Sermon for September 23, 2018: Things Heavenly (The Right Rev. Marc H. Andrus, Bishop of California)
Updated: Aug 13, 2021
Read by the Rev. Dr. Deborah White
Some punctuation has been changed, words have been italicized, and some words have been inserted (indicated by [brackets]) by the Rev. Deborah White, Ph.D., primarily for ease of reading/proclaiming.
(Dear People of God in the Episcopal Church in the Bay Area, gathered in our 78 congregations on September 23, 2018: I am writing this sermon to you today, as your Priests and Deacons are gathered at the Bishop’s Ranch for our annual Clergy Retreat. Our late and deeply loved Canon to the Ordinary, Stefani Schatz suggested some years ago that I write a sermon during Clergy Retreat to be used on the next Sunday, to give our beloved clergy a true retreat, time to devote to prayer, reflection, and time with each other. I’m very happy to offer this sermon to you in that spirit and with gratitude for your own faithfulness.)
Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Where and what are the “things heavenly” mentioned in the prayer for today? For that matter, what are the “earthly things” about which we are not to be anxious? As we have been walking with Jesus through the region of the Galilee in the Gospel of Mark for several weeks, we have heard Jesus call Peter a “Satan” because the disciple was focusing on “human things” (earthly things) rather than the “things of God” (heavenly things), so this idea of the heavenly versus the earthly seems to be an important theme.
It helps me to think that earthly things are not necessarily “things of the earth,” but are things, as the prayer says, that are “passing away.” So, “heavenly things” might be things that last - not things up in the sky. St. Paul, in his famous chapter on love in the First Letter to the Christian community in Corinth, says that there are many things that we might consider important that don’t last: knowing more than other people, strategic foresight - even signs of spiritual giftedness and admirable acts of charity [when they are] (done for bragging rights) – all of these wear out in the long run. [Only] three things last, according to St. Paul: faith, hope and love [-and] love stands above even faith and hope.
In the narrative we hear today in Mark’s Gospel, we get a clear picture of the contrast between earthly and heavenly things, things that pass away and things that last. After coming to a stopping place in their journey, Jesus asks his disciples what they were arguing about as they were walking. They are unwilling to tell him, because they were debating who among them was the greatest. Their shamefacedness is telling – they already know that worldly position is not worth their precious time. In response to his disciples, Jesus gives a little teaching, saying that serving is the marker of importance, not being served.
After Jesus gives a verbal teaching on heavenly and earthly things, he shows us what he means: he tenderly embraces a child. Our love and care for children - and really of all beings in our lives who can’t reward us with more power or resources - is the best example of love, of that which endures forever, of the prime heavenly thing.
The [collect] for today was written by St. Gregory the Great, the Pope (Bishop of Rome) who lived in the 6th Century. Gregory was born into an aristocratic Roman family. The Eternal City was sacked for the third time a few years after Gregory was born, after a one-year siege by the Goths. In his lifetime as much as a third of the Italian population died from plague. [An invading Germanic people], the Lombards, prosecuted brutal war campaigns through the north of Italy during the same time. The Emperor and the whole machinery of empire had decamped from a ruined and dangerous Rome to Constantinople. In this setting of “the worst of times,” Gregory did many things for which he is still remembered. Gregorian Chant, for instance, is named for him and he [himself] may have helped compose chants in this mode. Also, he sent Augustine as a missionary to England, a beginning for what would become the Church of England and the Anglican Communion, our world-wide spiritual community.
But the [most important and] ever-lasting work of Gregory as the Bishop of Rome was to work doggedly for the care of the starving and poor Romans. [He] mobilized the local Church to relieve the suffering of the population. [We know that] Gregory wrote the collect for today in the midst of troubled times, when the temptation was, as it is now, to cling to various things that might improve security and status. Gregory’s name means “Watchful” or “Vigilant.” [The words of his prayer tell us that throughout the anxious times through which he led his people, Gregory was vigilant against the lure of fear and self-absorption, choosing instead to watch for the opportunity to work for the things that are heavenly – the things that are everlasting]. May we share in Gregory’s clear-sightedness and hold on to love, which never ends. [Amen].