Sermon 674+November 6, 2011

November 7, 2011

All Saints’ Sunday
Twenty-first Week after Pentecost
814th Week as Priest
640th Week at St Dunstan’s

Thin Spaces and Holy Places

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

I am here tonight to bring you good news. The gospel, which literally means, “the good news,” is just as Jesus of Nazareth announced it at the very beginning of Mark’s Gospel:

Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.”

This was a radical new announcement in that day. A man appears practically out of nowhere—just after John the Baptist has been arrested and thrown into prison. People from Jerusalem and throughout Judea had been baptized by John, and they have stayed in the place near the Jordan River. Now Jesus of Nazareth comes from the hill country of Galilee and he is telling them that good news has finally arrived. The time has come, the moment that they have been waiting for all these years. The kingdom of God is at hand! But what could that mean? What is this “kingdom of God”?

That’s why I am here—to tell you that you are living in the kingdom of God right now. God’s kingdom is at hand, and we are all a part of it. Sin and death are conquered in Christ’s crucifixion. We are living the good news.

In the ancient Celtic tradition, the Christianity of Ireland and Scotland and Wales before it was absorbed by the Roman Church, “Thin Places” were spaces where the spiritual and the natural world were believed to come together. A Thin Place, then, is a place where it is possible to find yourself very near to God. “Thin Spaces” are those rare moments when we experience a deep sense of God’s presence in our everyday lives.

In my imagination, such a Thin Space would be a moment you might find yourself in the company of the saints. As the Eucharistic prayer says, “with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.” You’re not seeing ghosts, and you’re not going crazy … you are experiencing the holy. Like John of Patmos, you are experiencing a revelation, a vision, in which you see “with an eye made quiet by the power of joy and the deep power of love.” As Wordsworth said, you “see into the life of things.”

I have a similar fullness-of-time experience from time to time at St Dunstan’s. I think about the hundreds and hundreds of people who have been in this holy place, this Thin Place, over a period of a hundred years; and all of the prayers that have been prayed here; and the children baptized, young people married, old people buried from this church. The smell of incense reminds me of those prayers. It is much like coming to a place for the first time and feeling that you have been there before. T.S. Eliot speaks of this feeling at the end of his poem, “Little Gidding,”

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

There are certain types of music that recall these Thin Places, as well. When I hear bluegrass, or Irish music, or an old hymn, there is something in me that remembers a place I’ve never been before. Marion Hatchett, my major professor at Sewanee, called it anamnesis, which literally means “not forgetting.” It is as though time and space are inconsequential; and past, present, and future have all come to a single moment which is now.

The aged disciple John, writing near the end of his long life at the close of the First Century Anno Domine, knew the same anamnesis. The revelation came to him nearly seventy years after Christ’s death and resurrection. But it was a vision of the end times, which have not come in two thousand years, and may not come for many millennia. Past, present, and future all came together for John of Patmos in the thinnest of spaces where he saw a vision of a new heaven and a new earth.

This “not forgetting” is also the experience of the Holy Eucharist, when we recall, we re-member, the sacrifice of Jesus of his own Body and Blood, and it is the same as if it were happening all over again. Again it is a Thin Place where the natural world and spiritual world seem very close to each other, and we can all but touch the hand of Christ.

If you have experienced the death of a loved one, or you have lost family members and friends over the years, I hope that this good news is a hope and a comfort to you. The kingdom of God is at hand. The space between God’s kingdom and our world is rather thin right here, right now. We are gathered with angels and archangels, with saints and martyrs, with all the company of heaven, and with those who have come before and live both in heaven and in the brightness of our own memories. In a little while, we will sing,

 Holy, holy, holy Lord.
 God of power and might.
 Heaven and earth are full of your glory.
 Hosanna in the highest!

We will eat the Bread of Heaven. We will drink from the Cup of Salvation. And we will live forever with the saints in heaven. Amen. Alleluia!

Sermon 673+November 5, 2011

November 7, 2011

Twentieth Week after Pentecost
813th Week as Priest
639th Week at St Dunstan’s

The Marriage of Bailey Lewis and Blayne Rusinko

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

What I have to say today is really more about Blayne and Bailey than it is directed to them. I want to show them to you as an example, or even proof, of the goodness and love of God.

