Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Sixth after Pentecost

Proper 8C1  Galatians 5: 1, 13-25; Luke 9: 51-62

The 51st verse of chapter 9 marks a major turning point in Luke’s gospel: “When the days drew near for him to be received up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”   

The story of the earthly ministry of Jesus begins in Luke in Chapters 3 and 4--at his Baptism in the Jordan and Temptation in the Wilderness--and then continues as Jesus gathers his disciples and begins his work of preaching and teaching and healing, miracles and exorcisms, all in the region around the Sea of Galilee, little towns like Nazareth and Capernaum and Cana.  At the beginning of Chapter 9 this first phase of his ministry comes to a dramatic high point at the Mountaintop of the Transfiguration, as Jesus is revealed in all his transcendent glory. 

And then they come down from the mountain.  “When the days drew near for him to be received up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” 

The last leg of the journey to the Cross that began on that holy night in Bethlehem many years before.  The Lord returning to his Temple, as prophesied by Isaiah and announced by John the Baptist, “make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”  It’s almost like a liturgical procession—but not one filled with song and praise and celebration, except for that brief, deceptive moment on Palm Sunday.  Instead, it becomes a long march into ever deeper darkness.    A hard road, to be marked by an ever-rising tide of rejection, conflict, opposition, plots and intrigue.   A gathering murderous storm.  All the forces of evil and sin and death rallying for their last stand.

Jesus has spent these past months and years, teaching and preaching and preparing his disciples for what was to come, for a life of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “costly discipleship.”  For what it’s going to be like to live in him and for him, with one foot still in this world.  Costly Discipleship.  For Jerusalem and Holy Week, and then for what lies beyond, in the years and centuries to come.   If this is what they do to the teacher, so it will be for his students.  Continuing in our own present time in Iraq and Syria with ISIS, in East Africa with Al Shabab and Boko Haram.  It always is unsafe to be a Christian somewhere. 

So his preaching and teaching and his prayers for them, giving shape and direction to his church . . . .   To build them up, to encourage them and guide and sustain them in the coming days and in all the generations to come.  And now here we are, Luke 9:51, and that preparation is going to be put to the test, its first test, as we can see just in the very first incident on the first day of the journey.    And I guess we would say on the first time out for these disciples, for the life of the church—well: not a passing score.  It’s actually almost embarrassing.

Jesus and company leave their hometowns, and as the first day of travel comes to an end they approach a Samaritan village.  Some run ahead to make arrangements--to seek a resting place, somewhere to stay the night, perhaps an evening meal . . .  but they are refused, turned away, rejected.  Not clear that these villagers had any particular idea who Jesus was.  Just that this was a party of Jews on their way to Jerusalem.  Reason enough in the context of ethnic and religious prejudice between Jews and Samaritans to shut the door and put up the “No Vacancy” signs.  We don’t want your kind around here.

(Perhaps as a side note--we as readers of this gospel will pause here for a moment of context, as we recall that just a little while later along this road to Jerusalem Jesus is going to tell his disciples in Luke chapter 10, the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  Just to keep this morning’s story in mind when we get to that parable in our lectionary reading in a couple of weeks.)

In any event, our Samaritan villagers here are for sure violating traditional norms and customs of Middle Eastern hospitality—but I guess we could say that compared to what was coming for Jesus and his friends this is really not all that big a deal.  It’s not Good Friday yet.  So what is so interesting is the reaction of the disciples.  They go ballistic!  Over the top!  They immediately want Jesus to call down a fiery blast from the heavens to consume the village, to sweep them all up, men, women, boys and girls, to wipe every last one of them in one horrible punishing and incinerating pulse from the face of the earth.   Wow.  Talk about a short fuse!  None of that classic Anglican “Keep Calm and Carry On” spirit, that’s for sure . . . .  And so maybe we can hear Jesus sigh--like a schoolteacher looking over the weekly quiz after the kids have had their first lesson in fractions.  Clearly we’re going to have to spend some more time working with this bunch.   I mean, is anybody paying attention?   

Just a few days before these very same disciples had all sat with him as he preached.  From Luke,  Chapter 6,  in what we sometimes call his great Sermon on the Plain (usually appointed for us in the lectionary on the 7th Sunday after the Epiphany in Year C, but we didn’t hear this reading this year because Easter was so early.  Perhaps we remember it from three years ago, or from other times when we’ve read  and studied Luke’s gospel.)   Words for his disciples, his church, all of us.  

“But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.  To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt . . . .  If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?  For even sinners love those who love them.  And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you?  For even sinners do the same . . . .  But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish.  Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” 

Needless to say, it’s hard to find much in there about a destroying fire raining down from on high upon those who reject us.

Echo in the reading from Galatians 5 as we heard it this morning as our first lesson:  the Old Adam and the “works of the flesh”--  Fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing.  A partial list, but we get the idea.  (We all did get the idea, right?)  

Killing our enemies, or even wishing them dead, or even in our own hearts and minds stripping from them their dignity and humanity and value--anything short of love and prayer for them--that’s not Kingdom living.  It’s where we are with the disciples as we come to the first night on the journey to Jerusalem, but it’s not where Jesus wants to leave us.  Not who we are, who we would pray that we are becoming, as we are walking with him along this road.  What we learned from him—what Paul calls the “fruit of the Spirit.”  A great list:  Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

This Luke 9 moment on the first day of the journey to Jerusalem made me think some in the past couple of weeks about the angry times we live in.  Politically, socially.  Divisions and polarization, from every side and point on the spectrum, left and right, conservatives and liberals, and fueled at least in part by the instantaneous reactivity of politically segmented media and the white-hot rhetoric of social media.  Rage and more rage.  The election cycle here, and perhaps reflected in the election in Britain this past week as well.   All kinds of anger and polarization.

