Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Day of Pentecost: Whitsunday

Acts 2

Hail, Festival Day!  And grace and peace  this holiday weekend of Memorial Day, of course, and on the church calendar the Eighth and last Sunday in the long reach of Easter.  Whitsunday: Pentecost.  Balloons and bright red paraments and Sunday School cakes to celebrate the Birthday of the Church, great choir anthems, organ fanfares and liturgical alleluias. 

Ten days after the first Passover and God’s Chosen People, the descendants of Jacob, have been lifted from their bondage in Egypt, and saved through the parted waters of the Red Sea, and delivered by God’s mighty hand to the base of Mount Sinai.  And then Moses begins his steep ascent skyward, up the mountain and into the clouds, in deep and personal communion with the Almighty.  And 40 Days later he returns—cradled in his arms the great Tablets of the Law, God’s word for God’s people.

Fifty Days from Passover, this long gestation and pilgrimage, and then Pentecost!  In Hebrew, Shavuot.  The spring festival to be kept from that day forward, the giving of God’s Word Written, his very breath the finger that carved the text of the holy Covenant.   Torah. 

The sign of this promise, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.”  The poetic association as well of the spring planting season.  As the farmer plants seed in the earth, to bring an abundant harvest, so God plants his word in the hearts of his people.  To bring forth new life in him.

And it was on Shavuot, as here in this second chapter of the Book of Acts—on Shavuot, on the Festival Day of Pentecost, that the friends of Jesus are gathered in one place, in that Upper Room that we have come to know so well, from Maundy Thursday and all the way through the life of this Easter season.   Leaning forward in anticipation after the amazing experience of the Mount of the Ascension, has they had been instructed, to see what will come next.  

And then the promise of Jesus, that he would come to them in a new and fresh way is fulfilled, like a rush of wind, filling the room with electricity, bright flames, energy.  Lo, I am with you always.  The Holy Spirit will come upon you.  Comforter and Advocate, Companion and Guide.  Very God of very God.

Balloons and bright red paraments and Sunday School cakes, great choir anthems, organ fanfares and Easter alleluias.  That all seems just right.  The Lord and Giver of life.  Who proceedeth from the Father and the Son.  With the Father and Son together, worshiped and glorified.  Who spake by the Prophets.

I was sorry to miss church at St. Andrew’s last Sunday—though Susy and I were glad that our Bed and Breakfast was right around the corner from St. Stephen’s Church, in Westborough, Massachusetts.   We were able to walk over in the morning and share in a wonderful service there for the Sunday after The Ascension before heading out into the afternoon of our Linnea’s graduation from the Tufts Vet School.

But Phil and Garrett were both kind enough to share their sermons from Sunday—Phil in the morning, Garrett at Evensong—so that I could post them on my Rector’s Page sermon blog.  And just so very meaningful  to read both of them. 

Phil reaching into the word of Jesus and his promise of the Holy Spirit at the Mount of the Ascension, and to say that even as that word was spoken it was already fulfilled in the precious word of Scripture itself.  As we confess in the Creed, “He has spoken through the Prophets.”  A reminder that the Spirit lives in us and among us in every syllable of God’s Word, every fragment of Sunday School memory verse, every Biblical echo of Prayer Book liturgy.  A reminder that the reader who stands at the Lectern to read God’s Word to God’s People is in the same place as the minister of the Holy Communion, in the administration of bread and cup.

 A reminder that as we eat and drink and commune in the fullness of his presence in his written Word, so our lives our nourished and our minds and our hearts are changed and renewed.   Phil quoted Archbishop Cranmer’s great Collect for the Second Sunday of Advent, as we now have it in the last set of Propers right before the beginning of Advent.  This classic Anglican meditation on the truth of Scripture as God’s Incarnate presence.  Of these Holy Scriptures, “Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them.”  --Inwardly digest.  So that as the saying goes, “you are what you eat.”  We become what we hear, as we hear him speak, take in his Word.

And Garrett’s very fine sermon at Evensong last Sunday, moving also from the Mount of the Ascension to the affirmation of the Creed, “He is seated at the right hand of the Father.”   That in the Ascension, the truth that Jesus doesn’t so much leave his disciples as he does lift them up with him in anticipation of God’s Kingdom and the fullness of his glory.  This vision that Garrett called “radical.”  Transformational.

Two Mountains, one at the beginning of the Story, in  Exodus, and one at the end of the Story, in Acts.  Torah and Ascension, Word and Spirit.  Shavuot and Pentecost.  All one story.  Creation and New Creation.  God in action.  

