Three weeks ago, my family went up to Maine, first to bury my grandmother who had died last fall and then to spend a week enjoying the cooler weather on a small island in the Penobscot Bay. Anytime I attend a large family gathering, whether it is mine or I am presiding at a funeral or a wedding, I am struck by the complexity of family life. Perhaps it is how each individual might have certain similarities of appearances or habits or speech and yet those gathered seem so different from one another. There sometimes exists a wonderful love within a family which brings them together. But families also come together because of their own history or at least an expectation of following a duty towards one’s family. It is a culture in and of itself, one that takes time to get to know–there is always (it seems) that crazy aunt, or mysterious uncle…there are complexities of relationships, sometimes eggshells to walk upon, but also the routine stories that need to be retold and enjoyed, the familiar food that needs to be eaten. All of this I experienced from within my family, but I don’t need to parse for you the McDermott family system.
From Belfast we made our way to Eagle Island, and again I was struck by the experience of entering a culture, a family, a way of life unknown to me. There are, of course, general characterizations we can make of people who live on islands. I had read Robert McKlowsky’s One Morning in Maine, so I counted myself a master of the subject, but once on the island itself, I realized that I was dropping into a community which has a deep history and particular ways of living which were foreign. The pace of life, the work they did, the particular features they paid attention to, the phrases they spoke all were influenced and came from generations living and working on this small island through the beautiful summers and bitter winters. This was a way of life I could not hope to fully join or understand in just one week.
It is like visiting a new family for dinner. You pick up on general characteristics, but you know you are missing the inside jokes, the accepted traditions and habits. You are only seeing a fraction of a whole way of life which is marked by an unique understanding of the world. Every family has such a way of life formed by a particular understanding of the world. Every culture or community has such a way of life formed by a particular understanding of reality. But not all families and communities consciously recognize and explain their understanding of reality and way of life to the same degree.
Some families sadly function within a labyrinth of unspoken expectations and boundaries, never flourishing but merely persisting. Same with communities. But there are families and even whole communities who intentionally, intelligently, and reasonably shape a way of life that matches their understanding of reality. In these communities, understanding is not just propositional, as if the ability to list a set of ‘facts’ or ‘truths’ is what forms a whole person. Rather, how a family understands reality (which can be expressed in words) shapes every aspect of their lives and their experience of life also influences their understanding of reality. The island community that I glimpsed seemed so different because of their understanding of the world, shaped by their experience and history which was so different from mine.
I have explained all of this to help us understand our own way of life – not in our biological families or geographical communities (though not excluding those!)– as Anglo-Catholics. In Catholicism we understand our faith like that of a family, an island culture — there are general characterizations that we have of that life, but also specific ones that are manifest in our local parish.
Our general understanding of reality comes from the fact that God exists and what He has revealed to us. There are certain facts that we cannot change–just as we cannot pick our own parents, we cannot change the fact that God created the universe and that He seeks to bring all of humanity to perfect happiness in Him. Part of the reason why we recite the Creed so much (every Sunday and during the Daily Office) is both (1) to declare the reality in which we live and (2) to remind ourselves to align our lives to that reality.
The Epistle this morning shows St. Paul representing those dual actions to us! For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the Scriptures. And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: after that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep. After that, he was seen of James; then of all the Apostles. And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time. Here are the facts that have happened, the history that underlies St. Paul’s life. This is the reason why he labors intensely. And this is what he preaches. But notice that his declaration of the history, of the genealogy, is not just propositional but meant to develop a way of life. He says: BRETHREN, I declare unto you the Gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; by which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. As he preached, the new community of Christians received the revelation–but as St. Paul reminds them here, they must remember in order to continue to stand in that revelation. The Corinthians had questioned the truth of the resurrection! And like a sickness that spreads from one part of the body to all the rest, their denial of reality was affecting their whole faith, their whole way of life. They were no longer ‘standing’ in the faith, which means to be of a steadfast mind, standing like the foundation of a building. And because they had departed from the truth of reality, their whole way of life was corrupted–St. Paul accuses them of dishonoring the sacrament of the Eucharist, of backbiting, of following lustful desires, of hatred and more.
