"The Preachers chiefly shall take heed that they teach nothing in their preaching, which they would have the people religiously to observe and believe, but that which is agreeable to the Doctrine of the Old Testament and the New, and that which the Catholick Fathers and Ancient Bishops have gathered out of that Doctrine." A proposed canon of Elizabeth I, 1571

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Location: Bedford, Texas, United States

I am a presbyter in the diocese of Fort Worth, Texas (Anglican Church in North America). I serve as Chaplain at St. Vincent's School and as a canon of St. Vincent's Cathedral Church in Bedford, Texas. In addition to my parish duties and teaching Religion classes in the school I am also the Middle School Social Studies teacher.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

A Sermon for the Feast of St. Laurence

Delivered at St. Laurence Episcopal Church, Southlake, Texas, on August 12, 2007. The Scripture readings were those for Sunday, the collect and preface those for the blessed Roman martyr.

The story of the martyrdom of Saint Laurence of Rome is, no doubt, well known to almost everyone here. So I hesitated to retell it this morning. But as I reflected on today’s Scripture lessons, I realized that they suit the details of Laurence’s passion beautifully. I simply cannot pass up this opportunity to highlight them. For you have a remarkable patron, my brothers and sisters. Your holy martyr’s witness to the true treasures of the Kingdom of God shines like a beacon in our own day as surely as it did in his, and few have demonstrated the unchangeable truths of today’s lessons from Holy Scripture as ably as St. Laurence did in the face of certain death.

The earliest sources we have for the martyrdom of Laurence date from around the year 400 A.D. and come from the pens of St. Ambrose of Milan and Prudentius of Cordoba, Spain. These authors tell of a great persecution of the Roman church under the pagan emperor Valerian in the year 258. Bishop Sixtus of Rome and four of his deacons were seized and, apparently, crucified as traitors against the Empire. Somehow Deacon Laurence escaped arrest in this first sweep, but three days later he was rounded up as well. The Roman judge, upon learning that Laurence was in charge of the almost legendary charitable giving of the Christian community, demanded that the deacon present a full accounting of the Church’s valuables so that they might be confiscated. Surprisingly, blessed Laurence agreed to do precisely as commanded, telling the judge, “Our church is very rich. I must confess that it has wealth; our treasuries are filled with a gold not found elsewhere in all the world.” Laurence, therefore, was released and given three days to gather up the Church’s treasure, estimate its total worth, and present it to the court.

As you probably know, Laurence spent those three days gathering together those whom he had served as a deacon—the poor, the diseased, the lame, and the blind. And when he appeared before the Roman judge on the third day, instead of the expected gold coin and silver plate Laurence presented this motley collection of suffering humanity, telling the judge, “These are the wondrous treasures of our God.” Needless to say, the Roman prefect was bewildered and angry. According to Prudentius, St. Laurence spoke these remarkable words in explanation:

“These poor of ours are sick and lame, but they are beautiful and whole within. They bear a beautiful spirit, free from taint and misery. These humble paupers you despise and look upon as vile outcasts will lay aside their ulcerous limbs and put on incorruptible bodies. When they are freed at last from tainted flesh their souls, released from earthly chains, will shine resplendent with new life in their celestial fatherland--not foul and shabby or infirm as they now seem to scornful eyes, but beautiful, clad in radiant garments, with crowns of gold upon their heads.”

St. Laurence had, of course, signed his own death warrant. Roman prefects were not men to be trifled with, particularly when money and good order were at issue. Three days later the deacon perished upon the gridiron. But by his actions the blessed martyr makes clear--as few in the years since have--the significance behind the words we heard a few minutes ago from the letter to the Hebrews and from our Lord Jesus in the Gospel lesson. The heavenly treasure of human souls that Laurence presented to the Roman magistrate cannot be bettered for highlighting the contrast between the values of God’s Kingdom and the values of this fallen world.

"Do not be afraid, little flock,” Christ said to his disciples, “for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Here our Lord gives us an ethic for people who long for what St. Laurence called our “celestial fatherland.” Jesus wishes us to unburden ourselves of those things that tie us down to this world of corruption and decay. For this present world, tainted by sin and death, is not our true home if we are people of faith like our forefather Abraham. Remember Abraham and the other righteous people described in the eleventh chapter of Hebrews, who “confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. … They desired a better country … a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.” That is the heavenly city where you and I are meant to put down roots one day, if our belief in God’s promise of redemption is “reckoned to us as righteousness,” as was Abraham’s, and we do not cling to a world that is passing away and succumb to its values. It is, after all, our Father’s good pleasure to give us the Kingdom.

But note what are we to do with the proceeds when we sell our possessions: Jesus tells us to “give alms.” We are therefore commanded to turn away from the transient things of this age and invest in things of eternal significance—in the only creatures in the Universe whose immortal souls bear the image and likeness of the Living God, our fellow human beings. That is precisely what blessed Laurence was saying to the Roman judge. The treasures we Christians store up for ourselves in Heaven are not streets of gold or fancy mansions, for God is going to give those to us anyway! No, the heavenly treasure we accumulate is each other.

For the poor and the diseased of the early Roman church whom Laurence gathered together had been redeemed at Calvary, purchased with the very blood of God. They were in truth “a gold not found elsewhere in all the world” apart from the Church. For how can one possibly place a value upon a human soul in which Spirit of Christ dwells? Ambrose puts it beautifully in his account of Laurence’s bold witness standing beside the Body of Christ: “Truly they were treasures in whom Christ lives, in whom there is faith in Him. … What greater treasures has Christ than those in whom He says He Himself lives? … What better treasures has Jesus than those in which He loves to be seen?” And as Christ’s brothers and sisters by adoption, His treasure is our treasure as well. If we share in our Lord’s heart for the least among us, then we have a part in His inestimable riches, for “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Every time you and I do something to help one of God’s little ones flourish and grow His love and service, particularly those least able to help themselves, we are serving in the treasure rooms of Heaven, lamps lit and girded for action, waiting for our Master to return. And every time we foster someone’s faith in Christ our Savior we are adding to our Lord’s wondrous treasure. God does not wish for His riches to bear no return. For the children of faith are meant to be “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore." The blood of martyrs like Laurence of Rome added myriads of souls to the treasury of Heaven in the ancient world. It is our turn to add to that divine abundance.

So let us have St. Laurence’s lesson to his Roman judge in mind as we come forward to renew God’s gift of life within us through Christ’s precious Body and Blood. Like the Christians of the third-century Roman church we, too, were bought with a price beyond imagining. We kneel together before the altar, joined in our praises by blessed Laurence and all the company of heaven, representing a tiny portion of “the wondrous treasure of our God.” But the fullness of our worth will not be seen until we, in the blessed martyr’s words, “shine resplendent with new life in [our] celestial fatherland.” Laurence and those for whom he cared in this world shine like that now. May God give us the grace to hold lightly to the things of this world, caring only for the wondrous treasures of our God around us, following the example of the blessed martyr of Rome. Amen.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Randall - just read your St. Laurence sermon. Well done! We celebrated our Founders' Day at Trinity, Jacksonville today, and St. Laurence's words about God's true treasurers would have worked in niecely. Keep on truckin', soldier of Christ!

11:36 PM  

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