Sunday, November 22, 2015

St. Andrew's Day 2015

Observing St. Andrew the Apostle

Good morning and grace and peace-- fellow St. Androids (I love saying that!),  extended family, neighbors and friends.  Always a fun day in the life of this congregation—and the wider neighborhood, as folks up the block and around the corner put down the Sunday paper and come out on the porch to see what all the fuss is.  Bagpipes and drums and smiles and greetings.   And a cookie table!

A special welcome and word of thanks again as for so many years our friends of the Syria Highlanders have blessed us by joining in the celebration.  And as we are reminded by your presence to include in our thoughts and prayers the important work of the Shriners’ Hospitals for Children, which you all continue to serve as your fundraising mission.  It’s an honor for us to have the opportunity to share in that work with you.

Our St. Andrew’s ancestors were sent out on a missionary endeavor in the winter and spring of 1837, to lay the foundations of a second Episcopal Church to serve Pittsburgh’s growing population.  Must have been an exciting time for them.  Energized with a vision for Christian witness, the proclamation of the gospel in a new place and in new ways.  For them in a fresh and new way the echoing invitation and commission of our Lord to our St. Andrew and his brother Peter, from St. Matthew’s Gospel this morning: Come follow me, and fish for people!   The Parish of St. Andrew the Apostle.

 St. Andrew: Called by Jesus.  Taught by Jesus.  Sent out into the wide world by Jesus to share the Good News, to invite people into fellowship under his Cross, to be his hands and in his service as he builds his holy Church. 

I love that very simple description in the Book of The Acts of the Apostles, at the end of the second chapter, describing the days following the great outpouring of Holy Spirit on Pentecost Sunday.  “And day by day,” St. Luke writes at the beginning of verse 46  . . . “and day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people.  And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” 

All about sharing prayer and worship, the Holy Communion of the Bread and Cup.  About living wholesome  and attractive lives in their neighborhoods, so that everyone commended them.  About generosity, expansive generosity.   I love that description, “they partook of food with glad and generous hearts.”   Sounds like St. Andrew’s to me!  And day by day, the Lord working in the lives of new friends, drawing them into this fellowship, turning hearts and changing lives.

Of course our St. Andrew was in that apostolic crowd that we read about in the second chapter of Acts.  In John’s gospel we have several wonderful  glimpses of him.  One very familiar, in John 6, when the crowds had followed Jesus out into the wilderness, and the miracle of the Feeding of the Multitudes.  The disciples had no idea how in the world they were going to figure out how to deal with this day—beyond the skills of even the most skillful event planner.  And then the little boy shows up, with his lunch, five small rolls, two fish.  And he is seen first by Andrew--who is keeping an eye out, confident I think that when we’re about the Lord’s business the Lord will provide--and Andrew immediately knows what to do, and brings him to Jesus. 

And then later, in John 12, on the afternoon of Palm Sunday, as the story is headed towards its dramatic turn, when strangers who have come to Jerusalem from distant lands to celebrate the Passover festival, Greek speaking Jews--they come searching for the famous Rabbi, the one everyone is talking about, who made such a stir in the streets earlier in the day.  And the Spirit stirs up a curiosity in their hearts.  They come to Andrew and say, “Sir, we would see Jesus.”  And immediately he brings them to him.  (The great 18th and 19th Century Church of England priest and preacher Charles Simeon had those words carved into the lectern on the pulpit of Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge, where he was rector for 54 years.

It all reminds me of the prayer that is said daily in observance of St. Benedict in every Benedictine monastic community.  The prayer that through God’s action the community may grow “in number and holiness.”  Those two things together. 
Catching a glimpse of that in John 6 and 12, in Acts 2, and in our gospel reading this morning, the very beginning of the ministry of Jesus,  in this conversation by the lake, as Jesus comes across these old followers of John the Baptist, now back at home and back at work, and invites them to come in a new direction, for a new work, with him.  And they follow:  Peter and Andrew, James and John.  The Lord adds to the fellowship day by day those who are being saved. 

People still come looking for him, and some Andrew or other makes the introduction.   Could be you, could be me.  Any of us.  And it doesn’t really take special skill or training.  Just a willing heart, we might say.  Since it’s God himself, Holy Spirit, who is going to work through us to do whatever it is that will be done.

A simple way of describing “apostolic witness.  ”   And of course ever encounter is unique.  Every conversation fresh and new.  Every story is different.  A bit later in the Acts story Peter and John are going to meet a begger at the Temple gate.  Philip is going to meet an Ethiopian official returning home from a diplomatic visit to Jerusalem.   Paths cross.   It’s like at a wedding, when you might ask someone you don’t know, “so, how are you connected to the bride and groom?”  We could go around the church this morning to ask that question, as we did a bit at our Coffee and Conversation hour this morning.   “How did you get here?”  What’s your story?  Who was it who introduced you to the Bridegroom?

And we would find in telling those stories again and again versions of some story about meeting St. Andrew.  Or one of his spiritual offspring, generation after generation.  Greeting you at the door, or out in the street, or over the back fence, or at work, or at school.  “I’m glad to meet you.  And  there’s someone else  I think you’d like to meet.  I know anyway he’d like to meet you.   In fact, he’s expecting you!  Please allow me to introduce you.” 

The spirit of St. Andrew, our patron, whom we remember today, whose continuing and inspiring work would shape all our lives—and let’s pray that it will continue to do so, that we will be built up as worthy successors to him, his legacy--so that we would know that deep down all Christian people are St. Andreans.  It’s a bustling crowd and a good bunch, and we can be proud to march together under his banner.

A Marriage Homily

November 21, 2015 Holy Matrimony
Katherine Anne Jones and Robert Scott Hess
Tobit 8: 5-8; St. John 15: 9-12

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.  Katie and Bob, 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. 