Anybody who comes to church at St Dunstan’s knows that I am constantly telling people that their life is of infinite importance to God, and sometimes I wonder if they believe it at all. But I keep trying.

I know it’s hard to see or accept from time to time that your individual life might be that important to Almighty God, the Lord of All Creation, the Ground of Being, and the Ultimate Lover of Souls—hard to believe that God would actually choose you—particularly if you don’t see yourself that way, or if you have experienced much sadness, or disappointment, in your life. Were you ever the kid they chose last on the playground? There’s a kickball game, and two captains choose sides. One by one they choose kids to be on their team. You remember how good it felt to be chosen early or even first? Remember how bad it felt to be chosen late, or even last?

Well, I am here today to tell you it is true: God chooses you. God loves you and me more than we can ask for or imagine. God loves us more than we desire or deserve. God loves us infinitely and ultimately. God chooses you. It’s an expression of love.

And this love is best shown in what are called “Sacraments,” that is, outward and visible signs of God’s inward and spiritual grace. The Sacraments of the Episcopal Church include Marriage—but there are six others—Baptism, Eucharist, Confirmation, Ordination, Confession, and Unction. The only Sacrament I’m going to talk about right now is Marriage, but that, after all, is the reason why we are here.

Marriage is many things. It is a celebration and a blessing. Marriage is a covenant, an agreement, a bond between two people. Marriage is a recognition of the love and friendship that exist between people, but it is also a commitment. It is a promise and a pledge.

Marriage is practically a miracle these days—we all know how uncommon a lifelong, healthy, happy marriage really is. But such a marriage is not only real, and possible; it is much more likely than you might believe.

Marriage is sacred. It is blessed by God. Marriage is God’s best intention for us—not that all persons should be married, or that every marriage should last. However, marriage is clearly God’s best intention for Bailey and Blayne.

God’s love is not only shown in the sacraments, but also in people and their loving relationships. We have one of the best examples of such a lifelong, healthy, happy relationship in Bailey’s maternal grandparents, Wanda and Buck Marsh. Please understand: I choose them because I know them and love them and admire them very much. I have visited their home many times and I have eaten at their table. I have visited them when they were sick. We have known each other for years, and we have had many good conversations. I know Wanda and Buck, as I know Bailey and Blayne.

Wanda and Buck share a true companionship. Their marriage to each other not only provides strength and comfort to themselves, it is also a wonderful example to others—including Bailey and Blayne, but also the rest of us here today, myself included.

When times get tough, and we all know there will be tough times in any life, in any marriage, just think about Granny and Buck. Their love and support for you is a type of the love that God has for you. Infinite, extravagant, unmerited love. Endless forgiveness and limitless mercy. Boundless affection and unconditional positive regard. They hold up a mirror for the rest of us to see ourselves and what we can be. And they encourage us to live a life that is worthy of Christ. They choose you—even if you are already family, or if you are a new acquaintance. They choose you.

In case you haven’t already figured it out, the other part of God’s love for us is that God takes our lives, and what we do with them, seriously. That phrase,  living a life that is worthy of Christ, comes from the letters of St Paul …

“Lead a life worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God,” he says to the Colossians.

“Let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ,” he tells the Philippians.

“Lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory,” he says to the Thessalonians.

 “I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called,” he tells the Ephesians.

Marriage lived well and long is a marriage of hearts, bodies, minds, and spirits. This kind of marriage is right and worthy and honorable.

Weddings are wonderful events. But beyond the flowers, and past the beautiful language and the music, the rings, the handsome young people gathered with their closest friends, the poems and prayers and promises—beyond and above all that there is a simple truth that Blayne and Bailey have chosen each other. “I choose you,” Bailey tells Blayne, and it means I choose you, and only you, out of seven billion people on this planet. “I choose you,” says Blayne, and it says that Bailey is the most important person in the world to her.
“I choose you,” they say, willingly and openly and vulnerably, and it means forever. “I choose you,” and it means everything, even life itself. “I choose you,” say Wanda and Buck. “I choose you,” says God, Ruler of the Universe. I choose you first. Amen.

