9th June 2024

Mindfulness and Service

Sunday 9 June 2024

Mindfulness and Service

A Sermon preached by the Precentor, Canon Anna Macham

Jeremiah 6:16-21 and Romans 9:1-13


An article in this week’s Guardian warns against the dangers of the modern practice of mindfulness.  Its author, Australian novelist Jackie Bailey, makes the point that, in the global wellness marketplace, mindfulness, spirituality and wellbeing are words that are treated as interchangeable.  There’s been a huge amount of interest, in a post-religious age, in how rituals that have their roots in more traditionally religious practices can help people to live their lives in a more meaningful way, nurturing connection and wellbeing.  But, Bailey argues, there’s a danger that spirituality, in this modern marketplace, can be seen as the same as being happy, when actually “Spirituality, according to most of the world’s great wisdom traditions, requires work, service and sacrifice”.


“Today’s global wellness industry would have us think that spirituality is just another dimension of feeling good” she writes, citing the term “McMindfulness,” used to describe the Western tendency to extract practices from ancient religious traditions and turn them into “colourfully bite-size morsels for… mass consumption”.  But the sense of joy or connectedness gained from spiritual practices in the world’s dominant religions- practices such as chanting, prayer and meditation, or group singing and dancing- while effective in giving followers a sense of deep connection, and feelings of awe and transcendence- were never intended to be an end in themselves.


Every religion, Bailey argues, sets out rules for right conduct; humans and non-humans are included as our partners in the circle of those to whom we owe service.  She cites scientific studies that show how yoga and meditation can actually increase people’s sense of “spiritual superiority” and focus on the self, rather than quieting the ego and encouraging charitable acts of service.  How, therefore, she asks, do you bring your spiritual self to your job, for example, and make sure that you are doing more good than harm?


These questions are not so far removed from the concerns of our readings this evening.  In our Old Testament lesson from Jeremiah, the prophet chastises the people for losing sight in their spiritual practices of the ethical dimension of faith.  “This people,” he writes, have “not give[n] heed to [God’s] words”.  As for God’s teaching, “they have rejected it”.  “Of what use to me,” says God, “is the frankincense that comes from Sheba, or sweet cane from a distant land”.  Their burnt offerings, while satisfying for themselves, are no longer acceptable to God; nor are their sacrifices pleasing.  Their spiritual sacrifices and other practices have become self-serving, to the extent that they have become totally disconnected from how they live, and how they act.  In the previous chapter, they are accused of forsaking God’s law (5:4).  No one seeks truth and justice (5:1); at the same time as practising their holiness, they commit adultery and turn to prostitutes (5:7).


In Paul’s letter to the Romans, too, Paul is similarly concerned about the disconnect between human worship and behaviour.  Chapters 9 to 11 of Romans, sandwiched as they are between the serious theology of faith and grace and justification in Chapters 1-8 and its practical application in Christian life we find in the closing ones, were neglected for much of Christian history.  What led to a re-evaluation of their importance, in recent times, was the Holocaust.  In today’s chapter, chapter 9, Paul speaks passionately about his fellow-Jews, his kinsmen by race.  The anguish he speaks of comes from the fact that most of them had not accepted Jesus as the Messiah, and in these chapters he grapples with what this means.  His concern is that the privileges accorded his fellow Jews- the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship- have failed.  In rejecting God, they fail to see that the law they boast in actually judges them before God; their temple worship has become a monument of self-congratulation, no longer speaking to them of the holiness of God.  As Paul points out earlier in the letter, those who boast in the law dishonour God by breaking it (2:23).


Our readings today both reveal how easy it is to disconnect our worship from our ethics, our spiritual practices from the way we live our lives.  Our surroundings in this beautiful Cathedral, as we attend Evensong and engage in choral worship, evoke a sense of awe and wonder.  But this beauty isn’t just about an experience, and the feeling of peace that that experience gives us- vitally important though those things are.  Beauty, in Christian- in all true religious- practices- is connected with justice, sacrifices with the inner attitude of the heart.  Our mindfulness, our attention to beauty, even our connectedness with others around us who worship too, is worth nothing if it doesn’t affect how we live our lives.


The prophet Jeremiah, in our reading, exhorts the people in inspiring words to return to God and walk in the ancient paths, where the good way lies.  “Thus says the Lord”, he writes, “Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.


Jeremiah calls the people to look to their history, to delve into their collective memory, to find ways that have been forgotten, to remember the God who has delivered them from slavery and directed them in the way they should go.  His warning echoes the consistent witness of prophecy, that when the Law’s guidelines for righteous living are absent, when wise reflection and instruction on their meaning, does not guide and shape the people’s life, then no number of religious acts or sacrifices or generous offerings will draw a positive response from God.


For us too, there’s no point in proclaiming we have the ancient ways because we come to evensong and like traditional music and ceremony, unless there is evidence in our lives of real moral and spiritual transformation, of a real pursuit of holiness, not just liturgical correctness, of conduct towards others which reflects the dual commandment to love God and neighbour.


The old ways, if we heed them, call us to ask hard questions about what difference our religious life and practice makes to our life as individual persons and as a community.  Is our religious practice simply something for Sundays and festivals, a refuge from harsh reality or analgesic to dull the ache of life- the “mcmindfulness” that Jackie Bailey speaks of that extracts practices from religious traditions simply to help us feel good about ourselves?


Or do these religious practices and rituals extend beyond ourselves, encouraging us to contribute to the wellness not just of ourselves but of all beings?  Do they guide and shape all that we do; our attitudes to other people, our relationships with them, our behaviour at work, our commitment to our communities, our use of our material possessions and skills?


Our readings today show that God does not fail.  The bond between God and is people is so strong, at least on God’s side, that his will does not easily pronounce the judgement that seems the inevitable outcome of the people’s stubborn refusal to live by the covenant that makes them his people.  Frequently, God gives the opportunity of repentance- a word that means not just sorrow or regret for past failures, but a complete reorientation of life towards God.


God has given us the ways in which we should walk.  God offers us the means of grace we need to keep his commandments in both will and deed; to walk in his ways.  All we have to do is pray for them, use them, practice them, enter more deeply into them, and allow them to change and shape us.