And so, again, a memo to myself, with this incident at the Samaritan village in the background.  The disciples miss the boat big-time.  But Jesus doesn’t leave them there.  “Let’s keep going,” he tells them, and see what we can find together down the road.”  A yellow post-it for the mirror, to see in the morning while I’m shaving and getting ready to head out into the day.  Stick close to Jesus.  Listen.  Pay attention.  Learn from him.   Fortunately, he’s not leaving us on the first day of the journey.  We still have miles to go; he’s not finished with us yet.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Fourth after Pentecost

Proper 6C-1, Luke 7: 36 – 8:3

 One of the earliest Christian prayers we have is preserved in the New Testament the Aramaic language of Jesus and the first disciples.  Paul quotes it at the end of First Corinthians.   “Marana tha.”  It’s an imperative.  Literally, “Lord, come!”   An urgent prayer echoing from those first days, for Christ’s return, for judgment and for the full expression of the Kingdom of God.  As these new Christians are isolated, persecuted, struggling day by day.  A prayer to God to come and set things right.   Now.  “Marana tha.”

 Howard Thurman, the great African American theologian who was so influential for Dr. Martin Luther King, wrote a fascinating and challenging book called “Jesus and the Dispossessed” in which he talked about the heart and soul and authentic essence of the Christian gospel as a word of hope and meaning for “the man whose back is against the wall.”  A great phrase.  “The man whose back is against the wall.”  Thurman wasn’t interested in comfortable establishment religiosity.  Not faith as a hobby, not about having an interest in “spirituality” or about heading out on a pleasant Sunday morning to “enjoy a worship service.”   Instead, he says, if this story, this gospel, is about anything, it is about who is going to be there for you when no one else is or can be.   When you’re at the end of your rope.  Nowhere to hide.  When it’s Jesus or nothing.    That’s the only prayer in the Prayer Book he’s interested in.   “Come !  I need you, Lord, and I need you now.”   

It’s not that we don’t reference that prayer in the settled and routine life of the church, at least as we share in the formal liturgy and creed.  “He will come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end.”  That sounds like a good thing, but as we recite it in the Nicene Creed on Sundays pretty much every week perhaps without quite the edge in our voices that those first Christians had in their longing for his return.  Or as perhaps our Christian brothers and sisters in Iraq and Syria and Egypt and Nigeria might pray the prayer today.  Looking down the road for the approaching terrors of ISIS or Boko Haram.  Waking up every morning, to the first thought: Let it be today!  “Come quickly, Lord.”    The cries of the crowds in the streets of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday:  “Hosanna.”  Which doesn’t mean “hurray for Jesus!”    It means, “Lord save us.”    We’re drowning out here.   Image of the church like Peter after his brief attempt to step out of the boat and to  follow Jesus across the water of the Sea of Galilee.   Slipping under the waves:  “Reach out to take my hand, Jesus, before I’m lost . . . .

Which maybe is one of the reasons this moment in our reading this morning,  in Luke 7, strikes us somewhat uncomfortably, as Jesus is invited to dinner by the rabbi of the local synagogue.  We’re reminded in a way  as a parallel but also a contrasting moment of the beautiful and tender moment in John’s gospel on the Saturday evening before Palm Sunday when Mary of Bethany anoints the feet of Jesus and then wipes them with her hair.  But this is different.  Not in a safe place, a close circle of friends.   Here the woman’s approach to Jesus is public, and full of risk.

We see this contrast: on one hand the host, this village rabbi,  who has received Jesus into his own home, but who doesn’t even seem to get what a big deal that is or could be.  It’s like Jesus should be grateful to him, not the other way around.   And then on the other  hand this almost overwhelming gesture by the woman.  The outpouring of her heart.  The woman is a stranger and unknown to Jesus, though she seems to be well-known in the community and by the rabbi, and not in a good way.  A sinner.    Nothing more than that is specified.   Apparently it’s really not important how or why she is labeled in that way--some kind of sin.  Some moral offense perhaps, lying, cheating, stealing, unchastity in her singleness, infidelity in her marriage, or perhaps she has some ritual uncleanness.  We just don’t know, and neither it seems does Jesus.  The point isn’t why she’s desperate.  It’s just that she’s desperate.  For her life cannot go on as it has been.  She’s trapped in her sin, sliding into quicksand, weighed down by an overwhelming weight.  And so her extravagant gesture in the very presence of those in the community who have known her sin first hand.  Heads shaking; eyes rolling. “Of all people, what is she doing in here?”

The woman is exposed and vulnerable and humiliated.  But in her humiliation she pays no attention.  In a way, she is in perfect agreement with the rabbi.   She doesn’t belong there.  She doesn’t “belong” anywhere.  She is filled with remorse, with grief, with regret.   A stranger, an alien in her own village, in her own family.  She doesn’t want to be told that she’s o.k., that everything is fine.  It’s not.  We don’t know the details, but we can see it as we watch the scene play out.  She needs a complete reset.  She needs to be forgiven.   And nothing else matters.  

Thurman could have been talking about her.  Her “back is against the wall.”  She’s at the end of her rope.  The cost here of this moment not simply the cost of the expensive oil but even more the emotional pain and psychological trauma, as fingers are pointed, as she is exposed before them.  But she’s entirely willing to pay whatever it costs.  To get to this place.  Sometimes when we have sinned perhaps we have the strategy to lie low, to hide-out, or to move, to find a fresh start somewhere else.  The last thing we want to do is to be forced to deal with the reality of our shame in public, to be encircled by those who know just how bad we are, just what we have done.