And as I’ve shared in my recurring reflections on “Acts 29,” not a story that ends long ago and far away.  Our story.  To us and for us and about us.  I think when I saw that magazine, Acts 29, in the library of St. Mark’s Berkeley all those decades ago, and in the moment a few hours later when the significance of that title popped like a lightbulb, there was this moment when the ground for me just seemed to shift a little bit.  I wasn’t “slain in the Spirit” and singing in tongues—and I didn’t rush out into the street like Peter and the others to shout the news.  As Garrett pointed out correctly last Saturday: we are, after all Episcopalians.  I say that I’m descended from a long line of Introverted Northern European Males, and that is something of the DNA that so often characterizes our Anglican inheritance.  A sense of decorum and restrain and understatement.

But if there’s a day to whoop and holler, to see our own names written in the pages of Acts 29, to rush out into the highways and byways, like those first Christians, our mothers and fathers, all of us with them to babble and sing, to tell the story of Jesus, to declare the great things God has done,  it is today, Whitsunday, Pentecost, Shavuot. 

Quietly, reasonably, and with restraint, of course.  Rite I, plainsong . . . .

The Child’s name was to be called Emmanuel, God with us, and the whole reality of his story returns again and again to that name, from the Manger to the Cross, from last December to this morning,  from the Empty Tomb to the Garden to the Upper Room and to the Mountaintop, and  now that name opens for us and settles in with us.  Look at that wonderful  Clara Miller Burd Ascension Window here in this North Transept as hours go by and days and year after year, and nothing changes, because he is lifted up,  but he doesn't really anywhere.  On high, at the right hand of the Father.  Yet truly here with us.  At the Lectern and on the Holy Table, on our lips and in our hearts.  Flowing outward from us, in word and action: the love of God, in Jesus Christ our Lord.  Whitsunday, Pentecost.

The to hear in our minds and hearts, our imaginations, all our lives, the prayer of the old Pentecost hymn: Breathe on me, Breath of God, till I am wholly thine, till all this earthly part of me glows with thy fire divine.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Seventh Easter Sunday: After The Ascension

Sermon at Evensong, by C. Garrett Yates, Seminarian

It’s so wonderful to be here this evening, and share this beautiful service with you all. I want to think a little bit with you about the Ascension – for we are in the part of the year where confess and pray that Jesus’s cosmic reign has begun. Jesus is not just resurrected, he didn’t just head to heaven and join the ranks of the celestial company. He ascended. And we are told he sits at the right hand of the Father, ruling and reigning until he comes again in glory. 

Well I don’t know about you, but some of this language is a bit abstract. This is all very hard to conceptualize. And for some of us, even harder to believe. Is this what it means to be a Christian, to believe in things like this, to know these facts about the world? I do think the doctrine of the Ascension is one of the harder doctrines, but not necessarily because of its metaphysical claims. I think the Ascension is a hard doctrine because of the claims it makes upon us – it is not making claims on our reason, so much as on our lives.

You may remember one of the earliest experiences of the Ascension. It’s the story of the first martyr Stephen. As you may remember, Stephen is killed because of his association with the Jesus movement. Stephen was one of those people whose life was shot through with God’s grace. And Acts tells us that he radiated a tremendous spiritual presence, and his wisdom and insightfulness were utterly contagious to the early Christian community. Stephen believed that Jesus changed everything. Well, as you may have guessed, this Jesus message landed Stephen in a lot of trouble. He was arrested and charged for sedition. Even on trial, the author of Acts tells us that everyone present “saw that his face was radiant, just like an angel’s.” And with just a few minutes left on death row, Stephen gives one of the best sermons ever preached. All about God’s unconditional mercy and kindness in Jesus. But his hearers, sensibly enough, found this message threatening. And so, following the customs of Jewish law for punishing terrible offenders, they picked up their rocks to stone him. But before the first rock strikes his body, Stephen lifts his eyes to heaven and there he sees Jesus. And a few seconds later, literally as he is going down, he draws strength from the ascended Jesus and speaks a word of forgiveness over his torturers.

A word of forgiveness over his torturers.

The ascension of Jesus was reality for Stephen. It was not something Stephen argued about among religious folks, nor did he believe it because, well, that’s just what you believe. Stephen drew energy and life from the Ascension. The Ascended One, who went straight into the heart of darkness himself, empowered Stephen to stare the god-forsakenness of the world right in the eye. And to look at it, not in anger, but in outpouring gestures of love and forgiveness. Stephen lived and died the Ascension of Jesus.

