Sunday, October 11, 2015

Nineteenth after Pentecost: The Wisdom of Job

Job 23 (Proper 23B) 

In this part of our lectionary cycle of Scripture to be read in Sunday services our Old Testament readings for a while have been from that part of the Old Testament sometimes called books of “Wisdom.”  We’ve had readings from Proverbs and Esther—and last week we began what will be several weeks in the Book of Job, then to be followed by Ruth.   Although these all fall under the umbrella of “Wisdom” books, they are obviously quite different.  Esther and Ruth tell the stories of people who were part of the historical memory and imagination and identity of the Jewish people.  Proverbs is an anthology of maxims and other sayings reflecting the values of character and patterns of conduct that emerge in a life that reflects the faith of God’s people.  Which approaches the definition of Biblical “Wisdom.”  Not simply intelligence or learning, though those are sometimes aspects of Wisdom. Not simply common sense or the kind of mature perspective that comes through age and experience.  Though again, these can be a part of the bigger picture.  Biblical Wisdom is about the complete transformation of life, mind, body, spirit, that is accomplished through faith. 

In what is sometimes called the Wisdom Book of the New Testament, the Epistle of James, James in the first chapter talks about the power of the “implanted word.”  Using a natural image.   God’s Word and Presence is “planted” in the heart and soul of the person through faith, and then growing within, absorbing and transforming what was there before, until the whole person is now an expression of that Word, the Divine Presence and character.  Thoughts and actions, as we pray, that we would show forth “not only with our lips but in our lives.” 

And so this morning, Job.  There is a little bit of a story, as we heard introduced in the Old Testament reading last Sunday.  Dan had a few words to say about it in his sermon.  In form the book is a kind of extended parable, or perhaps what we might call a “thought experiment.”  The setting is somewhat similar to the Books of Esther or Daniel, as we are told that Job lives in the “Land of Uz.”  Not the “Land of Oz,” of course, but historically this is an obscure reference.  The author of the book might be saying, “long ago and far away.”  Some early interpreters located Uz in the region beyond the Euphrates, roughly in the sphere of ancient Babylon, modern day Iraq.  Others thought that Uz was more to the south—perhaps modern day Jordan or even Saudi Arabia.  A distant place, anyway.  Like Joseph in Egypt at the end of Genesis, like Esther in Persia and Daniel in Babylon, Job is in foreign territory, without King and Temple.  A man who like all exiles will need to learn to look within for a clarity about his true identity, for the strength to remain faithful.

 The set-up we remember from Chapter 1, last Sunday, that Job is a successful and religiously observant Jewish rancher, exceptionally prosperous and with a large family.  There is this dialogue in heaven between God and Satan, initiated by Satan, about whether Job’s faith is really all that deep, or whether it depends on sunny skies and fair winds.  Satan’s implication is that the loyalty of God’s people isn’t deep and genuine, but that it is superficial.  That under stress it will disappear.  Satan issues a challenge, really a bet, and God agrees to let Job’s faith be tested.  Satan then unleashes a series of devastating events to upset the tranquility of Job’s life.  They fall one after another.  His flocks and fields are ruined, his children carried off in death, his physical health is challenged and destroyed.  Job is left sitting on an ash heap scratching his sores in abject misery.  His life is in ruins. 

And this is the opening, the setting, for the largest part of the book, which is a series of exchanges between Job in his abject state and three friends, who turn up on the scene and seek to comfort him by offering their opinions about why this has happened and what he should do about it. (Not a very helpful pastoral strategy, I’ve found, but it makes for interesting reading here.)  And in the midst of it all we hear Job’s continuing dialogue in prayer with God.  All just fascinating.

It is, we might say, a sophisticated literary version of Rabbi Kushner’s 1978 best seller, which perhaps many of us have read, “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.”  We follow Job through these exchanges with his “friends” and with God in an existential journey about suffering and loss, about where meaning and value and purpose come from—which is a journey perhaps we have all taken on our own a time or two. 

Job’s friends make several fairly sophisticated arguments, but basically it boils down to the offering of two perspectives.  One is the perspective of what we might call Karma, that there is in the universe a pattern of moral symmetry.  What goes around comes around.  Sooner or later, people get what they deserve.  And so, Job, if things aren’t going well, examine your life.  See where you have sinned.  Confess your sin, amend your life, and then things will certainly get better. Good things happen to good people; bad things happen to bad people.  If you think you’re a good person, and bad things are happening—well, you just don’t know yourself as well as you think you do.

The other perspective is that the universe is simply morally incoherent.  Good things, bad things—they all just happen for no reason, God is either an illusion, a figment of the imagination—or  some kind of horrible monster,  a sadist.  It’s all just random, and there’s nothing you can do about it.   Curse God and die, they tell him.  Life is meaningless.

Not to give away the whole story, of course, as we have these readings for a few more weeks, but let’s say that Job ultimately rejects both of these perspectives—sees them as oversimplifications, and dangerous oversimplifications,  of deeper truths about the relationship between God and his creation and about the nature of humanity.

Chapter 23 this morning gives us one glimpse of Job’s process.  He begins in verses 1-7 by resisting the idea that he is somehow being punished for some crime or failure.  He pictures a courthouse scene where he could make an effective defense of his innocence.  “I would lay out my case before him and fill my mouth with arguments.”   You are simply wrong in saying that all this has happened because I deserve it.

But then in the second half of the chapter, verses 8-17, he faces the hard reality that no such opportunity exists.  There is no courtroom.   Job has his defense worked out in detail, proving his innocence beyond question, but the judge is absent.  There is no one to listen. The argument disappears into the air. 

Yet Job refuses to confuse God’s absence with God’s non-existence or his powerlessness or his malevolence.  “He is unchangeable and who can turn him?  What he desire, that he does.  For he will complete what he appoints for me; and many such things are in his mind.”   For Job this is terrifying, that he is unable to defend himself, that God’s power and purpose are beyond our comprehension.  But even so, even terrified, he does not give up his trust, his faith in God.  Even in the darkness and the silence that comes when his prayer seems to disappear into the wind.

