Sunday, May 3, 2015

Fifth Easter

Acts 8: 26-40
Baptism of Grayson Scott Frankle

Blessings on this Fifth Easter Sunday—of course with more emphasis to give the day it’s unofficial name, “St. Marathon Sunday,” as we of Pittsburgh and here in Highland Park host this significant event.  Great for our city and region in many ways, but of course jumbling things up for us also in many ways.   To express congratulations to the small but dedicated band who have made their way here through traffic and barricades to worship as we hear God’s word and worship and nicely on this day celebrate Grayson Frankle’s baptism.  

The Collect for Five Easter seems appropriate for the day of a great road race.  We’ve been looking at maps of the 26.2 mile course, and in the Collect the phrase from John 14 about the map that is of central importance for us as we run the “race” of Christian life, as Jesus tells his friends, “I am the Way, the Truth, the Life.”    --“That we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal life.”

Makes sense also on this day of an Easter Season baptism:  Grayson brought forward by his parents and brothers and godparents and extended family, as they especially and we all with him spiritually and for him, on his behalf, renew our faith, declare with clarity that we turn from the enemy and turn to Christ, committing ourselves to run the course of our life with him and for him.

The reading from Acts of course perfect for this, for an Easter Sunday of baptism: Philip and the Ethiopian Official.  It is a fascinating story.  We notice first of all that this isn’t an accidental encounter.  Philip isn’t just out for a stroll.  God calls him and directs him to this particular place.  And Philip doesn’t delay.  In the world of Easter and Pentecost the friends of Jesus, those who at the Ascension were commissioned to go into all the world to make disciples, they are waiting eagerly for the word of the Lord, listening carefully, “sitting by the phone,” and when the call comes, Philip is off like a shot, even though he doesn’t know what he is going to find when he gets there.

Then the Ethiopian.  We don’t know too much.  A eunuch, which was a condition required in many places of the ancient world, usually from childhood, for those who were being prepared for service in the royal household.  Perhaps departing Jerusalem now after some diplomatic consultation about trade, since he seems to be something like the Chairman of the Federal Reserve.  Secretary of the Treasury perhaps.  An intellectual, he’s reading the Jewish Scriptures, perhaps in Hebrew, or more likely in the Septuagint Greek translation that was common in the First Century.  A man of curiosity, seeking to know something of the culture of the people of this place.  And as he reads the ancient prophets, questions begin to arise in his mind, in his heart.   Perhaps a spiritual stirring, a sense of God’s presence and power.

Then Philip pops up onto the scene, the Ethiopian invites him to sit down, and the conversation turns to the scriptures.  Philip replies with a proclamation of the gospel, to show the fulfillment of the Prophet’s words in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and I’m sure to tell of the story of Pentecost and everything that has happened since.  And what an amazing story of conversion and transformation and renewal, as  the Holy Spirit fans the fire of faith in the Ethiopian Official.  All at once.  “Stop the cart.  There is a stream over there.  What is to prevent me from being baptized right now?”  This flash of urgency and insight, metanoia, “repentence,” which is to say a new consciousness, a new mind, a new heart.  Here in Acts once again, a part of the larger story, the gospel spreading in wider and wider circles.  The flaming tongues of Pentecost Sunday now spreading like wildfire. 

And when this work is done, the Spirit has Philip move along.  The work accomplished.  The caravan continuing south, the gospel message flying in the wind.  Interesting to note that today two thousand years later the ancient Orthodox Churches of Ethiopia mark this encounter on the road as their apostolic birthplace and foundation.  For 2,000 years a rich center of our global Christian family.  And the final lines of this story, Philip led on to Azotus and Caesarea next, new missionary fields, continuing to spread the gospel in all the towns along his way.

Again, what a great story for Grayson’s baptismal day!  For us to remember, all of us, in the Easter season, as we are in a larger sense living all our lives from beginning to end in Easter season, in the light of the Resurrection and  the Pentecostal power of Holy Spirit.  One way or another each and every one of us of the Christian family today looking back to this moment of witness and proclamation, or to a moment just like it, and to our inheritance generation by generation of faithful communication.  Listening now to hear how God may be calling us.  To what desert road, to what coffee shop, to what brief encounter at the water cooler.  Listening for the question, finding an opportunity in our own way, our own words, to open the Scriptures and to show Christ at the center, God’s love in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and then to trust that in his own time and in his own way God will bless and sanctify that witness—often in ways that we won’t see ourselves.  As Philip himself never knows what happens as the official, still wet with the water of his baptism, makes his way home.  Trusting in the Spirit.