Here in Pittsburgh, as you know, we live at the source of one of the great rivers of the North American continent, as the confluence of the Allegheny and the Monongahela gives birth to the mighty Ohio.  Perhaps that is a fitting image or symbol for us today.  Two fabulous  people, gifted, accomplished, intelligent, fun, real maturity, a wonderful shared sense of humor.  Flowing into one great new river for all the years ahead.

In the midst of all the complexities of work and travel and the busyness of the season I’ve really enjoyed the chance to get to know you in our pre-marriage conversations, and then yesterday at our rehearsal to have had the opportunity to meet and get to know some of your friends and family as well.  And not that anybody has asked me this question in so many words, but I just want to let you know that I approve of your marriage!  It seems like a very good idea to me.  You guys are great for each other, great with each other.  In ways that we can see, and in deeper ways—and simply to say that in the deep mysteries of his Providence, God is doing a new thing here, and I think an important thing.  He has gifted you, each of you individually and then in what you are together,  as your lives are synchronized, we might say, and we are only just now beginning to unfold. 

Here in Pittsburgh lots of people went down to the point last night, with the annual “Light Up Night” and all the festivities of the season.  For me, I think those fireworks were for you, and with the cheering and songs of angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, there are fireworks over us  and around us today, in great celebration!

During the last month or so you both spent some time, and we did together, to  give careful thought to the selection of the readings from Scripture to be read and shared at this service, and it was a gift for all of us to hear them.   

The reading from Tobit, and the story of the marriage of Tobias and Sarah.  This touching moment as their marriage begins with a prayer.  Back in the 1950’s and 1960’s the National Council of Churches ran an advertising campaign with billboards all across America, with the slogan, “The Family that Prays Together Stays Together.”  Maybe that saying is still familiar to some.  And wisdom in that. 

Married people are not clones of each other, of course.  And often the differences of interests and perspectives and life experience are so valuable, as you learn from one another and grow in appreciation.  One  spouse may never learn to love football, and the other may never truly appreciate Italian opera.  But we learn and grow.  But what Tobias and Sarah do for us is to invite us in marriage to find and explore a deeper unity of spiritual life and prayer.  And as they began their marriage in prayer, I would simply commend that invitation to you and to all married couples here today. 

The reading from St. John’s gospel is also I think well-chosen for us today.  These very tender words of Jesus: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you: abide in my love.”  And I would simply lift up the last few words : “love one another, as I have loved you.”   And as we hear those words here in lovely old St. Andrew’s I hope our eyes might be lifted up to see what we call the great Rood Beam.  “The Rood” is an Old English word for “the Cross.”  And we are reminded that the love of Jesus that we are called to follow in our lives and in our marriages, is not so much about how we “feel,” and what we “get” in our relationships, but about what we have to give, to share, to offer.    Not about our winning, but about figuring out how we can lose so that the other can win!  (And if both husband and wife keep working at that project you have to be pretty creative sometimes.  Like when people race to pick up the check after a nice dinner out, before the other can get to it.  Rushing ahead to open the door.  “After you.”  “No, after you.”)

There’s a prayer that we sometimes pray at the end of services here at St. Andrew’s that is called the “St. Francis Prayer,” because it sums up in a very simple and beautiful way the insight into Christian life that St. Francis communicated both with his words and in his life.  It begins like this:  “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”  Perhaps you’ve heard that prayer.  I think it’s the perfect prayer for a wedding day.  And in the second half of the prayer,  these words: “Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved, as to love.”  Because it is when we give that we truly receive.  It is when we have forgiven others that we are truly forgiven ourselves.  And it only when we die to ourselves and to our own wants and our own self-centeredness, that we truly begin to know what it means to live, both here in this life and for eternity . . . . 

This the sign of the Cross.  Really the heart of the Christian message.   The One who died for us, and in that death opens the door to forgiveness and grace and new life.   And with that sign over us, here is the word of Jesus for you, with all the richness of his blessing: “love one another, as I have loved you.” 

So thank you for selecting these readings for us—truly a gift.  A great word for all of us to keep close, and meaningful that you have shared it with us today.  We might almost say that choosing and sharing these readings with your family and friends is the first step, the first example, of the vocation of your marriage.  The Church says that marriage is “sacramental”, and at least part of what that means is that  in marriage you two become outward signs of what Scripture has to say to us about God’s will for all our lives . . . about God’s grace and love.  He creates and establishes marriage, and he invites you now as you enter into marriage yourselves to this work and ministry-- inviting you day by day to a life shaped according to his purposes, that you will be equipped to communicate his love to others.  A great blessing, an exciting adventure of a life.  That you would know our love and prayers and support today and in all the days ahead.

And now as Bob and Katie come forward to exchange the vows that will make them husband and wife, let us pause for a moment and bow our heads and in the quiet of our own hearts offer our prayers of love and blessing for them—for today and for all the days of their lives.

her brought over from the heritage of Jewish practice o

                                                                                                             --Bruce Robison

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Comedy of Pre-Advent

Ruth 3: 1-5; 4:13-17 (Proper 27B)
Baptism of Violet Rose Hickman
November 8, 2015

Good morning and grace and peace.  Moving into a rich season of the year in the wider church and here at St. Andrew’s.  The Sunday after All Saints Sunday —remembering just what a wonderful and truly beautiful and meaningful service that was last Sunday—choir and orchestra and our prayers remembering saints and heroes of the faith, and as well honoring and offering prayers in memory of our loved ones.  Next Sunday the Harvest Brunch and a celebration of some of the ways we here in this corner of the East End are able to share in some very exciting ministries in the wider world, and especially with our focus in Bolivia.  Then on the 22nd, St. Andrew’s Day, and bagpipes and our annual homecoming and patronal festival.  And then Thanksgiving and Advent and Christmas and the New Year.  A reminder for me of what a real blessing it is to have the privilege to be a part of this great congregation.