 

Sermon 659+August 12, 2011

November 6, 2011

Seventh Week after Pentecost
798th Week as Priest
624th Week at St Dunstan’s
The Baptism of Finley Elizabeth Michal

The Image of Innocence

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

The Scriptures often speak of “fullness of time” moments. These are events, encounters, and epiphanies of the Holy, in which life as we know it is somehow changed, set apart from the routine and the expected, and as the poet William Wordsworth wrote more than 200 years ago,

With an eye made quiet by the power of harmony,
and the deep power of joy, we see into the life of things.

This Sacrament of Holy Baptism is just such a fullness of time moment. Our hearts are filled with love for a small child, Finley Elizabeth Michal, who as my old friend George Littleton would say, is “perfectly excellent,” and she is! Finley is very watchful and observant, taking in the world around her. Even as an infant, Finley seems to see into the life of things, to see into our hearts—and to capture them!

Finley is the very image of innocence, dressed in an exquisite baptismal gown and bonnet, eyes wide open and wondering, accepting and giving love and laughter. It is only fitting that this Sacrament of Holy Baptism is that “outward and visible sign of God’s inward and spiritual grace.”

I am reminded of the English mystic poet William Blake, and a work of his called “The Lamb.”

The Lamb

Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee life, and bid thee feed
By the stream and o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?

Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee,
Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee:
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb.
He is meek, and he is mild;
He became a little child.
I a child, and thou a lamb.
We are called by his name.
Little Lamb, God bless thee!
Little Lamb, God bless thee!

Every child, I believe, is that little lamb whom God our Father blesses and adopts into his household. Every child, I believe, is that little lamb whom Christ carries hom on his shoulders. Finley, like each little lamb of God, is marked as Christ’s own forever.

The American poet Carl Sandburg wrote that “A baby is God’s opinion that the world should go on.” I believe that. But the Holy Baptism of a child, I also believe, is Christ’s true saying, that every human life—yours, mine, William’s, Anna’s, Finley’s—every human life is of infinite importance to God.

And therefore, our one true aim in life—your life, my life, Anna and William’s life together—and all of our hopes and dreams for Finley’s “one wild and precious life”—is to live a life that is worthy of Christ. Amen.

Sermon 672+October 30, 2011

November 2, 2011

Twentieth Week after Pentecost
813th Week as Priest
639th Week at St Dunstan’s

A Life that is Worthy of God

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Thank you for enduring the past two Sunday conversations on stewardship. The first Sunday, I showed you the money we receive, and the responsible ways we spend that money—our income and expenses. Your Advisory Council, or Vestry, if you prefer, is doing an excellent job of managing our finances.

The second Sunday I shared with you a plan for managing your own income and expenses, including a way to begin making a financial commitment to St Dunstan’s—and to find peace with what you have and what you give, with both your blessings and your obligations. I don’t know how you, personally, are doing in managing your own money, but I have offered free consultation to anybody who wants or needs it. And, by the way, every couple who gets married at St Dunstan’s gets the personal finance conversation with me.

This is the third and last stewardship conversation, and I thought about teaching you all how to score a baseball game using the last game of the World Series as my example—Yea Cardinals!—but I decided not to. So our last Sunday, instead, has the theme, “A Life that is Worthy of God.” These are words from St Paul, and he spoke often on the theme …

I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.
–Ephesians 4:1

Let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ.
–Philippians 1:27

Lead a life worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.
–Colossians 1:10

Lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.
–1 Thessalonians 2:12

But what does it mean to live a life worthy of God? Well, first I believe that such a life begins with the recognition that we are a kingdom people, and that kingdom, as Jesus said, is not of this world. Our king is Jesus Christ himself, and no other, and we pledge our loyalty and our lives to him. We are Americans, and Sri Lankans, and Australians, but we are also a kingdom people.

We are a people of hope, because we believe in things not seen. Ours is a sure and certain hope, however, because our hope is in Christ—and it is only in Christ. St Paul said that suffering produces endurance. Endurance produces character. Character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us. We are a people of hope.