I mentioned a few weeks ago that some folks who write about the Bible have suggested over the years that the name of this book would be better, not “The Acts of the Apostles,” but “The Acts of the Holy Spirit.”  Though of course in a deeper sense it’s all one.  Christ and his Church.  Christ in his Church.  Christ through his Church, making his presence known to the ends of the earth.

At the time of the baptismal anointing, where we will come in just a moment,  I like to quote Samuel  as he anointed young David the Son of Jesse to be the future King of Israel, to reign in Jerusalem and establish the royal line that would reach its completion and highest point in the stable in Bethlehem.  “Young Man, God has a great plan for your life.”  True for Grayson this morning, and true for each one of us.  That as we go forth into Marathon Sunday and all of our lives we too would be leaning forward, preparing ourselves, ready to hear the One who will call us and send us too, Grayson and every one of us, like Philip, like the Ethiopian as he heads toward his home country with a new story to tell, a new life to live--and again and again and again.  It is a great story to be a part of, Acts of the Holy Spirit, and remembering that this morning with much joy.






Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Fourth Easter, 178th Annual Parish Meeting of St. Andrew's Church


Acts 4: 5-12; John 10: 11-18

Good morning.  The calendar of our 1979 Book of Common Prayer moved the traditional observance of what is often affectionately known as “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 of us 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. 

To remind ourselves of the story, 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 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, remembering pastors who have been important in our lives, sharing with us in word and in action the love of Jesus. 

Related perhaps in spirit to the decision to offer as one of the major centerpieces of this place then as well the magnificent Tiffany Window over the high altar.  Jesus blessing the Children.  Another “good shepherd” image we might say, a quiet pastoral moment.  Bring the children to me—don’t send them away.  Taking them into his arms and blessing them. 

I sometimes think about the big move that an earlier generation of St. Andreans made at the beginning of the 20th century, from our large cathedral like church in the center of downtown to the lovely tree-lined streets of this growing residential neighborhood.  I think in that move there may have been something of a vision of a new, evolving sense of identity.  From being a downtown tall-steeple church to being something more like what I sometimes call a “village church.”  As Jesus blesses those children, perhaps our St. Andrean ancestors pictured the families of the neighborhood walking together from home to church on a spring morning.  Again a pastoral image, Christ the Shepherd in the life of his flock, generation after generation, men and women, boys and girls, as we are fed and blessed by him and then called into the wider circles of our lives as his witnesses, his hands and feet, caring for one another and for our neighbors near and far in his name. 

It seemed wonderfully appropriate when we had that narthex Good Shepherd Window repaired and conserved in 2002, that we rededicated the window in honor of my and our good friend, the late Right Rev. David Leighton, rector and pastor of St. Andrew’s from 1956-1960, also beloved as a pastor and friend—and over these almost two centuries the only rector of St. Andrew’s ever to be called and elected to service in the wider church as a bishop.   And it was very touching a couple of years ago when he died to read in the newspaper of the Diocese of Maryland such warm tributes from many clergy and laypeople of that diocese, in memory of a bishop who had been for them both a steady and effective Christian teacher and leader and a good and caring friend and companion.  We have only a few around St. Andrew’s who remember the days when David was pastor here—though of course many more will remember his visits in later years, and perhaps mostly the great weekend back I think in the year 2000 when he joined us to preach and celebrate on St. Andrew’s Day.  A wonderful pastor and friend.

We’ve paused the last few weeks  in these early chapters of Acts with the story of the healing of the lame man who had been begging at the gate of the Temple.  God acting through these disciples, Peter and John, as they invoke the Name of Jesus and stand as witnesses to his continuing presence and power, the one who died on the cross but who has risen from the dead and is ascended to the right hand of the Father, reigning in heaven and on earth.   The power of God bursting forth in a new way.