We’re going to move along with Job over the next few weeks in our readings, as Job’s drama is drawn out in greater and greater detail.  The book seems very modern to us, I think.  Like listening to a round table conversation including Jean Paul Sartre and Soren Kierkegaard and Karl Marx and Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchins.  Philosophers, humanists, moralists, scientific materialists.  Each of them doing their best to talk Job out of his faith, to push him off course.  As perhaps many of us feel challenged as well as the arguments of the friends are repeated again and again. 

We all have these debates rolling around inside.  Recalling how the diaries of Mother Teresa of Calcutta have revealed her own dark night of the soul, her own doubts and fears.  Very tender to read these.  How she struggled daily to see the face of Jesus reflected in the lives of the poorest of the poor as they lay dying in the streets.  Knowing that face was there, and would reveal itself to her.  Yet in sleepless nights, wondering, as she was so often left with a feeling of emptiness and absence.  How Pope John XXIII spoke about praying his way through a time of darkness and a sense of the disappearance of God that lasted not years but decades.  Again, a daily struggle.  Hard for a person of faith in any era not to hold the Book of Job up and find that he or she is looking into a mirror and seeing a reflection of our own turbulence.

And hard not to be inspired, reading our way through this very difficult book—and it is a book of scripture that I would encourage every Christian to read slowly and carefully, and not just once, but to re-read, perhaps at different times and seasons of our lives, in youth and middle age and old age.  In times when the going seems good, and when the storm winds blow and nobody seems to be listening when we try to say our prayers.  Again, not an easy book, but one that doesn’t pull any punches, doesn’t pretend that the questions aren’t out there, and in here, in our hearts and minds.  Read the Archibald MacLeish poem “J.B.”  A contemporary poetic meditation on the story.  There’s a very interesting though somewhat obscure modern Coen Brothers’ film, “Joe,” starring Will Smith, that takes an angle on the story.  In Genesis there is the story of Jacob wrestling with God through the night by the River Jabbok, and perhaps that is an image to hold in our minds.  Job says, “the Almighty has terrified me.”  The Almighty has terrified me--and perhaps to say that if we can’t say that too, if we don’t know what that is like, maybe we haven’t been paying attention.  The transformation of faith, the implanted Word shaping a life of Wisdom.

Thinking about Job’s spiritual odyssey reminds me of a saying by the 20th century theologian H. Richard Niebuhr, who talked about a kind of popular, superficial view of Christianity, an easy Christianity—and so in the end a false Christianity, which fails to take the full story into account.  “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”  It is ultimately and in the deepest way the purpose of every word and book of the Bible to lead us to Christ and his Cross as the unique gateway to a life in God here and in the world to come.  And so also for Job: darkness and suffering, painful loss, existential silence, confronting the realities of sin, death, and judgment.  And yet as we hear this story unfold over the next couple of weeks we would remember that it is in Job, of all places, Job, Chapter 19, that we draw that affirmation that lives in our long Anglican prayer book tradition in the Burial Office and so triumphantly in Georg Frederick Handel’s Messiah the theme song of Easter, which is the end of the old story and the beginning of the new: “for I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth; and though this body be destroyed, yet shall I see God: whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not as a stranger.”

We wouldn’t wish Job’s sufferings on anyone.  But we know with honesty that we can’t imagine any of our lives that have not shared at least in some of them.  What we would pray for is Job’s Wisdom.  That the love of God and the Word of God would be so firmly planted in our hearts and our lives, that we would be securely anchored in him, and show in our lives his faithfulness.

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

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Eighteenth after Pentecost

Esther 7: 1-6, 9-10; 9: 20-22  (Proper 21B)

I need to begin by saying perhaps as a confession that in all of Holy Scripture the Book of Esther is one of my favorite parts.  The book is usually placed by scholars within the Biblical genre of “Wisdom” writings, like Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job, and many of the Psalms, and perhaps as we reflect on the exceptional character of Queen Esther we will be reminded of the “Capable Wife” we heard about in Proverbs 31 last Sunday.  Embodying gifts and graces, strength and courage and intelligence and judgment.  Aspects of “wisdom,” and for Esther, that the beauty of her appearance is seen to be a reflection of the beauty of her spiritual and moral character.  My grandmother, my mother’s mother, was named Esther, and though the name was a bit out of fashion I notice that it seems to be coming back, which is nice.  Hard to imagine a better Biblical namesake.   The setting of Esther’s story, the wonderful and colorful cast of characters, the plot, the careful and skilled literary art and development, emerging graciously through every translation—and what is for me after many readings over many years such a deep and meaningful spiritual message.  Used to be a favorite in illustrated children’s Bibles, but certainly not what we would call a children’s story.  All the elements of a later Shakespearean comedy like Twelfth Night or Winter’s Tale . . . .

The story begins with the reality of exile—and as we watch the migration of refuge seekers today across the Middle East and Northern Africa and Europe we catch perhaps a glimpse of the traumatic dislocation and the sorrow and the suffering  that lies in the deeper background of the story of Queen Esther.  The distant part of the diaspora community of God’s people has been washed ashore far from home in the rich and cosmopolitan and exotic kingdom of Persia.  Some perhaps in what we would call refugee camps.  Others eventually finding their way to the cities, to live in small ethnic enclaves, or scattered around the countryside and surviving as agricultural laborers.  Decades pass, and some manage more successfully than others.  Some try to assimilate, while others remain resolutely apart.  Reminiscent perhaps of the story of Joseph in Egypt at the end of the Book of Genesis, and certainly, more directly, of the parallel story of Daniel and his companions the Three Young Men in the Book of Daniel.  Again, in our world of so many peoples dislocated by war and famine, not an unfamiliar story.  And here in Esther story of several people who are aliens, strangers in a strange land, yet rising to what we might call stations of high success, prominence, power, by virtue of their native gifts and character.  Struggling to avoid the kind of assimilation that is also cultural annihilation, to keep memories and identity alive, remaining faithful to the God of Israel even when Jerusalem is only a memory, the ruins of an invading army--and even when that faithfulness in this new place, this foreign land, risks sometimes a great cost.

