Sermon for All Saints’ Sunday 2019

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Until the adoption by the Episcopal Church of the Revised Common Lectionary a few years ago, the first reading on All Saints Day, from the book of Ecclesiasticus, began thusly: “Let us now praise famous men.” The new lectionary has unfortunately dropped the reading for what a friend pointed out to me earlier this week seemed a somewhat inadequate Old Testament lesson which unfortunately skips several key verses in a sort of Readers Digest Condensed version of Daniel 7. I’ve said from this pulpit before, beware when the lectionary skips verses; I’d encourage you to read those left out after you go home. In all events, I think the Ecclesiasticus reading captured the real sense of this morning’s feast better than even a full appreciation of the Daniel lesson: “Let us now praise famous men.”

That said, it is impossible to remember all the saints by name, to succeed in praising all famous men. There are too many of the named, famous, canonized saints alone to praise them all, not to mention all those saints who happen not to have been formally canonized, or whose memories have faded over the centuries. So, permit me to share just two stories of saints, a diptych of sorts, one ancient and one modern, to provide an entry point into the concept of saintliness.

The first is St. Clare of Assisi, who lived during the 13th Century. Most well known for being one of St. Francis’ earliest followers, Clare was very active in good works herself, most notably founding the Order of Poor Ladies, a women’s counterpart to the Order of Friars Minor (or Little Brothers) that her brother Francis had founded. Perhaps Clare’s most shining moment came in the year 1244. Fredrick II, then Holy Roman Emperor, was at war with the pope, and had employed bands of Saracens to plunder churches and monasteries throughout the Italian countryside. The marauders had made it to Assisi, and while they were scaling the convent walls, Clare, though she was ill, had herself carried out to the gate holding the blessed Sacrament, a consecrated host, up in sight of the enemy. Prostrating herself before it, she prayed aloud: “Does it please Thee, O God, to deliver into the hands of these beasts the defenseless children whom I have nourished with Thy love? I beseech Thee, good Lord, protect these whom now I am not able to protect.” Whereupon she heard a voice like the voice of a little child saying, “I will have them always in My care.” She prayed again, for the city, and again the voice came, reassuring her. She then turned to the trembling nuns and said, “Have no fear, little daughters; trust in Jesus.” At this, a sudden terror seized their assailants and they fled in haste.

The second saint, though never formally canonized or entered into a church calendar, was the Rev’d Dr. George Hendric Houghton, who served as rector of New York City’s Church of the Transfiguration—“the little church around the corner” as it was and still is known—from 1848, when at the tender age of 28 he founded the church, until his death in 1896, forty-nine years later. He is best known for opening the church to actors and other theatre folk, who were reckoned an unseemly crowd in those days. Houghton’s finest hour came in July 1863. President Lincoln had instituted the first military draft in American history, in an attempt to encourage voluntary enlistment into the Union Army. A large group of outraged New Yorkers commenced a riot which held the City captive for nearly a week. For years, the Church of the Transfiguration had served as a stop on the underground railroad, and during the riot came to house a great many of the city’s black population, who feared gang violence. The angry mob, caught up in the irrationality of their group mentality, decided that blacks were mostly to blame for the war and the draft. So they headed for the little church with the intent of murdering those who had sought refuge therein. The mob twice thronged the gates of the churchyard, and policemen on duty warned Fr. Houghton that they could not insure their protection. With firm resolution, Fr. Houghton lifted the processional cross from its place in the church, walked out to face the rioters, held the cross before them, and shouted, “Stand back, you white devils; in the name of Christ, stand back!” With these courageous words, the mob dispersed, and those in the church remained safe until the end of the riots.

