Sitting in One Place – Lent Sermon Series 3 – The Second Sunday of Lent

It doesn't take long when reading the Church Times to come across a debate about seating in churches. Should it be pews, or should it be chairs? Opinions vary, and emotions often run high.  I wonder, though, what interests really drive such debates. Is it a concern for the preservation of church furnishings pure and simple, or are deeper values about church culture, and 'tradition' on the line? Does the debate veil issues of churchmanship, and style? Or is it just a matter the spirit of the age: of bodily comfort for a more indulged, casual age which wants to turn almost every space into a sitting room of sorts? None of those matters ought to be disregarded in thinking things through, I'm sure; but from my point of view, what's often absent from such discussions is concern for the purpose of worship, and how a worship space enables or hinders worship.

 

It seems to me that, simply and most basically, worship is response to encounter with God. We can never force that encounter, of course, but at least we can clear the ground to the best of our ability. The formal worship of Christians, and chiefly (but not exclusively) the Eucharist, helps us. It helps us by shaping habits and sensitivities so that we're 'ready and waiting' for the encounter. Of course God seeks encounter with us always and everywhere. Spontaneous meetings between God and us happen, to be sure, and they are always blessings. But our life with God shouldn't rely on spontaneity, just like meaningful relationships with other people can't be simply spontaneous or impulsive.1

The most important question about seating in our regular and formal acts of worship, therefore, is whether it enhances or inhibits encounter with God. In fact, though, we must go a step further, since the issue of seating is, at bottom (no pun intended!), the issuing of sitting. So today we spend a little time thinking about the posture of sitting in relation to prayer and worship.

I mentioned last week the dictum that guided my own formation as a worshipper: kneel to prayer, sit to listen, stand to praise. As I said, that protocol, while it has the strength of simplicity and clarity, doesn't do justice to the tradition of prayer and worship in its rich diversity. Still, it bears insights worth noticing.

Notice, for instance, the purpose of sitting: 'sit to listen'. I think it's important that I wasn't told to sit in order to hear, but in order to listen. Through this season we're emphasizing the idea of listening by means of the dialogue with which we begin our Liturgy of the Word. "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening...."

Why? Because Christian spiritual life involves listening. It's about paying attention. 'Come, my children, listen to me, and I will teach you the fear of the Lord' (Psalm 34.11).

In fact, growth in Christian discipleship is first and foremost about listening, as our spiritual tradition has long understood.[2]

Whereas hearing is a matter of bodily function, listening is something else. Listening is an art, an art we all have to learn. This art of listening means, as St Benedict long ago put it, listening 'with the ear of our heart'.[3]

Picking up the thread from last week's discussion about kneeling, we might say that sitting follows naturally from kneeling. What I mean is this. If the posture of kneeling signals our littleness before the Creator of the cosmos, it also signals our dependence on God, and that dependence implies obedient listening. For we listen to those on whom we depend. A child listens to the parents on whom the child depends for nurture, sustenance, protection and security. A pupil listens to her or his teacher, when the teacher imparts information or knowledge or wisdom. One spouse listens to the other on whom their union depends, since they cannot otherwise genuinely give and share all they have and are. Likewise, a follower of Jesus Christ listens to him. 'To whom else shall we go', Peter once said to Jesus, speaking for us all, 'you have the words of eternal life' (John 6.68).

Christians sit at worship chiefly during the Liturgy of the Word, when the living Word, Jesus, is present through the written and spoken words of the scriptures. So this sitting ought to have the attention of an obedient servant listening carefully to his or her master: that is, an attentive listening, as a result of which we understand the master's mind better, and get on more effectively with the master's business for ourselves and for others.

That, after all, is why we read and listen to the scriptures at all.

One of Britain's great spiritual guides during the second half of the last century teased out the issues of hearing, listening, and acting:

                  We must listen in order to hear and profit by

                  what we hear. This is the proper attitude to

                  God, total attention because we must hear

                  him, and the desire, determination to receive

                  his message and profit by it, that is to say to

                  be transformed, changed, to stop being what

                  we are and become what we are called to be.

