Thursday, June 14, 2012

For the Diocesan Celebration of Anglican Women of Australia. St Antony of Padua

1 Kings, 18:20-39
Matthew 5:17-19

To start, I need to confess two things; first, that I made a mistake for the first lesson, and so if you think it sounds like the first lesson for yesterday, you are right! The second confession will come later in the sermon.

But my mistake makes it clear that there are even more reasons to celebrate the witness and life of St Antony of Padua, known as the Saint of the things that get lost.

There are some real lost causes in the two readings for today.

In the Hebrew Scripture, the Prophet Elijah asks a widow on the edge of starvation to fix one more company meal and assures her it will last for a long time. And then Jesus says that our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees, that unless we fulfill the law and the prophets, we will never enter the kingdom of heaven. And if that  demand does not - at least on some days -  seems a bit of a lost cause, then at least it can give us pause,

Because when we look at the church, and the memories of fuller happier days -- still with a hope of the future, but still keenly aware of our losing numbers, our aging communities, the increasing numbers of friends, neighbors, family members who don’t see what we know to be at the heart of the church, the heart of God’s love for the world we see in Christ -- then we might feel we have lost at least some of our hope. So with all of that we have good and timely reasons to turn to St Antony of Padua.

He was born in Lisbon of prominent parents in 1195  - he’s in the same era as St. Francis. At the age of 15 he joins the religious order of St. Augustine and ends up spending nine years at the Convent of Santa Croce. To quote: “Gifted with an excellent understanding and a prodigious memory, he soon gathered from the Sacred Scriptures and the writings of the Holy Fathers a treasure of theological knowledge”. Before long he’s ordained as a priest and it looks he’s found his place, a teacher of theology; doing well, Antony, go to the head of the class.

But then he meets some Franciscans brothers, off to convert the Islamic people of Morocco ,and sees their lives and ministry moving, not from the head, not from mere  knowledge, but from the heart, giving their hearts away to, not just remind, but encourage others in the life of Christ.

In Morocco they are martyred, lose their lives, and when Antony witnesses this, he decides to joins the Franciscans; to leave behind the matters of the head, all that straw-dry theology, and give his heart away. He decides that he will offer his life as a martyr to convert the world to Christ.

But things change, it doesn’t happen. He does join the Franciscans but  he gets sick on the way to Africa and an unplanned wind blows his boat off to Italy. He ends up in Tuscany, working in the kitchen of a hospice without time for either prayer and study, a slightly marginal member of the community, not quite fitting in, a bit of a duck in the chicken coop, and maybe he has found a happiness and a simplicity beyond his expectations.

But again, it doesn’t last long. Antony happens to be around one day, when a number of Franciscan and Dominican friars are brought together for an ordination and there’s no one to preach. They turn to the Dominicans then to the Franciscans but everyone declines, saying they’re just not prepared. In desperation they choose Antony, “whom they thought only able to read the Missal and Breviary”, and they command him “to speak whatever the spirit of God might put into his mouth and Anthony, ‘compelled by obedience, spoke at first slowly and timidly, but soon enkindled with fervour, began to explain the most hidden sense of Holy Scripture with such profound erudition and sublime doctrine that all were struck with astonishment.”

Things change: a few weeks later, in 1224, Antony gets a letter from headquarters. “Brother Francis sends his greetings. It is my pleasure that you teach theology to the brethren, provided, however, that as the Rule prescribes, the spirit of prayer and devotion may not be extinguished. Farewell.”

Theology, prayer and devotion. A trinity of ingredients that balance and compliment our lives together, the makings for food from heaven, that can make a feast, that can feed a starving family, giving hope to a widow and child with some left over for a wandering prophet; food for a time when the old recipes seem to have dried out and left us hungry and without a lot of hope.

 Theology, prayer and  devotion: ingredients that grace us with a righteousness that can feed ourselves, our friends, families, neighbors, nations, and even passing strangers, the bread of heaven, the cup of salvation, the food of a full and balanced faith, the riches of Christ, The gift we are given in order to to give it away.

Now that second confession: In the 1970s I used to joke that I was raised by feminists; the truth was that I learned then and still learn now how most women have a greater facility, a deeper gift than men do, of combining head and heart; integrating theology, prayer and dovotion. Perhaps one of the reasons so many men were against the ordination of women to the churches priesthood was that women do so much better in the priesthood of all believers: lifting the world, the pain and glory, the sadness and sanctity, the head and heart and wholeness of people and places and all of life back to God, with a natural grace that does not come too easily to most males. And we all need this whole priesthood to share in the priesthood of Christ. Especially now, when theology has gotten so cerebral, so heady, so… can I say, blokey?

An American theologian and writer, Diana Butler Bass, who we are hoping to bring to the diocese in 2013, has a good way of looking at this. BTW, we have some copies of her book “Christianity for the rest of us” at the Registry Library,  so if you want to borrow one, come on by.

Butler Bass comes at theology prayer and devotion with three simple questions which she finds at the heart of a spiritually vibrant Christianity -- old questions of believing, behaving, and belonging. But she says we are changing the way we ask those questions, changing in ways that enlarge and embolden the faith, ways that just might give us hope and vision, help us even exceed the righteousness of those dried out Pharisees in the old boys network.

Believing, behaving, and belonging. Now over the centuries, Butler Bass says Christianity has engaged these 3B's in different ways, with different interrogators and emphases and for the last 300 years or so, the questions were asked as follows:

1) What do I believe? (What does my church say I should think about God?)
2) How should I behave? (What are the rules my church asks me to follow?)
3) Who am I? (What does it mean to be a faithful church member?)

But now the questions have changed as the world has changed.  Butler Bass writes that contemporary people care less about what to believe than how they might believe; less about rules for behavior than in what they should do with their lives; and less about church membership than in those whose company they find themselves.

So, for Butler Bass, the questions have become:
How do I believe? (How do I understand and live with faith in my daily world
2) What should I do? (How can my actions make a difference in the world?)
3) Whose am I? (How do my relationships shape my self-understanding,my self-giving?)

So believing, behaving, and belonging still matter. But the ways in which we engage each area have undergone a revolution… For her “The old faith formulations were externally based, questions that could be answered by appealing to a book, authority, creed, or code. The new spiritual longings are internally derived, questions of engagement, authenticity, meaning, and relationship. The old questions required submission and obedience; the new questions require the transformation of our souls.”

As Francis writes to Antony, so I say to you.  “It is my pleasure that you teach theology... Provided... that, the spirit of prayer and devotion may not be extinguished. Farewell.”

Francis said one other thing: Preach the Gospel at all times, use words if necessary, and you already know that!

Dear Anglican Women of Australia in the Diocese of Wangaratta. I look around this morning and I see so many lives as sound theological texts, sermons in flesh and blood, in lives given over, served out in offering wholeness, hospitality, health, hope and home; combining head and heart, exceeding the righteousness of all those macho scribes. While those macho Pharisees argue about their their desiccated commandments and their dried up meals, you have been singing the songs of praise and providing the bread of heaven. The heart of Christ’s ministry, that eternal priesthood, is found in your hands, blooms in your  very lives.

And as God is blessed in your ministry, may you continue to be blessed, may you continue to give blessings; today and always.  Amen

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