Saturday, September 13, 2014

Blest are the pure in heart

I preached this sermon at the funeral of my sister-in-law, Mary McCoy, yesterday, Friday, Sept. 12, at St. Christopher's Episcopal Church in Boulder City, NV.  She and my brother Duncan were  married 43 years.  I was the best man at their wedding, and Mary was a good friend all that time.  She was a wonderful person, and died too early, aged 66, of ovarian cancer.  Duncan is a city councilman in Boulder City and both he and Mary are greatly loved and respected there.  St. Christopher's was filled and overflowing.  Mary's mother, now 98 years old, was in the front pew with Duncan and Duncan and Mary's daughter Elizabeth.  It was a joy to know Mary and a privilege to be present at her death, and to preside and preach at her funeral.
Wisdom 3:1-5, 9
Psalm: 121 
Revelation 21: 1-7
Gradual Hymn: 656 Blest are the pure in heart
John 10: 11-16 I am the good shepherd

From the book of Wisdom: “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God.”
From Revelation: “I will be their God and they will be my children.”
From the Gospel according to St. John: “I know my own and my own know me.”

And from the hymn we just sang: “Blest are the pure in heart, for they will see our God.  The secret of the Lord is theirs; their soul is Christ’s abode.”

Each one of these sacred texts points to a special relationship which people can have with God.  To be in God’s hand. To be a child of God.  To be God’s own, known by God and knowing God.  To be pure in heart, to see God, to know God’s secret, to make a home in the human heart for Christ.

Deep down, isn’t that what everyone wants?  Like a trusting sheep or a beloved child, to be protected through our lives, and to know we have a special relationship with God.  But also to see and to know, with all that defines and guides and shapes a person who wants to see and wants to know. 

A person with purity of heart combines these two great spiritual qualities: trust in goodness and striving to see and to know. 

A person who is pure in heart fundamentally trusts that ultimate reality, the source of what is, which some call God, is good for her.  She finds herself to be at home in her world, loves the people into whose lives she is born, loves what she finds in the wider world as she grows up, looks for and finds worthwhile work to do with her life, finds the right person to share her life with, and then launches out into the deep waters of adult life.  That trust that she is in a good place, secure and worthy of her best efforts, that she is, in religious language, in the hand of God, that she is a child of God, is the source of her strength and solidity as she herself becomes a foundation for her family, for her friends and for her community.  Not everyone calls this trust in the goodness of the realities of life faith in “God”.  God does not need to be named to be present.  No matter what a person calls it, this is faith in what is real, life-affirming, life-giving, life-sustaining, and a person who lives with integrity in her life in this sense shines goodness all around like a lamp that cannot be hid. Mary Elizabeth Lee McCoy had this kind of faith, as anyone who knew her will tell you.  She loved her world, her family, her work, her friends, with a steady flame of love that all who knew her well came to depend on, who found in her light and joy and peace.

A person who is pure in heart is also a person who seeks to know.  There is a purity in the person who pursues the truth, and when the truth is found, places it in a context of love.  Truth can be beautiful, awesome, inspiring.  Knowing the truth really can set you free.  Pursuing a lifelong path of learning opens the mind to wider horizons, and also commits a person to honesty.  But we know that truth and honesty can be used not only to grow the soul, but can also be used as weapons, both in the greater issues of life and in the little everyday things that seem insignificant but which actually define people’s lives together.   A person who is pure in heart seeks truth and when it is found, wraps it up in love, so that it is not an instrument of personal power or a weapon but a building block for something great and good.  Such a person by following the truth in love begins to imitate God’s love, which is both true and kind, both honest and loving.  I have watched Mary Elizabeth Lee McCoy for more than forty years and I can honestly say that she was a person who was always looking for the truth, and a person who when she found it, had a gift of wrapping and presenting that truth with kindness, awareness of the fragility of a situation, tact and consideration.  I cannot count the number of times I would be on the phone with my brother Duncan and at a certain point in his discourse, from somewhere in the background there would be this kind but clear voice that would say, “Duncan...”, calling the conversation to a slightly different channel.  She was wise and she was kind, and she drew something better out of what was going on. 

What I am saying is that even though Mary Elizabeth Lee McCoy was not a conventionally practicing religious person, she trusted the life God gave her, with all its gifts and promises and challenges, and she looked for and to a large extent found truth, and was able to communicate it with love.

