A Sermon for the Feast of St. Margaret of Antioch
Sisters of St. Margaret Convent, Duxbury, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on July 19, 2014
Soon after the sisters moved into their new digs here in Duxbury I was invited by Sister Adele Marie and Sister Carolyn for a tour. Like most people who have had the pleasure of seeing the place, I came away just so impressed by the thought, love, care, and prayer that went into the design. The grounds, the buildings, the presence of the sisters all exude holiness and I love coming down here whenever the opportunity arises.
I should admit, though, that I’ve become quite the apologist for the sisters on this whole luxury convent on the waterfront thing. Every time I mention “Duxbury” and “convent” in the same sentence I’m always quick to add, “They’ve owned the land since 1908!” We have a tough enough time letting people know we even have nuns in the Episcopal Church and I certainly don’t want people thinking these are exclusive, high-end Episcopal nuns who sip sherry every evening after compline. Though I kind of hope they occasionally do just that.
But anyway, after I was given the whole tour I found myself in Sister Carolyn’s room and I had two thoughts. First, ‘I cannot believe I am actually standing in a nun’s bedroom’ — I assure you that was never a childhood fantasy of mine. And my second thought was, ‘This convent is so amazing! Who’s going to tell my wife I’m running away to become a nun?’ But then I decided I didn’t actually want to spend the rest of my life saying to everyone I met, “No, not that St. Margaret; Margaret of Antioch.” It’s quite a cross you all have to bear.
So who was this Margaret of Antioch we commemorate today? If you hang out with the sisters you probably know something about this woman who may or may not have lived in the late 3rd century. The first thing people usually think about when it comes to Margaret is that dragon — you see it in statues and paintings and iconography and even on the cover of today’s bulletin.
Legend has it that she was swallowed by satan in the form of a dragon but escaped after the cross she always carried with her miraculously grew to the point of bursting through the dragon’s flesh. Thus she’s the patron saint of pregnant women because evidently childbirth feels like a giant cross poking through your stomach. But while this story may be apocryphal, this young woman clearly had a strong faith, suffered great persecution, and was martyred during one of the last waves of persecution.
The gospel appointed for this day includes the parable of the pearl of great price, one of three rapid-fire parables Jesus uses to describe the Kingdom of Heaven. I was interested to learn that Margaret is often depicted with a pearl necklace. The greek word for pearl is margarites which is why pearls are associated with St. Margaret and perhaps the reason this parable shows up on her feast day. Of course, this doesn’t help us alleviate the high-end nun issue since I can’t stop picturing a nun standing on the beach in full habit wearing a pearl necklace and drinking a margarita. But that may just be me.
While dragons may be the realm of fanciful legend and martyrology, they do help us focus on what we are being called to slay in our own lives. And here’s where the extraordinary witness of these Sisters of St. Margaret is so helpful. Their lives exemplify what it means to strip faith down to its essentials. They put prayer — both corporate and individual — at the center of their lives and invite us all to do likewise. They minister among the “least of these” in Haiti and Dorchester and New York City and invite us all to do likewise.
They quietly and passionately inspire those they encounter to deepen their faith, to love God and neighbor, to open their hearts and minds and souls to relationship with the divine in new and life-giving ways. And they do all of this with grace and good humor and love.
In teaching about what is truly valuable, Jesus begins with three concrete examples — the treasure buried in a field, the pearl, the net bursting with fish. Like these three parables, the sisters help us see what is truly valuable in this life. They help us focus on the treasure, on that which really matters. In other words their witness points us again and again toward the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom that is not just up there, away but right here in our midst.
But isn’t there often a lot of confusion around the whole notion of the Kingdom of Heaven? Many people hear the word “heaven” and think Jesus is talking exclusively about a place up in the sky – a place of pearly gates and Saint Peter and angels flying around; a place where everyone has wings and everyone’s in a great mood and George Burns walks around on clouds. The problem is that this makes the Kingdom of Heaven inaccessible to us; it turns it into a place that is remote and away rather than near and “at hand.” And that fails to do justice to the totality and all-encompassing nature of this Kingdom.
Yes, when Jesus talks to his disciples about the Kingdom of Heaven, it’s with an eye to the future. But Jesus’ reign has already begun with his coming into the world in human form. And these parables point us toward three hallmarks of the Kingdom visible here on earth: joy, beauty, and abundance. The joy of buried treasure, the beauty of the pearl, the abundance of the catch. These Kingdom values are evidence of the life Jesus invites us into through faith in him. And they are precisely the values embodied by the sisters as they share the Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven with people all over the world.
This is what makes faith so valuable — it’s eternal, not fleeting. It doesn’t fade away or wither, like everything else in this life (including, I might add, valuable beachfront property). Faith endures. Even when we get distracted or fall away, it remains the one constant in this universe.
And so this day challenges us to reflect upon what it is that we could prune in our own lives to help us get back to the basics of faith. What are some things you could sweep away in order to grow your faith and deepen your relationship with Jesus? How might the sisters’ faithfulness inspire and encourage you in your own spiritual life? In what ways can you better incorporate the kingdom values of joy, beauty, and abundance?
Not everyone is called to a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience — thanks be to God. But we can all learn lessons from those who are. It’s one of the great gifts offered to us by monastic communities and exemplified by the Sisters of St. Margaret right here in Duxbury.
On this day, may we all be inspired by the faithful witness of St. Margaret of Antioch; may we continue to pray for the sisters and uphold them in their ministry and service to our Lord; and may we remain focused on the Kingdom of Heaven as our hope, our passion, and our salvation.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck