St. Augustine’s Sunday sermon

Let us pray: Grant, O merciful God, that your church, being gathered together in unity by your Holy Spirit, may show forth your power among all peoples, to the glory of your Name, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit, be all honor and glory, throughout all ages. Amen.

“Brothers and sisters; by the mercies of God, present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”

Last week, visiting family in Northern Minnesota and in North Dakota, I was struck over and over by the ways we who live in cities have moved on from our bodies, from the ways that nature guides our behavior. When night falls, both on the Hylden farm, and at the Thomey cabin, the world turns black as pitch. There’s no need for those black-out curtains in the baby’s room — everybody is plunged into darkness. It made me think about how electricity can trick us into thinking that we are in control of our own destinies rather than living at the mercy of the cosmos.

Those who may have traveled to experience the total eclipse this past week, or even if you just saw photos or heard testimony of the event, did you notice that the theme of awe returned again and again, the realization of humanity’s tiny place in the whole of creation was an echoed sentiment. Not only was day turned to night, but our modern sensibilities of control were flipped on their heads, too.

It’s not only electricity, of course, and I don’t believe by any means that modern conveniences are against nature and to be eschewed, but it was a timely reminder and challenge to evaluate how my mind and body are being formed by the world in which I live and the conveniences and inventions and habits that I choose to use.

This first verse of Romans holds up the body and, by extension, all of material creation, in a way that I wonder if we’ve largely lost sight of as a culture and as a human community. We think of ourselves as having to do a lot more with our minds, our brains, our thought-power, rather than the strength or weakness or wonder or limitations of our physical, fleshy bodies. Would you join me for a moment in considering some ways that we might be tempted to discount our bodies? If we think that we’re above and beyond our created fleshiness, we may make problems for ourselves, falling into the temptation to forget the creation God has entrusted to our care — our very own selves, others who are dependent on us, and even his earth.

As far as our own individual bodies go, often we treat them as tools, as expendable resources, running them long and hard sitting in chairs or lifting heavy burdens, without them giving them care and love for healing, whether through nourishing food, or careful stretching and exercise, or gentle love through simple attention to our skin or our muscles’ wellbeing. Many who have spent a stint in the hospital know firsthand — we’re given only one body, and we get only one round on this carousel of life; it behooves us to have reverence for the precious bodies that our mothers and God together knit for us.

Moving our focus a bit wider, we’re invited to think about the bodies that all mothers have created together with God collectively; how are we affecting our brothers and sisters through laws and legislation, whether immigrants or the unborn in our own country, refugees abroad, or those in developing nations. It’s not just government and legalise, though — how does where we buy our groceries affect the lives of our neighbors in Oak Cliff? Which livelihoods are important to us to support, and which ones are expendable? While just about anybody with a conscience might think to be concerned about these things, we’re called and challenged to be concerned about, to love, our enemies, too. How far are we called to go to defend and protect, and yes, love, those who are against us, against our lives or the way we live our lives, against our sensibilities or our convictions.

Finally, considering all of creation, all that God has put on this earth and throughout all the cosmos, what are the consequences of our mindless consumption, or of our drive to live in immediate convenience, or of our greed for comfort? How are we blowing through the riches God placed in the earth, or tattooing his precious gift with permanent wounds, making his world sick. Before we fall off a cliff of despair, let’s focus back a bit closer to home, what might God through Jesus challenge us, as his Body in Oak Cliff, to BE, to do?

How might we be challenge to change the way we look to others?  What kind of reputation do we need to build in our community? How are we to behave toward one another, toward our family members, toward our co-workers, our neighbors, and even our enemies?

My husband gave me a great gift about three weeks ago. He confirmed my sin.

In this Faithwalking spiritual development course I’ve been doing, we’re supposed to reflect on the ways that we see habits of sin in our lives, and even more frightening, we’re supposed to ask God to show us ways that we sin which we haven’t noticed or seen before. As I was coming to an understand of my proclivity to blame others for my problems, I mentioned it to Jordan, half-hoping that he would tell me the truth, and half-hoping that he’d quickly put out the fire of truth that had been kindled in my heart by the Holy Spirit, illumining the darkness of my sloth.