Mordecai is a Jew, though this doesn’t seem to be known widely.  He must have spoken ancient Farsi like a native.  Perhaps a graduate of the School of Public Policy at the Imperial University at Persepolis, the great capital city of the Persian world.  He has risen in any event in an amazing career to a very high place in the court of Ahasuerus, also known as Xerxes, the great and powerful Shah, the king, the ruler of an empire and vassal states stretching across the Near East to Egypt and Africa to the south and to Europe on the North.   And the story really begins when this great king lets it be known that he is ready to add another wife to his household--one who would be of extraordinary beauty and intelligence and graceful demeanor.  And apparently the customary way of finding a new queen was a kind of festival pageant—I picture something like the Miss America event in Atlantic City, though the Bible doesn’t tell us exactly how this was supposed to work.  In any event, Mordecai sees this as an opportunity and secretly brings his niece Esther to the fore as I guess we might say one of the “contestants:” an exceptional young woman in every way, who quickly attracts the king’s eye during the swimsuit competition and wins the heart of the king with her demonstrations of talent and wit—and she is quickly chosen to be queen and just as quickly it seems she becomes the first and most loved of all the king’s wives.

The plot thickens when Mordecai’s arch-rival  Haman, a man of unfettered greed, ambition, and cruelty,  begins to connive to take down Mordecai and advance his own position.  In traditional Jewish pageants retelling this story he is kind of a Snidely Whiplash, and as soon as he steps on the stage the audience is expected to boo and hiss with enthusiasm.  Haman has somehow become aware that Mordecai is Jewish—and here, like the “fiery furnace” story of Daniel and the Three Young Men that is told in the Book of Daniel, Haman uses the fact that faithful Jews will refuse to participate in pagan religious cults and ceremonies, even those sponsored by the king, to develop an argument that the Jewish people are unreliable foreigners and even traitors, who should be arrested and eliminated because they threaten the king’s status and authority.  Neither the king nor Haman seem to be aware that Queen Esther herself is Jewish, which adds to the layers of suspense.  Ahasuerus, not seeing through Haman’s intrigue, agrees to an order decreeing death to all who fail to worship at the royal shrine, and Haman begins to plan for the event when he can reveal that Mordecai is Jewish and has refused to join in the public ceremony, and then, with the old advisor being carried off in chains to the gallows, he can take the honored place now vacant at the king’s right hand. 

Mordecai of course sees immediately what is going on, and he sees that there is only one chance for his own survival and now to save the whole people of God living in the empire, only one person who can plead their cause.  He goes to Esther, and asks her to plead the case of the Jews to her husband.  She is terrified at the request.  Though she is indeed beloved and a favorite of the king, women are never permitted into the throne room and into the presence of the king while he is conducting matters of state, and she is aware that if he takes her approach badly she will likely lose her position and even her life.  She waivers, fearful, and then Mordecai offers this wonderful word, in Esther chapter 4, verse 14: “Who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”   That is the key question of discernment so often when we find ourselves faced with costly choices.  We might ask, “why me?  Why can’t I just be left alone?   St. Paul could ask the question.  Or Frodo in the Lord of the Rings.  Or Harry Potter.  Or Rick in Casablanca.  “All the gin joints in all the world:  why does she have to walk into mine?”  And there is a Mordecai to say to Esther, this is no accident.  You were chosen.  It isn’t an accident.  Indeed, God has placed you here precisely because you are the right person to meet this challenge.

And the story unfolds.  Esther gathers herself, is filled with a spirit of holy courage--the love of God and God’s people overwhelming her fears—and she steps into the throne room and to plead with the king on behalf of her people.  And—spoiler alert!—after a moment of suspense, she is received graciously.  The king in his love for her hears her request and extends his mercy.  He is moreover  righteously enraged that his trusted advisor Haman has betrayed that trust by plotting to advance his own ambition, and has manipulated him in this way: and so the tables are quickly turned.  There’s a dramatic scene at the banquet that same evening when Haman arrives thinking he is about to be advanced , but instead the wheel turns, the real traitor is exposed--and in a very satisfying symmetry the evil Haman is put to death on the very gallows he had ordered to be prepared days before for the execution of Mordecai.  And so at the very last moment all the Jewish people of the land are saved from destruction.  Thanks to Esther and her courage. 

Again, it’s an exciting and beautiful story.  Very gratifying, even when you already know how the story ends.  The good guys win, the bad guy get what’s coming to him.  And it is of course even more the pattern of the gospel.   The golden thread of Scripture.  Not just an entertaining or inspiring tale, whether for children or for adults.  Even more: a pre-figuring, poetric anticipation of the drama of our redemption.  The Cross gives us a new pair of reading glasses as we turn back to the ancient story.  We can almost hear the words of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane on Esther’s lips as she considers what Mordecai has asked from her.  “Father, if it be thy will, let this cup pass from me.”  Esther knows that what is asked of her at this moment is to put everything on the line.  Her happiness, her position in the world, her riches--life itself.  All is at risk.  The loving and self-less offering of a costly sacrifice, not for any benefit of her own, but because through her, there could come salvation for God’s people.  And through that offering, her own life on the line and offered freely, evil is defeated, the power of death overturned, and there is life and peace and joy.

The story is we are told in the part of the reading we’ve heard this morning from chapter 9, at the end of the story, and the foundation behind the Jewish Festival of Purim, where for all time and in all generations God’s people around the world will remember good Queen Esther, and how through her God accomplished this mighty work.  The days of Purim, as we have heard this morning, to be “days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor.”  Overwhelming gratitude.  All thanksgiving, joy and peace, graciousness, generosity, blessing.  We might say, a eucharistic foretaste of the Kingdom.