The lame man leaps for joy, the crowds are amazed, and at the same time the old enemies of Jesus are once again roused to action.  A few weeks ago on the afternoon of Good Friday the disciples had run back to the Upper Room in fear, to hide from their enemies, but now in the Pentecostal power of the Holy Spirit they meet their adversaries, and we might say their Adversary (with a capital A), with Peter’s direct and clear and bold and brave announcement:  “Be it known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by him—by him, this man is standing before you well.  This is the stone which was rejected by you builders, but which has become the head of the corner.  And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”  You can just feel the electricity in the moment.  Peter nose to nose with the high priest, staring him down.  Remembering the courtyard of Annas on that Holy Thursday night, after the arrest in the Garden.  Peter’s denial, slinking away in fear.  But now this.  Urgent and direct and compelling.  Fearless.  You see the evidence of his power, Peter declares--the risen Christ in your midst, here and now.  There is salvation in no one else.  No other name given, by which we must be saved.  The contrast in just these few weeks so dramatic.  Easter and Holy Spirit, and they just are different people.  On fire!  On fire, with Jesus and for Jesus.

Sailing out into our 179th year now.  Please come downstairs and have a cup of coffee and share in the turning of the page to this new year.   We’ll pray together, celebrate some accomplishments, mark some meaningful transitions, talk together, look toward the future.   In this season that we’ve called “Renaissance at St. Andrew’s.”  Reminding ourselves first of all of course of the wonderful renovations achieved through the Opening Doors Campaign.  Renovations in these historic buildings, bringing them to life again in new and exciting ways, every day it seems we’re learning about what more we’re able to do—all of it as an outward sign of what we pray God will be doing in us every day.  From Psalm 51: Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.  It’s good to be here. 

A complicated time in the life of the church, a time of transition, sometimes joyful, sometimes painful.  Sometimes a life that we rejoice in, sometimes with frustrations and disappointments.  And yet confident somehow that this is the particular place to which God has called each one of us.  That each one of us has been brought to this place because here there is something that God knows we need, even if we’re not sure what that is—and because here there is something needed, for God’s purposes,  that we and only we have to give, to share.  Even if we’re not always sure what that is.  People together, old friends and new.  Figuring it out.  Do you think Peter and John knew what was going to happen when they told that man to get up?  I’m pretty sure they didn’t—that all they knew was that if Easter is real, anything is possible.  And they knew that Easter was real.  That Jesus is in charge.  At the Gate of the Temple.  In Highland Park, and in every corner of our world, in every moment of our lives.  In charge.  Which is what “Renaissance at St. Andrew’s” can be all about.    All for him.

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly all that we can ask or imagine, according to the power that is at work in us—to him be the glory in the church, and in Christ Jesus forever and ever.





Sunday, April 19, 2015

Third Easter

Acts 3: 12-19

Good morning and a word of welcome in this springtime and Eastertide.  Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you.  Alleluia, alleluia.

These crisp and high energy  vignettes from the Book of Acts flash before us with stunning and powerful clarity.  At the beginning of this episode Peter and John were, we remember, on their way into the Temple for the daily prayers when they saw the man begging by the entrance.  Peter’s famous line, once again, as I quoted him last Sunday, “Silver and gold have I none, but what I do have, I give to you: in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.”   

And the man at once feels his strength return, leaps to his feet, dances for joy.  Wow!  And the crowds gather.  Some in wonder and amazement, others suspicious, disbelieving.  Among them, those who were just a few weeks ago key in the arrest and execution of Jesus, and they are now intent on putting a stop to this further disruption by his followers.

And Peter this morning, seizing the moment: a fresh opportunity to give his testimony and witness--that it is by the Name of Jesus that this miracle has taken place, shining forth the glory of God the Father, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  All Holy Spirit.  All Easter.  All Pentecost.  You can hear his voice rising above the background noise of the crowds.  Through you and your sin the Father of Lies has been working from Eden until now to extinguish the light, but his efforts are ruined, his powers overwhelmed, his last hour this day one of complete and utter defeat.  Jesus rose from the dead.  We’ve seen him with our own eyes.  Spoken with him.  Eaten with him.  Seen him rise to be seated at the right hand of the Father.  We have beheld his glory, as of the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.

O sons and daughters, let us sing!  The King of heaven, the glorious King, o’er death and hell rose triumphing.  Alleluia!

It’s Easter now.  All Easter, all the time.  Time now, Peter proclaims, time now for you to survey the field, assess the new reality, and make some new choices while you still have time.  Open your eyes and your ears, your minds and your hearts.  Repent.  Greek: metanoite.  Literally, “Get another consciousness.”  Wake up and smell the coffee.  See and know what God is doing.  This new thing.  Not to be ignored, swept under a rug.  Of urgent importance and ultimate significance.  If you think you can just hold on and that this all will pass, that things will go back to being what they were before, you have another “think” coming.  “Repent therefore, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out.”  That’s where we are now, today, this morning, this Easter.  Though your sins are as scarlet, they shall be white as snow.

