Sunday, January 26, 2014

Sermon: Agnes of Rome, Martyr

Sermon for January 21, 2014 
10:00 Healing Service
Feast Day of Agnes, Martyr at Rome, 304
St. Philip’s In The Hills Parish, Tucson, AZ
The Rev. Vicki K. Hesse
For online access to the readings click here.
I speak to you in the name of One God, Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit. Amen

Today is the feast day of Agnes of Rome. 
What do you know of her?

From Wikipedia, we learn that
·        At the age of 12 or 13, a nobleman wanted to marry her,
·        She refused since she had consecrated herself to Christ.
·        She said that to marry the nobleman would be an insult to her heavenly Spouse.
·        The young nobleman's father was the Prefect Sempronius,
o   upon learning Agnes had rejected his son and that she was a Christian,
o   he ordered Agnes to sacrifice to the pagan gods
·        She was taken to a Roman temple of Minerva (Athena), and when led to the altar, she made the Sign of the Cross.
·        She was threatened, then tortured when she refused to turn against God. [1]

Agnes was martyred during the cruel persecution
of the Emperor Diocletian.
As a young teenager, 12 or 13.
How do we even begin to make sense of that?

Her biography from “Holy Women, Holy Men” says,

“after rejecting blandishments…
she remained firm in refusal
to offer worship to the heathen gods...” 

Blandishments.  Now there’s a word  we don’t hear every day – even if you are a Downton Abbey watcher.
Blandishments are
“…tools of flattery and enticements to persuade somebody
to do something.” 
The root of “blandishment” is from the old French blandiss, from “blandir” meaning, smooth.  As in “smooth operator.”

Agnes rejected the smooth for her faith in Christ.
Agnes was praised by the early Church
for her courage and chastity –
Agnes, her name, reflects this –
meaning “pure” in Greek or “lamb” in Latin.

Today’s scriptures are filled with these “pure” images
·        From the collect,
o   God’s choosing the powerless to put the powerful to shame
·        From Song of Solomon,
o   God’s calling the fair one,
o   in the midst of the soft newness of the spring,
o   the fresh fruits and vines that are fragrant. 
o   This is in stark contrast to her horrible death. 
·        From 2nd Corinthians,
o   God’s differentiation from the idols. 
o   Paul reminds us that we are the temple of the living God.
o   “I will live in them and walk among them,” God promises. 
·        From the Gospel of Matthew,
o   God’s love of the innocence of children –
o   that when we become children:
§  humble, curious, welcoming, innocent –
o   we live into the kingdom of heaven.
And so I wonder how Agnes is informing our life today?

Perhaps you came to this healing service for reconciliation.  Perhaps you came to hear a word of hope
to light up a despairing moment. 
Perhaps you came to join your prayers with all the faithful
who seek God’s presence.

Perhaps Agnes is inviting us into healing through her example of denying “blandishments” – of denying flattery.

Think of a situation you find yourself in. 
A sticky situation that seems to keep triggering
a reaction-response and not a love response. 
A response that appeals to our emotional, surface needs
Not one that speaks to our spiritual ground?

I have these all the time –
like driving to work and someone cuts me off,
Or listening to the media that draws us me into fear. 
Or that difficult conversation that I need to have
with a close friend, but I am persuaded to not say anything; to remain in that “comfort” zone

Agnes asks first:
How are we receiving blandishments,
flattery that appeals to our emotional self ? 
What is the flattery for?  
Are we being enticed or persuaded
to do something for someone else’s good?

Agnes offers, second:
How can we offer our soft, fresh selves
into each and every moment? 
How can we look at the situation with innocence of a child? 
With humility, curiosity, welcome and innocence?

Cynthia Bourgeault, author and Episcopal priest,
suggests what she calls “the welcome prayer.”

The Welcoming Prayer is that practice of
attending to, letting go of, and surrendering to God
in the present moment of daily life.
The Welcoming Prayer[2] is a way to respond
when we find that it is difficult (if not impossible)
to let go of an emotion or state of being.
The Welcoming Prayer invites us to instead
move deeper into that state.
We approach it with the innocence of a child.
These are the steps of the prayer:
1) Focussing - Notice the sensation in your body of the emotion or state of being.
Where is it? What does it feel like?
Don’t analyze or explain the sensation, just notice it.

2) Welcoming - Welcome the feeling by giving it a name
For example,
“Welcome anger” “Welcome frustration” “Welcome anxiety.”
Accept that it is there and
you can just be the way you are without trying to change.

3) Move back and forth between these two steps
Until the feeling begins to dissipate naturally.
Don’t try to make it go away; just notice and welcome
until the overwhelming quality of the feeling begins to subside.

4) Letting Go - When you are ready,
gently let go of the feeling, saying,
“I let go of my anger.”

You are not letting go of it forever,
you will certainly feel angry again sometime.

As Cynthia Bourgeault says,
“This is not a final, forever renunciation of your anger or fear;
it’s simply a way of gently waving farewell
as the emotion starts to recede.”

Thomas Keating, says
“Welcoming Prayer is the practice that
actively lets go of thoughts and feelings
that support the false-self system”
– those “blandishments.”  

In giving the experience over to the Holy Spirit,
the false-self is gradually undermined & the true self liberated.”

May we, today, recognize the call of Agnes.

She invites us to notice and welcome blandishments,
and let them dissipate in the healing presence of Christ
who heals and reconciles and encourages us in every way,
with every situation. 

May we notice Agnes’ invitation to offer
our soft hearts to each moment,
and to respond to God’s call with the innocence of a child.

Agnes has the final word today with this quote:

Christ made my soul beautiful
with the jewels of grace and virtue.
I belong to Him whom the angels serve.”

-- Saint Agnes of Rome