Peter Carey - Sermon – Feast of St. Sergius of Moscow
25 September 2006
Virginia Theological Seminary Chapel
Experts at fear
We are all experts at fear, and we have been instructed to fear just about everything. Terrorism, melting ice caps, contaminated spinach, fears for our children, fears that our church may not learn to speak one to another. These fears can paralyze us and petrify us, and turn our hearts to stone. We can be buried by these fears.
We need courageous hope. Today we pray courageously in the psalm “I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me out of all my terror.” We pray this prayer so it may shape us, so it might give us strength and allow us to recognize the audacious, foolish and miraculous action of being “delivered out of all our terror!” Setting aside our fears, seeking God, we begin to live the dream that God has for us: “I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me out of all my terror.”
‘Fear’ in text
So we turn to the Gospel, where we hear Jesus tell of the Kingdom of God … here must be the good news, after all … but we hear a parable from Matthew in which sorting and judgment comes, in which a net is thrown into the sea, and picks up fish of every kind. Upon the shore, the angels of the Lord sort the good from the evil, and place them into baskets and the bad will weep and gnash their teeth. On first sight, this parable does not look like good news. However, it should provoke fear of the Lord which is unlike earthly fears – it is awe of the Lord. It might provoke a radical call to examine our lives, to see where our wills may be one with God’s will. When we remember these parables of judgment, we remember that our very lives are dependent upon God. In remembering God, we remember that all that we have is gift, and we remember that the one who judges us also loves us, and forgives us.
Hope Under Awe and Grace of God
Though our lives are assaulted by fears on every side we proclaim a life lived in Hope. We live in awe of the Lord, so that we might remember God even in the darkest moments, even as our fears crush in upon us. We may need to step away from earthly fears, we may need to look to God, and cultivate the awe of the Lord.
One who lived in awe of the Lord was St. Sergius of Moscow who we remember today. He also lived in a time of great fear in Russia. The Tartars occupied Russia and the Russian people had to live under the oppression that any occupying force creates. Sergius did a most audacious, foolish and miraculous thing of going to the forest. As a 20 year old, together with his brother Stephen, he settled in the dense forests of Radonege with bears for his companions, suffered from fierce cold in winter, and the harshness of the forest. There they built a chapel made of wood, where they could live amidst the fir trees, the bears, live in awe of the Lord. In time, tales of Sergius rivaled stories of St. Francis as he befriended animals and became an icon of Russia. However he was ever humble. While he became a counselor to worldly leaders, and assisted in helping motivate the Russians to remove the Tartars, he never sought or accepted ecclesiastical posts. One contemporary commented that, “he has about him the smell of fir forests.” His simple chapel has now become the Church of the Holy Trinity, where the oft-depicted Rublev Icon sits. He lived in Hope, and remained in awe of God.
In our own times of fear and anxiety, when the ways of this world dominate our hearts and our understanding, we turn to God. We remember that God has already done that audacious, foolish and miraculous thing of becoming human, of delivering us from our terrors. For God has sent his angels to “encamp around those who fear Him, and he will deliver them.” The psalmist reminds us that God has besieged us with Grace; that God has stuck to us like flypaper; that God has encamped around us and will not leave. Instead of terror and worldy fear, instead of weapons of death and destruction, God has sent his angel to surround us and deliver us from these fears that infect our lives In order to recognize God’s encampment we may need to go to the woods (figuratively or literally), seek sabbath – practice prayer – cultivate courage - we may need to commune with bears, we may need to go to the fir trees, and seek the Lord, rather than accept the assault of fear upon our very souls. We may need to approach this table where a most audacious, foolish, and miraculous thing happens – where we have communion with our maker (and live to tell the tale).
What I pray for you, and for me is to experience that grace that passes human understanding. “For the things that are impossible with humankind are possible with God.” God has given us Grace to step away from earthly fears and to remember the miraculous, audacious and foolishness of God who will deliver all those who stand in awe.