All Easter, all the time.  I can’t read Acts without thinking back to a moment that I’ve mentioned I think many times before.  One of my own eye-opening moments.  In the library of St. Mark’s in Berkeley—probably 1973 or so.  And I see on the magazine rack a magazine I had never noticed before, called “Acts 29.”  I was looking for something else, so I didn’t pick it up at the time, but later on at home I had a moment of curiosity and I picked up my Bible to look it up.  Only to discover that the Acts of the Apostles ends at the end of Chapter 28.  I paused, and then the lightbulb experience.  Oh.  Acts 29.  What Paul Harvey used to call “the rest of the story.”  My story, your story, our story.

I recently read a comment, someone said, as we look  in each generation to the story told in Acts for an inspirational role model and guide, for our own lives as Christian people and for the life of our church, certainly as we turn here this morning to Chapter 3 we would confess that for most of us whatever our station in life, and for our church, especially here in the Western developed world, we as individual Christians and the church as a whole has something of a hard time saying truly,  “silver and gold have I none.”  Peter and John were weak in every way from the worldly point of view, without status, prestige, office, influence, wealth, power.  Bank accounts, homes, cars, pensions and savings, color televisions and at least a few changes of clothes in our closets.  Grand and historic buildings, pipe organs and elevators.  All of these are, or at least can be, very good things indeed.  But we don’t see them front and center in these ancient stories.  Silver and gold have I none.  So, probably not Episcopalians.  But then, the church also, and we as individual Christians, will seem to have a hard time saying “take up your mat and walk.”   To speak boldly, with an expectation that God will act.

So often we’re left with a message it seems to me that is intellectually coherent perhaps and aesthetically pleasing, but that is spiritually without much power. 

I saw recently a financial planner list “movies, magazines, sports events, and religious activities” altogether under the “entertainment and recreation” category of a family’s household budget.  Categorized as a hobby, a “special interest.”   Not something folks necessarily think will make a real and substantive difference in their lives, in the world.  On the margin, the sidelines, but not in the center of the field. 

Can’t tell that to those college kids in Kenya last month, of course.  The invading terrorists announce, “We’re Al Shabab,” they announced.  “If you are a Christian, raise your hand.”  And some 150 or so did, and were killed on the spot.  One after the other, and as the massacre continued they began to sing hymns.  Hard to imagine raising your hand in that context, to be loyal to your hobby.

Take up your bed and walk.  Think about what must have been going on in Peter and John to say that, with absolute confidence.  Absolute confidence that for the God who had shown us Easter morning there are no limits.  That he is real, that he has won the victory, once for all.  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.

Catching in that a glimpse of what the Holy Spirit could be doing in us and through us.  Inspiring, encouraging, in the midst of what is so often a kind of timidity.  If that’s the right word.  The message Luke seems to be stretching to communicate to us so clearly, that we just need to be all in with this Easter story about the disciples on their way home to Emmaus.  To let it be our story.  Having our eyes opened, being opened ourselves to the power of this Good News, allowing his Holy Spirit to fill us and then energize us.

That place up on Hampton Street, the talk of the neighborhood.  An aspirational thought, I guess, in Eastertide, this lovely spring morning.  Such a beautiful place, so many great people, so much good things going on in so many ways.  But most of all, with such great news to tell, with so much confidence.  Each of our homes.  Each of us, wherever we are.  Raising our hands with Peter and John, with the man who suddenly could stand and walk, with those college kids in Kenya. 


What we have seen with our own eyes, what we have known to be true in our minds and in our hearts.   He is risen, he is risen!  Tell it out with joyful voice; he has burst his three days’ prison; let the whole wide earth rejoice: it is real, it happened, it makes a difference permanently: death is conquered, we are free, Christ has won the victory.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Second Easter