What both St. Clare and Fr. Houghton had in common is a word that has sadly fallen out of our vernacular. The word is virtue. We’ve come to think, since the Enlightenment, that ethics is primarily about making the right decision when posed with a moral problem by applying some moral calculus. Modern people think in terms of actions, good works and mistakes, rather than character or virtue. But what made St. Clare and Dr. Houghton and all those famous men and women we see on the Church Kalendar of saints, wasn’t that they were smart enough to figure out how to do the right thing most of the time. Rather, they were instilled with virtue and filled with the Holy Spirit, such that it became less a matter of decision making and more a matter of living in a way that their prayer and practice and commitment to Christ had made second-nature. I doubt that St. Clare or Fr. Houghton sat down and tried to figure out what action would lead to the greatest happiness for the most people, as the utilitarians would, or whether standing up to the mob should be a universal law, as Kant would have it. No, it was a lifetime of commitment to prayer and service and sacrifice which imbued them with courage and respect for life and a sense of obligation to “the least of these.” It was not just about doing good things, but about growing into good people, becoming saints.

And here is the hard part. We are all called to be saints. We have all been given the gift new life in Baptism, new life just as profound and miraculous as the that which Jesus gave to Lazarus. The responsibility we are given thanks to that gift is that we should all become saints. I don’t just mean in the broad sense; as you may know “saints” was a term used for all Christians in the early church, and indeed we all have the promise of the life of the world to come. In that sense, all baptized Christians are saints, but I mean to say something even bolder. We are all called to nurture in ourselves and in our fellow Christians the virtue which made many to be “famous men”, to be not only “small ‘s’ saints”, but “capital ‘s’ saints”, whose lives of virtue point to Christ himself, by whom the love of the Father is made apparent, and through whom the power of the Holy Spirit works wonders which are beyond our wildest imaginations.

Today, we will welcome a new “small ‘s’ saint” into the household of God. Our soon to be brother in Christ Zechariah will make a number of promises, and in so doing will vow to continue grow into a saint whose virtue makes Christ known, to start the process of growing into a “capital ‘s’ saint.” And then, each of us will make his own promise to do “all in our power to support him in his life in Christ.” In other words, all of us, the whole community of the faithful, will vow to help her grow into a model of Christian virtue, will vow to help him and all the baptized become Saints. This is a tremendous responsibility, but we can be assured that it is not only up to us, but up to God, who begins his new creation in the water of baptism, who gives new life to those who would approach that water, and who has given us all the assurance, as it is written in the Wisdom of Solomon, that each of us, and Zachariah, and “the souls of [all] the righteous are in the hand of God.”

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 19 2019

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In his Second Epistle to Timothy, the Apostle Paul encourages his young protégé to “be unfailing in patience” to “always be steady [and] endure suffering” for the sake of his ministry. Timothy could have had all of the skills we associate with effective ministry: a clear understanding of and passion for the Gospel, an engaging preaching style, a “thick skin” (a critical trait for a priest to have), but none of that would get the job done if he had not the patience to persevere. Perseverance, Paul knew, was the most important factor for a successful fisher of men.

I must admit that patience is not my most well-practiced skill. Let me explain what I mean, because I suspect there are at least a few here in the same boat, as it were. I think I have a fairly good amount of patience with people. This is important in my position because I deal with all sorts and conditions of people every day, each with a unique problem or concern. Most of these people (you people) are pretty easy to get on with, to love even. Sometimes people, no matter how much I love them, can be a bit annoying, especially to an introvert such as myself. But, I can be pretty patient with people.

I am not, however, patient with God. When I want some kind of help from on high, some affirmation of myself or some experience of consolation, I want it fairly quickly. Sometimes, deep down, I convince myself that I could do God’s job more efficiently than God does. Of course, that’s the kind of pride which preceded the fall, and which precedes my own embarrassing falls from time-to-time. I can be pretty patient in my relationships with each of you, I can even force myself to be patient in my relationship with people on the other end of the telephone line at the internet company or pension group helpline. Believe it or not, I’m getting more patient with people in the left turn lane who never want to go right when the light turns red. (I insist, at least two, and possibly three cars can legitimately make a left at that point, though my wife has a different opinion). All that said, though I’m getting more patient on those fronts, I have trouble being patient in my relationship with God.