Again and again, the Cross and the Empty Tomb:  when every hope seems to be extinguished, when defeat seems inevitable, when catastrophic loss is sweeping toward us, when we were helpless, when our every effort to save ourselves has resulted in failure.  Then the great hymn appointed for us this morning as a complement to the reading from Esther, Psalm 124.  “If the Lord had not been on our side, when enemies rose up against us, then they would have swallowed u up alive, then would the waters have overwhelmed us, the torrent gone over us, the raging waters.  Blessed be the Lord, who has not given us over to be a prey for their teeth.  We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowler; our help is in the Name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.”

What we would remember the ancient festival  celebration of Esther at the Holy Communion this morning, as we receive the Gifts of the Table, the Bread and Wine of his presence, a free gift, and a sign of what God has done for us, and of the joy to come.  The story of how the people of God were saved through the courage of Esther stirring up in our hearts a fresh reminder of our own stories of amazing grace.  Stirring up a fresh offering of gratitude and thanksgiving.   A holiday for “Feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor.”   To hear the story and to have our hearts and our minds and our imaginations turned to the one who is the Savior of the world, to remember and to know in a fresh and new way the merciful love of Jesus, his generosity, his forgiveness, his love, filling our hearts and changing our lives forever.

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

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Seventeenth after Pentecost

Proverbs 31; Psalm 1 (Proper 20B)
Baptism of Silas Kazimir Reynolds

There is something really wonderful about the connection and dialogue between the reading from Proverbs 31 this morning and Psalm 1. Proverbs 31 sings the praises of the woman of true wisdom, here the “capable wife.”  She is a renaissance woman, as we see, gifted not only in the performance of the traditional domestic arts, but also and more expansively in the management of the family’s real estate and investment portfolio and in the supervision of both the household staff and those who work for the family’s farms, orchards, and vineyards.  She keeps the books, pays the bills, organizes payroll, manages HR and I suppose IT.  She is CEO, COO, CFO.  And strong--not just physically, but also in terms of personality and moral character.  She is rich in her relationship and care for husband and children, of course, but anyone who thinks that the Bible promotes a submissive and retiring view of women with the mentality that “Father knows best” clearly hasn’t met the “good wife” of Proverbs 31.  Not simply adored and loved by her husband and children but also respected and depended upon.  And above all of course her strength of mind and character and her endowment of all good gifts is rooted in the deepest soil of all: “Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.”

We set this alongside the great opening anthem of the Book of Psalms, Psalm I, Beatus Vir: “Blessed is the man who hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stood in the way of sinners, and hath not sat in the seat of scornful; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in his law he will exercise himself day and night. And he shall be like a tree planted by the water-side, that will bring forth his fruit in due season.  His  leaf also shall not wither.  And look, whatsoever he doeth, it shall prosper.”

Our current Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori back at the beginning of her term of office and frequently in following years would preach and speak about the theme of “God’s Shalom.”  Shalom.  A word that can literally be translated “peace,” and of course is used often in both ancient and modern Hebrew to be both a greeting and a farewell.  It’s a peace that is much more than simply the absence of conflict.  All about contentment, prosperity, security, and well-being, with edges that are both rooted in the individual but also connected inextricably with the community.   “Shalom.”  Like “aloha,” I think, in Hawaiian.  The most affectionate sign of welcome and a sincere blessing at farewell.  (What the Vulcans mean by “Live long and prosper.”)   We hear that in the gospels so often, as Jesus would begin, “Peace be with you.”  “Shalom.”  And it is God’s Shalom that is at the heart of Proverbs 31 and Psalm 1.  The complementary templates of our human identity.  A glimpse perhaps in the moment of where Adam and Eve might have gone, what life in the Garden might have been like,  if it weren’t for the fall.  Aligning us body, mind, and spirit,  with our true selves.  The sense of connection and concurrence and symmetry between our human thoughts and actions and the daily tasks of our domestic and cultural and economic lives and the foundational template of God’s wisdom and intention.   Hitting on all eight cylinders.

I’m in a Bible Study with a group of colleagues on Tuesday mornings and since re-started this month after a bit of time off for the summer we have begun to study together the Book of James, which is also a sequence right now in the Sunday lectionary, and just this past week we spent quite a bit of time talking about that wonderful and familiar and always challenging exhortation in the first chapter—“Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.”  What our two subjects this morning are lifted up to exemplify so beautifully, graciously, gracefully.  The Good Wife, the Blessed Man.  They both hear the word, are deeply grounded in it, but they are not “hearers only.”  All that they say and all that they do grows out of what they have heard and read and learned in a perfect and organic way.  God’s word is not simply what they read and know and understand, though it is that.   It is even more  who they are, and what they do, how they live.  They are both hearers and doers.

It is all one thing.  If you want an apple tree, plant an apple seed.  If you want tomatoes, plant tomatoes.  And if you want wisdom, if you want blessing, if you want a life of God’s shalom, if you want to grow into the fullness of God’s love, then plant God’s word in the soil of your life, in your mind, and heart, and imagination.  And grow from that seed, so that the word we meet in scripture and the word we meet in sacrament is who we are and who we are becoming day by day.

I mention sometimes a word that comes from German Biblical studies, “heilsgeschicte.”  Literally “the holy story.”  But in use what this means is that point when we stand back from reading and studying and analyzing the Bible in bits and pieces—though there is a time and a place for that.  But when we step back and see the whole sweep, from Creation to Consummation, Genesis I to the twenty-second chapter of the Revelation to St. John.  All one story, and not just a story out there.

And our story.  Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Moses, King David, Prophets and Kings, the friends who walked with Jesus through the Galilee and to Jerusalem.  The women at the tomb on Sunday morning.  The disciples in the Upper Room on Whitsunday.  As I have told the story maybe too many times of the time at St. Mark’s in Berkeley back in the early 1970’s when I noticed a little magazine on the table in the reading area of the library, with the title, “Acts 29.”   How later when I was at home I remembered that and, curious, opened my Bible to see what Acts 29 was about.  Only to discover that the Book of Acts in the Bible has 28 chapters.  Not like the walls were shaking or anything, but a little lightbulb went on for me.  Acts 29.  What happens next.  Our story. 