In his compassionate way, he slowly nodded his head and gently said, “Yes, I think that might sometimes be true of you.” It felt simultaneously like a punch to the gut and a weight off my shoulders. Surely, of all people, he is one of the most-affected by this affectation of mine; being most-often in the vicinity, he catches a lot of the blame that I lobb about.

It felt icky to realize, and even more nauseating to say out loud this sin that has such deep root in my soul that I hadn’t let myself face it. And of course, now that I know it’s there, I have the choice of even ickier, even harder work — that is, by the mercy of God, rooting it out, surrendering this vice of mine to the Lord of Heaven and both facing its havoc in my life and seeking to grow more into the person God created me to be, rather than this daughter of blame-shifting Adam that I’ve let myself become.

This little snapshot from my life, I hope, leads us to this question that might make us tremble: do we really want to know how we ought to be? Is the Kingdom of God, lived daily, even moment-by-moment, in the lives of St. Augustine’s parishioners, really something we want to glimpse?

Do we want to look that directly into the sun, knowing that it requires facing the darkness that clings to each one of our souls? Not only do we ourselves have to face our personal, individual darkness, but we must admit our sin to one another, even as we admit it to God in the quietness of our hearts, we must bear one another’s burdens in this way.

Do we really want to see each other for who we are? Do we have the courage to look our own sin in the face — our greed, sloth, pride — whatever flavor our vices take? Knowing that the only way to be Christ’s Body is to really see and know its wounds and scars, do we want to know how it is we have ignored our neighbors? How we turn our backs on the cries of Jesus, how we spit upon our weak brothers and sisters whose doctrine might offend us?

Can you imagine what it might have looked like if Jesus, from the cross, had let the blame fall according to this world’s justice? It isn’t even that Jesus was tempted to sin and let Adam’s blame-shifting take root in his heart, but Jesus didn’t even insist on just punishment — he didn’t say, “Oh God, they all put me on this cross! It’s their fault!” “They just don’t like me, they didn’t listen!” “They didn’t give me a fair shake!”

All this would have been true, not even Jesus playing a victim, but he took it a step beyond earthyl justice, into compassion and steadfast love. He said instead, “They know not what they do.” and, “Father, forgive them.”

Sometimes the hurt is too fresh, or too deep for our human hearts to bear, sometimes the only solution this side of the grave is to leave, to take a break, to find a new community that is a little gentler, a little less jagged. This is a community which has been through much, just in the last three years, let alone the changes that have been wrought on Oak Cliff over the last fifty or a hundred years. Later on in our parish hall, we’ll start to glimpse some of the stories from our congregation’s past, and many of you have yourself lived the story of the last three years, bringing different groups of people together in a last-ditch effort to keep these precious Episcopalian bodies going in Oak Cliff, facing the loss of sacred buildings and vital lay leaders, and most recently, your very own shepherd who guided you through the valley and hills of these years, being called himself to another pasture.

I invite you, on this St. Augustine’s Sunday, to take a moment in the quiet of your heart, to listen in solitude for Jesus. Is your call to this community? Are you willing to take up the courage to look your darkness in the face, and even to humbly bring it into the light with others? Are you ready to let God transform you, to be led by the Holy Spirit’s call not only for your heart and for your mind, but for your very body? Like many of us have been invited to promise in wedding vows, with all that you have, and all that you are, do you pledge yourself to God’s call in Jesus Christ?

I am sorry I can say nothing more consoling to you, for love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in the sight of all. Men will even give their lives if only the ordeal does not last long but is soon over, with all looking on and applauding as though on the stage. But active love is labor and fortitude, and for some people too, perhaps, a complete science. But I predict that just when you see with horror that in spite of all your efforts you are getting farther from your goal instead of nearer to it — at that very moment I predict that you will reach it…” (Fr Zosima, The Brothers Karamazov; Dostoyevsky)

2 thoughts on “St. Augustine’s Sunday sermon

  1. I loved this, Emily. There is a stark, austere beauty to it. It reminded me of some passages in Marilynne Robinson. And the naming of sin, and the owning of it and refusal to project it on to someone else, to externalise it, that resonated deeply. The Zossima passage also – the invitation to embrace the heroism of unadorned routine, to wrestle with a besetting weakness that will over come and defeat you (and by so doing, save you ?) will stay with me for a long time. Thank you.

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