I wonder if Jacob had that problem, too, and that’s why God decided to wrestle with him at Penu’el. You’ll remember that up to this point, Jacob had done pretty well at getting what he wanted, even if it meant being a little less than honest. Perhaps, Jacob needed to learn an important lesson which had heretofore been beyond him, namely, that the blessing of God, which once seemed so easily forthcoming due to Jacob’s cleverness would eventually require more persistence. Jacob’s struggle with the Lord at Penu’el would be realized by the nation of which he was the father, which had to fight to remain faithful, whose relationship with God would indeed become an extended struggle, as they strayed and wrestled with the sin that led them astray and, indeed, with the prophets whom God appointed to bring them back. God’s persistence in remaining faithful to Israel demanded that Israel itself show such persistence in maintaining its end of the relationship.

Likewise, the widow in the parable from Luke is meant to stand as an example for believers who must remain persistent in prayer. Just like the children of Israel had to persevere in keeping the law, to wrestle with the powers that would prevent them, so too must the Christian wrestle with the pride and indolence which tears her away from maintaining her relationship with God—a relationship which requires the Christian to pray diligently, to read the scriptures faithfully, and to receive God’s Grace in the Eucharist regularly.

But persistence is not required only because sloth can creep up on our souls. Persistence is necessary because our expectations can sometimes lead to disappointment: when our prayer seems hollow and God seems not to answer, when our study of Holy Scripture seems to leave us with little inspiration, when the strength and consolation we once drew from the Sacrament seems to have ceased, as water ceases from a well that’s dried up.

Christian mystics, like St. Teresa of Avilla, whose feast day occurred this week, call this phenomenon “aridity”, which means “dried up”. We’ve all probably experienced this at one point or another. It can be discouraging, and it can elicit some unfortunate reactions if we’re not ready for it.

We can stop praying and reading the bible and receiving the Sacrament altogether. This is like assuming the oasis in the distance must be a mirage, so it’s better to sit down in the desert and dehydrate to death instead of venturing toward the potential life right in front of us.

Or, we can blame the Church. This has become a very popular way of avoiding the call to persevere.

The proper response, I think, is to keep praying and reading scripture and receiving the Sacrament. The proper response is to keep at it. You’ll make it to that oasis in the desert eventually. You’ll experience Grace and consolation eventually. Don’t let discouragement get hold and decide to just pack it in. Keep at it, and in the end the struggle will seem a distant memory compared to the abiding peace we can experience in Christ Jesus, in this world and the next.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 16 2019

+In the Name the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I might have said to you before that conjunctions are always a little tricky when they show up in Paul’s epistles. When you read a “therefore” or an “even so”, even if it’s in the middle of the reading, it may well refer to a point some chapters back, or even to Paul’s argument in everything that precedes it in the letter. Such is the case with this week’s epistle. “But as for you, man of God,” writes the Apostle to his beloved disciple Timothy, “shun all this, pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.” St. Paul contrasts the Christian life with something else. But what is the “all this” that we are meant to “shun”? You’ll remember that Paul had just been talking about money, which he calls “a root of all kinds of evil,” and those who developed the lectionary took that and gave us a theme, as it were, for all of this week’s readings: namely, the dangers of wealth. But, in fact, St. Paul spends much of the five-and-a-half chapters which precede today’s reading spelling out what the “all this” he desires Timothy’s church to shun, and love of money is just one aspect. Reading this rather discursive letter as a whole, we find that Timothy’s church in Ephesus was beset by a myriad of false teachings and false teachers. Impious superstitions; speculation which both wasted time and drew people away from the Faith once received; consent to scandalous and illegal behavior; condemnation of perfectly proper, Christian activities, like getting married and even eating.