We are a people of the Way, and that’s Way with a capital “W.” The Way is what the followers of Jesus called their new life in Christ. We live in a particular way. Our Christian faith is not a Sunday morning appointment, or a gold star for special achievement, or a free ticket into heaven. No, our faith is a way of life; it is the Way of Life itself, and we are most certainly people of the Way.

We are a holy people. To be holy does not mean to be perfect, or even perfectly excellent—although many of you are perfectly excellent people, particularly Saneli, Emory, John Wells, Mary Grissom, Kate and Caroline, and all of those children we have baptized here at St Dunstan’s. To be holy means to be set apart, to be marked as Christ’s own, to be sealed by the Holy Spirit. Yes, we are a holy people.

We are the saints of God. Yes, each of you is one of the saints of God, whether you are a doctor, a queen, or a shepherdess on the green. Whether you are a soldier, a priest, or just a snack for a fierce wild beast. You are counted among the saints. We all are. We are the saints of God.

I have said this next part many times, and I will say it again: Your life is of infinite importance to God. If it were not so, do you think that Jesus would have made such a sacrifice of himself? Not that we have earned any such importance, nor have we any claim to sole responsibility for our own successes and achievements. No, we are made kingdom people, people of hope and the way, a holy people, saints of God, through Christ and with Christ and in Christ. All our hope on him is founded.

However, we have free will. We have choices to make, for good or ill, every single day of our lives. We can choose to bless or to curse. We can choose to give or to withhold from giving. It is your choice entirely.

But now I am urging, and encouraging, and pleading with you to help the church you love. Give cheerfully and freely for the spread of the kingdom. Give as an expression of your hope for the future. Give out of your love and concern for a hurting world. Give what you can. Please answer our Call to Stewardship tonight. Make a commitment now. Sign the card, seal it in the envelope, and place it in the offering.

Ascribe to the Lord the honor due his Name. Bring offerings, and come into his courts. Amen.

Sermon 671+October 26, 2011

November 2, 2011

Nineteenth Week after Pentecost
812th Week as Priest
638th Week at St Dunstan’s

The Brother of Jesus

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

“Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us?”

So the people of his own hometown met Jesus, with doubt and criticism. With their own valuation of his worth and that of his family. I’m glad to live in a place where people are known much more by the content of their character, and the accomplishments they have achieved, than by their pedigree or their generational history or their storied wealth. Auburn is no paradise, of course, but it’s the best place I’ve ever lived.

Most small towns are not this way, of course. You are judged by the same judgments they have had of your family. Your worth as a human being is always suspect, because they’ve known somebody in your family tree who was a horse thief, or a dirt farmer, or a ne’er do well.

Jesus is being judged by his father Joseph’s occupation. Is not this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t he one of those children of Joseph’s? Who does he think he is, reading from Torah and trying to heal people? What good can come out of Nazareth anyway?

The plain answer, of course, is that the Son of God can come out of Nazareth, that’s who. The Messiah can come into the world as a carpenter’s son. The Christ, in an ironic way, chooses to come as an ordinary person of an ordinary family in an ordinary little town, in the middle of nowhere in Galilee.

So we should be careful not to write somebody off, just because of their genealogy or their home address. We should give everybody the benefit of the doubt—and not our doubt and criticism.

Nobody has a God-given right to damage your self-esteem or your reputation or your good work. Nobody has the right to criticize, demean, and belittle another person. No matter who they are, or where they come from. Life is hard enough as it is. Just making it through the day is often challenge enough. So let’s try our best to be a help to others, a blessing to others, and let us show ourselves slow to judge another. Amen.

Sermon 670+October 12, 2011

November 2, 2011

Seventeenth Week after Pentecost
810th Week as Priest
636th Week at St Dunstan’s

The Most Important of Books

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

I’ve said many times before that the Bible is truly like no other book. That idea is not new with me, of course, but I want to be sure that you hear it so many times, and in several different ways, so that, as the Psalmist says, the words soak into your consciousness like oil into your bones.