In the patterning of the Church Calendar we recall the two great cycles of the year—reflecting the two great and inextricably intertwined theological themes of Incarnation and Atonement: Advent-Christmas-Epiphany, and Lent-Holy Week-Easter.  The calendar also charts out a transitional phase, an interlude of preparation, before each of these cycles.  We are more familiar with what is sometimes called “Pre-Lent,” and the Sundays of Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima, as each of these in turn directs our attention ahead to the great drama of the Cross.  Similarly there is a somewhat less emphatic but still meaningful “Pre-Lent” that comes before Advent, the Three Sundays that begin today, and we would begin to listen carefully to the appointed Collects and Lessons and Psalms to hear the advancing footsteps of the Advent messenger.  The Collect this morning lifting up the Manifestation of the Blessed Son of the Father, to destroy the works of Satan and to redeem fallen humanity—and calling us to await eagerly the day when he shall come again, with power and great glory, lifting us forever in his presence.

So it’s not just the department stores and radio stations that are leaning forward into the calendar.  So too the Church and in the heart of every Christian.  Eagerly rushing forward to Christmas with the prayer of his First and Second Advent, “Come, Lord Jesus.”

And a reminder in that this morning, with the baptism of Violet Rose, here at the same font where, wearing the same baptismal gown,  her mother Kristen was baptized by my predecessor Ralph Brooks at the end of July, 1985.  Just a tad over 30 years ago.  Violet’s parents and godparents standing at the crossing here presenting her for baptism and accepting the spiritual responsibilities of baptismal sponsors in the same place where on June 27, 1981,  her grandparents exchanged their marriage vows.  A lovely image of the life of the Christian family carrying on, one generation to another.

The Old Testament lesson appointed for this morning, from the Book of Ruth, seems very appropriate I think for this morning’s celebration of Violet’s baptism.  For her, and for all of us.  And especially in “Pre-Advent.”

We’ve been in this series for a couple of months now in the lectionary of what is sometimes called the “Wisdom Literature” of the Old Testament.  Some time back we had the reading from Proverbs 31, the portrait of the Capable Wife.  And then we had the readings from Esther, and from Job.  And now this morning we would remember the story of Ruth.

The story like so many of this part of the Bible begins in exile.  Easy for us to picture these days, with the images before us daily such great numbers streaming out of Syria and Afghanistan and Northern Africa.  Naomi and her husband and their two sons are forced by famine to become refugees, and they come to live in a foreign land, Moab.  Yet even so, far from home, they continue to hold on to the memory of their homeland Israel and their worship of Israel’s God. 

Time passes, and they begin to make a life where they are as best they can.  In time their sons marry local girls and begin to settle into their adult lives.  But then in a series of calamities perhaps reminiscent of Job’s, death takes first Naomi’s husband and then both her sons.  In sorrow and bitterness and regret Naomi gathers her two daughters-in-law together and gives them her blessing and tells them to return to their families, so that she herself can return in the ashes of mourning to die herself in the land of her ancestors. 

Which the first of the two daughters-in-law does.  But not Ruth.  Ruth refuses to leave the side of Naomi.  The famous line: “whither thou goest, I will go.  Where thou lodgest I will lodge.  Thy people will be my people.  Thy God, my God.”  And this deep and costly gesture of love and loyalty begins to plant a seed of transformation.  Naomi and Ruth return to Israel and to the Land of Judah, near the small country town of Bethlehem, where they find a farm owned by Boaz, a distant relative. 

Boaz welcomes them with kindness and generosity, begins to care for them.  And then, in the way now as the story unfolds of a wonderful romantic comedy, as time passes, we come to the scene in the reading this morning.  In the movie I would cast Tom Hanks as Boaz, Meg Ryan as Ruth!  In the secret mysteries of Jewish mothers, perhaps we would say, Naomi now knows and sees by all the intuitive signs what is in the heart and of Cousin Boaz—perhaps understanding him better than he understands himself.  How he looks up when she is standing across the field.  How his eyes follow her when she walks with the others to the daily chores of the farm.  Naomi has Ruth prepare herself, and go to his home, and once she arrives—well, the rest of the story.   We’ve read it here.  As at the end of every romantic comedy.  Love and marriage.  Laughter and wedding bells.   Joy, healing, and new life. 

And even to conclude with this wonderful note, Ruth’s first son Obed is embraced by Naomi, taken up into his grandmother’s loving arms—her own husband and sons gone, but now new life and a new generation.  Hope and promise.   A happy ending!

And even the parting word to us readers, as the first hearers and readers of the story of Ruth would have known already-- that this child Obed, the first-born son of Boaz and Ruth, would be himself the father of Jesse, who then in turn would be the father of King David.  And for us today, of course, as we look ahead through the weeks of fall and then to Advent, to know that he is the ancestor of Mary and so of our Lord Jesus Christ.  O Little Town of Bethlehem!  Not Thanksgiving yet, but already we can hear the angels singing to the shepherds in the fields.  Perhaps these very fields, where Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan—I mean, Boaz and Ruth, first caught sight of one another.

God’s  great plan of salvation, the Holy Story of God, resting on this comedy of love!  When Ruth makes the decision to give up everything.  Not to return to her family, but to care for Naomi, who was lost in her bitterness, without hope for any future.  That one generous, humble, sacrifice of love--and how God took that and used it for purposes that have been in his heart from the beginning of time.  Anticipating the word of Ruth’s daughter Mary, who would say to the Angel centuries later, “Let it be as you have said.”    Again.  Pre-Advent.