But there she is.  And she doesn’t care.  She doesn’t react to the comments of the rabbi.  She doesn’t even seem to look up.  She’s heard it all before, and she knows that it’s true.  That she is a sinner.  Think of the speech the Prodigal Son practices on his way home to the Father.  I have sinned against God and against you, and deserve nothing.  She needs something to happen, this woman of the village.  She has just one focus.  She puts it all out there, every last bit of it.  Holds nothing back.  The cost is real, the pain of her life and the humiliation of her life are real,  and if the rabbi’s words of condemnation cut deeply, no matter: all of that fades in the brighter light of what she knows, deep down, as the most important reality of her life—which is that she needs a savior.  She needs mercy.  Grace.  Forgiveness.  A fresh start.  She needs Jesus.   And she needs him now.  “Marana tha.”   Come, Lord. 

She has repented of her sin and has only this one desire, the desire to walk again in the path of God’s friendship and blessing.  To be absolved.  To be reconciled to the Father.  To have things set right.  Now.  And she knows, somehow, somehow, that he is the door, Jesus, the gate, the way forward.   And how does she come to know this?  What memories of Bible stories as a child and the prayers of her family as she grew up, times of worship in that local synagogue, the life of friends and family.  And now she’s heard something about this man—about what he has been saying, about what has been happening around him.  Demons cast out, the sick given healing, words and blessings of grace and mercy that don’t just fade away into the air, but that seem to take hold and become real.  And so nothing else matters, nothing at all.  No cost is too great, no humiliation too painful to face.  For her now it’s Jesus and only Jesus.   Who alone can speak the word of light and life into her darkness.

When she heard Jesus was coming, nothing could keep her away.  And just as that Prodigal Son was swept up into the arms of his Father before he could even begin to speak the words he had been practicing along the road, so for her.  And if we would open our minds and hearts to hear with her what he said:  “your faith has saved you; go in peace.”   To have feel with her the lifting of that weight.  With her, to be able to breathe again. 

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Seventh Easter Sunday, in Ascensiontide

Acts 16

The Lord is King; let the earth rejoice, let the multitude of the isles be glad.  (Psalm 97)

Good morning, and grace and peace in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ especially on this Sunday--who was born for us as a gracious gift in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of Herod the King, though we neither expected nor deserved him.  Who lived among us, who called us to attention, who invited us to turn our lives around and to follow him in holiness and righteousness, in compassion and mercy, according to God’s Word.  Who in love went up willingly to the Cross in our place, to bear the weight and consequence of our sin.  Though we neither expected nor deserved it.  Though we neither expected nor deserved him.  Who rose from the dead on the Third Day in triumphant victory over the power of the enemy.  Who was exalted in his resurrection body into heaven in perfect communion with the Father.  Who will come again in glory to judge both the quick and the dead, whose kingdom will have no end.

The great season of Easter comes to its conclusion in a 10 day fireworks and all-the-stops-out celebration of The Ascension. (And what a wonderful service we had here at St. Andrew’s this past week on the evening of Ascension Thursday, with our St. Andrew’s Choir and along with them the choir of our neighbors at Calvary Church, and with mycolleague T.J. Freeman’s fine sermon.)  Of course we here will always turn our eyes in the season of The Ascension to the lovely Clara Miller Burd window in the North Transept. 

It’s a new world now, as the story that began in the quiet night of the Holy Stable in the backstreets of Royal David’s City now becomes for us a bright and full light shining from shore to shore and to every corner of the universe. Though we neither expected or deserved any of this.      God has gone up with a triumphant shout.  This is the pivot, the gateway, as the earthly ministry of Jesus is completed and as his Spirit-filled Body the Church moves toward center stage, with Whitsunday and Pentecost ready to launch.

We are his witnesses.  His servants.  Each one of us, called in Christ to this new life—this new citizenship.  Our passports issued and stamped.  To be in our hearts and minds and our lives still entirely planted in this old world as it is passing away and yet at the same time, in this same time, for us this morning, to be already fixed forever in the life of the world to come.  Singing our hymns this morning with whatever imperfect voices we can muster--but knowing with full confidence that we are already in the great and perfected choir of heaven singing with saints and angels before the Throne of the Almighty Father and in the presence of the Lamb.

I’ve been talking in various ways about “Christian Stewardship” over these weeks of Easter season, and as the season nears its end I would want to say here this morning that the simplest definition of the term is something like this: Stewardship is “to live now here as though we were already there.”  Which is the heart and key message of the Ascension.   We are already there, incorporated into the Body of Christ, that Body that has processed to the Kingdom of the Father.  To live now here, as though we were already there.  To make our lives here and now visible signs of the kingdom.  Not that in this world we can ever do that perfectly, but to have that desire and longing and that spirit and that character as our defining characteristic.  If you want to see what Christ’s Kingdom is, just look: look at his church, look at his people.  Not as completed and perfected examples, for sure, but as they are in love and charity, with renewed praise and joyful obedience, moving forward with intentionality day by day, as his church, and each of those who would go by the name Christian.  On their way to becoming the kind of people they truly are and will be in the Kingdom.  Christian stewardship:  what happens in our lives when we are desiring with all our hearts and striving with all our will to respond to his upward call.

