Preacher: Holly Boone
I bet you think I’m going to talk about the m-word, money. Maybe the people who stayed home this morning thought I was going to talk about the m-word, too. Apparently people, especially Episcopalians, hate talking about that word. So let’s talk about something else, something more important. Let’s talk about souls and how we care for them at Epiphany.
Much about the human soul has been preached by Doyt and Kate and others, and I will not attempt retrace their remarks. Let’s just recall that the soul unites and makes whole all aspects of our unique being—spirit, heart, mind, and body. It’s the eternal person and character that will outlast the fleeting image in a mirror.
All of you must care about your soul or else you wouldn’t be here this morning. You might be sleeping in or sitting at Starbucks with the Sports section or cleaning out your garage. But you are here, so you must think that your soul is worth tending to at least as much as your body or coffee or the clutter in your garage.
You hear it said here every Sunday: “Wherever you are in your spiritual journey you have a place at Epiphany.” The French Jesuit theologian Teilhard de Chardin said something similar: “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” C.S. Lewis said it more succinctly: “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.”
The experience that a soul lives out in a human body is often compared to a journey, perhaps most famously in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, one of the most influential works of English religious literature and never out of print since it was published in the late 1600s. The allegorical pilgrim Christian encounters many trials and characters we can easily recognize: the Slough of Despond, the Giant Despair living in his Doubting Castle, Vanity Fair, and—I bet we’ve all been here—the Valley of Humiliation. After many instructive encounters, Christian at last crosses the River of Death and enters the Celestial City, where he is robed in luminous garments and given a crown.
Our theology at Epiphany, I should add, is a little different from that of John Bunyan. In our own spiritual journey, we seek not God in Heaven, capital H, after our bodies finish their life’s work. We seek instead the Kingdom of God here and now, in this present heaven where we live and move and have our being. We seek to live joyfully with God now, in this life.
To the age-old stumbling blocks of a Christian pilgrim, we moderns can add new ones peculiar to our times: Greater knowledge about almost everything. Greater wealth than any human society in history. More personal choice of where we live or what we do for a living or where we travel or what we consume for dinner or entertainment. So much demands our attention and decision that no wonder we are exhausted. No wonder so many people seem to sleepwalk through life. No wonder our souls lose their way or forget the journey altogether.
One of the great challenges for modern Christians might be to arouse ourselves from smothering distractions, to wake from our consuming stupor and set out in earnest upon our journey to seek God. In today’s scripture, doesn’t seeking for Wisdom sound an awful lot like seeking God? Let’s listen again:
God is radiant and unfading, and He is easily discerned by those who love Him,
and is found by those who seek Him.
God hastens to make Himself known to those who desire Him.
One who rises early to seek Him will have no difficulty,
for He will be found sitting at the gate.
To fix one’s thought on God is perfect understanding,
And one who is vigilant on God’s account will soon be free from care,
because God goes about seeking those worthy,
and God graciously appears to them in their paths,
and meets them in every thought.
Any pilgrim could tell us the journey is not always easy, especially if we try to go it alone. But we have a guide in Jesus, our Master Teacher, and we have the help of those who have gone before us and those who are walking with us still.
Someone wrote—I can’t remember who—that you can’t be a Christian all by yourself. Every soul needs that which only another soul can give. Young souls need the example of old souls, old souls who sometimes bound about this place on Sunday mornings disguised as little children. Hungry souls need to sit at the table with souls filled with good things. Troubled and hurting souls need the company of souls who have felt their hurt and trouble slowly heal with time.
We are meant, like Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims, to travel with other souls and tell each other tales. Your story helps my soul stay on course; my story might help yours. Jesus teaches how to live in the Kingdom by telling stories, and so can we.
In a recent book discussion group here at church, someone told a story. She had started attending a new high school and the color of her skin and her accent marked her as different. Some other kids took to throwing rocks at her on the way home from school, sometimes drawing blood. It was a story of fear, anger and hatred that became one of understanding, compassion and forgiveness. A story from her soul was a gift to ours.
In that same discussion group, the question came up, why go to church, why do we come to Epiphany? Many of us mentioned the community we appreciate here. But how is this community special or different from our other associations and social groups? The consensus seemed to be that here we are intent on finding—discovering and uncovering—our deepest, truest selves. Where else can we take part in sincere and mature conversation about our eternal lives? Just raise the subject of God and your soul at the next pub night, neighborhood potluck, or company Christmas party. Go ahead. I dare you. I love my rowing pals, but we don’t get together to work on our souls. At least we don’t think we do.
Caring for a soul often does look like caring for a body or mind or heart. It looks like bringing a meal to someone or delivering produce to a food bank. It looks like serving on the board of a nonprofit dedicated to educating disadvantaged children. It looks like going to the fundraising luncheon. It looks like taking a walk with someone who just lost his wife and best friend.
I am grateful for how so many people at Epiphany care for my soul. I am reminded of the Friday Compline prayer: “…grant that we may never forget that our common life depends on each other’s toil.”
I am grateful for Doyt and Kate and Diane and everyone who serves at the altar each Sunday and every day of the week in the office. I am grateful for Tom and the choir and for the high voltage up my spine when the sopranos sing the descant from the balcony. I am grateful for the time I sit in Pieter’s guided meditation. I am grateful for opportunities to study books by and with people who have thought longer and harder than I have about how to live a more authentic life. I am grateful for the intelligence that enlivens the adult education forums. I am grateful for the dignity and beauty of this worship which I imagine rising like a fragrant offering to God.
Today’s sermon was billed as the Lay Stewardship Sermon, so you might expect me to say some remarks about Stewardship, capital S. In my mind, I already have.
You know yourself that stewardship is not really about the m-word. Stewardship is about caring for those things we do not own and cannot keep. It’s about taking care of what we most value, and it’s about learning to value most the right things.
What we deeply love and care for always gets and holds our attention, as surely as water flows downhill. Our top priorities get our time and our creative, emotional, and intellectual energy, and, yes, our financial energy. For without that energy, all kinds of energy, how does any work get done in this world?
By this time next year, construction should be finished. Our parish workshop will be refurbished and retooled. We’ll be ready to resume with fresh energy the real work of any church worth its name.
That work is to seek first the Kingdom of God. To become diligent students of Jesus, the Master Teacher who can make us truly wise. To become doers of his Word. To live so that his Word becomes our own flesh, his heart our heart. That work is to feed and train and care for souls, the souls here this morning and the souls that find their way to Epiphany next Sunday or fifty years from now. That work is to invite curious, distracted, confused, angry, hungry, and broken souls to become fellow pilgrims on the journey. To help each other wake and find that God is waiting for us at the gate and ready to meet us on the path.