Good to say this, for Violet on her baptismal day.  As she has been now washed in Christ and sealed in the Holy Spirit, forgiven, cleansed, lifted to new life.   To have this sense of what God will use from her, from us.    We don’t know the specifics, but we know the author of the story, and that the story continues, drawing in each of our lives.  New lives one by one, generation after generation, here at the font of baptism and new life.

We have this rich liturgy.   Simple but deep.  The service would have been the same for Kristen in 1985 as for Violet this morning.  Parents and Godparents begin by making their particular commitments of prayer and support to see that the child they present is “brought up in the Christian faith and life” to the “full stature of Christ.”  And then on behalf of the child being baptized and on behalf of the whole congregation they begin what is sometimes called the “Baptismal Covenant” with those great statements renouncing the devil , the world, and our sinful nature.  And then so meaningfully:  “Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your savior?  Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?  Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?”   Heart and soul and mind and strength. 

Like Ruth: “whither thou goest I will go.”  Like Mary: “Let it be to me as you have said.”  This free gift, without condition, no “Plan B.”  Like the old hymn, “O Jesus I have promised to serve thee to the end.”   Faithfulness, no matter what the cost.  This is what true Wisdom is all about, again and again through these words of the Bible as we have been hearing them over the past few months.  Proverbs and Esther and Job and Ruth.  The fear of the Lord.  To love him with all our heart and soul and mind and strength.  

It is an image, a foreshadowing also for us and most importantly for us in “Pre Advent” of the love and sacrifice of Ruth’s great-great-great-great-great grandson Jesus, who was the Wisdom from on high. And an image and a foreshadowing of the life we share with Jesus in and through these baptismal waters.  

So welcome this morning to Violet Rose, and to say for her, and for us all, “Dare to be a Ruth!”  Because that’s how Christmas happens.  And with thanks for the opportunity that we all have to be renewed and refreshed in Christ.  

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

Sunday, November 1, 2015

For All the Saints

All Saints Sunday
Revelation to St. John the Divine 21: 1-6
Gospel of St. John 11:32-44

Good morning and grace and peace this morning of All Saints Day.  A highlight of the church year and always a wonderful service here at St. Andrew’s.  With thanks to Peter and the Choir and the Orchestra and our good friend Tom Octave.  Your participation and offering makes this day exceptionally meaningful.  A real gift.  Of course, always meaningful for us as we remember the great saints and heroes of our Christian family, known through the generations for their holiness of life and their courage and witness. 

Remembering as well as we do in our prayers today the saints and heroes and loved ones nearest to us. Family, friends, neighbors, co-workers.   Perhaps most of them not to be commemorated with statues and stained glass windows in their honor and special feast days on the calendar--but in our hearts and minds dear to us and remembered as inspirations each in their own way of faithful Christian life and God’s love.  Rest eternal grant unto them, O Lord, and may Light Perpetual shine upon them.  May they with all the faithful departed rest in peace and rise in glory. Amen.

The reading this morning from the opening of the 21st chapter of the Revelation of St. John the Divine always so powerful—and most appropriate on All Saints Day.   It was suggested to me several years ago and I have made it a part of my regular devotional pattern once each month or so to sit quietly for a few minutes in a morning or evening prayer time and to re-read the 21st and 22nd chapters of the Revelation to St.  John the Divine. 

A magnificent set-piece of Christian testimony and witness, with language and a poetry and a great and encompassing vision that settles deeply into the imagination.  A word of comfort, of encouragement, of inspiration.  Fuel for the tank as we go about the day to day unfolding of our lives in our homes and with our families, at work, with our friends, in the quiet of our own inner space of thought and feeling.  I have found it so, and I would commend that practice and discipline to you, actually, on this All Saints Day.  When we have a challenging journey it can be helpful to be able to picture our desired destination.  To have the mountain-top in mind as we face the steep climb in front of us.   For me it’s also like hitting the “refresh” button, to shift the metaphor.  Re-centering.  Maybe something to do on the first day of every month, for a year, as an experiment, and to see what strikes you over time, as you let these words and this imagery of the great victory of God come again and again to your attention.  This victory that we are and will be a part of.  Each time of reading and re-reading, to see something new, or from a new perspective.  To go deeper.

This vision of John the Seer-- of the Holy City, New Jerusalem, coming down from heaven from God.  I find this turns the imagery around for me, in terms of what I had usually pictured in my mind when I thought about God’s Kingdom.  I thought, to use the phrase, that “we would go to heaven.”  But that’s not what John sees. 

In the great day of God’s victory, heaven comes to us, here, to earth, the Holy City, and as it arrives the earth itself is transformed and the lives of all God’s faithful are met and drawn into him.  Not that we sail up into the skies, riding on otherworldly clouds to God’s presence. Instead, as the voice announces to John, “See, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them.”    A parent hears that a child is in distress, and drops everything and rushes to be at the child’s side.  “God himself will be with them, he will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

The victory of the Cross displayed right here.  To answer the question of Good Friday, “why does this have to happen?”  Remember Jesus in John 12, as inscribed here on the great Rood Beam, “and I if I be lifted up from the earth will draw all men unto me.”  The embrace of the Father for the Son, and his arms wrapped around us, as we in and through Jesus receive the free gift of God’s love:  his forgiveness, his generosity and abundance.  Ask and ye shall receive.  Knock and door will open unto you. 

Read the 21st and 22nd Chapters of John’s Revelation to see what that New Jerusalem is, that is ours, flowing with the restoring and renewing waters of the River of Life.  The towering trees of the New Garden, fresh and green and with leaves that are for the healing of the nations.  Come unto me, all ye who travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.