The Bible—which is comprised of many forms of writing: histories, genealogies, poems, narratives, wisdom sayings, mythic fragments, parables, prophecies, and prose—is the Most Important of Books. In this 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Version of the Bible, called the Authorized Version, we recognize that particular translation as “the noblest monument of English prose,” but we must also concede to the unique usefulness of each of the translations now available. In all its forms, the Bible is admired for “its simplicity, its dignity, its power, its happy turns of expression … the music of its cadences, and the felicities of its rhythm,” but most especially in the 1611 edition authorized by Mother Church.

In our tradition, we run the risk constantly of worshipping the form rather than the ideal. Our worship, which is always in the beauty of holiness, is itself true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious, excellent, and worthy of praise. But our worship, our liturgy, is not something we worship any more than we worship a book, even the Bible.

Once upon a time, I was the president of a little bank in Fayette, Alabama, the little town that time forgot, that the decades cannot improve. I was also the parish priest, the vicar of St Michael’s in Fayette. One of my best customers was my plumber. He was not only a good plumber, but also a good businessman. He liked to come into my office and talk about CD rates and theology. One day my plumber sat before me and said, “Do you happen to have a Bible?”

“Yes,” I said, and pulled a dog-eared old copy of the Good News Bible from my desk drawer. “Here’s one.”

“What’s this?” asked my plumber.

“That’s the Good News Bible,” I answered. “It’s a modern translation, and a good one.”

“Mr. Warren,” he said, “If it ain’t the King James, it ain’t the Bible.” And he walked out, disgusted. He did come back eventually.

I could have said much more, had he given me the opportunity. I would have told my plumber that the Good News was also honorable, excellent, and worthy of praise. I would have told him that young people find its straightforward prose appealing and understandable and immediately useful. But I am sure my plumber would still have said, “If it ain’t the King James, it ain’t the Bible.”

We use the Revised Standard Version of the Bible on Wednesdays, simply because it is comparable in language and form to the Rite One liturgy. But we also use the RSV because the language is beautiful, traditional, and it harks back to an earlier time when change did not occur at such an accelerated, frenzied pace. And so here, each week, we worship Almighty God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—in the beauty of holiness, using the Most Important of Books. Amen.

Sermon 669+October 2, 2011

November 2, 2011

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
1st Sunday with Deacon
808th Week as Priest
634th Week at St Dunstan’s

Conflict and Anger

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Jesus told a story that enraged the Pharisees. It was a parable, only more plainly stated than his usual style. It was flatly allegorical: The vineyard is the Promised Land. The tenants are the Jewish leaders. The messengers are the prophets, one after another. The son of course is Jesus himself, the Anointed One, the Christ. The story is a warning: this will happen if you do not change your mind, change your ways, and believe.
 
This is Jesus in direct conflict with the Establishment. This is Jesus in your face. You can feel the tension, can’t you? You can tell it’s all about to break wide open.
 
I don’t like conflict. I try to avoid trouble, only trouble seems to find me. All you have to do is question my competence or my honesty, and you have pushed all of my buttons.  I can’t stand it. I hate this about myself. I do the very thing I hate most about myself. I get angry. I lose my temper. I attack. I argue. I fight, and it’s not a fair fight.
 
So why did our Lord create such a conflict for himself? Let’s face it. He started it. He told the story, already knowing what their reaction would be. He started the trouble! But why?
 
This is not the Jesus I was looking for. This is not the Good Shepherd. This is not the Bread of Heaven. This is not the Water of Life. So I see Jesus doing the very thing I despise most in myself. Please, Lord, say it ain’t so (ref. the kid cornering Shoeless Joe Jackson of the Chicago Black Sox to ask him about cheating in the World Series). Tell me it was an accident. They didn’t quote you accurately. That’s not what you said. It was all just a big misunderstanding.
 
No, I think it happened just the way the story was told. Jesus gave them the parable and they understood exactly what he meant. He told the prophetic truth. But just like Jack Nicholson said in “A Few Good Men,” he said, “Mister, you can’t handle the truth!” The truth he told was that the kingdom was going to be taken away from them, the leaders, and given to his followers.
 
A long time ago, Bishop Stough told me, “make no peace with oppression.” When you see injustice, when you see somebody bullying a smaller, weaker person, wherever you see wrong being done by hard, cruel, uncaring, mean people, you’ve gotta stand up to it. Make no peace with oppression. Get up. Stand up. Stand up for your rights. (That’s Bob Marley, not Bishop Stough.)

