the gospels, the creeds of the early church, and the foundation of the tradition in which we have been nurtured.

A further thing to note about this psalm is that it is not an expression of purely individual faith. Whatever the circumstances in which it was written, it was incorporated into the sung worship of the Jerusalem temple, and has continued to be part of the corporate prayer life of both Jews and Christians to this day. Even our use of it this morning is intended to be as much an exercise of prayer and worship as of intellectual processing. It points us to the fact that we connect with God at times in each other’s company and even through each other, through mutual service and the sharing of our gifts and wisdom. And it points us to the fact that God’s self-revelation impacts the decisions and priorities not just of individuals but of communities.

But let me come back to the questions I started with this morning. Is spirituality a bit of a smorgasbord, something from which we can pick and choose as we wish to enhance our faith? I suggest that the psalm we’ve read this morning offers us a qualified answer which says, “yes and no.” Yes, spirituality, even for Christians, offers us a huge variety of ways to connect with God and discern His will. Even the diversity of Scripture shows us that; we can pray and meditate our way through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation and encounter a huge variety of genres of writing, of moods, of characters and stories.

At the same time, the psalm also says, no, Christian spirituality – Godly spirituality – isn’t entirely undetermined. It is a response to God’s love and self-revelation in Christ. Christian spirituality includes the imperative to obedience, to trust and faith, to coming back again and again to the touchstones we have in Scripture and in tradition, to ensure that we are firmly anchored in the life of faith. It highlights the necessity of facing up to the things in life of which we are afraid, and points us to the resources we have to do so.

The question of what it means to be faithfully Christian is real and urgent.  It has consequences for our identity and ethos. It is in being faithful to the teaching about God in Christ, that we can have a healthy spirituality which makes our religion a worthwhile endeavour; which gives us a set of resources – map and guidance, as I put it earlier – which we can share with others longing for truth and hope.

The rise of the “spiritual but not religious” crowd need send us neither into panic nor into ideological bunkers; but rather we ought to look to the treasuries of millennia of resources, to enrich first ourselves, and then others around us, as we all seek to make something of the pilgrimage of life.

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