 Acts 4: 32-35

Again--blessings as we sail into this bright season of the church year.  The traditional name “Low Sunday” for this Second Easter Sunday—I suppose mostly to reflect the contrast with Easter morning, the highest of the Church Year.  This place still echoing with the ringing brass choir and the bustle of an almost over-full congregation, which was so much fun, old friends and new, setting up folding chairs in the back, the bustle of all those kids, the drama and excitement of egg hunt and champagne reception and so many festivities.  Important to say from a theological and spiritual perspective of course that there’s nothing “low” about where we are this morning.  From height to height in Eastertide.  The astonishing word and news even after all these centuries, that Jesus, who was dead and buried—Jesus was raised from death, God’s unique and irrevocable intervention, and that he is now alive, with us, to comfort and support and lead us into a glorious future.  The promise ringing around us, “as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.  Alleluia.”  The church season of Easter stretches on through the springtime, 40 days until Ascension Thursday, as symmetry with our earlier 40 Days of Lent, and then another 10 days in Ascensiontide until the 50th Day, Pentecost, and the celebration of the life of God in and around us through the Holy Spirit.  Reminding us of the deeper truth of God’s eternal calendar, that really and truly it’s all Easter now:  all Easter, all the time.

In an ancient tradition, in Eastertide, in our Sunday schedule of readings from scripture, the readings from the Old Testament are replaced by readings from the Acts of the Apostles, the continuation by St. Luke, volume two, to follow his gospel.  In some ways the Gospel according to Luke might be thought of as a Preface, and introduction, what story needs to be told so that the rest of the story can be understood.  The story of Acts begins where the gospel ends, at the Ascension, as Jesus promises his disciples that the next great chapter of their life with him was about to begin, as they would return to Jerusalem and await the outpouring of the Holy Spirit—and as they then equipped and launched by that Holy Spirit would go out to be his witnesses “in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”  His deputies, his agents.  His hands and feet.  They return to Jerusalem, return to that same Upper Room where just a few weeks before they had rested with Jesus during the Passover and shared that last meal with him, that same Upper Room in which he had appeared to them on that evening of Easter Day, when Thomas was absent, when the friends from Emmaus had returned to tell the story of the stranger they had met on the road—the stranger who was Jesus himself.   The same Upper Room where a week after Easter, as we have read this morning, Jesus appeared to them again, and this time with Thomas.

And in the week or so after that day on the mountaintop they prepare themselves for what was to come—even though they were not quite clear what that would mean.  They gather in prayer to discern that Matthias be called to serve with them as one of the twelve leaders, in the place of Judas.  And then on the Jewish Feast of Shauvot, Pentecost, fifty days from the Passover, still in that upper room, “suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind,” and the Holy Spirit lifts them up and charges them with an energy and sends them out of their hiding place and into the open, into the streets, to proclaim with boldness what they have seen and known and come to know to be true about the resurrection.  And there are many who hear from many lands and in many tongues, in the cosmopolitan metropolis of Jerusalem, and many come to believe, and what began as a hundred or so Jesus-followers, mostly from Galilee, now is a rising tide, hundreds and then thousands flocking to respond to what Peter and the other Apostles have to say. 

In the third chapter of Acts the energy of this new movement begins to burst forth not simply with words but with signs and wonders and miracles, as Peter and John meet the crippled man begging at the Temple Gate.  “Silver and gold have I none,” Peter says, “but I give you what I have: in the Name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk!”  And in a moment the man is dancing, leaping in the air, shouting for joy.  At the beginning of the fourth chapter of Acts the old enemies of Jesus are now on the scene again, Annas and Caiaphas, the priests and Sadducees of the temple and those in civil authority suddenly taking notice that what they thought they had nipped in the bud on that Friday afternoon is now back in front of them.  They arrest some of the leaders, put them in jail, try to see if they can push this back down to earth.  Go home, go back to Galilee, go back to your fishing boats, this story is over.

But what we see and what the whole rest of the Book of Acts is going to make very clear is that what is happening now, no earthly power will be able to counteract.  To say it again, it’s all Easter now: all Easter, all the time.  Some have said the title of this book should be not “The Acts of the Apostles,” but “The Acts of the Holy Spirit.”  All about what truly extraordinary things God is doing now in and through these ordinary men and women. The flock gathered by the Good Shepherd, his church.   With every challenge, every arrest, every threat, the fire of the gospel spreads, burning brighter and brighter.  And these followers of Jesus, far from being cornered, pushed into submission--they are glowing and growing, filled with joy, hearts lifted by experiences of spiritual and mystical heights, sharing with one another freely, giving generously and in abundance, in a fellowship of friendship deeper than any they had ever known before, fearless even with opposition all around them, living a new life and a transformed life in wonderful anticipation of the return of their risen Lord and Savior.  To be a part of his eternal future. 