And then we consider in the Gospel reading appointed for this morning the Sign of Lazarus.  Come out of the tomb, Lazarus!  Again right before our eyes, the token of God’s promise for each of us.  They fit together, hand in glove, these two readings: one word of transformational triumph.  That life is changed, not ended.   The whole creation. Fallen and then lifted up.  The gate of our suffering and death, the portal to his great conclusion.  The Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.  Trustworthy and true.  Making all things new.

What a great gift.  For all the Saints.  Beyond any words, any sentence that we could compose in reply.  No adequate expression of thanks and appreciation.  Almost impossible even to describe in words.  Perhaps music--Franz Schubert and the transcendence of music only a step in the direction.  I know this particular mass setting is not considered to be one of the most complicated of Schubert’s works.  But a certain expression for me of a quieter grace.  The Kyrie sung at the beginning of the service just a few minutes ago always touches so deeply.   A reminder in one kind of beauty of that deeper wonder that the psalmist calls “the beauty of holiness,” which is God’s eternal and life-giving presence.  Coming for us and for our salvation in the victory of the Last Day, and with us now.  In our prayers, in the Word of Holy Scripture.  In the Holy Food and Drink at the Table of the Lord’s Supper.   A presence that we can know perfectly in the face of his Son.   Always near when we call.  Who despite our unworthiness and our persistent sin went to the Cross for us, and who has opened this door for us.

It is such a big deal.  Enough to rouse us from our sleep and to arouse our curiosity.  Tell me more.  What this is all about.  As we celebrate this morning, for all the All Saints.  For this life and the life to come

Monday, October 19, 2015

St. Luke, Physician and Evangelist

On October 18th our regular "Third Sunday of the Month" service of Choral Evensong observed the Feast of St. Luke.  Our Guest Preacher was the Rev. Daniel Hall, M.D.  Dan is Episcopal Priest in Residence at the First Lutheran Church of Pittsburgh, Grant Street, Downtown, and has a practice of General Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and the Hospital of the Veterans' Administration.

Evensong, St. Andrew's, Highland Park
Feast of St. Luke
The Rev. Daniel E. Hall, MD

Ecclesiasticus 38:1-4,6-10,12-14

Honor physicians for their services,
for the Lord created them;
for their gift of healing comes from the Most High,
and they are rewarded by the king.
The skill of physicians makes them distinguished,
and in the presence of the great they are admired.
The Lord created medicines out of the earth,
and the sensible will not despise them.
And he gave skill to human beings
that he might be glorified in his marvelous works.
By them the physician heals and takes away pain;
the pharmacist makes a mixture from them.
God's works will never be finished;
and from him health spreads over all the earth.
My child, when you are ill, do not delay,
but pray to the Lord, and he will heal you.
Give up your faults and direct your hands rightly,
and cleanse your heart from all sin.
Then give the physician his place, for the Lord created him;
do not let him leave you, for you need him.
There may come a time when recovery lies in the hands of physicians,
for they too pray to the Lord
that he grant them success in diagnosis
and in healing, for the sake of preserving life.

2 Timothy 4:5-13

As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.

As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

Do your best to come to me soon, for Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica; Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful in my ministry. I have sent Tychicus to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments.

Don’t you just love evensong? Great music. Great scripture.  Perhaps great preaching?….but at least a chance to bust out the cassock, surplice, tippet and academic hoods.  And I’m delighted that at least up here in the choir, it’s not just the clergy wearing their hoods, but a whole range of colors representing your various degrees.  If you really wanted to double down, everybody out their in the nave could show up with their black robe and hood and we could all live into a lovely dream that this corner of Highland Park was just a step away from Edwardian Oxbridge—our own little taste Downton Abbey with Lord Grantchester sitting right over there. This is the stuff that makes the Anglican ship in which we are sailing so beautiful and compelling. It is good to be with you this evening.  Thank you for the invitation.

You may have noticed that my own hood here is green rather than red.  That is because it is the hood I received on graduation from medical school.  As some of you know, I am surgeon as well as a priest.  And that was Bruce Robison’s clever twist in inviting me to preach today with these texts appointed for the feast of St. Luke, sometimes remembered as “The Physician.”

You see, the tradition holds that in addition to being the author of the eponymous Gospel and the Book of Acts, Luke was first trained as a Greek Physician.  The evidence is pretty thin, but in his letter to the Colossians, St. Paul names a Luke who he also identifies as a doctor.  And scholars have noted that the composition of Luke and Acts betrays a man of education—the vocabulary and syntax is substantially more sophisticated than the rest of the New Testament.  And since Luke’s writing employs a preponderance of medical and nautical metaphors, scholars have thought that he might have been either a physician or a sailor before meeting Jesus, but there is controversy about which one is more likely. When my New Testament professor explained this for the first time, I spoke with him after class with my tongue in cheek saying, “I don’t understand the controversy. It seems pretty obvious that Luke was a Doctor sailing his yacht around the Med!”

Joking aside, the tradition of St. Luke the Physician and the texts appointed for this occasion give us an opportunity to reflect on the practice of medicine, and its proper place in our common life as Christians.  And to the extent that I’m a physician myself, perhaps I can bring a fresh perspective. So what do we learn?

At first glance, things seem to be particularly good for physicians according to Ecclesiasticus. (As if we needed any more air pumped into our overly-filled heads!):

Honor physicians for their services,
for the Lord hath created them;
for their gift of healing cometh from the Most High…
The skill of physicians makes them distinguished,
and in the presence of the great they art admired.

So far so good.  Ecclesiasticus sounds like a proud Jewish grandmother.