Ironically, there is a conflict evident within our midrash, our interpretation, of the passage. Our Christianity is a way of love, joy, hope, peace—not of confrontation, anger, and conflict. You may say there are times when we have to confront, to show righteous anger—but another voice, a stronger voice, keeps telling me to make peace, endure suffering, carry a cross. On the other hand, surely Jesus would not give us his example and then tell us not to follow it! So, what’s the answer? Is it right to fight the good fight against oppression? Is there a time and a place when anger is appropriate? Surely anger is often sinful … but is anger in us always a sin?

At this point, St Paul cries out in my memory, “Wretched man that I am, who will save me from this body of death?” The answer is Christ himself. St Paul struggled to explain the complexity of a life lived “in Christ” to the Philippians. To be “in Christ,” he said, was “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings.”

This much I know: I have not yet attained the goal, and neither have you. We want to be “in Christ,” but we are not there yet. We want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection. We want to be brave enough to share in his sufferings. But we are not there yet. We have much more to learn—about ourselves, our neighbors, and Christ himself.

So, in the meantime, let us be quick to bless and slow to anger, eager to love but hesitant to claim the higher ground. Amen.

The Feast of St Michael & All Angels
Fifteenth Week after Pentecost
807th Week as Priest
633rd Week at St Dunstan’s

Waiting on an Angel

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

It may surprise some of my students, but I enjoy the music of Ben Harper. Songs like “With My Own Two Hands,” I can change the world. Songs like “Waiting on an Angel,” which is, I suppose, the theme of this feast day, the celebration of St Michael and All Angels.

There are only four angels named in the Bible—but many more appear. Gabriel arrives in the Book of Daniel, and then again in Luke’s gospel he is the messenger of God announcing the birth of John the Baptist to Elizabeth, and then Jesus to the Blessed Virgin Mary, her cousin. Raphael is mentioned in the Book of Tobit, one of the apocryphal writings, and Uriel in another, the Fourth Book of Ezra, also known as the Second Book of Esdras, also from the Apocrypha.

Angels are there in the beginning of our Christian Testament, announcing the birth of the Christ Child, and they are there in the end, at the Resurrection of Our Lord. Angels are messengers, so their duty is to announce, to give word, to warn, and to sing in heavenly choir.

Most often angels come to us unawares, as the writer of Hebrews suggests. Even in the Old Testament stories of angels and Abram, the angel and Isaac, the angel and Jacob—the other appears first as man, then angel, then God himself. We are surprised by angels. They come to us to eat with us, to protect us from danger, to wrestle with us until the break of day. And angels always say the same thing at first: Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid? Apparently angels are pretty overwhelming as well.

Once upon a time, when I was the vicar of St Michael’s in Fayette, I held an intergenerational Sunday School after church. “What does an angel look like?” I asked the children. Kelly said, “They have long golden hair!” I drew the hair. “They wear white nightgowns!” said Emily. I drew the nightgown. “They have bare feet!” said Maggie. I drew the feet. “They have that thing on their heads!” said Laurel. “What thing?” I asked. “A halo!” two of them yelled. “What else?” I asked. Silence. Then Mary Catherine, the youngest, said, “A stick.” “A stick?” I asked. “What stick?” Mary Catherine replied, “You know, to hold their halo up!”

Angels occupy our songs, our movies, our mantelpieces, and our imaginations. They are swift, powerful, and dazzling. They are beautiful and delicate and divine. Angels are a mystery, a mystery that most of us would love to experience, and yet, we are always afraid.

Ben Harper sang that he was

Waiting on an angel,
One to carry me home.
Hope you can come and see me soon,
Cause I don’t want to be alone.

Now angel, won’t you come around here?
Angel, hear my plea.
Take my hand and lift me up,
So that I can fly with thee.

What are we expecting from angels? Deliverance. Rescue. Hope. Health. A way to heaven. A companion on the way home. In Psalm 91, read most often at the time of death, the priest says, “God has given his angels charge over you, to keep you in all your ways.” And at the very last the priest says,

Receive, O Lord, your servant, for he returns to you.
May he gaze upon you, Lord, face to face, and taste
   the blessedness of perfect rest.
May angels surround him, and saints welcome him in peace. Amen.

