A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr B ~ Advent 3 ~ 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
I hope you’re enjoying this 4-part Advent sermon series! We began with Awakening to the reality of the challenges in life, and our need for respite, relief, renewal, and rebirth into God’s fullness. Then we said that once we’ve awakened that desire we need to begin to Adapt our being and doing as we change the way we perceive and understand our world and God’s omni-presence permeating it. This week we’ll be looking at ways to Attune ourselves and keep ourselves attuned to God’s presence, because faith and religion are always ongoing, always ever-deepening, never just ‘been-there-done-that-got-the-checkmark’. And next week our word is Acquiesce – as in that spiritual need to let down our guard and allow God to work through us, because the Holy Spirit never coerces, but only ever offers and works at our invitation and consent.
The arc of this Advent sermon series – awake, adapt, attune, acquiesce – is pretty classic in terms of spiritual deepening and spiritual formation ideas. And today’s reading from 1 Thessalonians 5 is kind of the whole thing in microcosm.
It’s like a short, rapid-fire, crash course in spirituality! Easy to understand and remember, but kinda hard to do.
And if you read it too literally, it sounds impossible, and not very desirable! Listen to how it starts:
Rejoice always – but I’m not always happy.
Pray without ceasing – but if I’m on my knees reciting prayers when will I make breakfast, or go to work?
Give thanks always – Really? Even for the bad stuff?
Obviously, I’m going to suggest that it means something much deeper than that! Why do we need a sermon about staying in tune anyway? I mean, if this God stuff is so great and powerful how come it doesn’t just stay locked in all the time? Well, to be blunt – the problem isn’t with God: it’s with me. (And you too!)
Let me start with a huge assumption that sits at the heart of my theology.
Our natural state is to be ‘in tune’ with the Holy Mystery we call God.
We are meant to (or, if you prefer, created to) resonate in harmony with Divine Love.
So, if that’s our natural state then how do we get out of tune?
Consider this. Imagine you are a musical instrument. (You can spend some time thinking about which instrument you are later!)
Some instruments are built solid and tough, like a piano. They rarely go out of tune, but they do react to use, and changes in the weather, and being moved too much. When a piano goes out of tune you have to call in a pro to tune it.
Some instruments – like guitars or violins – go out of tune as you stress their strings – in other words, through normal use. Can you relate to that? As your ‘strings get stressed and stretched’ you start to go out of tune! Guitars and violins have tuning pegs built into them which the players can adjust as they need to.
Some instruments are so fragile that they go out of tune very easily. The old joke is that every time you open the door to the concert hall you have to retune the harp! (I hope you’re not a harp!)
The tuning of wind instruments – flutes, clarinets, trumpets – depends on the player’s technique and the amount of wind (breath, Spirit!) that flows through them. And they have sliders and stuff to adjust.
But in every one of those situations, out of tune-ness is a natural part of playing music. Going out of tune is not the problem – being unaware that you’re out of tune (or being aware and not doing anything about it) is!
You can’t adjust your tuning if you aren’t aware of your out of tune-ness.
You can’t be transformed into new life until you realize and accept that your old life is somehow not enough (awake), and choose to do something about it (adapt).
Many musicians make the mistake of thinking that once they get their main tuning note, or strings, in tune that they’re good to go – not realizing that every other pitch they play also has tuning issues, and that the stress and pressure of playing affects the instrument.
A skilled musician knows that they must constantly be aware and must constantly be making minute adjustments to stay in tune.
Surely my metaphor is obvious!
Whether you’re a musician or a person of faith – to stay in tune – to stay attuned – requires constant awareness and adaptation.
I don’t know about you, but I find it more than a little disconcerting that it seems to take so little to knock one off their religious path or out of their spiritual rhythm. I say the word ‘attune’ so casually, like we should just get on with it, but my own journey shows how changeable we can be (I can be). How even a small and unintentional (pardon the pun) relaxation and lack of attention can set you adrift.
So what should we do?
We keep praying. Keep coming back to it. Keep starting over. Every day.
And when we notice we’re ‘out of tune’ we just climb back on board and retune and try again.
Attention and intention.
I preach it over and over and over again – because I need to hear it over and over and over again.
I do. For me.
I’m no superstar spirituality dude with perfect tuning just because I have a fancy collar. In fact, it probably heightens my self-expectations and intensifies my self-loathing when I constantly screw it up and fall short – which I do.
You probably do too.
We need to be gentle with ourselves in this!