And then Ecclesiasticus outlines a very sensible position on the proper place and use of medicine.  It acknowledges that God is the source of healing, and that our first impulse should always be to confess our faults and pray to God for healing.  And having done so, to turn ourselves over to the care of a physician, because God created medicine, and gave the physician skill, and even though miracles can and do happen, sensible people will not despise the skilled care and effective medicines that God has seen fit to bless us with through the practice of medicine.

The position of Ecclesiasticus seems to mirror the common sense of the old joke about the man stranded on a desert island who prays to God to save him, and in his fervent faith, turns away first a fishing boat, and then a cruise ship and finally a helicopter because he is confident that God’s miracle if salvation will be supernatural.  And when he finally perishes, he asks God why he didn’t answer his prayer, and God says “I did.  I sent you a fishing boat, a cruise ship and a helicopter.  What more were you looking for?”

So on one level, this passage from Ecclesiasticus is important counterpoint for those among us with Pentecostal or Charismatic tendencies—those who would rather pray that God spare them of cancer than submit to the indignity of a colonoscopy or mammogram. This kind of wisdom certainly applies to our contemporary setting. We shouldn’t ignore Jewish grandmothers. I’ve had my colonoscopy…and I hope you’ve had yours!

But I’m not sure that is the end of the story.  Although there are some who resist modern medicine in favor of miraculous cures, I think it is much more common in this day and age to find those who turn to medicine itself for the miracle.  We follow the advice of our physicians. We stop smoking. We eat better.  We exercise. We take the pills they prescribe. We supplement our food with multivitamins. We eat local.  We eat organic. We expose our children to Bach while they are still in the womb. We follow with interest the nightly news that reports the next advance in cell biology, immunology or genetics that promise to unlock the key to aging, cancer and mental illness. And the commercials between those reports sell the promise of salvation through pharmacology. No symptom is too small to manage. No experience is too trivial to ignore. If only we knew enough, we could efficiently and effectively relieve human suffering, and preserve our autonomous control over our unruly bodies. Medicine promises not only to treat disease, but to enhance our lives, making us better than well.  And although only a few technological futurists like Ray Kurzweil explicitly claim that technology will transcend all human limitation (including death), I think than many of us are captivated by the alluring proposition that medical technology might one day show us how to get out of life alive.

And in this context, the sick become morally culpable for their illness.  If only they hadn’t smoked.  If only they didn’t eat refined carbohydrates to the point of Type II diabetes. If only they ate lower on food chain or adopted the Asian diet or exercised more, or exercised better.  If only they had submitted to that mammogram, or PSA test or that whole body PET-CT scan. If only they had made any number of the countless choices that we hope will mitigate the existential threat comes to us all in illness and death. If only….

I think that this is the more common posture toward medicine and its promises. But in doing so, we forget the more fundamental counsel of Ecclesiasticus when it says:
My child, when thou art ill, do not delay,
but first pray unto the Lord, and he will make thee whole.
Give up thy faults and direct thy hands rightly,
and cleanse thy heart from all sin.
Then (and only then) give place to the physician…

Giving place to physicians and our medicine without first giving place to God makes of medicine an idol. We put our trust in the technology itself rather than in the God who supplies the genius that generates the technology. We begin to think that we can eliminate suffering from human experience rather than remembering that God himself chose to enter that suffering rather waving his hand and making it go away.  We begin to fall for the age-old temptation to believe that by hook or by crook, we can save ourselves through the choices we make and the deeds we accomplish.

The point I’m trying to make is that we have distorted the wisdom of Ecclesiasticus. We have taken the advice of our Jewish grandmother too literally. We give too much honor to physicians and the medicine they provide.  Our hopes for what hospitals, doctors and pharmacies can offer are unrealistic. As much as I want you to trust me as your surgeon—as much as I want our hospital to be worthy of your faith—we do not have the power to save you. 

That power belongs to Jesus, and him alone.  And it is precisely this point that Luke is trying to make in this passage when Jesus walks into his home synagogue, proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor, sits down and says: Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. The promise of the Gospel sets us free from the ultimately futile attempts of working out our own salvation through wise and prudent choices.

You know this.  Yet despite that knowledge, it is altogether too easy to slip back into thinking that the Gospel is about doing the right thing or being the right kind of person.  We tend to think that Christianity is about values and ethics; about doing right and living well.  And so it is, and therefore, we expect our sermons to have clear application for what it is we are to do in life. Tell the truth. Practice random acts of kindness. Raise your kids in nurturing environments. Honor physicians.  Take their medicine. Stop smoking. Go to the farmers market. Do these things and God will bless you.

But the point made by the Luke and the point often left out of our sermons is that the Gospel is not primarily prescriptive, but descriptive.  The Gospel is about reality first and action second.  Only after de-scribing the reality of the way things are does the Gospel go on to pre-scribe specific action.  When Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek” he doesn’t mean that we’re all supposed to be meek.  Instead, it’s about getting the record straight by stating that, contrary to all appearances, the meek are, in fact, blessed.  When Jesus says, “The person who seeks to save his life will lose it; but the one who is willing to lose his life for my sake will find it” he doesn’t intend it as an ethical exhortation.  It isn’t an ought statement so much as it is a description of what is real—the way things really are.

When Jesus says “strive for the kingdom of God”, he compares it to a small mustard seed that grew into a large tree. He compared it to the sprinkle of yeast that leavened the entire batch of bread. The kingdom of God is that tiny, almost immeasurable thing that when added to the rest, transforms the grist of everyday living into something different and more wonderful.  The kingdom of God is the gift of conversion, the pulling away of the veil, the illumination of the way things really are.  The kingdom of God is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 

Let me try to be less abstract and more concrete.  Who we are and what we do depends entirely on why we do it.  Exhortations to holy or healthy living may make sense to the world.  Exhortations for “values” and “hope” make sense in the political rhetoric of Republicans and Democrats alike.  But these exhortations to right action are meaningless if they are not integrally and explicitly connected to Christ Jesus.  We can’t be holy unless we know holy, and we can’t know holy until we know Jesus.  And when we know Jesus, we know that we can do nothing good apart from him.  So that any good work, if it is truly good, is not ours, but the work of Christ who lives within us. 