How we treat our bodies and how we use our bodies, as signs of the resurrection.  How we cultivate our thoughts, our intellect.  How we conduct our relationships, marriage and family, at home, at work, in the neighborhood, how we raise our kids, (on this Mother’s Day) how we treat our parents, how we spend our money, how we care for our friends, how we talk about and treat our enemies, how we are good custodians of the planet.  What we post on Facebook, for that matter.   How we talk about others when they aren’t in the room.   How we relate to the people who work with us, for us, or for whom we work.  Big ways and small ways.  As signs of his resurrection.  You and me.    It’s all about the sacramentality of converted life in Christ.  Water in baptism, Bread and Wine in the meal of remembrance.  Ourselves, our souls and bodies.  This St. Andrew’s Church.  The place, the people.  Outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace.  Rooted in the soil of faith, nourished by the Word, given shape and direction by the Holy Spirit.  Like Paul and Silas in Philippi,  in the reading from Acts this morning.  The perfect is still to come, but to know the gift of our citizenship in that heavenly country today, this morning.  To live already, on this side, as we will live in him.

The spirit-possessed slave girl of Phillipi sees something in an instant in Paul and Silas.  As she sees the Apostles  walk through the streets first on their way to the place of prayer down by the river.  The girl follows them through the city day after day shouting, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”   Maybe there is something supernatural in her discernment. Or maybe she’s just watching them and listening to them with open eyes and ears.  In her bondage, she is yearning for a savior.  Yearning to be freed from her slave-owning masters, even more, yearning to be cleansed and healed and delivered from the power of the Evil One. And something really catches her attention about Paul and Silas.  Their preaching and teaching, or maybe something more.  The point of this episode is that even the enemies of Christ can see in an instant when he has entered the room.   Especially his enemies.    The whole thing causes a disturbance, and Paul and Silas are arrested.  Which kind of reminds me of the old saying, “if it were a crime to be a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”  

In any event, our reading this morning moves on with the story of Paul and Silas, and their night in the Phillipi jail.  The jailer nods off at his desk listening to these crazy guys in their cell singing hymns and sharing prayers deep into the night--fearless, joyful even.  He probably figures they’re crazy.  Certainly they don’t realize the kind of trouble they’re in.  But when he wakes up later with a start and sees the doors of the jail wide open, the tables are turned.  Now he sees his whole life pass before his eyes.   His career is over for sure.  All his life plans.  His reputation destroyed, his name marked by catastrophic failure and shame.  Ruin for his family.  And not to mention the likely criminal consequences.  Sleeping on duty.  Negligence.  In the Roman system if a prisoner escaped, his guard would be required to take his place, whatever the sentence may have been. He decides in that moment of overwhelming despair to end it all--like one of those stockbrokers on Black Friday in 1929 who just couldn’t face what was coming. 

But then this amazing reversal, amazing as the prisoners come to him, call out to him before he can end it all.  Stop!  Put the sword down!  These crazy hymn singing praying out loud disturbing the peace fanatics.  They give his life back to him.  They could have had their freedom.  But at what cost?  It appears they never even considered leaving him.  His eyes open wide, his life is restored to him as quickly as he had felt it snatched away.  And his heart is moved.  Suddenly.  Completely.  He says, “whatever it is that is going on for you guys, I want to be a part of it.  Whatever it is that makes you the kind of people you are, sign me up.   And then they share the news.  “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”

Acts 16 and every chapter in Acts drawing us upward to what I’ve come to understand for this central book of our New Testament to be the key chapter, chapter 29.  The part St. Luke writes about the Holy Spirit-filled apostolic Church coming to an end in chapter 28.  And then our chapter, you and me the stars of the show:  we who receive the baton from those who have completed their portion of the race: we now are the ones to be his witnesses, in Jerusalem and Judea and to the ends of the earth.  His servants.  Each one of us, called in Christ to this new life, this new citizenship.  To be in our hearts and minds and our lives entirely planted in the old world as it passes away and yet already fixed in the life of the world to come.  Already there.  For Paul and Silas the Phillipi prison isn’t really a prison at all, but a bright and shining and beautiful corner of the New Creation of God.  The place where his Lordship is being manifested and will be manifested with power and glory and joy for ever and ever.  The Ascension.  He ascended into heaven, he sitteth on the right hand of the Father--whose kingdom is from everlasting to everlasting. 

And here we are: singing our hymns this morning like Silas and Paul, with whatever imperfect voices we can muster--but knowing with full confidence, knowing and living, walking the talk, not only with our lips but in our lives--knowing that we are already right now in the great and perfected choir of heaven singing with saints and angels before the Throne of the Father and in the presence of the Lamb.

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Sixth Easter, "St. Marathon," and Rogation Sunday

Acts 16; The Revelation 21

Grace and peace this morning, the Sixth Sunday of Easter season, and with two additional notes regarding the calendar. 

Congratulations. first of all,  to those who figured out how to slip through the barricades and across the flowing streams of runners to find your way to church this morning.  Always a great day for the city, if a bit of a jumble for the churches.  Back in the mid and late 1990’s and early 2000’s I used to run in the marathon, as some of you will remember—and even though I haven’t done that for more than a decade now I still enjoy all the festivities of the day.  A good day I think for our city and region, and I know we would offer our prayers today with special intention for the runners and those who are assisting them at refreshment and first aid stations, all the support structures involved, for families, friends, people cheering and celebrating along the way.  Nice weather for a long run.   In early fall we’ll pray the Collect marked now in the new Prayer Book for “Proper 21,” and the Sunday nearest September 28.  In the older Prayer Books for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity, but I think perfectly designed for Marathon Sunday:  “O God, who declares thy almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity; Mercifully grant unto us such a measure of thy grace, that we, running the way of thy commandments, may obtain thy gracious promises, and be made partakers of thy heavenly treasure.”  And of course remember also today St.Paul, in First Corinthians 9: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize?  So run, that you may obtain it.  Every athlete exercises self-control in all things.  They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we, an imperishable one . . . .”