And how when that story becomes not old stories of people and places long ago and far away, of remote literary and historical interest,  but our story, then that story begins to take hold of us in our minds and hearts and souls and imaginations in a new way.  Fresh and new and even urgent.  Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.

(And how appropriate to say that this morning, as we gather at the font as a congregation and with family and friends to celebrate the baptism of Silas Kazimir Reynolds.  Thinking about the loving and eager promises of his parents and godparents, Chuck and Julia, Graham and Lindsay—and all of us as we respond to that great question, “will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support Silas in his life in Christ?”  In programmatic ways of course we seek to keep this promise in our congregation with things like our Godly Play program, with the prayers and readings and songs of Children’s Chapel, with opportunities for study and service as children grow, with the exploration of faith and God’s word through music and art.  And Chuck and Julia will find their own curriculum in that as well.  To think of that petition in the Pastoral Prayer of the Marriage Office: “Bestow on them, if it is your will, the gift and heritage of children, and the grace to bring them up to know you, to love you, and to serve you.”  To plant the seed of God’s word, so that the whole sacred story can come alive, so that a life may know the gift and grace to grow in the fullness of God’s shalom, God’s wisdom, God’s peace—a life shaped by a love of that word and of caring and faithful obedience, and all joy in the hope of resurrection and life eternal in God’s care.)

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Sixteenth after Pentecost

Mark 8: 27-38 (Proper 19B)

Good morning, and what a great day always.  Round Up and Renaissance, Church School and Choir and a fun picnic (we’ll call it that even if it’s indoors!)  and today as well sharing with our wider community in the “Britsburgh” festival, with the Choir of Trinity College Cambridge singing at a special Evensong here at 4:30. 

But first in our worship this morning, we would recall last week in the gospel reading from Mark Chapter 7 Jesus and his disciples had travelled away from their home territory of the Galilee, perhaps to escape the rising currents of controversy and opposition that had come to a head when religious leaders from Jerusalem had come down to confront and suppress Jesus and his ministry and teaching.  So as Mark routes the itinerary they travel first to Lebanon, then back around through what I guess would more or less be modern day Syria, the Decapolis or the region of the Ten Cities, and here for the first time in the gospel we see the ministry of Jesus expanding out beyond the borders and boundaries of Israel and the Jewish people.  The exorcism of the demon from the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman, the healing of the deaf and dumb man.  Something new is happening, somewhere new.  The frame expanding.

On their way back home as told in our reading this morning in Mark 8 they come to the outskirts and suburbs of the mostly gentile city of Caesarea Philippi, and this exchange.  Jesus begins by asking the disciples about what they see and hear from the people they’ve been talking with.  “What are they saying about me?  Who do they say that I am?”  And the answer seems to be:  they think you’re like John the Baptist, back from the dead; they think you’re like a new Elijah, one of the ancient prophets come to life again.  These two figures, one contemporary, one of the distant past, both known for their deep and unswerving commitment to the Covenant between Israel and God and for their radical stance over against institutional leaders of Temple and Court, priests and kings who compromise with the surrounding culture and lead the people to a way of life out of contact with God’s Word and in ways of conforming to the false gods of the surrounding nations.  We are familiar with the associations of course of Jesus with John the Baptist.  Members of the same clan, cousins.  Jesus baptized by John.  The first disciples of Jesus having been first disciples of John the Baptist and part of his movement of resistance against the Jerusalem establishment and ruling aristocracy descended from Herod the Great.  So that’s how people see you, Jesus.  That’s the buzz.

And then Jesus turns to them of course in this famous and critical moment, to ask them.  You.  You who know me the best.  You who have been walking with me and listening to me and watching day by day to see what God is doing in me and through me.  All these miracles and healings.  You.  Personally.  After all this.  What do you say?  Who do you say that I am?  Clearly a turning point.  Before we get back to the Galilee I need to know where you stand.

And what is famously called the Confession of St. Peter.  “You are the Christ.  The Messiah.”  So interesting always to remember that this is Peter, the one who in his tragic and heartbreaking moment of weakness in just a short time is going to turn his back on Jesus in the Courtyard of the High Priest and deny that he even knows him, this Peter is the one who puts what they’re thinking into words and says it clearly for the first time.  Bold, perhaps impulsive.  Certainly a leap of faith:  You are the Christ.  Which is to say as well: we’re all in.  No Plan B. 

Just a couple of weeks ago in our Sunday morning readings when we were in John 6 we heard the same Confession in somewhat different  words.  After the Feeding of the Five Thousand and the discourses that center on Jesus in his deep self-disclosure:  I am the Bread of Life.  The crowd is astonished.  Even some of his more devoted followers decide this is a time to head for the exit.  Jesus turns to the twelve.  Jesus says, “are you going to go away, as so many of those who were at first interested in me have done?”  And Peter says, “Lord to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God.”

And in both Mark’s account and in John this Confession of faith leads immediately to the foreshadowing of Holy Week and the Cross.  Not for Jesus alone, but for those who put their trust in him.  “Let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Knowing who Jesus is turns out to change everything.  All the things in life that were meaningful before are now as nothing.  And what was most feared is to be embraced.  Recalling the words of the Isaac Watts hymn, When I survey the wondrous cross.  “All the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to his blood.”  So that in union with Christ even the horrors of death and the grave are transformed, to be the gate of life, the doorway to the fullness of glory in the Father and the holy angels. 

Perhaps just the right place for us to be on this Sunday which is in so many ways a kind of New Year’s Day, a new beginning, continuing to use the term we used last Fall as we opened our renovated Parish House: Renaissance.  Rebirth.  A fresh start.

God gives us his living Word, his perfect expression in his Son Jesus.  We remember the reading of the first Chapter of St. John at midnight on Christmas Eve.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  And he gives us his Word written, as Holy Spirit inspires the prophets and authors of the Holy Scripture to guide us in our understanding and our faith and our daily lives.