The Feast of St Matthew
Fourteenth Week after Pentecost
806th Week as Priest
632nd Week at St Dunstan’s

Changing Directions

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

There is a word in Greek, metanoia, which is commonly translated as “repentance” in English. But repentance doesn’t really do justice to the term. Metanoia more accurately, and literally, means to change your mind. And it further implies a positive, rather than a negative, connotation. The change that occurs within you is in the sense of embracing thoughts that are beyond your present limitations or thought patterns.

Henry Parsley has said that metanoia may literally suggest a change in direction: You are going in one way, and you change directions and go in a completely new way.

So we may say that the change which occurs in the tax collector Matthew, also known as Levi, is metanoia, a change of his mind, his thoughts, his perception of the world and his place in it. He has been a tax collector for Herod Antipas—extorting money from his fellow Jews and hated for it, treated as an outcast and a sinner—but with two simple words, “Follow me,” he rises from his money table and walks away from his former life. He changes directions. He has embraced a new thought; he has changed his mind.

I am curious about what is required to change a person’s mind, particularly when the change is theological, philosophical, intellectual, cognitive. For the faithful Jew to become a follower of Jesus, no rejection of the former life was really necessary. James, the brother of Jesus, for example, was a devout Jew who became a leader of the Christians. He continued in the practices and beliefs he had grown up with—Circumcision, Sabbath, Passover, and Temple Worship. It was a paradigm shift for James to become a Christian, but his was not a full-scale change of direction.

Saul of Tarsus, however, who becomes Paul the Apostle, does experience metanoia in a most dramatic way: the Risen Lord appears to him in a blinding light on the road to Damascus. He has been zealous in persecuting the new Christians, but now he becomes a thoroughly changed man. He sees that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets; he has changed directions. Paul has a completely different perspective on his life and the world he lives in. Yes, a case can be made that Paul’s change is also a paradigm shift—that his change is more a fulfillment than a rejection of his past. But his views of Circumcision, Sabbath, Passover, and Temple Worship are dramatically new and different. And his understanding of the Gospel’s appropriateness for Gentiles is completely revolutionary.

Matthew is a third and different case. He has turned away from an old life that was unfaithful, corrupt, and contemptuous in order to follow Christ into a new way of life. He can no longer be a part of his former life, and it can have no part in his new life in Christ. Matthew rejects his former self to become his better self. His metanoia is no paradigm shift; it is a complete transformation, and it seems to occur in an instant.

So, we may say that there is no one way to new life in Christ. The metanoia which occurs may take any of these forms—or perhaps something completely different from them. Perhaps what we see is that Christ finds a way to reach us, each of us, in our own way, in our own circumstances, in the midst of our one particular and unique life. And such change likely can occur many times throughout the course of a person’s life—when we fall away, drift into disbelief, wander down a wrong path, fall prey to apathy or temptation. Christ comes to us, again and again, opening our hearts and minds to his love, his grace, his peace. Amen.

Fourteenth Week after Pentecost
806th Week as Priest
632nd Week at St Dunstan’s

An Age of Anxiety

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

In the years following the Second World War, the English poet W.H. Auden published a long poem entitled, “The Age of Anxiety.” And you probably thought that this was the age of anxiety! I certainly did, and I still do. People today seem more worried than ever about earthly things—the economy, getting a job when you graduate from college, being able to afford a house, or having a child, just filling up your car has become a major expense. Add to that our continuing anxious preoccupation with terrorism, war, depression (both personal and economic), and the escalating cost of health care and health insurance; not to mention the divorce rate in the USA, or reduced funding for institutions and programs (among them Auburn University and the Episcopal Church), and you have good reason, it seems, to be very anxious about earthly things.

Today’s lessons all speak in one way or another about the problem of anxiety.

The People of Israel complain that their leaders, Moses and Aaron, have brought them into the wilderness only to kill them with hunger. After much whining and complaining, God hears them and brings bread, meat, and water.