But here we are, living in 21st century America. And lucky for us, dying for our faith isn’t something faced by most of us living on the east end of Pittsburgh. We go about our days and yes we may suffer some discomforts, but it is my hunch that may have very little to do with our faith. The “world”, whatever that is, seems quite alright with us being Christians. And honestly, as I have been writing this sermon, I am not sure how I feel about that. I can’t make up my mind – has the world become a better place or have Christians lost some of their punch? Because, if I am honest with you, as I read Jesus, I encounter a radical. I encounter someone whose passion for love and mercy and justice unsettled some folks. People thought he was off his rocker. They thought he had a demon.

Now, before you think I have gone off the deep end. Let me assure you, I am Episcopalian to the core. Fanatics of any kind make me nervous. I like poetry better than football, and anything less than high Anglican worship makes me think that we’ve cheapened our spiritual offering to God. I am Episcopalian. But as I read the story of Stephen, and how he lived the Ascension, I cannot help but miss the radical beauty of his gospel. The ways in which his life was soaked through with grace. The ways in which his love for Jesus challenged the world. Really upset people; not because he was divisive or argumentative, but because he was aflame with God’s love. They probably thought that he too had a demon. 

So what might living the Ascension look like for us? Let me turn to one of my favorite poets, and one of the great Anglican imaginations of the 20th century, W.H. Auden. His poem “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” captures to my mind what living the Ascension means. And although he is talking about Yeats and other poets, it might not be bad to think of us Christians as poets in our own particular ways – but that’s another sermon. Here’s the last few stanzas: Follow, poet, follow right/To the bottom of the night/With your unconstraining voice/Still persuade us to rejoice/ With the farming of a verse/Make a vineyard of the curse/Sing of human unsuccess/In a rapture of distress/ In the deserts of the heart/Let the healing fountain start/In the prison of his days/Teach the free man how to praise.

That’s got to be something of what living the Ascension means. Learning how to go into the inextinguishable pain of the world, and therein finding the words of praise. Going into the shadowy corners of earth’s night, and learning to see the light of Christ burning there. Or maybe we could say this: Christians are people who persuade others, while they persuade themselves, to rejoice. Whatever this rejoicing may look like, Auden suggests that it is a journey into some amount of darkness.

Maybe your journey is more interior, say you practice centering prayer. Maybe you journey out onto the dark and frightening territories of your own inner life, and you stay there (in the deserts of the heart) anchored as best as you can with a spiritual word. Or maybe you address the darkness in more outward forms: you go to a homeless shelter, and you find the beauty and dignity of Jesus there among people whom the world has written off as dirty and unclean. And it may not be as big and noticeable as either of these: maybe you are swallowed up in existential boredom and numbness, and the journey into the darkness for you is nothing more than allowing yourself to be loved. I cannot say what it means for you to live the Ascension.

But I can say that living the victory of Jesus frees us up to be vulnerable, and to meet others in their vulnerability. Jesus is alive, and your life is hidden with him, therefore take risks. For not even death can separate you from his boundless love. And so we should, as best as we know how, allow ourselves to relax our desperate control grips. It’s safe; as long as he lives, as long as his love and mercy reign, we are safe. Just as he was there with Stephen in the moments of greatest peril, so he’s there with you and me.

Please hear me. I am not telling you to leave here and go be a Jesus radical – whatever that means. But I am saying this: if we can manage to look to him, and slowly acclimatize to his security and hope, I suspect that our lives will be freed up in new ways for radical love. And as we do this, as we go from here and live the Ascension, we may just find that we radiate with the same love that carried Stephen through to the end.  

Seventh Easter Sunday: After The Ascension

Sermon Sunday Morning, at the Holy Communion
by the Rev. Dr. Philip Wainwright, Priest Associate
Acts 1: 15-17, 21-26

'Send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us', we prayed in the collect at the beginning of the service; and God's reply can only be, 'Guess what--I already have. It's yours any time you want.' I say this because I've recently been thinking about Paul's words in Acts 20.32: I commit you to God and to the word of His grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. God’s word, which can build us up---strengthen us---and sanctify us, make us holy.

Those words are said by Paul to the leaders of the parish of Ephesus, and they are said when he has to leave them. He is reminding them of the resource they will still have, even though they will no longer have him. That resource is God’s word, and Paul suggests that it’s the next best thing to having a real live apostle preaching in the church every Sunday. God’s word builds us up, strengthens us, and gives us a share in what the Prayer Book calls the inheritance of the saints, an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. God’s word is the key to salvation, and the key to growing stronger in faith once we are part of the saved community. 

