SERMON Matthew 5 13 16 St Teresa of Avila
Of the 35 Doctors of the Church, only 4 are women. In the Catholic Church, specific saints who have made significant contributions to Christian theology through their research or writings receive the posthumous title “Doctor of the Church.” Today, we commemorate the first woman to receive this honorific, St. Teresa of Avila, whose quest to reform the Catholic Church’s monastic system, and whose prolific writing on prayer and the spiritual life contributed greatly to our understanding of how we are called to let our light burn brightly and bring glory to God alone.
Teresa was born in 1515 to a noble family in Avila. After her mother died when she was a teenager, she was sent away to an Augustinian boarding school, where she began to sense a call to monastic ministry. She joined the Carmelite monastery against her father’s wishes and took holy orders when she was 20 years old. As a young nun, Teresa was seriously afflicted by a mystery illness that caused violent stomach cramps, vomiting, heart palpitations, and partial paralysis. Doctors today believe she may have suffered from severe anxiety and experienced panic attacks while trying and failing to achieve perfect contemplation in prayer.
She longed for a life of deep spiritual connection with God, but felt spiritually dry during the first 20 years of her service.
The convent was not what she expected, with a constant flow of wealthy visitors and politicians stopping by asking for spiritual favors. There was so much distraction, so much meaningless talk and gossip, Teresa could not focus on the life of contemplative prayer that she had devoted to God. Her prayer life felt flat, and life in the convent felt like a sham.
In 1554, Teresa began experiencing mystical visions from Christ, and had a vivid awareness of God’s presence within her. After this, she aspired to lead a perfectly spiritual life, desiring to take up the cross and follow Jesus’ own example. However, the lavish monastery was not suited to the simple life she felt called to live.
In our reading today, Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but to be thrown on the sidewalk and provide good traction.” Salt’s purpose is to enhance flavor, to make tastes shine! Jesus says if it’s not serving its true purpose to flavor food, then it’s missing the point of its existence. It has no choice but to serve the far less interesting purpose of being trampled underfoot. That may still be a practical function, but it’s not salt’s intended purpose. The same is true of us as Christ’s church. As the community of believers gathered in this place, our purpose is to share the good news of God’s love with the world. Our purpose is to feed, shelter, and nurture one another and our neighbors. If that’s not our primary reason for being here, then our existence as the church is bland, uninteresting, unfulfilling, and unfaithful.
Teresa believed that her monastery had lost its original flavor, so she set out to reform the convent system. She faced strong opposition and a series of lawsuits from those who benefitted from and were perfectly happy with the status quo. She even came onto the radar of the Spanish Inquisition, who confiscated and banned the reading of her autobiography. But, through persistence, she successfully opened her first reformed Carmelite Monastery in Avila in 1562 with just 21 nuns committed to live according to the old ways of simplicity and discipline, and she founded 14 more reformed Carmelite monasteries before her death in 1582. In The Way of Perfection, which she wrote as an introductory guide to prayer for the nuns of her new convent, she writes:
“Strive to walk with love and fear, and I guarantee your safety. Love will quicken your steps; fear will make you look where you are stepping so that you do not fall. If we have these two things, we will not be deceived. Those who really love God love all good, seek all good, help foster all good, and join forces with good people and help and defend them.”
And in Interior Castle, her masterwork on contemplative prayer, Teresa says that every human being is like a castle made of shining crystal. Within the castle of each person are 7 rooms, arranged as concentric circles. God dwells at the center of every person’s castle, and the light of God’s presence should fill the entire castle. But, our crystal is becomes clouded by sin. The goal of each person’s spiritual life is to journey from the outermost room in our castle to the innermost room where God dwells. Here, we achieve the union of our love and our will with the love and will of God. As we achieve this union with God through the practice of prayer, God’s love brightens us, and God’s light shines brightly from the center of our selves out into the world.
Jesus says in our gospel lesson for today, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
You are the light bulb God shines through to illuminate a darkened room. Everywhere you go, every conversation you have, in everything you do, as baptized children of God, your special vocation is to shine with the light of God’s love for the world.
As the church, we experienced this first hand yesterday as we participated in the NAMI walk and represented Luther Memorial – and most importantly, Jesus!- in fighting the stigma of mental illness. As a sponsor for the event, we set up an information table and shared stickers and candy with anyone walking by. We were the only church represented at the walk, which made me so especially glad that we were there to share God’s love and light.
Some tables had items like Tupperware or Tastefully Simple for sale, other tables shared information about mental health and addiction recovery services in York County, others about how to cope after the loss of a loved one to suicide and how to prevent suicide. And in the midst of all of that, was us. The Church. The light of Christ present and available for ALL people, in all circumstances. Our signs shared God’s unconditional love and welcome. And several people shared with us what a blessing our congregation has been to them over years as NAMI has held meetings and trainings in our building. One man said he was so delighted that we represented Jesus at the event, because he has surely experienced God’s healing through the group sessions he’s attended at Luther Memorial. He said that when his wife was diagnosed with Bipolar, he began attending the family meetings, which inspired him to attend NAMI’s free training, so now he leads those groups to help others. He said, “These groups mean so much, they give us so much strength and support. A guy in our group was away on business and came back specifically so that he could attend our monthly session. But, on his way back he got word that his daughter was in such crisis that was admitted to a psychiatric inpatient facility that same day. He came to our NAMI meeting to find the strength and the comfort he needed, to go and support his daughter in the hospital. We can’t thank you enough for being here for us. ”
You are the light of the world. You are the lamp that gives light to the whole house. And that light grows brighter and brighter as we share time with God in regular prayer. As Christians, you represent Jesus wherever you go. Let him shine through you, and let him heal the world through you. Amen.