MARGARET, Queen of Scotland, Helper of the Poor

A Sermon for the Observed Feast of

Saint Margaret, Queen of Scotland

November 13, 2019
Trinity Episcopal Church
Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

A note: On January 10, 1981, I was received into the Roman Catholic Church by a Profession of Faith and then received the Sacrament of Confirmation. I chose, as my Patron, King David of Scotland. Since that time, I have had a special devotion to Saint David, King of Scotland and to St. Margaret, Queen of Scotland–his mother.

You might not be especially interested in genealogy. As a Southerner, it is something which I grew up with. I remember a very funny event. In High School, I was trying to tell my Mammaw Cook about one of my friends. She asked me, “Who is he?” I started to tell her about him—where he lived, what his parents did, etc. Mammaw, interrupted me, “No, tell me who he is!” I had to tell her that I did not know the names of his grandparents or great-grandparents. So, from Mammaw’s perspective, I did not know who he was!

Saint Margaret, Queen of Scotland, was an Anglo-Saxon Princess. She was the great-great-niece of Saint Edward the Confessor. Her father, had he lived, would have become the King of England, when the Confessor died. Had that happened, William the Conqueror might have never invaded England in 1066.

Margaret was also (supposedly) the grand-daughter of Saint Stephen of Hungary and of a Bavarian Princess. She was the mother of Saint David, King of Scotland—and of Matilda, the wife of Henry I of England. She was the great-grandmother of Henry II (who had St. Thomas a Becket killed).

Margaret lived at one of the most fascinating moments in the history of Britain. Her life took very unexpected turns. Born in exile, raised abroad, she returned to England briefly, and then had to flee again. She found herself shipwrecked in Scotland and then the wife of King Malcolm. Pious child of a devout family, she took faith seriously. Tireless worker to make Christianity more than a nominal faith in her adopted homeland, she cared for the poor, the sick, and ransomed Saxon slaves who found themselves on the wrong side of history. He own example so inspired her family that her son, in turn, also became a Saint.

King James VI and I is claimed to have later said of Margaret and David, that their lavish generosity to the poor and needy had been so great the Scottish monarchy “never financially recovered from it.” What an amazing thing to have said!

On this Feast of Saint Margaret, Queen of Scotland, may we too be known as “helpers of the poor.” May our faith be real, present, and effective through our concrete actions to love and to care for all those who are in need. May this be especially true in this cold season in which so many, like our Lord, “have no place to lay their head.” Through the generosity of God’s people, and through the intercession of Saint Margaret, Queen of Scotland, may their needs be met.

St. Margaret Queen of Scotland

“Choose the Road that Leads to Life, to Blessing, to Happiness, and to the Holy.”

A Sermon for All Saints’ Sunday

November 3, 2019

Preached at
Trinity Episcopal Church
Easton, Pennsylvania

O God, you prepared your disciples
for the coming of the Spirit
through the teaching of your Son Jesus Christ:
Make our hearts and minds ready
to receive the blessing of the Holy Spirit,
that we may be filled with the
strength of his presence;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

________________________________________________
 

“Road To Zion” by Petra 
[Based on Psalm 84:5-7]

 There is a way that leads to life
The few that find it never die
Past mountain peaks graced white with snow
The way grows brighter as it goes
 
There is a road inside of you
Inside of me there is one too
No stumbling pilgrim in the dark
The road to Zion’s in your heart
The road to Zion’s in your heart
 
The river runs beside the road
Its waters living as they flow
In liquid voice the water calls
On thirsty knees the pilgrim falls
 
Sometimes a shadow dark and cold
Lays like a mist across the road
But be encouraged by the sight
Where there’s a shadow, there’s a light
 
Sometimes it’s good to look back down
We’ve come so far – we’ve gained such ground
But joy is not in where we’ve been
Joy is who’s waiting at the end

To listen to the song on YouTube, please use this link.
 