And second, always one of my favorite subjects!  The three weekdays of this coming week, the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday before Ascension Thursday are traditionally called “Rogation Days.”  From the Latin verb “rogo,” to “request,” (we have a number of words in contemporary use that are related: “interrogation,” for example.  In this case a rogation is a prayer, and Rogationtide a brief season in which prayers would be offered in agricultural communities during the spring planting season.  In rural English villages it was quite common at Evensong on Rogation Sunday to have a representative blessing of seed, and then to have a procession from the church to circle around the nearby fields and to bless the soil, and to pray for fair weather, sufficient rain, and an abundant harvest.  Years ago when I was serving up in Central Pennsylvania our Susquehanna Deanery, eight or nine churches up and down the Northern and Western Branches of the river, would co-host a Rogation Sunday evensong and potluck supper at St. Gabriel’s Church in Coles Creek, a country crossroads near the village of Benton--right out in the fields.  And if not too many of our St. Andrew’s  families, with the notable exception of Ben and Heather Shannon up in Stanton Heights, live on farms these days, I do know that we have plenty of gardeners.  Tomatoes, cucumbers, summer squash.  And in recent years Rogation Sunday has become time as well to think and pray about larger concerns of environmental stewardship, and always to give thanks for those who work to provide the food and clothing and shelter that we city dwellers all rely upon.

I’ve spent some time circling around the topic of Christian Stewardship this Easter season, and just to say that beginning in the first chapter of Genesis and continuing especially in the deep connection of God’s Chosen People with the Land of Promise, there is a deep and meaningful theme that emerges that if we are as Christian people to be eschatological and doxological, if our life here and now is to be deeply connected with the great hymn of praise before God’s heavenly throne, then part of that doxology, part of that worship, is expressed in the reverent care and nurture of the good land that God has provided for us.  Whether we’re talking about the day to day routines of care of our own backyard gardens or the Larimer Urban Garden Project that some of our Outreach team and congregation are working on this summer—or of the global concerns of environment and climate and all the rest, as Christians we would know that this is the material of our praise and worship.  It is to connect our world, this world, with the Garden in Genesis, and with the Easter version of that Garden in John’s great vision in Revelation 21:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Fifth Easter, and the 179th Annual Parish Meeting of St. Andrew's Church, Highland Park, Pittsburgh

Acts 11: 1-18; John 13: 31-35

Good morning again, and grace and peace to you on this Fifth Easter Sunday and as we will at the end of this service be invited to move downstairs to Barley Hall for the 179th Annual Meeting of St. Andrew’s Church.  That is a big number, for sure!   When I arrived at St. Andrew’s in the summer of 1994 there was still a good deal of conversation and recent memory of the weekend a few years before, in 1987, when St. Andrew’s had celebrated a “sesquicentennial” with all kinds of worship and music and celebration.  Still some of us here who took part in those festivities, 29 years ago.  Many told me about the long walk and procession beginning down at the corner of Ninth Street and Fort Duquesne Boulevard, all the way out here to Highland Park, retracing the footsteps of our spiritual mothers and fathers from the first home of St. Andrew’s all the way here--and reminding ourselves as we picture that parade of our deep and meaningful connection to those who have come before us in their Christian lives in this particular community of faith—and perhaps a reminder as well that we are ourselves links in a chain, connected inextricably to those who came before us, but also links for those who will come after, in days and years to come. 

There is in that an image of Christian stewardship.  What we do with our lives not just about living for the moment—whether in our families or here in the church.   Each generation and each one of us in turn with a time of care and responsibility, adding our own unique contribution and then passing the precious gift along.  Mom and dad at home look at their children and know that the decisions they make and the kind of lives they live will be dedicated in large part to what will come after.  So our identity and resources and values and good work as the people of St. Andrew’s, but of course in a deeper and more important way as stewards of the life of Christian faith.  Building for the future.  Confessing Christ as Lord with boldness and with clear voices—and not only with our lips, but also in our lives, talking the talk and walking the walk.  It’s a great story.  179 years of life at St. Andrew’s.  And two thousand years since Easter and Pentecost and the first bright light of the Good News of Christ risen from the dead, with the promise of forgiveness of our sins and true salvation and everlasting life.  A great story.

Last Sunday I paused over the reading from the Revelation to St. John where the great visionary was able to catch this glimpse into the great heaven of God, the eternal reality beyond time and space, where the multitudes live in joy and peace and love and a spirit of everlasting worship before the Throne and before the Lamb.  To say that the character of Christian life is that because we know that Christ is risen, so we know that we are risen with him.  From our perspective, at the last day, at the end, in the true future of Christ’s appearing.  But from God’s perspective, it is already and forever true, eternal, beyond time and space.  From our perspective we are here, Hampton Street, Highland Park, and fully engaged in all the joys and storms of this life, our families and friends, our work, our little victories and our challenging defeats. 

