Spiritual Exercise Equipment

The following was a sermon preached by Fr. Tom 5 years ago. It is worth revisiting at the beginning of another new year.

Have you ever heard this remark?

Jesus loves you just the way you are, but too much to let you stay that way!

It is a fact of modern life that almost everything you touch came to be through a process of manufacturing. The light bulbs in the chandeliers, for example, are not hand-crafted. A certain amount of machining was involved in the sanding and staining of the pews we sit in. Conveyor belts conveyed the cement blocks which form the foundation of this building. And yet, in most manufacturing processes, there are still humans in the assembly line.

 I knew a young woman once whose job it was to pop door panels into place on doors of Ford automobiles, all day long. From where she worked, she could not see the end result. From seeing her work station, you might not even be able to ascertain what kind of car she was making, was it a Mustang or a Bronco, who could tell? It was a fact of her life that she couldn’t always see the relationship between her routine tasks and the final product. And yet, without her contribution the car would be incomplete!

In the course of this sermon, I also want to draw out a fact of the spiritual life, similar to this factory job, that is to say, we often are not aware the importance of our repeated spiritual acts as having a relation to God’s eternal plans. But God is a builder, you know. So we often loose the sight of the purpose of our prayers, and church services, fellowship times, out-reach, Sunday school classes, sermons, weekly communion, the daily office – the point is not to just do them. The point is become something. These things can be thought of as stations in a people-making factory.

Now, when a factory makes a Ford Mustang, the purpose of the car is to transport people and things. It is meant to be active in the wide open world, not to be made to sit still forever either only admired or stored away.

So it is with God’s desire for people. God uses the life of the church to exercise us and shape us and direct us and fill us with Grace and Holy Spirit power – to be active in the wide open world.

What does this have to do with today’s Scriptures about Jesus? And that today is the feast of the Holy Family?

God the eternal Word made flesh, what theologians call the 2nd person of the Trinity, co-equal and eternal with the Father and Spirit, was Incarnate in the man Jesus of Nazareth, fully God and Fully human – but the Incarnation, though miraculous, was brought about in ordinary means, through conception and childbirth, into a Family.

We read today from the 1st chapter of Matthew, not often heard in Christmas time lectionary, but there it is: An angelic vision to Joseph, Mary’s betrothed, their domestic familial negotiations, Mary and Joseph’s unity of purpose and devotion to one another. The Gospel writer depicts Joseph as the ancestor of King David and so Joseph, here, is a strong leader, navigating the life threatening world we heard Mike Corey describe last Sunday. The Gospel of Luke really opens up for us the world of Mary and Elizabeth, telling the feminine side of the story. Matthew gives us the guy’s take on it. This is a vignette of masculine honor and integrity. Joseph wants to protect Mary from disgrace before he is aware of the child’s divine mission, and after his awareness of it, he is obedient to God; honors Mary’s dignity as a respectful husband and they name the child Jesus.

Today we only have a small portion of the Holy Family’s story as recorded in Matthew. But they go on to receive a visit fraught with portent from foreign wise men and receive their royal gifts that foreshadow the child’s future passion. They fly to Egypt to avoid the unnecessary infanticide by Herod. But we’ll get to more of this next week. All of a sudden, what began as an ordinary family is no ordinary family, but one that must protect God’s promised one and nurture the Word of Life at all costs.

And then, the Bible is rather silent on the next decade or so of this family’s life, aside from one adolescent story, and a few cryptic references to Jesus “growing in wisdom and stature.” It does not explicitly record the death of Joseph, though catholic tradition holds he died before Jesus.

We can only assume that life in Nazareth was ordinary, routine, populated with repeated tasks of work, public worship, hospitality, community life. If “Joseph the honorable” is a Dad for the Church and “Mary the pondering” is the mother of the Church, we carry forward these routines through discipline and prayer.

And what is the cumulative result of these years of discipline and prayer? Growth! Jesus becomes more and more the Son of God that the Father Almighty has promised of old.