One of the most powerful images which those in the primitive Jesus Movement used to speak of themselves was “The Way.” They self-identified as Pilgrims on a Journey. Like their ancestors who had left Egypt and wondered through the desert to the Land of Promise, they saw themselves as being part of a New Exodus, traveling to a new Promised Land. The very language which they used made this imagery clear: “There is a road that leads to life . . . there is a road that leads to death.”

This language was inspired, of course, by the words of Jesus. But, for them, it served to confirm the reality of the often difficult, confusing, tiring, and troubling journey which they undertook. Like their ancestors in the desert they faced dangers, snares, and obstacles; hunger, thirst, and serpents (literal and figurative). It was not an easy road to travel. At times, the journey seemed too much for them. They were tempted to give up, to admit defeat, and to abandon the trip.

At such moments, these earthly pilgrims turned to the words of Jesus for comfort, for strength, and for hope. At such moments of crisis and difficult decision, they recalled the honesty with which the Lord had prepared them for their journey–which they had begun with his blessing and undertaken in his name.

One source of encouragement which these Pilgrims relied on was Jesus’ teaching about “Blessedness,” they called this teaching the “Beatitudes.” These consoling words of the Lord reminded them of the importance of persevering “on the Way,” and of making sure that they were, in fact, traveling on the road that “leads to life” and not on the road that “leads to death.”

It is not uncommon for people to shake their heads when they hear the “Beatitudes” from the Gospel of Luke. We are far more accustomed to hearing the eight blessings from the Gospel of Matthew. They, of course are addressed, all except the last one, in the “third person:”

  • Blessed are the poor in Spirit
  • Blessed are those who mourn
  • Blessed are the meek
  • Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness
  • Blessed are the merciful
  • Blessed are the pure in heart
  • Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake
  • Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you on my account

So, then, the obvious question is “Why does Luke present this same teaching in such a different way?” Why use “blessings” and “woes” rather than just blessings?

Luke also chooses to address his listeners in the second person, rather than the third: “you,” rather than “they.” Luke wants to make clear to us that we are faced with a choice. We will either choose the arduous “road that leads to life” and to happiness, or we will choose the easy “road that leads to death” and to sadness, woe, and regret.

In both recollections of this Sermon, Matthew and Luke reflect on the teaching of Moses on the Mountain–after he had handed on the Law to the People of Israel. In the Twenty-Eighth Chapter of Deuteronomy, Moses followed the presentation of the Law with words of advice. If you follow the law which God has given, you will find happiness, joy, and fulfillment. If you do not, you will find sorrow, sadness, and disappointment.

Jesus’ audience knew the Torah well—some even by heart. So, they would have been quite familiar with that teaching. Their own history would have taught them the truth of Moses’ instruction. Although there had been fleeting moments of glory under David and Solomon, much of their history had been one of factional in-fighting, violence, and subjugation by outside powers: Egypt to the South, Assyria, Babylon, and Persia to the North and to the East. The prophets had been quick to suggest that their defeat had come about because of the poor choices which they had made. They had not chosen the road which led to happiness and life, but rather the road which led to sorrow and to death. In fact, the Northern Kingdom of Israel had literally disappeared—swallowed up by the Assyrians. Their choices literally brought them woes rather than blessings!

In an unexpected move, Luke turned Moses’ instruction on its head! He suggested that the things which might appear to bring woe and sorrow in this life are actually blessings when traveling with the New Exodus to the Land of Promise. Material blessings in this world could actually be distractions, stumbling blocks, or obstacles, to finding happiness in the life to come.

To put it simply, Luke suggests that followers of Jesus will have to make a difficult choice. Either we choose to make the priorities of God’s reign our own, or else, we will choose lives which are self-centered and primarily devoted to finding fulfillment in the here and now.

The question then is “How does one find happiness, value, meaning and purpose in life?” The Greek word for “blessed” is makarios—which literally means “happy.” Using that insight, let us listen again to what Jesus tell us. “You will find happiness if you are poor, if you are hungry, if you weep, or if you are mistreated. You may well find only sadness if you are rich, if you are full, if you laugh, or if you are praised.”