But from God’s perspective and in him the victory is already complete.  I used those two words to talk about what St. John’s Revelation has to teach us about Christian life—that it is “eschatological” and “doxological.”   That we live in the realities of this world, but always are clear about the “eschaton,” the goal, the final station.  We live confidently, and carefully, and courageously, and sacrificially, and in obedience, because we know the final word of the story has already been written, the final battle of the war has been won, and won decisively.  We are “eschatological,” and so we are “doxological.”  We hear the multitudes of the choir of heaven, and even here, even now, we join our voices.
And this is about singing, and praising God, but it isn’t just about singing. We remember the little story about Tabitha in the reading from Acts last Sunday.   Good works and acts of kindness and charity were her “devotion,” her prayer.    It’s about understanding that everything we do, everything we think, everything we desire,  everything,  is lifted up as music to the ears of the Father.  

What is it about these Christians?  In Acts 11 Peter’s dream.  In the great Holy Story that we know in Scripture God has dedicated Israel, set her apart, as a vessel for his holiness, to prepare the way, as a sign and a promise to the world and all creation.  And now in Easter and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit the Israel of God is renewed and refreshed, now no longer constrained by the old boundaries, but expanded by the power of the Holy Spirit.  The old sign gives way to the new.    “The nations will stream to your light,” as the Prophet had sung, “and Kings the brightness of your dawning.”  If Israel was set apart as one kind of a sign of God’s promised action, now the Church is lifted up in its eschatological and doxological character as a proof and demonstration that God’s promise has been fulfilled.   It’s a little intimidating, but if we realize that we are works in process it can be encouraging and inspiring.  To imagine for a moment that God has said to you, to me, to each one of us as individuals, and the Church, the wide church, and to this church of St. Andrew’s Highland Park, “I am giving you as a sign to the nations.  As I am holy, you will be holy.  As I am generous, you will be generous.  As I am forgiving, you will be forgiving.  People will see you, and the more they see of you, the better they know you, the more they will want to know me. 

I give you a new commandment, Jesus tells his disciples.  Just as I have loved you, you also, love one another.

It’s kind of a crazy place, this St. Andrew’s.  Has been for a long time, maybe 179 years.  An odd bunch, called here by God—and sometimes for reasons that God only knows, and that we have a hard time figuring out.  But the one thing that we can say for sure is that God knows what he is doing, even when we have a hard time seeing the bigger picture for ourselves--and that he is building something beautiful and perfect and holy with his church and in his church.  With each one of us.   Not that any of us are finished yet, and not that this St. Andrew’s Church is a finished work.  Lots of rough edges and false starts.  Lots of room left for improvement.  But the Holy Spirit moving along, in us and among us.  And with that every once in a while what I find myself doing is just stepping back for a moment and taking a breath and to say, it really is a gift and a blessing and a privilege to be here.  I hope you share that as well.

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.

                                                                                                                                                Bruce M. Robison

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Fourth Easter, Good Shepherd

  Acts 9: 36-40; Rev. 7: 9-17

The “so what?” question about Easter moves us this week first to the great vision of St. John the Seer, the multitudes of the heavenly choir gathered around the Throne and around the Lamb, singing praises, and the reminder that Christian Life in Easter is eschatological and doxological.  (Eschatological—having to do with the Eschaton, the finish line, the goal.  And to say that we are an “eschatological” people is to say that while we are still in one frame of reference running the race, in the Truth of God in Easter we are already across the finish line.  And  doxological, that the victorious life is one full of praise and thanksgiving.  We appear to be here, citizens of this world, this reality, but John sees the truth. We are already there, already in worship and endless song.)

And so our series through Easter: Christian life, discipleship, stewardship.   The modern calendar moves the observance of  “Good Shepherd Sunday” from the Third Easter Sunday to the Fourth, and it occurred to me with our reading from John 10 this morning that for many on our first visit to this beautiful old church the very first image that we might have noticed, and so something of the way that we of St. Andrew’s introduce ourselves to those who first come through those Hampton Street doors, is that of the Good Shepherd of the Sheep, the lovely stained-glass window in our Narthex.  “My sheep hear my voice.  I know them, and they follow me.” 

To remind ourselves of the story of the window:  the young rector Harry Briggs Heald, who passed from this life to the next suddenly and unexpectedly in 1924, at the age of 45, after just three years of ministry at St. Andrew’s-- known for his care and love especially for the families and children of the congregation, a good pastor.  And following his death and as a tribute to his ministry the children and families of the Sunday School sponsored that window through their special offerings.  Jesus, the Good Shepherd.  A tender thought for us, perhaps as we see that image and look beyond it, to see and remember and to refresh in our thoughts and our hearts every day, the love of Jesus.  

My sermon theme, in some sort of a series, through these weeks of Easter, as I’ve said that I want to bring us in various ways to reflect on what we really are talking about when we talk about when we talk about being “disciples” of Jesus, or when we describe what we mean when we use the sometimes scary term, “Christian stewardship,” has been centered on that  affirmation in the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in the resurrection of the body.”  About the Easter reality of Jesus, who died for us on the cross, who rose from the dead, who revealed himself to his chosen witnesses, who reveals himself to us even today, who lives and reigns for ever and ever.  Easter on the one hand, and on the other hand, us.  And to ask about what difference it makes.  Because you would think it would make a difference.