And we need to find ways to retune – things to draw on to increase our awareness and ability to stay in harmony with God’s Sacred Presence.
Things like prayer.
1 Thessalonians 5:17 says, Pray without ceasing.
But praying the way we usually do it in church – with set forms, and fancy theological words, and postures like kneeling, or bowing heads, or clasping hands – those are just one small aspect of what prayer means.
The Greek word for prayer is proseuché (pros-yoo-kay) – it’s a compound word consisting of two concepts: toward-ness, and will-exchange. The toward-ness part means openness, to conceptually (if not physically) turn ourselves away from whatever might be distracting us in a given moment and turn ourselves, turn our mindfulness, turn our attention toward noticing and engaging with the Presence of God. Literally, the Greek word means movement toward a something, a goal, a destination, with implied interaction, or reciprocity. It’s not just openness and toward-ness, but also has that sense of interaction and a reciprocal relationship at the core. So the first part of prayer is to open oneself to an interaction, a conversation, a relationship.
The second part of the compound word is about the exchange that happens during that interaction. Quite literally, the exchange part means to interact with the Lord by switching human yearnings (ideas) for God’s yearnings. We exchange our ways for God’s ways. In other words, let Thy will be my will – Thy will be done, not mine!
That means that prayer is fundamentally a two-way communication – talking and listening. And even more than that, prayer is a relationship. Think of someone you have a deep, connected relationship with. It could be your partner, your best friend, your close sibling or relative – anyone with whom you feel deeply connected. Now imagine you’re sitting together in a quiet room. Do you need to speak in order to deepen that relationship, or is just being together enough?
Meister Eckhart, a famous 12th century mystic and theologian, described prayer as a reciprocal gaze! Like lovers gazing dreamily into one another’s eyes.
What would it be like if all you did was speak at someone, ask them questions, complain about their supposed shortcomings, and seek their help, but never stopped to listen? Not much of a relationship! Our relationship with God deepens through prayer, which is our primary means of communication with God. Just spending open-hearted, mindful time with one another is where real connection and intimacy grows and deepens.
That is the heart of prayer. And that is the foundation from which all those other forms of prayer flow.
Prayer is toward-ness and will-exchange – and you can do that anytime, anywhere, anyhow – constantly even.
That was the secret of my hero Brother Lawrence’s deep spiritual connection with God. Lawrence called it practicing the presence of God – and he was famous for being just as connected while washing pots and pans as he was while receiving holy communion.
Pray without ceasing.
(Any sermon I can connect scripture with Brother Lawrence is a good sermon in my books!)
And now with all that foundation laid we can return to this scripture passage with a deeper understanding. How do we stay attuned?
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
Rejoice always does not mean we have to put on a happy face when we’re not happy. No one is happy all the time. That’s not what joy in God means. Joy is deeper than happiness. Joy comes with trust, and depth of relationship, and being transformed by God’s holy Love. We can have joy even in crappy times – because even in the crappy times we are not alone! We live in God’s world – in God’s kingdom. It is absolutely possible to be unhappy (due to your circumstances) and still be joyful (due to your faith and trust in God). Holding joy and unhappiness in tension is really hard! It’s another one of those spiritual paradoxes. And it’s one of the things that tends to knock us out of tune!
So, to stay attuned:
Always Pray (we’ve already talked about that one).
Always be grateful.
This one’s tricky at first.
It’s incredibly important to note that it says “give thanks IN all things” not that we must give thanks FOR all things.
Take this pandemic, for example. No one should be the least bit thankful FOR Covid-19 and the devastation is has wrought on us.
But there is much to be grateful for in the midst of this challenging season.
After those 3 staying-in-tune “do’s” 1 Thessalonians 5 goes on with a couple of “don’ts”.
Verse 19 – Don’t extinguish, or block out the Spirit.
Remember, the Spirit is not coercive. You have the power to ignore or keep the Spirit at bay. Or not.
In other words: be Always Open.
And, verse 20 – Don’t despise the words of the prophets.
When stuff in the bible makes you go, “Nope. Not buying that!” – don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Test. Discuss. Read. Learn. Listen to sermons!!! Ask questions. Do the work of digging deeper.
In other words: be Always Curious..
Now put it all together and you have a sure-fire recipe for staying attuned with God, with Jesus, with the Holy Spirit.
A person of ever-deepening faith should strive to be:
It’s like a short, rapid-fire, crash course in spirituality!
Easy to understand and remember, but kinda hard to do.
So easy. So hard.
So needed. So ignored.
So, do it!
So be it!