Apart from the love of God in Christ Jesus, all our work and toil is but vanity and chasing after wind. I can stay up all night operating on perforated diverticulitis.  You can spend five days a week volunteering in a soup kitchen.    And you can volunteer time on a church committee.  And you can teach the glories of the English Choral Tradition. And you can revel in that most tasteful of liturgical vesture, the cassock, surplice, hood and tippet. And you can give money away to the poor.  But if we do these things for their own sake—if we do them to punch our ticket—then they are but vanity and chasing after wind.

So what are we to do?  We are called to be a holy and sanctified people, set apart, living in the world, but not of the world.  We are called to be witnesses to the truth of the way things really are, exposing idolatry in whatever form it may arise.  We are called to be witnesses to the truth that God, himself, became flesh, dwelled among us, died and was raised again so that we might become heirs to his kingdom.  And yes, we are called to do not just good works, but great and magnificent works.  And the technologies of medicine do accomplish some of the most great and magnificent works.

But even the most magnificent works are powerless to save. Yet salvation has already been accomplished because in Jesus, the words of the prophets have been fulfilled, and he has proclaimed the year of the Lord’s favor. What we need are eyes to see and ears to hear this leavening truth about the kingdom of God. Those eyes and ears are not ours by right, but gifts from God—given to us in baptism and nurtured through disciplines of prayer, worship and service. With those eyes and ears, we can see through the hollow threat of bodily illness and recognize that whether we live or die, we belong ever and always to the Lord. With those eyes and ears, we can approach our own death in the confidence that death will not have the last word.  With those eyes and ears we can even now hear and see that great getting up day when all will be raised—not as disembodied spirits, but as flesh and blood in our own bodies—and with those eyes and ears we will see our Lord face to face and hear him call us to take our place with him at the Supper of the Lamb. It is this hope that frees us from fear.  It is this promise that enables us to seek God above all things. May God grant to us these eyes and these ears so that with our mouths, we might proclaim with St. Luke the Physician, the unimaginable goodness of the Great Physician, the lover of souls, the salvation of the world, the holy and undivided Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Twenty-first after Pentecost: I'm not O.K., You're not O.K.

October 18, 2015  Job 38: 1-7, 34-41; Hebrews 5: 1-10; Mark 10: 35-41 (Proper 24B)

Good morning. A rich set of readings from Scripture this morning with some deeper thematic threads that seem to weave together.   God’s magnificent address to Job, out of the whirlwind.  The great hymn about the eternal priesthood of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Letter to the Hebrews.  The conversation in Mark 10 between Jesus and his disciples about which of them is going to get into the most important stained glass windows as they turn toward Jerusalem and as the outline of the Cross begins to be seen on the distant horizon.  If I were going to reduce the topic of the day to one word it would be, I guess, “humility.” 

A word that is central again and again to descriptions of Jesus and of the desired character and behavior of the follows and friends of Jesus.  The word “humility” always for me recalls that pivotal moment in John’s gospel when John the Baptist, who is at the very height of his popularity and influence, surrounded by vast crowds of dedicated followers and admirers, sees that the expected one, Jesus, is now on the scene.  “I must decrease,” John says, “so that he may increase.”   Stepping back to make room for what God is doing.  To say, “It’s not about me.”  Whether it’s Job before God in the midst of his calamities and suffering.  Whether it’s the disciples of Jesus hearing yet again that the path to the spiritual exaltation of the kingdom is one that goes in a downward direction rather than an upward one.  Whether it’s the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews in this great insight into the mystery of Christ’s suffering and death on the cross.  In the wide world the path to success is all about singing “look at me—see how great I am!”  But Jesus says to his friends, “not so for you.”  And since we live in the world and are also friends of Jesus, the tension stretches across the boundaries of our lives day by day.  Humility.

In that context  I’d like to begin and then to end this morning with two stories that are for me both associated with my mother-in-law:  Fran Johnson, Susy’s mom.  A woman of great Christian character, intelligence, and spiritual insight and substance.  A bright sense of humor.  Real “wisdom” in exactly the way that word is used in the Bible.  Grace and also I would say truly, humility.  It’s been a number of years now since her death, but so very frequently I’ll hear in my memory an echo of a word she said—or sometimes just a smile, or a penetrating look.

In any case, there was this time, many years ago, when I was as I recall making some off-hand comment, somewhat critical of something that was happening in my Field Education parish, St. Anselm’s in Lafayette, California.  I have actually no memory at all of what the issue was.  Something the idiotic rector had done that I could have done a million times better, I’m sure.  But in any case what I do remember was Fran kind of brightly saying, “You know what they say!  If you ever find a perfect church, don’t go there.  You’ll only spoil it.”  I’ve heard other people give different versions of that saying over the years, but that was the first time I’d heard it, and I’m sure it will always be in my thoughts with her voice and intonation.

I would say, to begin, that I’m pretty sure—pretty sure (she was my mother-in-law, after all!)—that Fran wasn’t thinking about me personally when she said this.  The point wasn’t that “I” would spoil things.  At least I hope not!  But it was to be a quick short-cut reminder that perfection is an illusion.  That things may “look” perfect, from a certain distance, but that whenever you get close enough to be able to see them with greater clarity, the illusion of perfection is quickly dispelled.  Especially when people are involved.  And churches turn out most of the time anyway to have people in them.  The thing about people is that they are, that we are all of us, inevitably problematic.  A friend of ours in Auburn, California, used to have a little plaque on the desk in her study that said, “Be kind: Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”  Always a good reminder.   We may sometimes tend to think that we are God’s gift to humanity.  But God has offered only the one gift, and we aren’t him.  Hard as that sometimes is to believe. 