And the heart of their new life and calling summarized here, this sentence this morning, Acts 4: 33: “and with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them.”  Underline and repeat: “and with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them.”  The Easter message. 

Ah. And so we take a breath.  There are, I think, so many wonderful things you can say about our life and ministry here at St. Andrew’s in this era of our congregational life.  178 years after our founding.  This beautiful and holy space—and of course we are so appreciative of the renewal all around made possible in the last couple of years.  The gift of worship—and just to think about the solemn and amazing week just past, Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, and what a highlight moment last Sunday, the festival day of Easter.  Thinking about how this spring as Liz Buchanan has passed the torch to Brandon Cooper St. Andrew’s has become such a great place for kids and families—about the work Joan does with our teenagers, about our Bible Studies and Inquirer Classes and book groups, and of course about the rich texture of mission, our Mustard Seed Babies in Uganda, our Five Talents partners in Bolivia, our neighbors nearby at EECM and Seeds of Hope and Shepherd’s Heart, the Homeless Children’s Education Fund, the Food Bank, and on and on and on and on.

As this Easter moves along, into the sunshine of spring, so much to appreciate and be thankful for about this place.  Our church.  Such great people.   Good friends.

But let’s say this morning that in and with that all, we do need to be careful.  This is all great, but it’s not of first importance.   It’s really not.  It’s not the main thing.  It’s not what we’re about, who we are.   In our DNA, our core identity.  If any of these things were what we are mainly known for, we might well take that as a warning to check to be sure that we hadn’t wandered far from the center line of our calling, of what and who it is God has called us to be about in the life of the Holy Spirit.  Easter people. A tap on the shoulder, in Acts chapter 4.  Jesus looked at that magnificent Temple in Jerusalem and said, as we read in Matthew 24, “not one stone will be left on another.”  And again, “heaven and earth will pass away, but my words shall not pass away.”  It’s all great, everything--but only great because of what’s at the center, and because of who is at the center.  “It is not ourselves that we proclaim,” says Paul in Second Corinthians 4,  “It is not ourselves that we proclaim, but Christ Jesus as Lord.”  It’s not about us, who we are, what we have accomplished, but about him, what he has done for us.  Eyes on that cross outside the gates of Jerusalem.  Eyes on the tomb, the stone rolled away.  Jesus: is alive.  Jesus: is with us.

What this reading from Acts 4 opens for us this morning, that who they were, we would be.  What this old place on Hampton Street would be all about, morning, noon, and night.  What we all would be about, each one of us.  Second Sunday of Easter, 40 Days of Easter.  All Easter, all the time.    “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them.” 

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


Holy Matrimony

April 11, 2015 Holy Matrimony
Emily Ann Stempkowski and Matthew Joseph Kiswardy
Tobit 8:5-8

Wow.  Good afternoon everyone!  Family and friends . . . .  It is so great to be here today, as we are witnesses and participants in this wonderful celebration of Christian marriage.  Emily and Matt, I would simply personally and I know speaking for everyone here today, and with truly a full heart, express my and our deepest thanks for including us, for inviting us to be with you as this new page is turned, a new chapter begun.   In the joy of Easter Week and after such a long winter what we are truly enjoying as the beginning of spring!  What I know is in my heart and in all our hearts this afternoon, and I hope you will hear this with depth and sincerity: “this is going to be something special.”  Matt and Emily.  We already see it.  In the deep mysteries of his Providence, God is doing a great thing in you.  He has a great plan for your lives, only just now beginning to unfold in a new way. 

Thank you especially for selecting this reading from the Book of Tobit for us—truly a gift.   It’s a story that isn’t always familiar to folks, but one of the key scenes is in the passage we’ve just heard.  Tobias is the main character of the book, and he has just married his beloved, Sarah.  And what we see here is this moment of their first night together as husband and wife, and the beginning of their marriage and the consecration of their marriage in prayer, kneeling in their home and offering to God thanksgiving for the life that they will now share and praying for his blessing and protection in all that is to come in their lives. 

A wonderful  vignette to illustrate what we would say here today, this afternoon, about marriage in general and your marriage in particular.  That it is not simply a civil contract, but a Covenant not simply blessed by God but established by God.  A relationship, a manner of life that comes into existence by him and in him and through him.  A relationship that has social dimensions and legal dimensions for sure—but that is at its heart and as its foundation a spiritual relationship.  By him and in him and through him.  As Tobias and Sarah show us their prayer.