There is something so powerful about the word spoken out loud.  The elderly African immigrant raises his right hand to take the oath that will make him a citizen.  The young man takes her hand in his and says, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, until we are parted by death.

St. Paul says in Romans 10:  “If you confess with your mouth ‘Jesus is Lord’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

Something so powerful about the word spoken out loud.  Peter’s word rings out over the St. Andrew’s Round Up and Renaissance Sunday. For all the world to hear.  Sunday School picnic and Choir and all the new energy of the season.  Say it or sing it, so long as its true and that we mean it.  Robert Lowry’s hymn, back from the middle of the 19th century:  “What though my joys and comforts die?  The Lord my Saviour liveth; What though the darkness gather round?  Songs in the night he giveth.  No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that refuge clinging.  Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, How can I keep from singing?”  The confession of the heart.  And here at Caesarea Phillipi and on a September Sunday  in Highland Park he asks for a word from us.  Answering with our lips and in our lives.    A moment of person decision.  Who do you say that I am?

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Fifteenth after Pentecost

Mark 7: 24-37 (Proper 18B)

Good morning, and grace and peace on this weekend of the Labor Day holiday.  The Sunday lectionary as I mentioned last week now has us back in Mark’s gospel for the rest of the church year, all the way through the Fall to Advent I.  Last week at the beginning of the chapter, the encounter of Jesus and his disciples with the Pharisees and Scribes who have come down from Jerusalem to put a damper on this Jesus Movement thing before it gets out of hand.  Then we come to this week’s reading, as Jesus after that encounter leaves his home base of operations in the Galilee and heads into foreign territory.  

We don’t usually think of Jesus as an international traveler, but he is doing some border crossing here, first moving into Lebanon, where people of the ancient Philistine and Phoenician heritage were the dominant group, alongside those of Syrian and Persian ethnicity, and then after that visit returning not directly to the Galilee but swinging through the region of the Ten Cities, the Decapolis, a region populated by a diverse Mediterranean and Asian community, Greeks and Turks, Italians, Libyans, Egyptians, Arabs—the cosmopolitan center of Hellenistic Roman culture and trade in the region.  Neither of these places on his journey places where a traditional Jewish rabbi--and a rustic one at that, from backwater Galilee--would likely feel very comfortable or find much of a receptive audience.  Not a tremendously long journey in terms of miles, at least as we would measure them today--but in the compressed and complex region of the Eastern Mediterranean, with so many different peoples and languages and cultures, it is significant.

I don’t know in terms of motive if Jesus went out on this trip because the visit from the Jerusalem authorities had things in conflict and turmoil back in the Galilee, those little villages like Cana and Capernaum and Nazareth.  Mark doesn’t fill us in with that kind of information.  Maybe the idea was to slip off quietly and lie low for a while until things settled down back home.  In any event Mark does tell us that Jesus didn’t want a lot of publicity along the way. Traveling under the radar, out of the spotlight. 

But it turns out even so that his reputation has preceded him, and they hardly get their bags unpacked it seems and  there is a knock on the door of the guest house, and this Lebanese woman of Syrophoenician background is there with an urgent plea for the healing of her daughter, who is afflicted with evil spirits.  How she may have heard about Jesus, or what she has heard, we don’t really know—but the word has somehow gotten around, and  she is clearly there with desperation and hope--and in her exchange with Jesus we hear grace and strength, humility and faith.  We just get this one little glimpse of her, but it is such a compelling one that when articles are written about the important women of the Bible she is almost always near the top of the list.

Some readers of this passage talk about this a place where Jesus “has his eyes opened,” though actually I don’t see that in a very convincing way.   We have after all just heard and read in the story just last Sunday, and just a few verses above this morning’s reading, how Jesus had pushed back against the Pharisees in their focus on the external ceremonies and customs of Jewish piety in reference to ritual purity—highlighting instead the moral judgment, attitude, and behavior  that comes authentically from within the character of the individual. The Jesus who said those things simply isn’t going to turn around 180 degrees and contradict himself.  In any event I hear a different tone, perhaps one that is being used to draw out the point for the benefit of his disciples, as they stand near.  His wanting to make sure precisely that the lesson he was teaching in the confrontation with the Scribes and Pharisees last week has sunk in.  The woman makes the request for her daughter, and Jesus, with an eye to his disciples, who are perhaps made uncomfortable by the presence of a Gentile woman in their midst, says, “you know I’m a Jewish rabbi, right?  You know that Jewish rabbis don’t get involved with people like you, right?”  But then Jesus doesn’t step away.   No ordinary rabbi, but bringing something new.  The woman responds with her heartfelt plea, and he responds not with the word of rejection that she and perhaps the disciples standing nearby are expecting, but with a sudden extravagant gesture of blessing, dismissing the demon that has crippled her daughter and bringing healing and the promise of new life. 

The message to the disciples: we’re not playing by the old rules any more.  Jesus turning away from the deep ethnic exclusivity of early Judaism and returning to the broad vision and insight of the great Biblical tradition.  The promise to Abraham that through his Covenant with God all the world would be blessed.   No ordinary rabbi, but bringing something new.

So also then on the return from Lebanon to the Galilee by way of the Ten Cities, the healing of the deaf and dumb man.  I love this story partly because it is one of the few places in the gospels where we hear an actual word spoken by Jesus.  Not a Greek translation, but a sort of transliteration of the street Aramaic that was the common tongue in the Galilee.  Ephphatha.   “Open up.”   And although Jesus continues to seem to want to be low profile on this journey, the miracle is announced widely, “zealously,” across the region.  A foreshadowing of the greater story of the proclamation of the gospel from shore to shore, beginning in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and then flowing in a broad river across every border, to every nation and every tongue.  In the words of the hymn, “I just can’t keep from singing.”  There is no keeping silent about this good news, which crosses all the boundaries.  Nations will stream to his light, kings to the brightness of his dawning.