We encounter people to whom the gifts of trust and truth and love, the gift of purity of heart, are given and we think, What a remarkable person she was.  And she was.  I believe Mary Elizabeth Lee McCoy was blessed, was pure of heart. 

She was not perfect.  But no one of us has to be perfect to love and trust that the life we have been given is good and worth living well.  No one of us has to be perfect to keep looking for the truth and when we find it give it to others with love. 

Praise God for Mary’s life.  Praise God for the family she was born into and the family she created.  Praise God for the good which flowed from her trust and from her truth.  She is in the hand of God.  She is truly a child of God, known by and knowing God, even though she would not often call the source of the goodness of her life God.  And even though she would not often use the names, the secret of the Lord was hers.  Her soul was Christ’s abode. 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A New People: Sermon for Pentecost 13

I was privileged to preside and preach at All Saints' Episcopal Church, Oxnard CA, this last Sunday: English at 9:15 and Spanish at 11:15.  I share the English text of the sermon with you:

Exodus 12: 1-14
Romans 13: 8-14
Matthew 18: 15-20

    Today’s lessons seem quite different from each other, but actually they all center on a very important theme: how God is creating his new people, saving us and showing us the Way.
    The lesson from Exodus is the story of the first Passover.  It describes how each family of the people of Israel is to sacrifice and prepare a lamb, doing two things: First, they take some of the blood of the lamb and smear it on the doorposts, so that when the angel of the Lord comes to execute judgment on the people of Egypt he will pass over the houses of the families of Israel.  Second, each family shares a meal of the meat of the lamb to prepare them for the journey, the Exodus, they are about to begin.  They are saved by the blood of the lamb and they are bound together in a ritual meal of the flesh of the lamb.  These will become important symbols for all Christians.  We are saved by the blood of the lamb, Jesus Christ, who is the Lamb of God.  And we share the eucharistic meal of the body and blood of that Lamb, Jesus Christ.
    In the Gospel this morning, Jesus tells us how we should live together as a people.  He knows that sins against each other are inevitable among human beings, even among those who are washed in the blood of the Lamb and fed at His table.  So he gives us instructions on how we should deal with those sins.  First of all, we should not pretend that we do not harm each other through our sins.  We do.  We have done so in the past, and we will do so in the future.  Pretending nothing has happened, hiding the truth, only makes it worse.  The thing to do, he says, is to confront it directly.  The first thing to do is to go quietly to the person who has hurt you and point it out.  How many times have we said or done something that has hurt someone else and we don’t even realize what we have done!  It may be that simply pointing it out is enough.  Have you ever had someone tell you how you have hurt them, and you didn’t even know it?  It is like a dagger through the heart!  In many cases, that is enough.  But if it isn’t, then Jesus suggests a graduated approach.  First one or two, then an internal church meeting, if the matter is really important.
    I think that the real point of this process, though, is in the sentence: “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”  Remember what Jesus said to Peter?  The very same thing!  Jesus is telling us something incredible: that the power to determine the values of life is being trusted to the people of God.  Into the hands of the new people of God is being given this divine power.  The Church, the new Israel created in the blood of the Lamb and given strength for the journey in the new Passover meal of the eucharist, is trusted by God to discern and proclaim the truth and to reconcile those who stray away and hurt each other through sin.
    In our reading from Romans this morning St. Paul takes this a step further: How do we actually live day by day with each other once we have become God’s new people, his new Israel on the way out of Egypt to the Promised Land?  How do we move from conflict resolution to life together?  “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.” Move away from the impersonal kinds of relationships that are defined by the law, what we should not do, and by business, using the metaphor of debt and payment, to define how we live with each other.  Move toward a personal relationship, defined by love.  “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
    We are saved by the Passover blood of Jesus Christ, and strengthened by the eucharistic meal for our journey, our Exodus.  Let us understand that we have been set apart by God as his  people.  We are invited by Jesus to live in honesty, truth and charity with each other.  We are empowered to discern and proclaim the values God wants us to practice.  We are called by God to love each other as we love ourselves. 
    And this is all the more important because we don’t have all the time in the world.  Things are moving more quickly than we think.  Don’t delay.  We should start living right now as if the Kingdom of God has already started.