Why? Because those in the “happy” group have learned to totally and completely trust in God. And those in the “sad” group have no real need for God in their lives. It is the story, which we have heard so often, of those who appear to “have everything,” and yet are lonely, isolated, fearful–even miserable. It reminds us that the things which appear most important at a given moment often prove to be quite insignificant in the end. We come into this world with nothing and we will take no material possessions with us when we leave.

God does not want us to be homeless, starving, tearful and abused. In fact, God does not desire those things for any of his children. We are reminded that it is our duty to alleviate those sad conditions for anyone who suffers from them. And yet, we learn that the weak, the poor, the homeless, and the oppressed need greater faith than we do. They have only God to care for them and so they have learned to be completely dependent on God.

On many occasions Jesus singles out three particular groups—and reminds us that these groups are sacred to God. God treasures widows, orphans, and aliens or foreigners. They are the most vulnerable because they have no one else to help them. They have no safety net. They have only God.

There is another group which is especially dear to Jesus: children. Throughout the Gospels we see the tender interactions that Our Lord has with children. He welcomes them, embraces them, lovingly touches them, holds them, and blesses them. They are a source of great blessing and happiness for him. “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them.” He often uses children as models and as examples of faith to us.

Parents so often feel a tremendous sense of obligation when they first have children. They are responsible in a way that they have never been before. They must care for their children. They must feed and clothe them. They must provide health care and education. They must guide and help their children to grow to become good and responsible adults. At first, they can feel overwhelmed and inadequate as they contemplate the duty which lies before them.

Jesus, though, suggests that parents have the opportunity, if they choose to accept it, to become students rather than only teachers. Their children will teach them many important lessons as they grow and mature. The most important of these might well be the reality of faith—and the reality of happiness.

Children find it easy to believe. Faith comes to them easily—even automatically. They do not struggle to accept mystery. They do not want or need complicated answers to difficult questions. They have not yet become jaded, cynical and skeptical. They are not afraid to trust. They are innocent—never assuming the worst of others. And, unless they are taught to be, they are not racist, misogynistic, homophobic or xenophobic. They are friendly towards everyone.

Children are also happy with the smallest of things: playing with friends, spending time with loved family members, enjoying good food. They are not obsessed with possessions—parents are often surprised when children derive more joy from simple things than from expensive presents! The love which children demonstrate is unconditional. Even in sad cases in which they are not treated with the love, respect, and care which they deserve, they continue to love.

Rather than focusing on how much we need to teach children; we are invited to learn important lessons from them. There is such wisdom that they can impart to us—if only we are open to listening to them and learning what they are able to teach us.

There is another word which we could use to translate “blessed.” That word is holy. Today we celebrate the Feast of All the Saints—the Feast of “All the Holy Ones, the Feast of All Hallows.” This is the feast of all whom we now believe to be happy in God’s presence. This is the feast of Triumph and Joy for those who chose to follow the arduous road that leads to eternal life.

Today, we welcome Bryson Alphonso. In Holy Baptism he will be made a member of God’s family. He will be “marked as Christ’s own forever.” He will join us and will travel with us on our Exodus to God’s Land of Promise and Joy. May we assist Bryson with our love and prayer—and may we learn from him! Together, with Bryson, may we travel the road that leads to life—the road that leads to God’s loving embrace.

Together, regardless of the woes and sorrows which we may experience as we travel, may we come to know the love, peace, and joy of God, which passes all understanding. May we become truly happy, truly blessed, and truly holy in God’s sight.

 

THREE STEPS TOWARDS CONVERSION

In the past few weeks, two major Protestant Seminaries have taken the surprising step of setting aside money for a fund to explicitly be used for reparations. In one case, Princeton Seminary (which has set aside $27 million) acknowledged that it had benefited from the “slave economy.” Virginia Theological Seminary—of the Episcopal Church—has set aside money ($1.7 million) to benefit the actual descendants of the slaves who helped to build the campus. In both cases, these institutions have also acknowledged their complicity with segregation or with other ways in which black folk were not able to fully participate in the life of their community.