Paul is saying this to the church in Ephesus, but there’s no way it can be true for them but not for the church in the USA, the church in Pittsburgh, and the church in Highland Park. If it’s true for anyone, it’s true for everyone. And the Episcopal Church endorses this every time it uses the prayer on p 236 of the Prayer Book: ‘Blessed Lord, Who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which You have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.’ Scripture teaches us what we need to know, and leads us to everlasting life, to the inheritance of the saints.

That the Scriptures were written for our learning is a direct quote from the Bible, I Corinthians 10.11. The Bible was given to us so that we could know things we don’t know, and acquire abilities we don’t have. It’s good to use it, because not knowing things can be dangerous. If you don’t know anything about electricity, you might not believe it if someone were to say to you, don’t touch that cable over there, you’ll die if you do. But if that cable has 100,000 volts of electricity running through it, and you touch it, it can kill you. Not knowing about that can be very dangerous. That’s why we put warning signs around dangerous things, for our learning. In case someone doesn’t know, we put up the warning sign—danger, don’t touch.

Not knowing other things is not dangerous, but just such a pity, because they are such wonderful things to know. There are so many great things you can never know about, never enjoy, if someone doesn’t teach you. My favorite example of this is rhubarb. If you’ve ever seen rhubarb growing, you know that it doesn’t look very interesting or appetising. And if you’d never learned about it, and decided to check it out for yourself, you’d have an awful time. To start with, the leaves are poisonous, so if you tried them you’d never even get to the stalks. But if on a whim you decided to take a bite of the stalk, you’d still spit it out in a second because it tastes so awful, and you’d probably never believe any one who told you that if you combine it with something sweet, you discover one of the most delicious flavors in the world. You can just dip the end of the stalk in sugar and suck it like a lollipop, and you’d never believe it was the same plant. And if you pour hot syrup over diced rhubarb and let them soak it up, and serve it with ice-cream or custard—oh man, there’s nothing better! But if no one teaches you how to eat it, you’ll never know how good it is. There are lots of things in life like rhubarb; they look like things you don’t want anything to do with, but once you understand how to use them, you’d never want to be without them. Until you treat Scripture as something written for your learning, you just don’t know how wonderful life can be.

God caused Holy Scripture to be written for both those kinds of learning, learning that warns us away, and learning that guides us to. Some things are really dangerous; not dangerous physically, like electricity can be, but dangerous spiritually. And God caused Scripture to be written so that we would learn about those things, and avoid them. Some things turn out to be wonderful, spiritually, even if they don’t seem wonderful when we first come across them or hear about them, and God caused Scripture to be written about those things, too, so that we would learn about them, and add them to our lives. That life goes better when we follow Jesus, for instance, is one of those. Most people think that their lives go best when they do what seems good to them. But the Bible says There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death. We would never know that life goes better for those who follow Jesus if God hadn’t caused it to be written down, written for our learning.

And God has so many more great things for us to learn. I’ve been a Christian for forty years, and I’m still learning wonderful things to do, and dangerous things to avoid, and I’ve known people who have been Christians even longer than that who tell me the same thing. But the Bible doesn’t do us a bit of good if we don’t read it, or at least listen carefully while someone else reads it. And hearing it, or reading it, doesn’t do us a bit of good if we don’t think seriously about what it says. Remember the Prayer Book formula: we are to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest God’s word. The word mark means to pay attention, as in ‘mark my words’—pay attention, get the message! Scripture is not just ‘holy words’, Scripture is information that makes a difference when we pay attention to it, and only when we pay attention to it.

One of my mentors in the faith, now with the Lord, wrote this not long before he died after a long battle with cancer: ‘The Bible speaks to me with ever greater authority and relevance. Each day as I open it, God speaks straight into my heart by his Word. And it tells me of what lies beyond this life. I can see the end of life. It looms over the horizon, and I am encouraged to think it will not now be long before I am there.’ It’s the Bible that gives us a faith that can turn something bitter into something not just sweet but eternally good. And only God’s word does it—even the best sermons don’t do that. Good sermons only point you to the Bible. You still have to open it and apply it to yourself. When you do, your life starts to grow in ways you’d never guess.

We can all deal with the bitter things in life by adding the sweetness of God’s word. A parishioner at the 9 am service gave me the perfect closing point after the service, when she said that the next time she came across a passage that was difficult, she would remember the rhubarb, and pray that God would sweeten the passage for her. When you come to a passage that seems difficult to understand or that says something you don’t want to hear, remember the rhubarb, and ask God to show you the sweetness. We can all go easily to the source of salvation and growth faith, by simply opening our Bibles and reading them, and remembering that the words we read are God’s words to us personally.

No wonder Paul said what he did to his church when he was called away: Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. May we also be built up by it, and given our share of the inheritance of the saints, through Christ our Lord, Amen.

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.