Something of a funny story back in the 1990’s, which maybe could be helpful as we think about what these stories in Mark 7 have to say to us.  Those of us who lived in the church in those days will remember  that decade was projected and announced by General Convention and our Presiding Bishop and all the rest with great enthusiasm as the “Decade of Evangelism,” with all kinds of energy and resources from our denominational center devoted to great themes of gospel proclamation and church growth.  All which of course was conceived faithfully and well-intended, though with the irony that through that decade there was an acceleration of decline.  More churches closed and more members lost in the Episcopal Church anyway than in any other decade of the 20th century.   Sadly a precursor of things to come in the first two decades so far of our 21st century. 

However, the story, just to go on:  in a small affluent suburban town in Northern New Jersey, the young rector of an Episcopal Church catches the bug of enthusiasm about the Decade of Evangelism.  He orders all kinds of curriculum from the Church Center in New York designed to get the members of his congregation to be active in their families and their neighborhoods to talk about faith and to share Christ with others and to invite new friends to church.  And all kinds of publicity materials.  Formats for newspaper and radio ads, flyers to be distributed through the neighborhood.  And then materials to train members of the congregation to know how to welcome and incorporate and support new people when they arrived as these programs would develop.  The young rector was very excited about it all—and was confused when the members of his vestry began to send negative signals.  People didn’t show up to the evangelism training meetings.  The vestry was balking about raising new budget lines for the curriculum and publicity.   And then finally one of the members of the congregation called and asked to come in and speak with him.  She was a woman of importance in the parish and the community, one of the great old families of the area.  She sat down in a chair in the rector’s office, looked him in the eye, and got straight to the point:  “Young man,” she said, “in this community, everyone who ought to be an Episcopalian already is an Episcopalian.”

In any event: what Jesus presented to the Scribes and Pharisees in our reading last Sunday he sets now before his inner circle of disciples in this morning’s reading with even greater force: a challenge to allow ourselves to be lifted by the Gospel beyond our comfort zones.  The challenge to look past the surface here, past the hallmarks of religious identity or ethnicity or gender or language or political position or economic or educational or social standing that make us comfortable.  The message that the good news of John 3: 16 was going to be the operative word from here on out.  This was his parting word and command on Ascension Thursday.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.  The circle growing wider and wider.  That God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whosoever would believe in him, would have eternal life.  

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Memorial Tributes for Anne S. Buckingham

Memorial Tributes for Anne Buckingham
August 30, 2015
Compiled by Susy Robison

Dee Stein:  Anne was a committed member of the Casserole Brigade. She always had a meal prepared to be delivered to anyone with an illness or just home from the hospital with a new baby or recovering from surgery, or the bereaved, and, when I say a meal, I mean salad, entrée, often salmon, and a tasty dessert. Anne always said that “presentation is important." Her care packages were displayed beautifully. Her food was always "high class and very yummy.” 

In addition to occasionally delivering a meal herself, she’d also leave a casserole in the fridge at the church for another member of the team to deliver in an emergency. 

Dee is also grateful for the interest and took in her daughter, Emily and her rowing.

Susy Robison:  

On a personal note, on more than one occasion, Anne dropped off a meal at the Rectory when I was ill . . . .

During the 20 years Anne taught at the Shadyside Presbyterian Church Nursery School, she had a number of students who also went to Calvary with her. I understand that even during a Baptism it was not uncommon for one of children to burst out in happy surprise, "Hey, Mrs. Buckingham!"

With her husband Bev and later on her own, Anne traveled all over the world. She was particularly fond of her sister-in-law, Blanche, and enjoyed travelling with her. 

I believe one of their last adventures was to Egypt and Israel. (The shawl I'm wearing now was a gift she brought from that trip.)  She loved sharing stories and pictures with friends.

 When Anne was struggling though her last illness, her friends, Joanne Luchsinger and Julie, took her on one of the Pittsburgh house tours. While she was struggling in and out of the various houses still challenged with the vertigo that troubled her, she told them about the best barbeque in Pittsburgh and convinced them to drive to Homewood and pick some up. Then, they brought it back to her house where they enjoyed it with the corn bread she had made using Blanche’s Old Southern recipe. 

I had known about Anne’s deep fondness for her cat, Sunny, and was finally introduced to this large, orange beauty one day when I stopped by. The cat was just recovering from an emergency surgery. The vet had removed a mass from her stomach that turned out to be a lot of string secured somehow by a rubber band. Anne found this particular challenge to be extremely funny. As I was preparing to leave she asked me to look at the sculptures in the garden and we stood and talked about them. I have since learned that her daughter, Anne, first told her parents about the sculptor and Anne and Bev went off to purchase them.

When I spoke to Jinny Fiske our “Hospitality Queen” and with her successor Emma Mosely the leader of our Shelter Meal team, , she told me about the many times Anne used to come to the church kitchen to help. Anne would assist with the preparations for church receptions00and with the meals the team would deliver to the men in the homeless shelter in East Liberty. 

Jinny said that Anne was committed to showing up for the shelter meal and loved to make the salad. She’d take over a corner of the kitchen and always preferred to do the washing and chopping by herself. Then, if she was needed, she’d go with the team to deliver and serve the meal to the men.

I think all of us in the St Andrew’s Sunday morning Bible Study would agree that Anne brought a well-travelled and well-read quiet elegance to our group. Shortly after she settled into services here, Anne joined us most Sunday mornings in the Parlor of the old rectory as we explored the New Testament together.  

Her illustrations and questions arose from both our study and from hers,   and her passion for learning took her to do research on the internet and to Osher classes at the university. Then, she’d bring us handouts on points of doctrine, faith, and Christian experience to spice up our studies. 

Because of the construction project last year here in the church, the Children's Nursery moved into the Parlor and the Bible Study moved upstairs and Anne would continue to come with Joanne until it was too difficult to maneuver the stairs. 

We miss her wry sense of humor and no nonsense talk and called her on the speaker phone from our meeting after one of her hospital visits..