“Reparations” has been a surprisingly controversial word. For those who are still unwilling to even acknowledge the existence of white privilege, it has been difficult to even extract an admission that chattel slavery was a serious sin which had seriously damaged the moral fiber of our country. Even worse, they seem to believe that it is something which happened in the past—and which has nothing to do with them personally. So, they are not in any way responsible for either the past, or the present.

That is a challenging and difficult attitude to confront. Sadly, some of these folks are not willing to engage in dialog or to explore evidence which might contradict their world view. Their mind is made up, and as far as they are concerned, the subject is closed.

The Episcopal Church, for the past six years—at the two past General Conventions of the Church, has begun to address the issue. Small, but important steps have been taken in moving towards the beginning of racial healing and reconciliation. Even those have been met with some push-back. Our own experience in the past tells us, that—in the end—we do tend to come out on the side of justice. But, it does not happen overnight. In the case of other issues such as the role of women in the church and the ordination of LGBT persons, it took decades to work through the process to become a truly welcoming and inclusive community. Progress remains to be made! But we have made progress—and are moving in the right direction. There is much to be said for that.

In my own life, after a time of prayer and reflection, I have come to believe in the necessity of reparations. It seems to me that it is the only option which allows for the possibility of true healing and reconciliation. And, I think that the reparations need to be of such a scope that they will actually make a difference-not just a token. This will mean taking action which is painful for us—both monetarily and humanly. It will mean admitting that what we did collectively in the past was not only wrong-it was evil and sinful. It will mean admitting that we have continued to benefit from privilege while others have been excluded. It will mean sacrificing money, time and talent to work to rectify the injustice which has occurred and which occurs to this day! Perhaps it will need to begin with an apology, and act of contrition, and a litany of repentance. This prayer for forgiveness must happen on many levels-personally, ecclesially, and on every level of government-local, state, and national. Only then can the work of healing and reconciliation truly begin.

A helpful model which I have used in my own thinking and prayer is the “three steps” of conversion. They are contrition, repentance, and reparation.

Contrition is an interesting word. It is rarely used these days. And when it is used in ecclesial frameworks, it is often mis-used. Contrition should be contrasted with attrition (an inferior motive based on sorrow because of the “fear of hell”). Contrition is the realization and admission that I have chosen to act in ways which violate my connection to God, to other human beings, and to creation. Contrition is motivated by the love of God, of neighbor and creation. Through my actions—or inaction—I have either caused or allowed harm or injury to come into being. For that I am responsible. The first step means that I openly and honestly admit the nature of my wrong.

Repentance means that I am willing to move beyond a bare admission of sin. I am willing to move towards healing the wounds which I have caused. Repentance means admitting that I am capable of doing better. It also means that I commit myself to beginning that process. I make a decision to “avoid whatever leads me into sin” and to amend my life.

And yet, it is not only about me. I acknowledge that my sins have impacted God, other humans, or creation. Part of the process of healing will involve things like apologizing, asking for forgiveness, and seeking ways to heal the separation caused by my sin.

Repentance means inviting God into the process. Repentance means making an effort to not commit the same mistake, error, or sin again. Else, there is little reason for anyone to trust me or to be willing to give me a second chance. And, if I am not sincere and committed to healing and reconciliation, it would be truly hypocritical—and evil to pretend that I am serious about moving forward.

Conversion, finally becomes a possibility after the first two steps are taken. It may mean listening to words which are hard to hear. Words in which those I have wounded, hurt and “trespassed against” tell me how they have been impacted by my actions or by my inaction. That requires great humility on my part. But the truth is that I was wrong. I recognize that the wrong can never be undone—and that is essential! But it is possible to move beyond it. If those who have been wounded are able to offer forgiveness (and that is not always possible), then healing and reconciliation become possible.