And so he shows them here that the reality of God becoming man, the reality of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the reality of the ascension changes everything – just as it changed St. Paul’s life. The Collect shows this wonderfully. The reality of God’s mercy as shown in his incarnation, death, and resurrection means that we must adopt of way of life towards ourselves, our neighbors, and God that matches that mercy. The Latin from which this Collect was translated originally read ‘that we running to thy promises, may be made partakers of thy heavenly promises.’ The alteration that we have gives a legalistic overtones, that we are obeying for a future reward. Rather, the original gets at the truth that God’s mercy is a present possession of a free gift–that we are running in haste to receive what is freely offered. I do not want you to miss this very important point in the Collect: that God’s almighty power is chiefly shown not in His creative might, not in his lordship and sovereign providence over that reaction, but “in His redemptive love and mercy which gave His only Son to the Cross to take away the power of sin and death in our lives. The greatest power of God is His sacrificial love.” It is this reality that changes everything for us. It is this reality which should shape and guide our own way of life.
If you want a concrete example of how this reality shapes one’s life, you can study the life of St. Paul, or any of the saints, but let us move to the Gospel to see an example that Jesus gives us. Jesus gives us a story contrasting the prayer of a Pharisee to a Publican. The Pharisee, Jesus notes, prays to himself. This can mean that he prays silently, but the play on words is obvious: this man is not praying towards God, but actually to himself. Jesus notes that both the Pharisee and the Publican come to the Temple, but that the Publican stands afar off. Picture the scene then: if the Pharisee is closer to the Temple and the Publican afar off, then the Pharisee must not even be facing the Temple. Jesus is showing us that this man is not concerned with God’s presence. Even though the prayer is addressed to God, both the content and this man’s heart is not about God, as prayer should be. If this man was acknowledging himself before God, he would not be standing in victory nor would he equate his own righteous actions with the righteousness of God.
In contrast, Jesus offers the Publican as our example for prayer.
He stands far off from the Temple, not even able to approach. He casts his eyes down, pleading to the Lord for His mercy. The Publican is entering into the presence of the Lord and takes on a position of humility. The Publican recognizes two truths that the Pharisee missed. First, that he is a sinner. Coming before the Almighty God requires humility and acceptance of ones own finite being. But the Publican also realizes that God is merciful, a fact that the Pharisee has no need to recognize. And that understanding changes his way of life, and his way of life (even to the position of his body in prayer) deepened his understanding of reality.
So the question remains to you: how will you align your life to the reality of God and His mercy? I submit that the Propers given for today, lay a general outline of how to deepen our understanding of God.
In the Introit: accept God as who He has revealed himself to be.
In the Gradual: we must individually accept this and go to God for our strength. This is primarily done in worship.
In the Offertory: we cry to Him, and He heals us.
In the Communion: And so we give to God what is His. We offer our own lives, our own money and time and talents to give to Him–in other words, we orient our entire lives to Him.
The reality of the mercy of God becomes the reality in which we live: our belief in that reality and the depth of our understanding of that reality works itself out in our lives.
Specifically, though, we live out these understandings here at All Saints. Our understanding of reality, formed by Holy Scripture through the tradition of Holy Mother Church, shapes our way of life. We serve God and one another in specific situations, we worship on specific days and in set ways, we eat together and learn together–all of these actions helping us to understand and live out the mercy of God both to ourselves, to each other, and of course in devotion to God.
As you examine your own life in order to deepen your understanding of God and seek to align yourself to His reality, you will find places that are not aligned with God. What do we do, then, with our sin? We do not run from it. Instead, like the Publican, we face our sin, repent, and in God’s mercy we turn from that sin and towards God. This is hard to do because so often we refuse to accept God’s mercy and sit in our sin. But listen today in the Mass just how many times we call upon the mercy of God! He is ever willing to heal us–in fact, he is present here today in the Mass, again offering Himself to you in order to free you from sin and the power of death.