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With God – in the Concrete jungle

Lent 3 BCP

24 February 2008 11:00 | Fr. Nick Mercer

“Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear.” Psalm 40.6

Two priests decide to get away from the concrete jungle. They’re determined to make this a real holiday by not wearing anything that would identify them as clergy. As soon as the plane lands, they buy some outrageous shorts, shirts, sandals & sunglasses.

The next morning sitting on the beach, enjoying a drink, a gorgeous blond in an imaginative bikini walks by. She smiles at them and says, "Good morning, Father, Good morning, Father."

They were both stunned. How in the world could she have known?

The next day, they bought even more outrageous outfits - so loud, you could hear them before you saw them. They even got rid of their Oxfords and black socks in favour of flip-flops. Well after a while, the same gorgeous blonde walks along the beach, turning heads as she passes.
As she approaches the two of them she nods and says "Good morning, Father, Good morning, Father."
Astonished one of the priests shouts out “How do you know we’re priests?”
The blonde turns with a puzzled look and says, "Fathers, it's me, Sister Monica!"
This is the third in the series of sermons looking at The Spiritual Life and Prayer. You have already reflected on ‘With God in the Garden’; and ‘With God in the Wilderness’; and now, ‘With God in the Concrete Jungle’.

And like those two priests, one way of nurturing our spiritual lives in the City, is to get out of it; to retreat to our country houses to recharge our spiritual batteries; or at the very least to find a quiet park or a quiet city church.But that’s evading the issue. Is it possible to be nurtured in our spiritual life with God, while spending much of our life in the hurly burly of London surrounded on every side by the concrete, granite and glass jungle?

The Bible always has a slightly ambiguous attitude towards cities. They were seen as places where evil would thrive – what in the Epistle today Paul calls ‘the unfruitful works of darkness.’Babel, where men built a tower up to reach up to heaven, is the archetype of assertive, thrusting, independent humanity, usurping for itself, the place of God. And so Babylon, both at the beginning and the end of the Bible, becomes the symbolic City of Satan.

Yet there is also in Scripture a love for Jerusalem, the City of God. And the last book of the Bible, Revelation, looks forward to peace and light in the heavenly City, the New Jerusalem, where the nations divided at Babel are united again.

This morning I want us to think for a few moments about our attitude to prayer and our spiritual lives in general, because that is the key to our being with God in the concrete jungle.

So let us go back to our text.

“Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear.” Psalm 40.6

The Hebrew word at the end of this text is somewhat difficult to translate. When I had my mid-life crisis, rather precociously at the age of 38, I started sporting a couple of earrings. I was teaching theology at that time, and one of my students wrote our text on the board when I arrived to deliver my next lecture, but he translated it literally from the Hebrew:

“Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but my ear you have pierced.” Some translations use the more earthy image, ‘my ear you have dug’.

Most of the commentators agree that it carries the sense: ‘you have made me obedient’. The word ‘obedience’ has a rather bad contemporary press. It smacks of subservience and blindly following rules and regulations.

The origins of the Latin word are to ‘listen towards’ or better, ‘to listen deeply’. “Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear – you have allowed me to listen deeply.” One of the chief disciplines of Lent, is listening deeply. Many of the other spiritual disciplines are designed to facilitate this.

As the weeks go by, and the services become more meditative with more silences and longer readings, we should be opening our ears to God. This is more valuable than any amount of self-sacrifice or lent offerings – good as they are. For as we listen to God, through worship and study and listening deeply to each other; then true obedience follows – the ability to live a life pleasing to God and a life which releases our true potential in Christ. But how is this affected by our daily context: the busy and noisy city in which we live? Is it possible to listen deeply without being in a still, quiet and beautiful place?

Well, you know the answer as soon as we have posed the question. Of course it is possible, but it requires a different way of listening deeply. In 2000, Wilkie Au wrote a book called The Enduring Heart: spirituality for the Long Haul. And in it he talks of crabgrass contemplation. He’s a fascinating Roman Catholic writer and draws on the works of William Callahan, a former Jesuit, who describes this kind of contemplation as “noisy contemplation”.

[The following with ackowledgements to Wilkie Au and William Callahan.]

It is a way of building habits of contemplative prayer that can flourish in the ordinary surroundings of our day, including situations of tension and conflict.

Noisy contemplation is prayer that resembles crabgrass, which ordinary people can grow in the noisy lowlands and hard-scrabble soil of their experiences. In our concrete jungle of urban streets, crabgrass springs up wherever a pavement crack offers the tiniest space.

And so in the same way, crabgrass contemplation is sustainable because it can take place anywhere there is the tiniest space along our daily path.

Being contemplative in the City is standing in wonder and awe at the routine miracles that keep our universe and our bodies functioning harmoniously.

Being contemplative in the City involves a constant willingness to be taken by surprise; it is not being jaded and cynical.

Being contemplative in the City requires being wide awake and fresh in our perceptions of people and things; it is not being distracted and filled with preoccupations and prejudices.

Being contemplative in the City is facing life in a genuinely undefended and open-eyed way.

Being contemplative in the City is being vulnerable, letting events and people impact us with their full resonance; it is not being controlling and manipulative.

With this attitude, and a conscious sense of God’s presence with us, we can listen deeply to God in the noisiest places.

I used to go clubbing a lot, and some of my most spiritual moments were when I was surrounded by hundreds of people with industrial techno ringing in my ears.

Even in the clamour and sometimes oppressiveness of the concrete jungle, God is with us, and when we learn to listen deeply and live openly, we can hear his still, small voice.

“Like as the hart desireth the waterbrook, so longeth my soul after thee, O God.”

Where there is a desire for God, and a vulnerable openness in contemplating the City in which we live, then we will hear the voice of God, even in the concrete jungle.

“Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear.” Psalm 40.6
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