Now we turn and consider this narrative in our own homes and families. Our families, by God design are “people making factories” too. Now before you giggle because you think I’m trying to make a euphemism for procreation and reproduction, don’t. Yes, that’s part of it, maybe step one or two, of a million small steps repeated tasks – chores, prayers, conversations, discipline, learning, failures, and successes.  And there is much that we cannot control in this world that comes to our families uninvited, but I want us to consider the things we can control. What are we intentional about? Do we think of our families as being character building centers? Do we remember we have the chance to help one another grow, in holiness and righteousness? We have the capacity.

Do we actively structure our homes to promote holiness? Do our homes reflect the prayer life of the parish? Or is the sphere of our homes distinctly different and we don’t care? Maybe we want there to be no connection. We’ll keep God in this box “over there” as obligation or insurance, but then we miss the joy of growth. Yes, there is deep joy is making your home holy. But as solemn as this sounds, God always has Grace for constant new beginnings and trial and error is how we learn! So try something new for your spiritual growth at home this year.

In 2000 the Hummer Corporation saw an upsurge in popularity with a new portion of the auto-market which was starting to be called “sport utility vehicle.” They thought they’d get in the game. Military style HumVees were very expensive and not entirely practical for the civilian market. But why not build a civilian vehicle that has all the mountain climbing and desert crossing capability of the military Hummer – complete with the paint job and cushy interior of a general market road SUV? It was a win-win. A college girl pal of mine married a Michigan auto engineer who was hired to work on the prototypes of this new gas guzzler. In the fall of 2001, they were in Mishawaka, at the new H2, as they were being called, plant. And they gave me a tour. This was all before they were released to the public. Not all the kinks had been worked out of the assembly line. The robots and conveyors and automated welders were not at all in synch. Half way through, they showed me a crunched up and crooked auto body all scratched and stuck in a conveyance structure about 8 feet off the floor. It had gummed up the whole operation. No H2s would roam the wide open world until this problem was set right. Time to go back to the drawing board, literally! Time for trial and error.

So it is with our spiritual lives. We ignore habitual sins, we make compromises with attitudes and decisions that are just plain lazy or irresponsible or self-serving, all the while the resources of spiritual exercise from the Church, although unpleasant at first, go unused. Time-tested resources such and daily prayer, contemplation, spiritual direction, priestly counsel (guidance for your own trial and error) confession and reconciliation,(going back to the drawing board) study of sacred scripture are all waiting for you to implement.  But think about it, no marathon is ever finished until you get off the couch, as they say. We don’t begrudge gold medal gymnasts for their routine of hours of daily drills…why do we begrudge the church for inviting us to disciplined spiritual exercises?

Our families, our households, are God’s gyms, gifts of grace and truth, a safe place for us to practice and grow in Holiness, through trial and error. God doesn’t ask us to grow among random strangers, but through communities of love and commitment. Do we use the gym or is the equipment gathering dust?

“Mary, Jesus, and Joseph” is not a stereotype of an Irish swear. They are the Icon of the Church Univeral. They show us what it is to be human. To listen to God’s call and obey. To be fiercely committed to one another’s dignity. To cherish and protect God’s promises and proclaim God’s word. To receive Christ into every part of our lives.

Your family, your household, variously defined by reason of life’s seasons and stages, can be a microcosm of the church and an outpost of this parish’s mission to co-operate with Christ to redeem the world, to restore all relationships to unity with God. When people cross your threshold, they will feel the living presence of Christ. But this potency takes intentional choices and a disciplined life. I close with this quotation by Martin Thornton:

“The Incarnation was not only something that was happening to Christ, it was something happening to the world itself.”

Don’t you want to be a part of that? Don’t procrastinate on your spiritual exercises, if the craftsman doesn’t do all the little parts with diligence, the final product will never come about. So it is with your spiritual growth.

Let Christ be Incarnate into your families and work with God to help your holiness grow! Amen.

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