False teaching was legion in this little church, and so were those who propagated the heresies. Worst of all (and here’s why money is the last danger Paul mentions) these false teachers were making a killing. They worked not only for their bread and butter, but for the kind of wealth that would make Solomon blush. They put their faith in mammon, hoping that wealth would save them. This is what in theological terms is called a “false soteriology”, which is simply the bad habit of trying to find life and truth and purpose and salvation where they are not to found. I call it a bad habit because it is something that we fallen people fall back into, time and time again. So did Blessed Paul, who counted himself the foremost of sinners. And so do we.

We are not in a world much different from Paul’s, I’m afraid. I know that I am barraged every day with false objects of hope, and sinner that I am, sometimes I put my trust in those things, hoping to find salvation there: whether it’s money, or the positive regard of my fellows, or self-sufficiency, or any of a number of countless idols the world constructs for me or I for myself. I suspect few of us are saintly enough to avoid placing our trust in these things from time to time; but it is not at the altars set up by this sin-sick world where we find salvation.

Anyway, that is what it is to live life on the terms that the world has set for us, and that is what the apostle is warning us against. The good life, he says, is forged by virtues like righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. These are what St. Paul tells us to pursue, but the pursuit of these virtues isn’t what leads to salvation, either. Rather they are the proper response to the gift of salvation already wrought upon the cross and given freely to those who would accept it. Salvation is not about who we are, but who it is we follow. Salvation is not even about how we live our lives, but who it is that gives us life.

Indeed, after he lists the virtues of the Christian life, Paul goes on to explain why we ought to cultivate them: Fight the good fight, keep the faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. Our Lord made the good confession before Pontius Pilate, Paul tells us, and we find that confession in St. John’s Gospel: My kingdom is not of this world. We are meant to live as a people set apart, because we really are. We, by virtue of our Baptism, are made citizens of a kingdom that is not of this world. We are a priestly people, brought by Baptism into the Mystical Body of Christ and continually fed and reconstituted by the Very Body of Christ. This is what Catholic man-of-letters William Cavanaugh was getting at when he said that we Christians find “the whole world in a wafer”. We are, in a very real way, intimately connected to each other by the sacrament of Baptism, and we renew that connection at every Eucharist.

We celebrate the Eucharist at least a couple of times a week. I encourage you to treat each of these occasions as a reminder, just as each time we have a Baptism it serves as a reminder. Remember that good confession which you made all those years ago in the presence of so many witnesses. Recall your own renunciation of Satan and his wickedness, of all those evil powers and sinful desires which turn us against God and each other. Recall your own commitment to turn to Jesus Christ and accept Him as your savior, to put all your trust in him, to follow and obey Him as your Lord. These are not the demands and expectations of this world, but of the Kingdom into which we have all been adopted as God’s servants and handmaids, His daughters and sons.

In the Fourth Century A.D., St. Ambrose of Milan, that Doctor of the Church and champion of the Faith in one of Christianity’s darkest hours, wrote a hymn which remains popular on the feast days of Apostles. The hymn extols the virtue of those whom the church recognizes as saints, but much of it applies equally to the ordinary saints of the church, the regular saints, like you and me, who are saints not by virtue of wondrous deeds, but by a simple confession of our belief in our Lord and our Baptism into His Body. From the third verse of that hymn:

Theirs is the steadfast faith of saints,
and hope that never yields nor faints;
and love of Christ in perfect glow
that lays the prince of this world low.

These aren’t miraculous acts, but the simple acts of faith we are called to live out as baptized people: to pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance. It is in living by these uncomplicated, but sometimes impossibly difficult virtues that we show forth to the world that though we are in the world, we are not of it. We show the world the power of the God in whom we find salvation. We show that in the waters of Baptism we are truly changed and will never be the same. We show the world that a little tasteless bread and bad wine are a greater source of strength than the great feasts of the rich man. We show to the prince of this world that the Kingdom of God will prevail, and for this there is much rejoicing in Heaven.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.