Such attention is an essential part of the attitude of prayer. The same writer goes on:

                  This fundamental attitude of prayer is a bit like

                  a bird watcher. He gets up early in the morning

                  because he must reach the fields and woods

                  before  the birds wake up, so that they will not

                  see him coming. He is silent and keeps quite

                  still. He is all eyes and ears. He is receptive to

                  every sound and every movement. He listens

                  and he watches but he will not see what is

                  happening around him unless he is free of pre-

                  judices, ready to hear what God speaks. It is an

                  attitude of self surrender which is at the same time

                  extremely active.[4]

As we sit, then, we don't lounge. Our seat supports an upright back; our hands are free of potentially distracting papers or books. We direct our gaze to the reader, or, if it aids concentration, we close our eyes to guard against outward distraction. We stop fidgeting. Our sitting isn't rigid but in a way relaxed, for this is a space with which we're familiar; and yet our sitting is attentive, expectant; it is a listening posture, the posture, we might say, of a kneeling ear. It's the posture of blind Bartimaeus, sitting by the road, ready to call upon the Lord as he passed by (Mark 10.46). It's the posture of Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus, ready and attentive to what he has to say we he comes to her house (Luke 10.39). And it's the posture of the apostles on the occasion of the first gathering of the Church at Pentecost, when they were together in a house in Jerusalem (Acts 2.2), and when listening ears heard not jabber, but news of 'God's deeds of power' (2. 11).[5]

And ever since then Christians have found in sitting a posture which speaks of attention to God's still, small voice.[6]

If the body has a language of its own, then surely our sitting is more than relief from kneeling or standing. Sitting is positively an expression of listening as 'an act of sustained attention'.[7] And while through the weeks and seasons of worship we listen to many things which elicit our response and prompt our obedience, we sit and listen above all to God's expressions of loving compassion towards us in Christ, for they are the heart of his Good News. We sit so as to receive something precious and unique, and life-giving.

But remember this: we sit and listen in church in order that we might develop a kind and quality of listening outside the church, in all of life. Esther de Waal writes this about the importance of listening as a spiritual discipline: 'To listen closely, with every fibre of our being, at every moment of the day, is one of the most difficult things in the world, and yet it is essential if we mean to find the God whom we are seeking.'[8]

So as we come into church to worship, and as we pray at home, alone or with others, we seek to meet God in prayer as surely as we receive Christ in bread and wine. George Herbert's words describe our place, and direct us in our posture both outwardly and inwardly: 'You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat: So I did sit and eat.[9]

Amen.

~

Sermon preached by the Revd Dr Charles Miller, Team Rector

St Helen's Church, Abingdon-on-Thames

The Second Sunday of Lent, March 12th 2017


[1] On this important point, see Bloom and Lefebvre, Courage to Pray, p. 40.

[2] St Benedict's Rule, for instance, which stands as the spring of the western spiritual tradition, begins 'Obsculta!', 'Listen'.

[3] Rule, Prologue, 1.

[4] Courage, p. 12.

[5] As depicted, for instance, in Orthodox icons of the Feast of Pentecost; see L Ouspensky and V Lossky, The Meaning of Icons (New York: SVS Press, 1999), plate p. 206.

[6] In Christian East and West alike. See, for instance, illustrations of this posture in J Meyendorff, St Gregory Palamas and Orthodox Spirituality (Crestwood, USA: SVS, 1964), p. 68; and W Hood, Fra Angelico at San Marco (London: BCA, 1993), p. 201 (plate 192).

[7] Courage, p. 11.

[8] Seeking God. The Way of St Benedict (Collegeville, USA: Liturgical Press, 1984), p. 43.

[9] The final lines of 'Love III', in Hutchinson, ed., The Poems of George Herbert  (Oxford: OUP, 1961), p.