We say marriage is a “sacrament” because in marriage you two become outward signs of God’s grace and love.  He is going to be using you to communicate his life to others, and that is the work you are called to do and that we acknowledge and celebrate today.  Beginning at home, and then moving outward in wider and wider circles.

You know, in the Old Testament Book of Exodus, chapter 3, there is one of my favorite stories, about a moment of life-changing experience, a “vocational” moment, a moment of transformation, about a calling to a new way of life-- in a way kind of like this moment here today.  In that story Moses is working for his father in law, tending his sheep out in the wilderness, and one day he sees something off in the distance that looks strange to him. 

He moves closer and finally comes to this great big tree or bush that is on fire, fully engulfed in flames, burning and burning—but no matter how long it burns, it doesn’t burn out.  He watches for a while, amazed at the sight, and then all at once a great, deep voice comes from the flame.  (I like to think it was the voice of James Earl Jones.)  

“Take off your shoes, Moses, for the ground on which you are standing is holy ground.”  Holy Ground. 

This is the moment when God tells Moses about his plan for his life, how from the day of his birth he has been shaped and prepared for the mission to lead God’s people out of slavery in Egypt and across the Wilderness and into the Promised Land.  God speaks into this world, into our lives, and what was an ordinary place is now made sacred by that holy word.  And Matt and Emily: we should all be taking off our shoes right now!  (At least in our imaginations!)   In the vows and promises you make today, in God’s sight and in the presence of these friends and family members, the ground under your feet is consecrated, and made holy.  Not because of what you are saying, but because we believe, that God’s word is being spoken to you now.  We can imagine that burning bush, right here, right now. 

That God’s holy presence is with you, surrounding you, above you, and beneath your feet, with richness and blessing and purpose.  The prayers and blessings of this day don’t just happen in this one moment of your wedding, but they go out with you into your marriage and life together, from this day forward, and will be around you and under you and with you all the days of your life.   He has great plans for you, for both of you, and for you together as one new person, one flesh, husband and wife—a new family.  That’s the great and wonderful thing we celebrate.  I don’t know what those plans are in the particulars.  None of us do.  But he is beginning to reveal them to you now, in this moment this afternoon.  And it’s a privilege for us to be here with you at the beginning!

And now as Matt and Emily come to the altar to exchange the vows that will make them husband and wife, and to receive an assurance of God’s blessing,  let us pause for a moment and bow our heads and in the quiet of our own hearts  each of us offer a prayer of love and blessing for them—that they will be surrounded and embraced and encouraged and supported in every way, all the days of their lives.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Easter Day

John 20: 1-18

Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us: therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.  (I Cor. 5)

Friends: Grace and peace to you, blessings, joy--all the riches of God’s favor, on this First Morning of the world.  And as we remind ourselves every year, the ancient and traditional greeting of this day and season.  Christos anesti! Christ is risen!  And the reply,  Alithos anesti!  He is risen indeed!  Century after century among all languages and peoples and nations:  Christos anesti!  Alithos anesti!

Easter blessings, and in abundance.  Wonderful to see you.   Choirs singing, trumpets ringing.  Welcome Happy Morning!

There if of course so much to say on Easter Day.  C.S. Lewis has a cute story about walking to the village church on Easter morning behind a family with a young girl of maybe 4 or 5 who is singing to herself, “chocolate eggs, and Jesus risen!”  If we were silent, the rocks and trees and rivers and seas would need to shout the news.  In every language.  And what the truth is, the truth that we would know and proclaim not just this morning but every morning of our lives, and today of all days it must be presented with clarity:  to say simply, that the story we have heard is true, and that it matters, that it makes a difference.  Whether we’re hearing the story for the first time this morning, or whether we’ve known it almost by heart all our life long. That’s the one key thing to know, the “take away,” the bottom line. Why we’re here today or ever.  What the preacher had to say.  What every preacher needs to say this morning, or else keep his mouth shut.

That the story we have heard this morning is true. Not only true the way a poem or a powerful symbol can be true. Though like a poem, and like a powerful symbol, this story can and does reach down deep into our imagination, gives shape to our waking thoughts, fills our dreams. But true in the real, bright, historical light of that Sunday morning. Stunning. Unexpected. Disorienting. Because it didn’t just seem to happen.  It happened. What God did.  The stone, rolled away. The tomb, empty. And then Jesus was with them.  Not a ghost or a vision or a vivid memory, but real and alive.  Transformed, radiant, but alive, as real as any of us. All true. Risen from the dead. 

