This Sunday's sermon in advance...

December 21, 2008

Sunday of the Genealogy

There’s an old joke that goes something like this: A young man is on the streets of New York and stops to ask a police officer, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” The officer responds, “Practice, lots of practice.”

For many years performing at Carnegie Hall in New York was the sign of accomplishment as a musician. A concert at Carnegie meant you had made it into the highest level of your craft and showcased your skill at one of the most prestigious venues in America. Musicians and performers would sometimes just stand on the stage at Carnegie and take it all in because they knew they had arrived. Whatever else happened to them in life they had played Carnegie Hall.

It’s always been this way in every human endeavor. Excellence comes from the continual growth that emerges from constant and effective practice. The constant repetition of solid fundamentals forms the foundation for the development of an increasing level of skill. A great musician is made not when the spotlight is shining on the stage but in the hours of reading music and practicing scales. A great quarterback is built when they get up every day and throw footballs, again and again, until they can do it when someone is tackling them. Every carpenter of note was created by thousands of hours of being with wood.

And it is the same way with faith. Faith grows by practice, the repetition of the fundamentals, prayer, worship, study, praxis (which means the application of ideas to real life) and from that repetition the building of a foundation for increasing skill and technique. There are no shortcuts. If you wish to excel at your job or vocation you must practice. If you wish to develop a faith that matters you must practice it as well.

Now there are communities of faith that offer shortcuts. Some give in to whatever is prevailing in the culture and avoid the difficulty of practice and discipline by saying “Do whatever you want and be whatever you want to be.” But it’s the spiritual equivalent of saying “Eat anything you want and you’ll be healthy.” Others will point to a kind of experience, an emotional happening, and say “If you have this moment everything will be fine.” But that’s being a “one hit wonder”, great when your band is on top of the charts but not such a big deal ten years down the line.

For whatever else Orthodoxy is, it is honest. It tells us, ahead of time and always that the key to a living, growing, faith, to spiritual fulfillment, lies in the transformation of ourselves into the image of Christ and this requires a conscious and deliberate effort on our part, a willingness, empowered by grace and energized by love, to put in the time and effort it takes to be Christian. There are no shortcuts, no half measures, and no quick fixes. We must practice our faith, not just the glorious and wonderful things, but the everyday things, the repetition of the fundamentals that separates the adequate from the excellent.

Yet the irony of it is that when these things are practiced, these basics, prayer, worship, study, and praxis, the process of doing these things releases the joy and power of our faith just as the practice of any skill moves the task from drudgery into art. It’s one thing to go to church service and get your heartstrings pulled for an hour or two but imagine having a deep joy unrattled by the world around you. Practice your faith and in time it will come. It’s good to be here in worship, even if you don’t feel like it all the time, but as you grow in your faith by practice you’ll start to discover why you should be here, why these hours on Saturday night and Sunday morning are the fuel for your life. Practice your faith now and when times of trouble come, and they come to us all, you won’t have to learn important lessons in the fire of adversity because you’ll already have a reserve of strength and purpose to see your way through difficult days. If you wish to have a faith like the kind we’re presented with in our Epistle reading for this Sunday of Genealogy, a faith that can endure, empower, and even transcend death then start with the everyday practice of the basics.

Of course this is not always easy, being excellent in anything is rarely easy. But ask the musician who hears the applause from Carnegie Hall if it was worth all those hours of playing scales and reading music. Question the quarterback in the afterglow of victory whether it was important to get up every morning, watch film and throw passes. Think about the times in your life when people have extolled your skills and then ponder whether it was worth developing them. Then ask yourself, for the sake of strength for each day and in anticipation of heaven’s audience, if the practice of your faith will matter.

I think you know the answer.

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