Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Sermon preached on the Feast Day of St. Margaret of Scotland by The Reverend Frances Drolet-Smith

St. Margaret 16 November
Queen of Scotland, Helper of the Poor, 1093 — Commemoration

Matthew 25: 31-40

Today we commemorate Margaret, Queen of Scotland, a job description impressive enough, but I am more impressed and intrigued by the second notation given her in Stephen Reynolds’ compilation For All the Saints – Margaret is called “Helper of the Poor.”

Margaret was an Anglo-Saxon princess who married King Malcolm III of Scotland in 1069. Together they raised eight children (I’m sure they had help) and, also together, they promoted reforms in all facets of Scottish life: in the royal court, in the Church, and in the nation itself. But Margaret is chiefly remembered for her efforts on behalf of Scotland’s poor. She gave away large sums of money and also held institutions, already in place, accountable to their mandates of actually providing relief to those they purported to help: the homeless, hungry, and orphaned. Margaret also provided funds to buy Anglo-Saxons out of slavery, indentured by their Norman conquerors. It is for this merciful act that, to her title of Queen, is added the even greater title — “Helper of the Poor.”

This passage from Matthew’s Gospel marks and makes a resounding end to Jesus’ public discourse, making them extremely poignant “last words”. Here Jesus instructs his followers in “what to do next”, “what to be busy at” – in short, how to live their lives without him there to model it for them. The work includes attending to the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the imprisoned – those in actual prisons, as well as those in economic or spiritual, prisons. In short, Jesus is instructing his followers, including us, to be busy sharing the gifts of Grace; gifts as basic as food and water, gifts equally basic to human existence as acceptance, love – solidarity with “the least of these” in every possible way. In doing so, we care for Christ who continues to live among us. Neglecting to do so....well, not to put too fine a point on it...fails Christ.

I’d like to tell you another old story:

It’s a story from the desert – a story from the earliest religious communities dating back to the end of the 2nd century. It’s a story that I think has something to say to us as we try to come to terms with how to live in a world where people are increasingly fearful, un-trusting, and apprehensive to express compassion,. to live compassionately.

A monastic community was in trouble and so the abbess went into the wilderness, seeking wisdom from an anchoress.

She said, “My community is shrinking in numbers, the Sisters are quarrelsome and grumbling, there are few visitors and our worship hardly ever gives me joy. What is to be done?”

The Anchoress said, “Tell the first Sister you meet on your return that the Messiah has come and is in the community.”

What!” said the abbess, how can that be? They will tell me that I have gone mad.” The anchoress smiled that knowing smile, like anchoresses do . . .

So even though she felt very foolish, the abbess did as she was told. The word spread in the community, from one to another. One by one the Sisters began to change their attitudes, and their behaviour toward each other. Life improved for them all and the community once again became a center of love, peace and compassion.

This “old” story is really about living well in community. And where ever we find ourselves living, be it in families, in parishes, in the places where we work, or in the wider community, we are called to choose, day by day, sometimes minute by minute, how we will live – in harmony, or at odds with one another. Image how life would be if we really believed the Messiah was in our midst. . .

Jesus encouraged his followers to love one another, to care for anyone in need, whatever the need, but he was not naive – he knew that living together is hard work, that people don’t always get along, that we don’t always see eye-to-eye, so he also encouraged his followers to pray for their enemies, to do good to those who persecute or harm them. “Living well in community” is precisely what we ought to be about, whether inside these lovely walls or “out there” in the big world: living lives of prayer and service and welcoming strangers in Christ’s name. The community in that desert story had essentially forgotten “who” they were; they had forgotten how to live together with loving compassion.

In our retreat this weekend, we’ve been considering how God calls us to the task of making peace and in turn to offer peace to others. Despite evidence to the contrary, I’ve been bold enough to suggest that transforming the world is not an impossible task! Fundamental to our lives as Christians living in an often troubled world is the understanding that hope is a choice. Not-so-long-ago, this Millennium, now no longer so new, but remember when we started it? It seemed fraught with possibility and promise, and we had such high hopes. We’re only 13 years in and we’ve already witnessed several wars and rumours of war and in the process, we’ve convinced ourselves we cannot trust anyone, let alone, get along with or help them. The horrific events of September 11th unsettled us to our core, awakening in us a whole range of primal emotions: fear, anger, disillusionment, revenge, helplessness. After seeing the unspeakable, some were moved to retaliate and we have seen acts of violence and vandalism unleashed on yet more innocent people. We may well wonder where this madness will end.

Well, that will be determined by how we choose to live: in fear, or in love. In anger, or in deeds of mercy. In revenge, or in peaceful pursuits. In helplessness, or in hospitality.

The Sisters in that old story were challenged to see the Messiah in their midst – we too can look for the Messiah in our midst, and see the change not only in others, but in ourselves. The Good News here is that there is no checklist of good deeds to fill out. Jesus is talking about our manner of living here, and it’s one that isn’t motivated out of the fear of Hell or the hope of heaven, for that matter, but a life that’s driven by an authentic love. In a world increasingly characterized by fear and suspicion, what is the Church called to be? How do we change hostility into hospitality?

Compassion is a spiritual practice. Theologian Carl Gregg says “The day-to-day practice of compassion and of love toward your neighbours (and he means, all your neighbours!) is much more important and difficult than simply believing a creed or a set of doctrines.” Think of it: if others are praying that the hungry be fed, the naked clothed, that peace will reign – maybe we can be the answer to their prayer. An exercise the participants in the retreat are doing is making Prayer Flags. Prayer Flags are seen all over the mountainside in the Himalayas. They do not carry prayers “to” God, as many think; rather the prayers are blown by the wind to bless the countryside – silent, powerful witnesses carrying messages of goodwill and compassion that can change the hearts of those who see them. Tomorrow we will each take a flag home with a commitment to somehow be the answer to someone’s prayer.
I am not so naive to think we can make it all better but we are required to make the world right in front of us a little more just, a little more merciful, a little more filled with love. With God's grace, our meagre efforts, however small, will spread from one to another, the world over. We may never see the fruits of the seeds we plant, but as any gardener knows, planting them at all is the thing that matters.

The Reverend Frances Drolet-Smith
Some of you may remember Timothy Matthews, the former Bishop of the Diocese of Quebec. If not, you may remember hearing a blessing he used often, that many have repeated over the years: May God bless you wherever you go, and may you see the face of Jesus in everyone you meet.

Frances Drolet-Smith is an Oblate of SSJD and  a parish priest in the Diocese of NS and PEI