Give to God the Things that are God’s

A sermon by Revd Richard Carter

Readings for this service: Exodus 33. 12-end, Matthew 22. 15-22

When I reflected upon todays reading I realised there are plenty of things to say about what it means to give the Emperor those things due to the Emperor. But then I suppose it depends on who at this present moment you think the Emperor is. Jean-Claude Juncker or is the Emperor our own Prime-Minister and what does she want to give or be given? No one is exactly sure it seems at the moment. And then there is Donald Trump, of course he would like to see himself as the Emperor but I wonder what you want to give him apart from a swift retirement?

So instead I would like us to focus on the other side of what Jesus said because the other half of the reply is that we must give God what is due to God. Perhaps when there is naught in the news for our comfort it is then that our relationship with God becomes more important than ever. “Give God what is due to God.” But what is due to God? One of the most often cited answers to that question is that of St Ignatius who said that we are created “to praise, reverence and serve our Lord and by this to save our soul”

I wonder how we might, at this present time “praise, reverence and serve our God and thereby save our soul.”

It has struck me that this busy city more than ever is in need of God’s love. This city is God’s, just as much as the hills and valleys. Perhaps even more so for it is filled to bursting with those made in God’s image in wonderful diversity- and among them many in poverty in whom we are told Christ is especially present Remember this church St Martin in the Fields established its charism and identity in the horror of the first world war- there was certainly naught for human comfort in that war, but St Martin’s became the place of belonging- the place that the dispossessed could call home, the place where they learnt of the love of God after the terror and brutality of the trenches. Now in the crisis our world faces- also a crisis of identity and belonging, a crisis where once again people fear the violence and poverty in our midst- is it not now, more than ever, that we must become the church with the open door offering prayers for our city and nation.

So here are some suggestions of how we might praise, reverence and serve God- giving back to God the things of God. These are some of the reflections which have come to me during my own prayers during the last six months which I have scribbled down in a notebook lest I forget. I humbly share some of these thoughts with you now.

First pray at all times

Remember those words of George Herbert’s hymn “ Seven whole days not one in seven I will praise thee. In my heart though not in heaven I will raise thee” We don’t need a special day or place, we don’t need to go into holy mode before we begin to pray. Prayer doesn’t have to wait until Sunday. A beautiful Morning and Evening Prayer takes place here each day as well as a lunchtime Eucharist. St Paul called us to pray at all times. It is so easy to become forgetful of God.

We plan the holiday in advance
But the holy day is today
The monks knew the ancient wisdom of giving each part of the day to God
So that they tasted the height, breadth, and depth of God’s presence:
The coming of the light, the hopes and struggles of the day,
the intensity of noon,
the shadows of evening bringing the toil to an end,
food and refreshment, the silence and darkness of the night.
But often we no longer notice the movements of the Sun
We do not see the sky just the screen
We have used the remote and become remote
We who often have no time for God
Have become time’s prisoners
We have pulled the curtains on the sun and moon and have closed the windows so that we no longer smell the rain or breathe the air polluted by our fumes.
We have been given this treasure beyond price, and yet we scarcely behold it.

Prayer is here and now.
Where you are today
The person you are speaking with
The room you are sitting in
The street you walking
The action you are doing now
This is your church
Eternity is now

Second seek in your day some space, some solitude – seek a time of silence.

We are “called home,” as St Augustine put it, “from the noise that is around us to the joys that are silent. Why do we rush about…looking for God who is here at home with us, if all we want is to be with him?”[1] Silent contemplative space is the ground in which everything else is nurtured and grows. And to discover it is like a seed that has died discovering the soil.

It is difficult to describe this experience any more than one could describe to a person how to swim when they are on dry land. The only way is to enter the water. When I was a Melanesian Brother I began each day with silence. Very early in the morning while it was still dark I would wake up and wash and dress in the silence and the dark. We had no electricity. But you can with time become accustomed to the beauty of the night. I could find my way across the grass and down the coral path with bare feet to the chapel and there sit breathing in the stillness. There would be about 60 people praying silently with me in the half light.

In London I thirsted for that silence. This is a city where the noise never stops. The sounds of traffic, the sirens, the shouts, the busker’s songs, the sounds of reversing lorries and emptying bottle banks, and arguments and snatched mobile phone conversations. You are in in the midst of all this. But do not be depleted by the noise. Do not let it invade you or distract you from the silence of God. Rather we need consciously to create opportunities to become aware once again of the God with us. You may have seen in the newsletter that early in the morning from 7.00-8.00 on Mondays and Thursdays a growing group of us meet for silent prayer in this church. All are welcome. This silence for me has become the grounding in God that roots all else in the week.