And that it makes a difference.  I sometimes say about the spontaneous and natural first response to the Easter acclamation, “Christ is risen from the dead,” might be something like, “Wow!  Lucky for him!”  Everybody else we’ve ever known who has died has stayed dead.  How great for Jesus!  But what we announce today, the news of Easter doesn’t end with the unexpected report that the one who died has risen from the dead.  It’s not simply news about the reappearance of Jesus after his burial.  It instead a proclamation, to announce the complete and utter and once and for all defeat of the enemy.  Crushing the Serpent’s head.  Jesus is the “first fruit,” as St. Paul says, “the first fruit of those who have fallen asleep.”  “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.”  The Cross of death now a sign of his victory, and with clarity, our victory, in and through and with him.  And so, choirs singing, trumpets ringing.  Easter morning.

At the beginning of our story God makes Man from the dust of the earth and then settles him in a garden.  Remembering this morning back in the 2nd and 3rd chapters of Genesis.  The very beginning.  Lush and fertile, watered by cool streams and flowing rivers, planted with beautiful trees bearing rich and nourishing fruit of every kind.  Eden: earthly paradise. Where God came in the cool of the evening to walk beside our first father, in perfect accord and communion.  Giving names to the animals and caring for the abundance.  So beautiful. 

But then as we read in Genesis Chapter 3 the Serpent enters the picture, a cold chill of winter and darkness, rebellion, lies, guilt and shame. It all happens so quickly we can hardly catch our breath.  Adam and Eve in a storm of regret and bitterness are expelled from the Garden, the entry at its eastern gate blocked by angels, cherubim, and a bright, flaming sword.  The wages of sin, loss, grief, suffering, disease and death.  Estrangement and alienation.  The whole long history of the world.  And although we sometimes try to paper it over, the whole long history of our lives.  But then, now, this Easter morning,  through the Cross the way is opened, the stone rolled away.    God acts, for us.  Welcome, happy morning!

Thinking about the Garden this Easter Day—hard not to do as we have before us the 20th chapter of St. John.  Mary terrified and distraught, running frantically from the Empty Tomb.  Until she finds herself in a quiet place, green and well-watered.  Peaceful.  Where she can stop and catch her breath.  I can’t help but think of that beautiful Isaac Watts hymn:

Christ hath a garden walled around,
A Paradise of fruitful ground,
Chosen by love and fenced by grace
From out the world's wide wilderness
.

And oh, that garden, before us this morning.  The sweet scent and texture of spring.

Awake, O wind of heav'n and bear
Their sweetest perfume through the air:
Stir up, O south, the boughs that bloom,
Till the beloved Master come:


Step by step with Mary.  Confusion, fear.  The message for her in that Empty Tomb, that nothing will ever be the same again.  And then the rustle of leaves, the wind in the trees, and the one who comes unexpectedly, quietly, but who knows her name.  “Mary.”  And in that breath of a moment, light and life, yearning, hope.  All fulfilled, and overflowing.  A future and a meaning and a love deeper and wider than any she could ever have imagined before.  Above and beyond.  With him, in the shade of the Garden, as it was in the beginning.  Perfect.  Is now, and will be forever.

That he may come, and linger yet
Among the trees that he hath set;
That he may evermore be seen
To walk amid the springing green.

Choirs singing.  Trumpets ringing.  What Mary ran to tell the others.  As it had been made known to her in the garden.  As he had come to her. This is the truth spoken to us in every baptism, and as our minds and hearts are opened to hear and receive his Word, and as we are incorporated into the mystery of the Holy Eucharist.  Jesus is risen from the dead.  Christos anesti.   Easter.  There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea.


May it be all blessing for you. Healing. Renewal. This joyful Eastertide, away with sin and sorrow. Opening our eyes and our ears and our minds and our hearts. The first morning of the world.  The freshness of the First Garden, again for us.  The first morning of our new life in him. Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

I Vespers Easter

Almighty God, which through thy only begotten Son Jesus Christ hast overcome death, and opened unto us the gate of everlasting life; we humbly beseech thee, that, as by thy special grace, preventing us, thou dost put into our minds good desires, so by thy continual help we may bring the same to good effect; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end.  Amen.