Feast of St. Margaret of Antioch

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.

10518646_324050684424844_2391446240574667474_nI 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 1960927_283773275119252_1961193212_othree 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


Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 11, Year C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on July 21, 2013 (Proper 11, Year C)

Last Friday I went down to Duxbury to hang out with some single women along the waterfront. It’s okay, you can tell Bryna — they were nuns. As you may know, a number of the Sisters of St. Margaret have been attending St. John’s this summer. So I called Sister Adele Marie, the order’s Superior, to ask if I could meet with her to talk about this budding relationship and to take a tour of their newly built convent — which is completely green with geothermal heating and solar panels, by the way. Very impressive. Sister Carolyn gave me the full tour.

I should dispel a few misconceptions before I go on. First, yes, there are Episcopal nuns. Roman Catholics don’t have a monopoly on religious orders. There are Episcopal convents and monasteries all across the country including, locally, Arlington and Cambridge. Second, they don’t carry rulers around waiting to smack you. Quite the contrary — they are warm and inviting, some of the sisters have sly senses of humor, and they’re all passionate about their ministry. Third, they’ve owned the property in Duxbury since 1903 so it’s not as if they’re some well-heeled order that lounges along the beachfront all day sipping pina coladas. In fact, while they’re headquartered on the South Shore, they do mission work in Dorchester,  New York City, and Haiti mostly with children and the elderly. Their convent in Port-au-Prince was destroyed by the 2010 earthquake and they’re set up in temporary housing but it hasn’t dampened their steadfast commitment to the people of what is arguably the poorest country in the world.

I guess sisters were on my mind this week between visiting the convent and this gospel passage that tells the story of two sisters, Mary and Martha. When Jesus comes to Bethany he is welcomed into the home that Martha shares with Mary. He is invited to come inside and take a load off. He’s been out all day in the hot sun preaching and teaching and he finally gets to relax among friends, have a cool drink, and enjoy a satisfying meal.

Now whenever you’re invited into someone’s home, you know that the host or hostess sets the tone. If the food has been prepped and you’re ushered in to sit and join in some pre-dinner conversation, it’s pretty relaxing. If you walk in and the hosts are still getting dressed or haven’t set out any hors d’oeuvres and suddenly pots and pans are being rattled around, it can be awkward and stressful and you aren’t getting what you really came for which was to enjoy your host’s company.

With Mary and Martha Jesus gets both extremes. Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet in the posture of discipleship, engaged in conversation with him while Martha busies herself preparing the meal. Of course Martha starts to resent this and complains to Jesus — which sounds an awful lot like a whiny sibling tattling on the other one. ‘Lord, don’t you care that Mary’s left me to do all the work myself? Tell her to help me.’ Now, I’m not sure if that sounds familiar to any parents but Martha is basically saying ‘It’s not fair!’ Justice is a big theme in most households with young children.

And I love Jesus’ response. What he doesn’t do is try to act like a referee by saying something like. “Okay, to make this fair, Martha, you wash and, Mary, you dry.” You can almost hear the calm tone in his voice as he points beyond the immediate situation to make a larger point. “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things, there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part.”

This isn’t to say that Martha’s actions aren’t necessary; it’s not to diminish the hard work that comes with hospitality; things do need to get done. But Jesus points to the heart of the matter, as he always does. We start with our relationship with Jesus and then everything else flows from that. It’s a matter of priorities and in this moment, Mary is quietly listening to and learning from and being inspired by Jesus while Martha is running around stressing out about the meal, the dishes, and the impression she’s making.

And who among us can’t relate to being “worried and distracted by many things?” All you have to do is stop and sit quietly for five minutes and see where your mind goes. Shopping lists and doctor’s appointments and e-mails to answer and relatives to call and dinner to make and sermons to write. Okay I was projecting with that last one. But in full disclosure I came up with this sermon topic in the middle of Morning Prayer while I was supposed to be praying! Distractions come in many forms and as a society we are a distracted lot.

The reality is that we need a balance of prayer and service; a balance between reflection and action; a balance between worship and mission. Which brings us back to the sisters I started with. The monastic life is all about striking this balance. St. Benedict, the father of western monasticism made sure his monks led lives of balance by engaging body, mind, and spirit. Yet it’s the prayer that always fuels the service. And it’s nice to know that we have a good example of this balance just down the shoreline a bit.

The other point here is that Jesus doesn’t measure us by what we do or fail to get done — he loves us simply for who we are. All the rushing around, all the accomplishments don’t make Jesus love us any more. And so it is worth our while to find some time to just stop and enjoy our relationship with Jesus. Which is really what prayer is anyway. And the sisters will tell you that it does get easier; that with some practice you’ll actually be able to clear your mind of all the clutter when you try sitting quietly. Not at first, not in the first few minutes as your mind swirls, but give it time and you’ll get to that point where you can simply revel in relationship with God.

Yes, things still need to get done. Dinner won’t make itself, the kids need to be picked up from camp. But Jesus invites us into a life of holy perspective. A life that flows out of the blessings bestowed upon us. A life that flows out of relationship with the divine. A life that flows directly from the feet of Jesus out into the world.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2013