Sunday, January 15, 2012

Sacred Space
1 Sam. 3:1-10; 1 Cor. 6:12-20[1]
Some of you know that I’ve been trying to lose 20 pounds for a while now. I guess about the last 6 years! It’s no secret that one of the keys to losing weight is a regular exercise program. I did try it—mainly motivated by the desire to lose the belly I developed in my forties! One of the things I realized recently about why I could never stick to anything is that I was essentially doing it on my own. About six months ago I walked into a yoga class at the YMCA, and I’ve hardly missed a class ever since. There’s something about having a class to make at a certain time that helps me follow my exercise routine more regularly. But more importantly, the fact that I’m working out with other people instead of essentially on my own makes it much more fun—even though it’s still hard work.
Our lessons for today confront us with the reality that spirituality is something we have to work at—it doesn’t just come naturally, it has to be cultivated. In our lesson from Samuel, we hear about a boy called to fill the vacuum left by priests who had so thoroughly abandoned their calling that “the word of the Lord was rare in those days” (1 Sam. 3:1). The sons of Eli were blaspheming God by using their position to fleece people who were just trying to worship God. The result was a spiritual impoverishment over the whole land. Our lesson from St. Paul shows us a congregation that had let their new-found freedom in Christ turn into license to do just about anything they wanted, using the slogan, “all things are lawful.” But again, it seems to me that their casual approach to faith resulted in the poverty of their souls that they tried to fill by indulging their desires.
I think we can identify with these lessons. It seems to me that we can see signs of our own spiritual poverty all around us. We define our lives by the clothes we wear and the cars we drive. We are constantly chained to some kind of electronic device or another, constantly staring at some kind of screen. It’s no wonder we feel so lonely and so isolated, so cut off from God and from the life of God’s Spirit in the world. It’s no wonder we are driven to try to fill that emptiness with other things or to use all kinds of substances to at least dull the pain.
Ironically, although our spirituality seems to be at an all-time low, in some respects “religion” seems to be doing better than ever. But it’s a religion that reminds me of something the prophet Isaiah said: “these people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Isa. 29:13). It’s pretty obvious that religion these days can be just a veneer to cover over the way we really live. It’s no wonder so many people can say “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” And yet, I’m not so sure that works any better than our superficial religion. What a contrast to the joyful lesson of Epiphany that God is here among us. As I said last week, the good news of this season is that wherever we are, God is there, loving us, nurturing us, drawing us into the joy of God’s life and love. And yet, it seems that we have embraced a way of life that reinforces the feeling that we are god-forsaken, cut off from God’s presence and the joy of God’s life and love.
The hard truth is that a sense of God’s constant presence isn’t something that comes any more automatically than getting back into a regular exercise routine. Religion has played a role in keeping God at a distance by designating only certain spaces as “sacred space” where God is present and by separating all but the special few from that “sacred space.” But the idea that God is separated from us tends to interject separations into all of life: we separate body vs. soul, individual vs. community, and humanity vs. the natural world. It seems to me that all these forms of segregation isolate us from creation, from one another, and from God.[2] The reason for that is because it is in the world around us, in other people, and in God’s creation that we experience God’s presence through the Spirit.
If we want to integrate our lives more fully into the freedom and joy and exuberance of God’s Spirit, it will take some effort. True “spirituality” is something that has to be cultivated—it’s not just the default mode that we fall back on when we reject organized religion for all its many flaws. Genuine spirituality is something you have to practice. For some people, the traditional ways of doing that will work—you study the Bible, you pray, you give, etc. For other people, it will take different practices, practices that reinforce the truth that all the space around us as sacred space because it is constantly inhabited by God’s Spirit. In a recent book called An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor discusses ways of recognizing that—practices like taking time off, engaging in physical labor, feeling pain, pronouncing blessings, and getting lost![3]
We’re not much into cultivating things these days. We’d much rather just pull up to the drive through and take home whatever it is we want. Or order something on the Internet and have it on our doorstep the next day. But if we want to live in the joy of God’s presence and God’s life and love, we are going to have to be intentional about seeking to integrate our lives into our faith. We’re going to have to cultivate a sense of Gods’ presence through the Spirit that constantly surrounds and fills us.
One way I’ve found helpful is to turn off all the distracting noise and all the devices we use to escape reality and just pay more attention to what’s going on right here and now. Another way I’ve found helpful is to avoid the “lone ranger” approach and make cultivating spirituality a group effort.[4] That’s why we do things like having Wednesday Bible Study and evening prayers and a Servant Leadership School. Practicing our faith and our spirituality can be much more meaningful in a group that on your own—much like my experience with my exercise routine. I can’t guarantee automatic results. But I can guarantee that if you intentionally practice your faith in these ways, from time to time, sometimes when you least expect it, the Spirit will surround you and fill you with a sense of God’s presence that leaves you seeing every part of your life as sacred space.

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/15/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX,
[2] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, 173.
[3] Cf. Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, xv-xvi.
[4] Cf. Taylor, An Altar in the World, 9, where she says that “houses of worship” are places “where people of faith meet to say their prayers, because saying them together reminds them of who they are better than saying them alone.”

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