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St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Amarillo, TX

"A Wonderful Life": Sermon For the Sunday After All Saints, Year C

In the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

This Gospel reading from Luke today is so interesting and challenging!

It's Luke's version of the beatitudes. What makes it different from the version we hear in Matthew is that for each "blessing" Jesus gives, there is an accompanying "woe."

We hear the blessings, and say, "Great!" But the "woes" are definitely challenging! How are we to hear them? Are we not supposed to be rich, or to be full, or to laugh, or to have people speak well of us?

Let's ponder that while I tell you a story--An "It's a Wonderful Life" Story"--that started in a cemetery...

When our daughter was just starting in college at the University of the South in Tennessee, we went to visit her. Catherine took us to look at the historic nineteenth- cemetery. Among many of the more famous people buried there, the name that caught my attention was the grave of Robert Dabney.

Robert Dabney is not particularly famous. But seeing his grave--an elaborate stone monument--filled in a major story for me (or so I thought).

Several years ago, I wrote a book about college life in the Old South. I used college student letters and diaries I had found in archives. One particularly rich collection of letters were from a Virginia student who transferred from Hampden-Sydney College to the University of Virginia in the mid 1840s. His name was Robert Dabney. I quoted from him in every chapter of my book. He was so innocent, yet funny, earnest, opinionated, and candid. I felt as if I really got to know this teenager from so long ago. I felt I had a personal connection with him.

But I never really followed up on what happened to him after college was over. So, back to that cemetery. Here we were. We were huddled around this massive gravestone in Sewanee, Tennessee, and there is Robert Dabney, and his death date was 1876. I sought to fill in the story.

The university history told me that after the Civil War, Professor Robert Dabney of Virginia, "who had attended both Hampden-Sydney College and the University of Virginia" was "ruined" by the war. But he joined the faculty of the University of the South to teach Mental Philosophy, Logic, and English Literature. He became a popular teacher and was mourned universally by the students and faculty when he died suddenly in 1876. I thought: "wow--that's a great bookend for the Robert Dabney story I knew!" I mean, he was a popular college student, and ended as a beloved college professor. That's a wonderful life! But then, there's a twist in this story!

It turns out, that's NOT the ACTUAL story.

The Robert Dabney buried in Tennessee is NOT the Robert Dabney from my book.

Believe it or not, there were actually two Robert Dabneys who attended Hampden-Sydney and transferred to the University of Virginia within a few years of each other (they were cousins). The one from my book had a much different life than the one who ended up as the beloved college professor in Tennessee.

Robert L. Dabney (who was the innocent and charming student from my book), ended up getting a seminary degree after college in the Presbyterian Church.

During the Civil War, this Dabney actually served as Confederate General Stonewall Jackson's Chief of Staff. Then, when the war ended, he became a seminary professor. Embittered by the Confederacy's loss, Dabney spent much of his time fighting against the changing society. He wrote prolifically against new theories in science and politics, and he particularly disliked the idea of racial equality. He fought against reunifying the northern and southern branches of the Presbyterian Church. He worked tirelessly against free public education for both blacks and whites--saying the poor should remain in their place in society. He thought about leaving the United States altogether, but settled for moving to Texas. Dabney accepted a professorship at the University of Texas in 1883. He helped to found the Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

Dabney complained so vocally about "modern ways" in his later years that that the University of Texas finally forced him to resign in 1894. He died in Victoria, Texas, embittered and angry just four years later. His wife shipped his body back to Virginia to be interred in the cemetery at Hampden-Sydney College --a place where he had been happy as a young man.[i]

I've lived with "Robert Dabney" for a number of years. For a few years after I visited that cemetery, I enjoyed "filling in the story" with folks--telling about this college kid I knew from my research and then finding him again at the Tennessee cemetery, having lived a full and fulfilling life. Now I know that college kid had a different, tempestuous life with many accomplishments, but also many deep resentments and disappointments.

I tell you the stories of these two men not because one is evil and the other good. That's not how the world works. But, in some ways, I like to think of this story as a metaphor.

Each of us actually lives our lives like BOTH of these stories in the grand scheme of things. We don't live in a straight line with neat bows tying up our stories. Instead, we have complexities and tragedies, joys and sorrows.

And that's why, on this All Saints Sunday, I am sure that both Dabneys are in the nearer presence of God in heaven. That's who the saints are!

That's what the Gospel reading today is getting at!

Jesus tells his disciples, "don't worry about being poor, you will be blessed; BUT watch out when you're rich--especially if you are not paying attention to the poor!"

He says: "don't worry about being hungry, I'm with you--BUT you know if you are filling yourselves up, watch out!--especially if you aren't taking care of the hungry!"

Jesus says: "I'll be with you if you are crying--don't fret. BUT watch out if you're just sitting around laughing and not paying attention to those who are in need or doing the work of the kingdom."

He says: "It's going to be okay if people give you a hard time for doing the right thing! BUT, if you have a 'big head' from people's praise, and you don't use your influence to help those in need, you've missed the whole point!"

And in the midst of all this, he says, "love your enemies... do good... bless those who curse you... pray for those who hurt you... turn the other cheek... and give to those who are in need!

You see this is Jesus' approach throughout the Gospels. There has to be balance in life.

On this All Saints Sunday, we look to the examples of all the Saints to help us find that balance. We remember our loved ones who have died. We listen to the stories of those who have gone before. We see the lives of saints among us. And we rejoice.

This All Saints Sunday we also celebrate two major events in the life of the church and of St. Andrew's. Margaret Lacy has faithfully ministered to us as our Director of Music Ministries for twenty-two years, and she retired as of the end of October. It's appropriate that All Saints Sunday is the day we celebrate her contributions to our life and ministry. Her faithfulness to the worship and liturgy and to relationships in this parish and community are central to her ministry. We will always cherish Margaret's contributions to the life of the church.

Today we also celebrate a baptism. [At the 10:30 service] Madeline Mae Reeves will be baptized into the Body of Christ. We will all join together in reciting the Baptismal Covenant. The conclusion of today's Gospel reading, I believe, is a wonderful summary of the entire covenant into a simple, familiar line: "Do to others as you would have them do to you."

So, even though life is complex, and we have tragedies, joys, and sorrows, may we, like the saints, endeavor to "do to others as we would have them do to us."

AMEN.

 

[i] See http://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Dabney_Robert_Lewis_1820-1898#start_entry

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