Sermon: Leaving Sin Behind By Going Deeper in Prayer
“I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!”
What would it look like if our world were on fire? Not literally in flames, but blazing with the kind of fire that our Lord would like to see – the fire of His love, blazing with passion for the glory of His name. What would it look like if the city of Goshen caught fire, or if St. John the Evangelist Parish were already ablaze?
Imagine living in a place where each and every person you met radiated joy and peace, where there was always someone to support you at any difficult moment, where you felt a profound sense of connection and brotherhood with the people around you, where people were not afraid of professing the truth and living in accord with it.
Obviously that’s not exactly the world that we inhabit, so why isn’t the world already ablaze like Christ desires it to be? The answer is simple, really: sin. St. Paul tells us today that in order to “persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus,” we have to “rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us.” St. Paul (who is traditionally believed to have written the Letter to the Hebrews) is, on the one hand, the perfect person to make this claim, since he also asserts in the Scriptures that he was at one point in his life the greatest of sinners, before his radical encounter with God’s mercy.
On the other hand, though, we could also easily respond to his exhortation to rid ourselves of all sin with a, “That’s easy for you to say!” St. Paul, after all, heard Christ speak to him on the road to Damascus while persecuting the Church, was blinded, and was then cured of his blindness. If something like that happened to you or to me, it would be a lot easier to follow the Lord! Except maybe not. St. Paul still struggled against the forces of sin throughout his life. He writes about a “thorn in the flesh” that continues to agonize him until he realizes that it is precisely in his weakness that God wants to love him. After his conversion, Paul was victorious over sin, but he never said that it would be easy.
Just as God called out to Paul and broke into his life right at its lowest point, so too does God desire to speak to each one of us as well, to “rid [us] of every burden and sin that clings to us.” There’s a temptation here, though – one that is fostered by pride and the classical “I can do it myself” American spirit. It’s the age-old temptation of Pelagianism, that would say that through our own efforts we can assure ourselves of our salvation. Not so fast! When we talk about purifying ourselves from sin, we shouldn’t just be thinking about fighting harder against temptation, doing more penances, or just trying harder. Rather, being purified from sin in order to have that life-changing relationship with God that we should desire is primarily something that He does, and not that we do ourselves.
How does God bring about that purification? The answer, again, is simple: through prayer. This is why we focused last year as a parish on prayer, because prayer is the answer to the greatest longing for relationship, for connection, and for meaning in each of our hearts.
As a result of our focus last year on prayer, I’ve talked to a lot of people who are trying to go deeper in their prayer life, particularly by devoting time to meditation and silence with the Lord. However, we all know that this “deeper” kind of prayer, the kind where things really start to change in our lives, is hard to achieve. That’s why I was excited to hear about a new resource that we are sharing with you today. As you heard at the beginning of Mass, our parish is now participating in the Hallow Parish Pilot program. The Hallow app can help to guide you into the deeper waters of contemplative prayer through guided meditations that de-mystify contemplative prayer. I’d like to share with you a sample of what that experience is like. Right now, we’re going to listen to a short version of one of their meditations on God’s mercy that fits in really well with the theme of purification from sin that we’ve been seeing in this Sunday’s readings. First we’ll be guided through calming ourselves and preparing to enter contemplative prayer. I have to admit that when I first heard these Christian takes on mindfulness meditation, I thought that it might be kind of new-age. But recently I was reading a collection of writings from saints and fathers of the Church and prayer, and saw them recommending the same methods that we will encounter shortly. Then, we’ll be invited to examine our own lives and reflect on God’s mercy. (This recording encourages you to say some lines out loud with the guide – just whisper them softly so that we can maintain the spirit of contemplation.) Let’s give it a try together!
Reminding ourselves of our own unworthiness and sinfulness can be hard, but when we couple that consideration with the even-more-powerful force of God’s mercy in the depths of true prayer, we can open our hearts to “[ridding] ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us” so that we might “persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus.”
During our year of prayer last year, we all gained a lot of great tools for having a deeper relationship with God through prayer, especially through the One Percent Challenge and our exploration of different types of prayer in our Lenten Series. I hope that the Hallow app can be another tool that helps more St. John’s parishioners reach the depths of authentic and life-transforming prayer. There is a free version of the app that is updated regularly with new content, and if you choose to upgrade to the premium version, because of our participating in their parish pilot program, you can get a 20% discount, and St. John’s will receive a share of the proceeds. I hope that you will stop by their table in the bank-side vestibule and talk to Alessandro to learn more.
Prayer always has been and always will be the most important means of leaving sin behind to grow in our relationship with God. There are no gimmicks or shortcuts that can replace true quality time with the Lord. I have already seen our year of prayer produce so many fruits in our parish. I pray that more and more of our parishioners will catch fire with God’s love through prayer so that our Lord will find this parish already blazing.
Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
XX Sunday through the Year, A.D. MMXIX