Sunday, September 23, 2012

23 September 2012 Sermon ~ The Rev. Peter M. Carey ~ St. Paul's Memorial Church

The Rev. Peter M. Carey
Sermon – 23 September 2012
St. Paul’s Memorial Church

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Our Collect today is one of my favorites.  I know all too well the ways that the anxieties of life get in the way of “those that endure.”  The stresses and daily tugs at one’s soul can bring us away from focusing on what is truly enduring and important.  And, our faith is not one of escapism, so we are not really called to just look to the future, or to the heavens, or to some utopian vision of the afterlife, we’re supposed to embrace the ways that the Kingdom of God is breaking into our world, even now.

Holding onto the things that endure, rather than every passing fancy offers me the sense that there is something enduring beyond what I may see in the midst of the comings and goings of my own life.  The daily successes and failures, the weekly stresses and anxieties, the yearly strivings and disappointments, are mere leaves in the river, floating along, while the love of God endures, and is the bedrock on which we can get a firm handhold in the swirling river of life.

However, this is often easier said, than done.

As wonderful as these words are, if you are anything like me, you may want a little flesh on these bones, you may want some supportive concepts and a bit more details to go along with the thesis statement.

And so, we are blessed today with several images that offer up some of the flesh for the bones, some supportive details for the notion that we should turn to the things that endure.

Psalm 1 contrasts the fate of the godly and the fate of the ungodly.  At the start, we learn of the happiness of the godly, they do not live as the ungodly do, rather they study and observe the Mosaic law “day and night,” and their well-being is like trees which are planted by streams of water.  They are prosperous in happiness.

“They are like trees planted by streams of water,

bearing fruit in due season,

with leaves that do not wither;

everything they do shall prosper.”

There was a tree planted near a stream in a field off a dirt road which I drove by dozens of times before I turned onto that road.  The oak tree was humungous, with healthy limbs and huge leaves.  When I finally turned onto the road I could not believe that I hadn’t turned aside before.  I parked the car and walked to the tree.  Laying down beneath it, I could hear the streams of water, and I looked up into those strong branches.  Like a child at the foot of his mother, I looked up and could not fathom the tree’s height or majesty.  There, I fell asleep, beneath the tree planted by streams of water.

And so, when we are anxious about earthly things, we might turn our thoughts to this image of trees planted by streams of water.  Water that provides for the spiritually thirsty, perhaps even the living water that God has given us through Christ.  Trees planted by streams of water, which bear fruit in due season, and with robust leaves that do not wither.  We can turn our thoughts to this image of trees, these ancient living things which often grow longer than we live.  These trees can represent the way that God’s love for us existed before we do, and will be with us always.

“For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.  But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.  And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.”

I was blessed in one of my teaching positions to be given a grant which paid for me to go on an Outward Bound class in North Carolina.  We were educators ranging in age from 25 to 75, and we tromped around the woods, rock climbed, endured several days of nonstop rain, spent time along on our solos, and it was challenging, and also uplifting.  One day, after a long walk through woods full of brambles and sharp thorns, our legs were scratched, we were thirsty, and were tired of the mud and the obstacles in our way.  After this long walk in which we lost our path, we finally emerged from the dark woods to see a golden rolling field, full of an autumn harvest of flowers and grass.  The rolling fields stretched out in front of us, but also awakened the harvest within ourselves, and we rejoiced at the abundant harvest.

James has set out to correct the sin of arrogance, and in the process, he tells his hearers the qualities of wisdom.  His understanding of wisdom is consistent with the Old Testament prophets, and of Paul.  If you are motivated by wisdom, then you will live out a life with gentleness, moderation, courtesy, and humility.  Turning to God, and remembering that life is a gift, not a right, that life emerges from God’s love, not from our own making allows us to tap into the deep wisdom of God.

Here, the image is one of a field full of a harvest of righteousness, but not solely one that we might see as we emerge from woods into a field, but also a harvest of righteousness sown within us.

Merton quote:
When we live superficially … we are always outside ourselves, never quite ‘with’ ourselves, always divided and pulled in many directions … we find ourselves doing many things that we do not really want to do, saying things we do not really mean, needing things we do not really need, exhausting ourselves for what we secretly realize to be worthless and without meaning in our lives.
—Thomas Merton

Our lives are full of the daily grind of things to do, places to be, families to feed, friends to care for, and in so many ways, we don’t really get the time we need to rest.   The prayer from Compline on page 133 reminds us of the ways that God does provide us rest, “we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life may rest in your eternal changelessness.”  In so many ways, we are pulled to and fro, and it can become easy to forget the bedrock that God provides at the center of our lives.    The human condition is one in which we can easily feel separated from each other and from God.  Our condition is characterized by the daily grind rather than the ever-present blessings of our lives.  We are truly “placed among things that are passing away,” but we are also given handholds, footholds in the swirling river of our lives.  God have given us the gift of “those things that endure.”  We have only the need to turn aside, to see the majestic trees on the sideroads of our lives. We have only to endure the brambles and thorns a bit, and we will see the rolling fields full of a harvest of righteousness.

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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