Third develop a simple practice of contemplative Prayer

There is a contemplative practice of centring prayer that helps those who seek silence. Just as a runner needs to exercise so does the one who seeks the silence of contemplative prayer.

  1. The most important thing to do is to create the space for silence and to keep to that time. It can be with us here at St Martin’s or in the place you live.
  2. Our posture is important as we sit in silence. A simple rule is to sit in alignment- imagining the flow of God’s Spirit from the crown of our head to the base of our spine. As straight as you can.  Imagine the warmth of that channel of grace flowing down through your spine, to the toes of your feet and through your shoulders to the tips of your fingers releasing all the knots of tension. Your posture should be as open as possible. You may find a prayer stool, or prayer cushion, or straight backed chair helpful to keep this sense of alignment.
  3. Become aware of your breathing- a simple breathing in, holding the breath and breathing out. A steady and deep breathing arising from the depths of your stomach and being – filling you.
  4. Now take a word or a phrase of prayer- as though you were floating it on that breathe, receiving that word, holding that word and sharing that word as you breathe it out. In and out. Keep returning to that word as your mind wanders. The word is the like the anchor which holds you in that still place and stops your mind from wandering.  Some people use a single word of Christ’s like “Maranatha” others use a simple phrase like “Peace, be still, do you not know that I am with you” Others may use a repeated prayer the most well-known being the Jesus Prayer:
    Lord Jesus Christ
    Son of God
    Have mercy on me.

Fourth become aware of your Distractions

You will of course discover that silence is far from silent. There will be many distractions which well up in your mind- plans, memories and anxieties, thoughts, moods, irritability, fear – the monks of old talked about our inner demons but sometimes these thoughts are as simple as wanting a cup of coffee. It is important that we learn to humbly and simply keep to our practice. “Peace will indeed come, but it will be the fruit, not of pushing away distractions, but of meeting thoughts and feelings with stillness instead of commentary.”[2] This is the skill we must learn. In this contemplative prayer we begin to see with greater clarity the patterns of the distractions which come into our minds. “We move from being the victim of what is happening in our minds to being a witness to what is happening” [3] Each time we find our thinking swept away we return to the prayer word or phrase which is our anchor. You can move towards a greater silence that is uncluttered and luminous and spacious.

Fifth Seek Natural Spaces for your prayer

In the city of London we are blessed by the most beautiful parks. If you go out into the parks you will find that they are used by all sorts of people. Those running or jogging or walking dogs, or doing exercises or yoga or Tai Chi. For the last six months at least once a week I have been praying in the park –practicing silent prayer for an hour as slowly I watch the light and seasons change. It is the most beautiful thing to do. Its sometimes helpful to scribble down your reflections afterwards to remember them. Here is what I wrote last week:

I find an ordinary place:
Wet grass
Grey sky
A path
A row of park benches
Gentle rain falling
And I wait for God to open my heart and nourish me
as he nourishes all creation
The joggers jog by
A man in high visibility yellow with pincers picks litter
It is a soft damp morning
Soft earth
The geese have come away from the lake to peck at the spongey grass.
A squirrel dashes across the open space.
An elderly portly pigeon waddles over with nodding head
The stiller you are the closer the world of God comes.
It’s as though the frantic chases away this still truth.

I look at the trees, their shape, their grandeur
The way they slowly follow the rhythm of the year
Their rooted huge trunks unmoving.
They will be here long after I am gone
And they speak
Give back time to the earth
Give back space to God

Time rushes on
and we scarcely realise the passing days in our efforts to keep up
But nature has an inner clock
A deeper rhythm that knows the time of year without words
In the last week I can see the change
Last week a few yellowing leaves
Now a carpet of crisp golds and browns
And the greens of summer almost gone
We too must become present to the deeper rhythms of our lives
Notice our autumn dying
Our winter waiting
Our spring awakening
Our summer warmth and flourishing
Open our lives to the seasons of God
Cold and fallow
New shoots
Less you miss the life of God within
His miracles unfolding.

I think perhaps the best way to end this reflection is by keeping silence.

1. St Augustine, On the Trinity, V111, 7,11
2. Ibid p79
3. Ibid p81