You would think so, for people who believe that Jesus really rose from the dead, for people saw him for themselves directly, as we are reading in the Bible stories in this season,  or for people who have been prepared by the goodness of God and the grace of the Holy Spirit to believe the testimony of those witnesses, who saw as we say with the eyes of faith.  In Word and Sacrament and in the quiet of our prayer.  People who believe, who know, that Jesus is alive.  People who believe and know that he will in fact come again to set things in perfect order.  That he has better things in mind for us than we can ask for or imagine.  You would think that it would make a pretty noticeable difference.  That for people who believe that Jesus is alive, life would be approached in a different way than would be the case for people who didn’t believe that.  That doesn’t mean that everything would look different.  Believers and non-believers would most of the time live in the same neighborhoods and work in the same jobs and so on.  We all put our pants on one leg at a time.  But it would be hard to imagine that at least some things wouldn’t be different—and probably some important things.  People will say that there is something essentially counter-cultural about Christian faith and life, though how that works exactly isn’t always that easy to see.  Culture and faith wind around each other in complicated ways for each of us.

The story in Acts 9 this morning of Tabitha or Dorcas (her Hebrew name and her Greek name)  is a glimpse into the first moments of the new reality of Easter.  She is a woman of Christian faith, a disciple, perhaps even one of the many women who followed along with Jesus and the Twelve during the years of Christ’s earthly ministry.   Joppa or “Jaffa” an ancient port city, modern Tell Aviv, and in a region through which Jesus must have travelled many times.  And she’s a believer.  Tabitha believes in the resurrection of the body.  She is a “disciple,” one who has seen the Lord Jesus risen from the dead either with her own eyes or with the eyes of faith.  And as a result, as Luke tells us here at the beginning of the reading this morning, “she was devoted to good works and acts of charity.”

Because that’s what happens.  Some simple clues about what “discipleship” and “stewardship” begin to look like, at least in very general terms.  Tabitha’s “good works and acts of charity,” and I think the verb here is important.  “She was devoted” to this work,  this way of life. That’s of course a word we use about prayer, and worship.  As we talk about our devotional life.  She’s not just busy.  She’s not just someone who likes to be involved in committee-work or community service.  This is her devotional activity, her prayer and worship, the spiritual expression of her heart.  What we talk about when we pray “no only with our lips but in our lives.”   As the Cross of Good Friday is interpreted though the Empty Tomb, as the suffering and death of the Lord Jesus is offered for the forgiveness of sins and the healing of the mind and heart and spirit and for the love of the whole world.  As the eyes of the believer are lifted to the horizon no longer in despair and hopelessness but in eager anticipation, the heart overflows with love and prayer and thanksgiving, with a generosity that is not simply practical and affectionate, but that is now deeply rooted in the Holy Spirit.  Tabitha’s life, and memories of Maundy Thursday, of Jesus kneeling before his friends and washing their feet.  Perhaps Tabitha was one of the women in the background of that scene and heard him speak his last command now not a hard rule to follow and obey but as a song to sing in their hearts.  “Love one another, as I have loved you.”

And then we move on in the reading to see the power of Peter’s remarkable prayer.  If you’ve seen Jesus, if you’ve been a witness of Easter, if you know deep down and through and through that he is in charge, at the Right Hand of the Father, ruling heaven and earth, coming again—well, then: why be tentative?  Peter doesn’t pray and then cross his fingers.  It’s all one.   “Tabitha, get up!”  Wow.  And the power that Jesus demonstrated, that Peter had seen first hand and that Tabitha had seen and known personally and that we have seen flow from Jesus in the gospel-- in the raising of Lazarus and in the healing of the daughter of the Widow and the servant of the Roman soldier, that power now in the life of Christ’s Body the Church.  “Tabitha.  Get up.”  And Tabitha is revived, renewed, refreshed, healed.  Reborn!  Unexpected, perhaps, and yet entirely expected.   Since Easter, everything is different.   And it all keeps moving forward.  It keeps happening.  Tabitha herself now even more a kind of evangelist not simply by her words and deeds but simply that she is alive.  Many see her, or even just hear about her, and then themselves come to  believe in the Lord.   A reminder that from now on, Christian people, witnesses of the Risen Lord, things are going to be way different from the way they were before.  “Death is conquered, we are free; Christ has won the victory.”

And so again we would move from Acts chapter 9 to Acts chapter 29.  To the part that moves on from Peter and Tabitha and Paul and Barnabas and Luke and begins to tell our story.  Our story.  Christians in Acts 29 are different and counter-cultural  because they believe and act with confidence in the reality that Jesus is alive and already in charge.  That’s how we carry the story forward.  That the strife is o’er, the victory is won.  What this word “stewardship” that I keep circling around is all about.  If we don’t keep coming back to this we’ll never get there.  That the one who was the ruler of this world, the one who came to his power through sin and who ruled this broken world in darkness, by an ethic of fear, whose hallmarks were selfishness and greed and lust and violence and sickness and death—he has suffered his last and decisive defeat; his day is over; his forces are in retreat.   Right now—right now, in our midst, even here in Pittsburgh, in Highland Park, in our neighborhoods and our families, in our community and our church, Jesus is clearing the field of the enemy, building his church—his church.  And the thing about Christians like Tabitha and Peter in Chapter 9 and all the characters of Chapter 29 is that they are joining in that triumphant Easter procession,  not timidly or tentatively, but confidently--living already in that new reality.  The Easter light is dawn at the horizon, but for the witnesses, for those who believe in the resurrection of the body,  it is already high noon, full day.  Tabitha was “devoted—devoted  to good works and charity,” because that is how the New Jerusalem of God is.  That is how we live now.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Third Easter

Acts 9: 1-20

The Third Easter Sunday, and the very last verse of the Gospel  of John,   which comes just a paragraph or so after the conclusion of this morning’s reading, hovers over all our Easter Season Sundays.  “There were also many other things which Jesus did,” John says.  Chapter 21, verse25: “There were also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”  Over these weeks we’ve had a good sample of the recorded stories.  Mary in the Garden, the two walking home to Emmaus on Sunday afternoon, the disciples in the Upper Room both Easter evening and the next week, with Thomas—and today here the story of the breakfast on the beach at the Sea of Galilee.   A representative selection. 

