Isaiah. 55:1-5, 10-13; Romans 8:9-17; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

What on Earth is going on with religion these days? I really wonder–and perhaps you do, too.

Is religion fading away from our national life? Do we Americans now share a “culture of disbelief,” as Yale professor Stephen Carter portrays it? Do we live in a “spiritual wasteland”?

Or, are we beset with one of those spiritual revivals that sweeps across this land every generation or two? And if there is such a religious boom, is that really good news or bad news? I wonder. I really do!

There is some evidence of a growth trend in public attention to private spirituality, especially the marketing of products aimed at the interior life of our souls. Spirituality is an “in” thing these days, reflected in the bestseller lists of religious book publishers.

Some of what’s happening is an effort to recapture the spiritual treasures of past generations, even long-ago centuries: the visions of Hildegarde of Bingen in the twelfth century; the spiritual exercises of Ignatius Loyola from the sixteenth century; John Wesley’s eighteenth-century sermons and devotional disciplines; the mystical theology of Evelyn Underhill from the first half of this century.

But some of what’s happening issues from that shaky marriage between piety and pop psychology: a marriage that often promises that godliness can lead to personal peace, prosperity, popularity, power, health, success and self-confidence–if you’ll just buy this book or this tape. And some of what’s happening strays far off the reservation into the more exotic incantations of New Age religions.

Altogether, there does seem to be a widespread spiritual hunger and thirst across this country. And all three of our biblical texts for today help us focus on what makes for a faithful spirituality.

God’s word through Isaiah is an invitation to a rich life of joy and peace that the poorest person can afford.

Jesus’ Parable of the Sower promises the flourishing and fruitful life of the Kingdom of Heaven within us if we have deep inner roots.

And Paul’s words to the Romans speak of our life in the Spirit as sharing in the loving, eternal Spirit of Christ.

All three texts point to that vast interior space–the “Cathedral Within” us–to borrow the title of a recent book–space sublimely portrayed by German philosopher Peter Wust nearly a century ago:

Our self is a holy temple of the Spirit, built by God’s own hands, a wonderful inner universe with its own laws of gravity, still more marvelous than those we can see in…the external universe…. It is a sanctuary, a Holy of Holies into which we may not enter, though it is ours, without a hidden and holy fear…. [For, said Wust], we are only entrusted to ourselves as works of art from the studio of an eternal Master. We are not our own masterpieces.

Wow! How often do you dare to think of your own inner life as a temple of the Spirit, a Holy of Holies, “a masterpiece that you do not really own by yourself? Such a stunning thought can help to chasten our notions as to what faithful spirituality is all about.

For Christians, it is at least how we keep that “wonderful inner universe” open to the grace of God. Too much of what postures as “spirituality” is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace: the deadly enemy of the church.” “Cheap grace,” he said, is “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance,… communion without confession, absolution without contrition, . . . grace without the cross.” And Bonhoeffer’s own martyrdom and hanging by the Nazis for his opposition to Hitler testified to the utter integrity of his own openness to “costly grace.”

So spirituality is not necessarily a good thing–if it’s about our own self-indulgence or getting a narcotic “high” if we go through some psychic exercises.

In 1965, when I was a college teacher deep down in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, I visited a Southern Presbyterian church one Sunday and I heard a sermon on the really strange topic, “The Great Heresy of the Spirituality of the Church.” The preacher that day, Wellford Hobbie, rejected the use-, or mis-use, of the words spiritual and spirituality to try to keep controversy out of the church, to keep the church out of politics and, therefore, to keep the church in unquestioned support of racial segregation. Not long after that sermon, Dr. Hobbie went down to Selma, Alabama, to march with Martin Luther King, Jr. And then he returned to face a painfully divided congregation in an open public forum to explain why he had gone to Selma, to testify movingly but modestly about that extraordinary event and to invite questions and criticisms from his listeners. The Holy Spirit was powerfully present in that encounter and an unforgettably effective ministry of reconciliation took place that night.

Dear Friends: That word spirituality can be one of the most troublesome and even seductive in the religious vocabulary. We must handle it with great care lest it become simply a blessing on the status quo or a cheapening of the grace of the whole gospel.

Of course, the very word spiritual has a special sacred place in the heritage of African American churches. We who do not happen to be Black do know many of the songs: “Swing low, sweet chariot” and “Lord, I want to be a Christian in at my heart!” and “‘Tis me, O Lord, Standin’ in the need of prayer” and “O freedom! O freedom! O freedom over me!”

But some of us may have remained only dimly attuned to the faith at the heart of such spirituality. The late Howard Thurman–once dean of the chapel at Howard University, founder of the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco, then dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University where he was my teacher and the mentor of generations of Black Americans–Howard Thurman once wrote a treasured set of reflections on the religious insights of those spirituals, simply titled Deep River. In the very last paragraph of Deep Rive r, he wrote:

[This is] perhaps the most daring and revolutionary concept known to [humanity]: namely, that God is not only the creative mind and spirit at the core of the universe but that [God] … is love…. This is the great disclosure: that there is at the heart of life a Heart [with a capital “H”]. When such an insight is possessed by the human spirit and possesses the human spirit, a vast and awe-inspiring tranquillity irradiates the life. This is the message of the spiritual.

One of the most bedeviling mistakes with that word spiritual is an assumption that it means the opposite of, or somehow better than, bodily things or material things. After all, God chose to make the Word become flesh–a fact that Saint Paul knew very well but sometimes seems to have forgotten when he wrote so disparagingly of the flesh.

We can be greatly helped in grasping these relationships if we turn to the works of the profoundest of Russian Christian thinkers in this century. Nicholas Berdyaev was driven into exile by the Communists in the 1920s. But Berdyaev had an uncompromising sense of the vital connection between spiritual things and bodily things, between spirituality and social responsibility. His sensitivity was nurtured by the deeply rooted connectedness of Eastern Orthodox theology: a theology in which there is no boundary between nature and grace, between matter and spirit. And so Berdyaev said, more than a half-century ago:

Christian piety all too often has seemed to be withdrawal from the world and from [humanity], a sort of transcendent egoism, the unwillingness to share the suffering of the world.… [But] care for the life of another, even material, bodily care, is spiritual in essence. Bread for myself [may be] a material question; [but] bread for my neighbor is a spiritual question.

Which is to say: our first godly duty to those who have no bread is not exhortation on how they should pray. It is bread. In the Holy Eucharist–but also in the whole pattern of our Christian living–we must never forget this sacramental, spiritual significance of bread.

Now, since I am only a mere Methodist, I must try to put a proper Anglican seal on all this. There was once an Archbishop of Canterbury from whom I have gained much instruction and inspiration: William Temple, who died much too young during World War II. William Temple dared to say an astonishing thing: namely, that Christianity is “the most materialist of all the great religions…. Its own most central saying is: ‘The Word was made flesh.’ … Christianity is committed to a belief … in the reality of matter and its place in the divine scheme.”

So, Dear Friends, if you want to join the big spirituality boom that may–or may not–be sweeping the country–even in this time of so-called “disbelief” and “secularization”–take good care that you do not forget love, or costly grace, or political responsibility, or the bodily care of neighbors near and far.

Yes, within us is a beautiful, wonderful temple, a Holy of Holies–but “we are not our own masterpieces.”