When Joanne drove to Somerset to pick up her adorable, mini-dachshunds, Anne rode along. She read from the book she had given to Joanne for Christmas, Father Thomas Keating’s book, “Open Mind, Open Heart” about Centering Prayer.  Although Anne got to the point where it was hard for her to go out, she continued to meet with Joanne at the Biddles café. They would sit outside on the deck with the little dogs and talk about the books they were both reading while they sipped tea.

Anne Sungaila Buckingham

Sunday, August 30, 2015
Burial Office and Memorial Service
Anne Sungaila Buckingham
April 1, 1943 - March 24, 2015

Good afternoon friends.  With thanks to my new friend, the Rev. John Titus, who has been with his family such good friends with the Buckingham family for such a long time, and I know with much tenderness and affection.  With thanks to the members of our little clergy cluster here at St. Andrew’s—our Pastoral Assistant, Dean Byrom, who was a good friend of Anne's and member of the Sunday Bible Study Group; our parish deacons,  Dan Isadore and  Jean Chess (who isn’t able to be with us this afternoon, but who wanted me also to express her good thoughts and prayers and love.)  Felice also, Susy from the Bible Study Group, Dee from the Casserole Brigade,  Jinny and Emma from the Men's Shelter Meal ministry—thank you for your participation, representing the ministries and centers of life here at St. Andrew’s that were so important to Anne.  Such good friends: Joanne Luchsinger.  George Knight.  Our ushers and those assisting with hospitality.  Peter and Gabriela—Anne so much loved the music and worship of this place.  Thank you.  The Casserole Brigade, Friends of Music, old friends of the Buckinghams from Calvary Church, and especially to thank my good friend and colleague the Rev. Leslie Reimer, who is here this afternoon, neighbors from the Briar Cliff community, and so many different circles of life;  Bonnie Titus, who has been a telephone companion for me for several years now.  Everyone here today, and of course those family and friends who were not able to be here. 

 Especially again remembering Anne’s children Rob and Anne, and their families, in New York and South Carolina, and her very dear in-laws, Blanche and Michael Deaderick--and we would lift them up in our thoughts and prayers with continuing love and care.

Anne’s death this past spring came as a shock to me and I know to all of us, though of course we had been walking a challenging walk alongside her in many aspects of her health for some time.  Seasons of strength and energy and that wonderful bright smile.  That sense of her exceptional intelligence and creativity and insight and curiosity that I know we all remember with pleasure and affection.  Her wonderful love of children, her natural gifts as a teacher.  Stories of world travel, rich with detail and pleasure at the variety of the human family and the wonders of creation.  Her tenderness and her wonderful sense of humor.  

But then also shadows, both emotional and physical.  Wrestling with inner demons, we might say.  The sudden loss of her husband, Dr. Robert Beverly Buckingham, “Bev,” almost nine years ago now was always close to the surface.  Times of withdrawal, and increasing fragility both emotionally and physically.  And I’m thankful for the designation of the memorial gifts that Anne’s children have suggested for us, with the prayer that in our remembrance of Anne there would come steps toward a greater work of healing for others. A sign of generosity and graciousness.

In that context I’d like to share a reading that Anne’s daughter Anne asked me to include and share today—which was a reading that she offered at the service for her father at Calvary Church back in 2006.  It’s a prayer in the Native American tradition that was composed by Black Elk, the well-known Oglala Sioux Chief who lived from 1863-1950.  “Great Spirit, Great Spirit, my Grandfather,” the prayer begins: “all over the earth the faces of living things are all alike.  Look on these faces of children without number, and with children in their arms, that they may face the winds and walk the good road to the day of quiet.”  The imagery and the language in all simplicity really quite remarkable and beautiful—and I think appropriate for us here this afternoon, as at Dr. Buckingham’s service before.  A kind and gentle spirit, touching on each of us and every human being, every child, and one generation following another.  An acknowledgment of the shadows and storms of life, facing the winds, but also the presence of the good road, the path that leads to peace, at the center.  Words that mean a great deal to me as I reflect on Anne’s life this afternoon.  “Look on these faces of children without number, and with children in their arms, that they may face the winds and walk the good road to the day of quiet.”  Blessings indeed, and a longing for the deepest healing and peace.

The reading from Romans 8 that Felice read for us a few minutes ago seems to me to speak in a similar way.  One of the great and central affirmations of all scripture and in Christian life:  “For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”   To take a deep breath at that.  In and out.  God’s love at the center, in Christ, and the day of quiet.  The Cross and the Empty Tomb and the overflowing of the Holy Spirit into the lives of those who will receive the gift.  Or as Dean read for us from John 14. “ In my Father’s house are many mansions.  If it were not so, I would have told you.  I go to prepare a place for you.  And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again, and bring you to myself, that where I am, you may be also.”

As Christian people this afternoon we would affirm this, even when we feel the sadness of the loss of someone dear to us, and even of course as we would find in that sadness as well a reminder of our own mortality—we would affirm that because of the love of Jesus for us, and through faith in him, “life is changed, not ended.”  The grave not a brick wall and final stopping place, but a gateway to a life and a new creation transformed in the image of Christ, who has better things in mind for us than we can ask for or imagine.   Perfect healing and perfect peace.  That is the sign for us in the lighting of the Easter Paschal Candle this afternoon, and a word that may be a comfort in difficult times.

We honor Anne’s memory, we give thanks for her life, every up and down, every twist and turn, every joyful success and accomplishment and all the many gifts she shared, and for every disappointment and weakness, even the pain and suffering, all of it.  Her life as it was.  We give thanks for her children, for her new grandson Charles, for all her family and friends, those who departed this life before her and all who continue.  We pray God’s blessing and peace.  The seed planted in the earth, with the God who sends rain and snow from the heavens to bring forth life and give growth and new life, and life in abundance.  To center our memories and our hopes: in the words of Black Elk, the “good road” and the “day of quiet.”  With Anne in our heart, may she rest in peace, and rise in glory.

In just that spirit, let us stand together and sing hymn number 671, Amazing Grace.