At the end of First Corinthians 15, probably written at least a few decades before St. John’s Gospel, St. Paul gives a list of Easter stories as well, beginning at verse 5: “he appeared to Cephas,” to Peter, “then to the twelve.  Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom,” Paul says here, “most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.  Then he appeared to James . . . .”  He misses a few that we read about in the gospels but also adds a couple that aren’t recorded anywhere else.   The point is that something was happening in these days after Easter not just to a few, but to many.  They would see him with their own eyes, and perhaps like Mary hear him say their name in the old familiar way, or like Thomas they would touch his scarred hands and wounded side.  Then continuing in First Corinthians 15 St. Paul says, “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”  Of course, by “last of all” Paul is referring to his place among the first group of disciples and apostles, the first witnesses.  From our point of view two thousand years later Paul doesn’t appear to be last, but among the first.  A matter of perspective.   Over the centuries a vast chorus begins to sing the song: Christos anesti;  alithos anesti.  Christ is risen; he is risen indeed.  Or as we recite together in the most ancient creed of the Church, “I believe in the resurrection of the body.”  We’ve seen it with our own eyes, we’ve seen him,  in the gracious working of the Holy Spirit.

 I’ve shared a number of times a small but actually for me pretty significant turning-point moment in my own Christian life when I was rummaging around the library of St. Mark’s  in Berkeley back in the early 1970’s and came across a newsletter with the title “Acts 29.”  I went home later that evening and with some curiosity picked up my Bible and turned to Acts 29, only to find that the book of Acts ends at chapter 28.  And then a lightbulb went on.  “Oh, Acts 29.  That’s what comes next.  Across all the centuries and around the world, and all the way here, to this time, this place.  The part of the story where you and I somehow show up as the central characters . . . .”  Certainly a theme and implication in our readings through this season and in the proclamation of the Church is to say that in the witness of Easter and in the Pentecost power of the Holy Spirit the risen Lord continues to reveal himself –continues to turn our lives around, continues to build his Church, a great cloud of witnesses . . . .

We hear Paul’s story in some detail.  St. Luke, who was the author of Acts, was a companion of Paul on his missionary journeys and must have heard the story dozens and maybe hundreds of times.    Paul himself alludes to the story several times in his letters.  This is partly of historical and biographical interest, but the point of telling and re-telling it is certainly for Paul what we might call an Acts 29 point.  Paul was chosen by Jesus, called, thrown off his horse, turned around, sent forth.  His story, and then our story.  The details may vary, but the center is the same.  Mary in the Garden, friends on the Road to Emmaus, the gatherings in the Upper Room, the meeting on the beach.  The risen Lord reveals himself to those whom he has chosen, he knocks us off whatever horse we happen to be riding, he turns our lives around, and then he commissions us and send us on the way to build his Church.    Again, the details will vary.  Paul’s story isn’t mine, and my story isn’t yours.  But Jesus – is always Jesus.

 In the first chapter of his Letter to the Galatians Paul reminds his readers that he had been once upon a time a persecutor of the followers of Jesus and a leader of the most zealous faction of the Jewish community.  If you have ever felt that you are an unlikely candidate for God’s purposes, he’s saying, just get in line.  And we notice in the reading this morning how he says in chapter 9, verse 15, “But . . . he who had set me apart before I was born, and had called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the gentiles . . . .”    It may not really make sense to us in any particular moment, but Jesus knows what he’s doing,  Paul says.  He chooses the people he chooses not in some haphazard way, but with a clarity of purpose.  Even if that purpose may seem sometimes obscure to us.  We understand why Ananias is reluctant to shelter this man who so recently had been a dangerous adversary.   But Jesus speaks to Ananias in a vision, to say about Paul, “go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen . . . .”

So Easter.  As I’ve said over the past couple of weeks, a remarkable story.  A man dies, and then he is alive again.  But the critical question remains, so what?  So what?  What does all that have to do with us?   The question of the season.  Again, the substance of Acts 29, as it is written about your life and my life.  About the Church of Jerusalem and Damascus and Antioch and Corinth and Rome, and Highland Park.  The odd assembly of men and women and boys and girls who happen to walk through these doors on Hampton Street . . . .  What it has to do with us.  The rest of the story.

And so stewardship (perhaps wondered if I was going to get back around to that wondered today—in continuing my promised series through Eastertide).  The expression as we live our lives day by day as disciples and apostles.  Talking the talk; walking the walk.  I’m going to spend some time in the next couple of weeks looking at Scripture and at parts of the tradition of our life in the Church at what we might call the particulars of what that might mean.   The stewardship of my body, of my relationships, of my things, of my gifts and abilities, of my thoughts and feelings—all of that,  unfolding within the frame of Easter.   Since our lives of stewardship, our lives as disciples and apostles, the friends and followers of Jesus, will always be in that Easter light:  in Word and Sacrament, in prayer and service, in the face of our neighbor, in ecstatic vision, in the secret of our hearts, that by the power of the Holy Spirit in a season that is always Easter he reveals himself to us, risen from the dead, ruling at the right hand of the Father, promising to come in consummation to be judge of all.  Revealing himself to us.  Calling us.  Knocking us off the horses we were riding before, turning us around, commissioning us and equipping us to continue his work, to build up his Church. 

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.