St Paul tells the Philippians that life focused on getting and spending is not life lived in a manner worthy of Christ. The psalmist reminds us to “search for the Lord and his strength” and to “remember the marvels he has done.”

Even Jesus addresses the anxiety of paychecks and work schedules, and seems to be more a friend of the wealthy landowner than the day laborer.

So perhaps we’re right to be worried and anxious! After all, if we don’t worry about ourselves, our souls and bodies, our present and future, our needs and desires—then who will?

The answer, we already know, is that worrying does no good. Fretting about the prosperity of evildoers gets you nowhere. Being anxious about what you will eat, and what you will drink, and what you will wear cannot and will not add a single day to your life. Instead, it may very well shorten your life. Stress is hard on the human body and mind and spirit. Stress actually kills people, and it comes in cleverly disguised form as heart disease, alcoholism, drug addiction, mental illness, and probably a host of other maladies and aches and pains.

But just knowing that worry gets us nowhere doesn’t prevent us from worrying. We probably worry that worry doesn’t work like we’d like. Some people, of course, don’t seem anxious or worried about anything. They are born that way, it appears, through no ability or work on their own part. There are not many people like that, however.

Ask your typical Auburn student how they’re doing today and the answer will be something like, “Stressed out.” Or, “tired.” Or, “You wouldn’t believe what all I’ve got to do this week—three tests, a paper, and a presentation on Friday.”

Let’s face it: Just telling somebody to stop worrying doesn’t get it. Telling yourself, “I’m not going to be anxious,” doesn’t work. What will work, instead, is what Paul called, “a still more excellent way.” And here it is:

1. Rest

Honor the Sabbath and keep it holy. Yes, I know that sounds ridiculous, or unrealistic, or just plain stupid, but I want you to consider what a Sabbath really is. It’s a day of rest, a complete day of doing no work. You set aside one day a week to recharge your batteries, turn off your cell phone, don’t even wash clothes or clean house or cut the grass. It’s a commandment, by the way, not a request, not a suggestion, not a general guideline. It has to be a commandment; otherwise we would never take is seriously. You may say that you don’t have time. You may think it’s just an excuse for laziness. But the real truth is that you need it. To recharge your batteries. To be still and know that you are not God. To rest and relax and enjoy being alive. So honor the Sabbath and keep it holy, for your own sake.

2. Exercise

Get up and do some exercise. Go for a walk. Ride your bike. Swim laps. Run. Throw a Frisbee with a border collie. Go outside and do something. Stay inside and do yoga. Just do something. It will release endorphins and improve your health. It’s hard to be worried and anxious when you are exercising. Try it and see.

3. Sleep

College students have been called “the most sleep deprived people in our society.” Most students get six to seven hours of sleep a night, and often much less. They pull all-nighters. They suffer from insomnia, which is another form of anxiety. Then they think they can make up for lost sleep on the weekends. Well, it doesn’t work. The experts say that college students need a good eight hours of sleep each night. The bottom line is this: You need a routine, some way of meeting each day with enough energy to do your best work.

4. Church

I know this may seem lame or even self-serving, but I want to suggest that church can be an antidote for anxiety. This is the one place you can come where you can totally be yourself and be accepted. And here is also the place where you can give up your worries and anxieties, give them to Christ whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light.

5. Self Care

The last strategy for lowering anxiety and improving your health is self-care. Yes, self-care means getting enough rest, and exercise, and sleep. But it also means eating properly, drinking responsibly, going to the doctor when you’re sick, going to the dentist twice a year, taking your medicine—all those small, everyday ways that you ought to be taking care of yourself, your soul and body, and you haven’t been, or you haven’t been doing enough.

You must take care of yourself. And that also means avoiding trouble—driving drunk, unprotected sex, binge drinking, smoking cigarettes (quitting after 19 years was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done), and a whole lot more. You know them. I’ve said enough.

But here is my main point: These are all Christian principles. Paul told the Corinthians, who were also living it up in an Age of Anxiety, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” Let’s start treating ourselves this way; I believe that we will discover stress reduction, less anxiety, and better health.

Jesus said himself that the most important commandments were to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. We have to love our selves, take care of our selves, in order to know what it means to love our neighbor. So, what do you say? Let’s start this week. Amen.

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