462 Years

(Sermon for Sunday, January 30, 2011 || Epiphany 4, Year A || Matthew 5:1-12)

I preached this sermon on a Sunday in which the church had Morning Prayer for the first half of the service. We timed the service a little long, so my rector encouraged me to shorten the sermon, hence this 900 word piece rather than my normal 1200-1400 word ones.)

Four hundred and sixty-two years ago, the first edition of a certain book went to the printing press. The year was 1549, the author was Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, and the book was the Book of Common Prayer. In this original Book of Common Prayer (or BCP for short), Cranmer compiled, crafted, codified, and composed the prayers that became the central structure of a new expression of Christianity known as Anglicanism. A decade and a half before this publication, the King of England, Henry VIII, had officially broken away from the Roman Catholic Church. However, in the years immediately following the split, very little changed about the English church besides the pope no longer being the supreme earthly authority. Two years after Henry’s death, Archbishop Cranmer published the first BCP and ushered in the unique expression of Christianity that we at this church continue to practice today.

Queen Mary (Henry's daughter) didn't like Cranmer much. She had him burned at the stake.

This unique expression of following the way of Jesus Christ creates a structure, a framework of prayer, around which we organize our lives. Cranmer borrowed from the monastic example when he created this framework. Benedictine monks framed their days around an eightfold worship cycle; they prayed formally in church with one another about once every three hours. Cranmer wanted all people, not just monks, to frame their days with prayer, so he took the monastic practice and synthesized the eightfold structure into a twofold one. In his new structure, people prayed formally in the morning, then they went to work, and then they prayed formally again in the evening. Thus, the uniquely Anglican worship experience of Morning and Evening Prayer was born.

Every morning and every evening to this very day, Anglicans around the world have gathered to observe these two rituals. During them, we sing psalms and songs of praise to God. We read scripture. We pray and confess our sins. I would be willing to bet that, thanks to time zones, there is a service of Morning or Evening Prayer happening at every hour of every day all year long. When Cranmer developed this dual service, he did so in order to give his flock a method by which to order their lives around prayer and praise to God. This morning, we are participating in a cycle of worship that envelopes the whole world in constant prayer, a prayer that runs all the way back 462 years.

Whether or not we personally practice Morning and Evening prayer ourselves, the example, which Cranmer set, still guides us. Episcopalians prize the order behind our worship because the structure gives us a way to organize our lives around the things that are most important. The framework of prayer allows us to participate in God’s movement not just when we remember to or when we need to, but at all times.

When we adopt this structure and begin to practice our awareness of God’s presence, we can also begin to access another structure, a framework that lies beneath the one we normally witness with our eyes. This deeper structure is the one that Jesus speaks about to his disciples in this morning’s Gospel reading. The beatitudes, or statements of blessing, give us a glimpse of the deeper framework of reality that exists beneath the misplaced priorities and distorted vision of the world at large. This deeper reality is the one that God infused into creation from the beginning, a reality in which communion overrides isolation, peace quells domination, and love bests fear. Of course, humanity has ignored this deeper reality from the word go, preferring instead to set ourselves up as petty lords of our own destinies, oblivious to the fact that we have never really been in control of anything. Humanity’s greatest sin throughout history has always been setting up structures and systems that bury the deeper reality of God’s presence in all and through all. The ordered life of prayer gives us access to this reality.

Jesus’ beatitudes show us how the deeper structure of creation works. The poor in spirit, the grieving, and the persecuted are blessed. The meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, and those passionate about peace and righteousness are blessed. These are not mere moral platitudes spoken to console a downtrodden people. They are not future promises that will be fulfilled someday in heaven if you can just endure long enough to get there. They are not hopes for what could be coming down the road. These statements of blessing are ways in which the deeper reality of God’s presence breaks through the distortions of the world – then and there on the mountainside with Jesus and here and now in our midst.

When we participate in an ordered life of prayer like the one that Archbishop Cranmer developed, we practice the presence of God every day, not just when we remember to or need to, but every day. This practice is a spiritual workout, which strengthens not our muscles, but our vision and our ability to respond to God’s call to serve. When we take on the framework of daily prayer, we train ourselves to see the deeper reality of God’s movement, to which the beatitudes point us. And then we leave this room, our spiritual gym, and we go out into the world to begin uncovering that reality and showing that God’s presence is, indeed, here.

One thought on “462 Years

  1. I would suggest that it is not a matter of “whether or not we personally practice Morning and Evening prayer ourselves”. That is, in fact, precisely what it is a matter of.

    Either we are, in fact, praying, or we are instead substituting talking about prayer in place of prayer.

    The image of morning and evening prayer happening somewhere at all times as the planet turns is a beautiful one, but it is only a beautiful one if it is real and not some sort of pious fantasy about what might be. We are called to do more than to imagine the beauty of it, but to actually do it.

    The actual doing is much harder. It involves missing offices now and then; it involves praying the office when we don’t feel particularly like it; it involves doing it when it’s inconvenient or we don’t feel like we have time, or when we don’t seem to be “getting something out of it.” It means sticking with the form we have for a long time without getting the itch to always try something new, some additional variation, some way to “spice it up”. But that’s part of it too….

    So I issue a friendly challenge to all the parish clergy out there. Do it. Do it personally, and do it in your parish.

    I remember at an ordination walking out after the dismissal with a couple clergy, one of whom said, “Why can’t our baptisms have this sense of celebration?” and I turned to her and said, “You’re the rector of your parish. Why don’t they?”

    Daily morning and evening prayer are as simple as showing up. Why are they so rare in our parishes?

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