An image which I learned years ago which has been very helpful to me is that of the “sin pole” in the yard. If I plant a pole in the yard and then take a handful of nails and drive them all the way in, they do not that visible. Over time, though, they may rust and bleed. Then it becomes easier to see the streaks and scars resulting from the nails.

After some time, I might take a hammer and pull out the nails. If I do that, the holes which they caused will become apparent. I have pulled out the nails which I drove in. But the holes which they caused still remain.

To fix the pole, I would have to do a lot of work. I would have to fill in each hole with wood putty. After it had cured, I might be able to sand away the imperfections and paint the pole. From the outside it might look as if though nothing had ever happened. But the pole would never really be the same as before. It would now be filled with repaired and camouflaged processes which would only superficially cover what is hidden beneath the surface.

Contrition is recognizing and acknowledging that I drove the nails into the pole. Repentance is removing them with the hammer. Conversion, is taking the steps to try to heal the wounds—in so far as that is even possible. Wounds and hurts may be forgiven, but will never—and should never be forgotten. Otherwise it becomes tremendously easy for them to be ignored or repeated!

What must I do to make amends for my actions? What must I do if I want to mend the breach which separates me from God, neighbor, or creation? At this stage, words are not sufficient. Action is required. The nature of the wound determines the response which is required.

Some historians have stated that the two great “besetting sins’ of this country are chattel slavery and the ethnic cleansing of our indigenous population. We either put them in chains in an attempt to exploit them, control them, and profit from their labor. Or else, we tried to kill them. I am very sorry to say that this is NOT taught as truth in our educational system.

Our politicians want to speak highly of our accomplishments and successes. They almost never admit our failures. Nor do they explain the degree to which those successes have been derived through the enslavement and subjugation of others—from the very beginning of our existence as colonies and as an independent nation. They are not willing to admit that we stole the land of native peoples and forced them into captivity on reservations. They are not willing to admit that we violated treaties, brought diseases which decimated Native Americans, and then attempted to eradicate the language and traditions of the first peoples. They are not even willing to admit that these evils, sins, and injustices ever took place!

It seems to me that what is needed is a national holiday of mourning for the sins of slavery, segregation, exploitation, unjust imprisonment, and cruelty to people of color—but most especially to African-Americans (past and present). Perhaps a second one for the abuses against Native Americans? There should be a national monument in the capital to which officials would go and lay wreaths each year. There would be a speech from the President—or others—acknowledging the truth of racial injustice in the history of our country. One expectation each year in the State of the Union address would be the issue of racial reconciliation and healing. What will the administration do in the coming year to make a difference? To promote justice, equality, healing and reconciliation?

The U.S. government should also issue a formal apology for allowing chattel slavery to occur-for centuries (1619-1865). Then we must acknowledge the sin of Jim Crow laws, of racial segregation and discrimination, and of racial profiling, targeting men of color for offenses leading to imprisonment, and acts of violence against people of color by police officers and others. There will also be a need to acknowledge, going forward, the ways in which elected officials—at every level of government—have sinned against the basic human rights of people of color and of immigrants to this country.

Then, we need to have an open and honest discussion about reparations. These days it seems fairly easy to prove using genealogical tools, who the descendants of slavery are. There should be some monetary grant given to every single living descendant of slaves (in the form of a pension?). There must also be additional funding for education, health-care, and housing for those impacted by the horrible legacy of chattel slavery and discrimination. Only then, will the victims believe that we really are serious about healing and reconciliation.

Finally, we need something like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. Victims should be able to tell their story. What was it like to be a descendant of slaves? What experiences of injustice, racism, oppression, and discrimination have people had? How did those impact them and their families? What is the reality of a racist society like for everyone?

When the insights gained from these hearings are made public, it will then be time for individuals and groups to be held accountable. What acts of reparation must I undertake, for instance, as a descendant of families who held others in chattel slavery? What reparations are required of counties, states, municipalities, and our national government? What about congregations, dioceses, and denominations? What about schools, and other organizations which benefited from slavery, segregation and discrimination?