Of course, a lot of people become pretty skilled in pulling themselves together at least on the outside.  Putting up a “good front.”  But no matter how cool, calm, collected they may appear, just scratch the surface.  We looked at Job last Sunday morning as he sat on the ash heap picking at his sores and mourning the loss of the people and the life that he had loved.  Fifteen minutes before that moment and he was at the top of the world!  To be reminded that that’s all of us.  It doesn’t always happen in one sudden cataclysm, as it did for Job.  But sooner or later everything that happened to Job happens to every one of us.  As the echo of the Funeral Sentences in the Burial Office: We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out.  So with churches, Fran was saying.  If you see one that looks like everything is all smooth sailing, don’t look too closely.  If you do, storm clouds and rough seas will reveal themselves before you know it.  So with any of our lives, of course.  Our families, our work, our relationships. 

So what I think Fran was telling me—or at least what I’ve drawn from the memory of her little joke over the past 30+ years—is that it’s with this real broken and messed-up world, with these real broken and messed-up people,  that Jesus chooses to live.  That it is this real broken and messed-up church that he has come to redeem and bless and save.  And if it’s good enough for him, it can be good enough for us too.  “Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.”  A bunch of messed-up people.  Which is to say, a bunch of people . . . .

So Mark 10, and even after all they’ve been through the disciples are still struggling with this.  Just a few steps earlier in the journey Jesus took young children up in his arms to say, “Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”  Kids with strawberry jelly smeared over their t-shirts.  With dirty diapers.  What sometimes is called the “great reversal,” especially emphasized in St. Mark’s gospel: “the last shall be first, and the first last.”  So much of what the world values most, and a set of priorities that gets turned upside-down.  Just a few steps earlier in the journey Jesus had told the rich young man who wanted to know about his relationship to God, “you lack one thing.”  And the way to obtain that one thing that he lacks turns out to be not to get something more, but to let things go.  “Sell what you have, give it all away, and then come follow me.” 

That the renewal of our relationship with God, our restoration –flowing not from our strength, but from our weakness.   Which is not the way it usually works in the world we live in!  That word from God to Job out of the whirlwind, like the song from the Prophet Isaiah.  My ways are not your ways, saith the Lord, nor my thoughts your thoughts.  As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”  What St. Paul talks about when he talks about what he calls the “thorn” in his flesh, this debilitating condition—praying that God would heal him, so that he could grow in his ministry in strength and power.  God says, Paul, “my strength is made perfect in your weakness.”    Second Corinthians 12.  One of the most important passages in all of St. Paul—who then goes on to say to the Corinthians, “you go ahead and boast about your strength, your success, your accomplishments.  I will boast of my weakness.  Because it is in that weakness, that brokenness, that I am nearest to Jesus and his death on the Cross.  And because being near him, being near Jesus, is the only kind of success that I’m really interested in.

So the second story that I associate with my mother-in-law.  Harald and Fran had come down from their home in Scituate, Massachusetts, to visit us when I was Curate of St. Andrew’s in State College—so this must have been maybe 1986 or 1987, I’m guessing.  In any event, it was in the press of things at the end, after the postlude, as the rector—my old friend and mentor the late Jim Trost—and I were shaking hands with folks at the back of the center aisle.  Harald and Fran came down, probably with Susy and maybe with the kids, I don’t really remember.  I introduced them to him, and Fran said very nicely, “it’s wonderful to meet you.  You have a beautiful church.”  And Jim smiled, looked up and around for a moment, laughed, and said “Yes, they are.”  Yes they are.  Fran told that story numerous times over the years.  It really impressed her and delighted her, I think.   Jim had been rector of that parish for almost 25 years at that point, and he knew most all of the stories, the hard battles.  The stylish young couple whose first child had died shortly after birth, and whose marriage at that point was hanging by a thread.  The composed, well-dressed older woman in the back pew who was three weeks back from her second stay at rehab.  The businessman in the power suit whose oldest son had just flunked out of college and come home suffering from deep depression.  He knew all the stories, Jim did.  “You have a beautiful church.”  “Yes, they are.” 

What we would say to each other. As we’re on our way to communion this morning.  We can send the message telepathically.  Just think it in a concentrated way.  Or maybe we can even say it in a quiet voice over a cup of coffee.  An encouraging hand on a shoulder.  Welcome to the church.   If you’re broken somewhere.  Sometimes it’s on the surface and shows up right away.  Sometimes we seem to travel in deep disguise.  It’s exactly the opposite of “I’m o.k., You’re O.K.,” the title of the best-selling book back in the 1960’s.  It’s, “I’m not o.k.  You’re not O.K.”  And the hard process that we all need to be about together of getting to be o.k. with that.  The work of the Church.

In any event, in absolutely the most important ways it’s not about stained glass windows and the majestic architecture of high-lifted ceilings and vaulted arches, impressive programs, popular activities.  We do know that for sure.  His eyes aren’t on the architecture.   A good thing for us to remind ourselves of.   “A beautiful church you have here, Jesus.”  “Yes, they are.”  That’s what he says this morning, looking at us.  “Yes, they are!”  Because that’s what Jesus is all about, as we hear the story in the tenth chapter of Mark—to take the beauty of his broken church, which is this broken church, you and me, and to sweep it up into his embrace as he was raised up in pain and sorrow and brokenness on the cross.  A church so beautiful that he would die for it.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Nineteenth after Pentecost: The Wisdom of Job

Job 23 (Proper 23B) 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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