Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Two Summer Sermons

While I was away for a bit of summer vacation on Sundays July 20 and July 27 my good friend and colleague, St. Andrew's Priest Associate, the Rev. Dr. Philip Wainwright, was kind enough to preach and preside.  His two sermons, following the lectionary Year A Cycle, Propers 11 and 12, were based on readings from St. Paul's Letter to the Romans.  For me it's always a great privilege to hear (or to read) one of Phil's sermons, and I'm glad to be able to share these two here.
                                                                                             --Bruce Robison




Sunday, July 20, 2014









The Spirit and the Law
Romans 8.12–25    
In his letter to the Romans, Paul is writing to people he’s never met, rebuking them for not living up to their calling as Christians. Not an easy thing to do, I’m sure we’d all agree! And not a thing that any of us would want to find ourselves in need of, or would be grateful for if someone were to decide to do it for us. But if we’re honest, we might be willing to admit that there just might be aspects of our own lives that could be improved if someone were to rebuke us for them. And, more importantly, if we were to take the rebuke to heart. And I’d suggest that perhaps the best use we can make of the reading from Romans that we heard this morning is to let ourselves be the one rebuked, and let God show us what aspect of our lives needs the rebuke, and the improvement that could follow if we take it to heart.
Paul doesn’t begin by saying he’s concerned about the state of their Christian lives, of course. First he butters them up a bit: 1.8, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world. Then he tells them how much he wants to meet them; 1.9f, without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. Then he hints that he has something important to say to them, 1.11, I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you. Then he starts to talk about his faith, and as he does, he starts bringing up the issue he is so concerned about, which is the kind of division between Jew and Gentile that led to each side thinking they were better than the other. The Jews thought they were better than the Gentiles because they were God’s chosen people (2.17–20), the Gentiles thought they were better than the Jews because the kingdom had been taken away from the Jews and given to them (11.17–20), as Christ had said would happen. This had led to feelings of self-righteousness on both sides, which Paul was afraid would not only been tear the Roman Church apart, but also threaten the spiritual health, and even the salvation, of those buying into the division (2.1–11). His letter is an appeal for unity, set in the context of his account of the gospel and his story of how the gospel has changed his own life. Again and again through the first eleven chapters he points out that those on both sides of the division are sinners, that both sides need salvation in Christ, and that Christ’s death is an offer of salvation to both sides.
He talks about his own sin, his own need of salvation, in the famous passage where he says nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do, and then cries in passion, Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? The answer, of course, for himself, his Jewish hearers (the letter would have been read out loud) and his Gentile hearers, being through Jesus Christ our Lord! In Romans 8, the chapter we started reading last week, continued this morning, and will read more of next week, is the conclusion to his account of the gospel, and how it saved them all. They were all once condemned by the law, by the Old Testament moral code, for being unable to keep it, but then were saved by Christ, so their condemnation was removed. Chapter 8 begins with words treasured by so many Christians over the centuries who have found the same release from sin and its consequences, there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death. But this chapter is not only the conclusion to his own story, it is also the transition to that spiritual gift to strengthen you he had mentioned: he begins here to stress that they are not only forgiven for their sins, but through the Spirit of Christ they are able to live differently. The basic point of chapter 8 is that those who have been freed from the law in the flesh go on to embrace it in the spirit.
Look at the passage printed in our leaflet today, Romans 8:12–25. It makes this basic point about being freed from the law in the flesh while embracing it in the spirit this way: we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh—for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
Let’s think about this verse a minute. First, we are debtors. To see clearly what he means here look back to the opening verses of the chapter, esp v 3, God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh. There is now no condemnation, but not because of anything we have done, only because of what God has done in Jesus Christ. We owe our freedom to God, we are debtors to God. We are debtors, not to the flesh, not to anything we could achieve by human thinking or acting, but to God’s Spirit: if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. He is working out the point he has been making ever since he first pointed out that the law brings death. The fact that it does bring death does not mean it has nothing to teach us. On the contrary, the law still shows the difference between the life of sin and the life of holiness. Living by God’s commandments is still what God longs for from His children. Paul has been making this point throughout the letter in a series of questions, to each of which he gives the same emphatic answer: 3.31, Do we then throw out the law because of this faith? By no means—No way, is how we would put it today. On the contrary, he goes on, we uphold the law. 6.1f, Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? No way! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? 6.15, Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? No way! 7.7, Does this mean the law is sin? No way! 7.12f, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good. Did what is good, then, bring death to me? No way! It was sin, working death in me through what is in fact good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin. The law brings death when we try to earn God’s favour by keeping it, but once we have been delivered from death by the death of Jesus in our place, we turn to the law in the Spirit, and find that it describes the new life we receive in Christ. If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. By ‘body’ here he means that body of death from which he cried out for deliverance, the experience of sin that is the only thing known by those who think they can earn salvation by being good. We put to death the deeds that make that body the body of death, by repudiating sin and embracing the way of life revealed as holy in the Old Testament law. Hoping to be saved by keeping that code is death, embracing that code out of love for the God Who rescued us from it in His Son Jesus is life, life in the Spirit.
Now let me say before I go any further that it is the moral code, not the legal or ceremonial code of the Old Testament that Romans is referring to here. People are constantly getting these things mixed up. Whenever I preach on the Ten Commandments, people always say to me, what about stoning people for adultery, or not wearing anything made of two different fabrics, do you say we should keep those commandments as well? Well, fortunately it’s not about what I say, but about what Scripture says, and if you read Acts 15 and the epistle to the Hebrews you see quite clearly that the legal and ceremonial commandments like those two are set aside now that Christ has come, and Romans makes clear that the moral commandments are no longer a burden to be borne by fleshly obedience but the holy way of life which God’s Spirit will bring about in us if we let the Spirit into our hearts. By the Spirit we put to death the deeds of the body, and live. To be the children of God is to be led by the Spirit of God, the spirit of holiness. He had prepared us for this right at the beginning of the letter, when he first started to talk about the Christian faith: 1.17, the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live”. Faith leads to right living. Saved by faith, not by good works, but saved for good works, as he put it in another epistle, saved for a life of holiness according to God’s word. To be conformed to the image of his Son, to become like Jesus, as we’ll hear next week when we finish our reading from this chapter. The Spirit sets us free to live by the moral commandments because our failure to keep them no longer makes them the enemy.
For the Christian community in Rome, this meant giving up their reliance on their Jewish or Gentile identity, and that’s the point he argues in chapters 9 and 10. 9.8, it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are reckoned as descendants. 9.30f, Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, righteousness through faith; but that Israel who pursued the righteousness which is based on law did not succeed in fulfilling that law. 10.12, there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and bestows his riches upon all who call upon him.
But I don’t need to say more about that; thanks be to God that problem is with us no longer, at least I’m not aware that there is any Christian community, or any individual Christian, who wants to lift up Jew as more favoured than Gentile, or Gentile as more favoured than Jew. But I’m pretty sure that there are other areas of our lives, both our life as a church and our lives as individual Christians, where the principle set out in the gospel proclaimed in this epistle has something to teach us. Some of us, and ‘us’ includes me, are very glad to leave behind what we have been saved from, but are less eager to embrace what we have been saved for. In chapter twelve he describes what life in the spirit looks like, and calls them, and us, to embrace it, and it’s full of things that make me, at least, realise how far I still have to go: v 3, let every one among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; v 8, contribute in liberality, give aid with zeal, be merciful with cheerfulness (not ‘I’ll overlook it this time’), v 10, outdo one another in showing honor; v 12, be patient in tribulation; v 14, Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them; v 16, associate with the lowly; v 17, Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble; v 20, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; all summed up in v 21, overcome evil with good. I’d much rather repay evil with evil, but the Spirit says overcome it with good.
Jesus did not only die for the forgiveness of our sins, He died so that we could be what Paul calls a new creation—Paul shied away from Jesus’s phrase ‘born again’ as though he were an Episcopalian, but he knew that Jesus meant what He said about it, and in the epistle to the Romans he not only shows us how our sins are forgiven, but points us to a different way of living, to new life in the Spirit of the Christ who gave His life for us. By the Spirit, put to death the deeds of the body, and live. When we pray in a few minutes ‘so uphold us by your Spirit that we may live and serve you in newness of life’, Paul calls us to pray it from the heart, and to remember his description of what newness of life looks like. As we embrace the summons to it, so the Spirit will help us live up to it.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Romans 8: 26-39

One of the things that makes Paul’s letter to the Romans so challenging is the fact that as he writes Paul is constantly mentioning deep spiritual issues almost in passing; he spends a sentence or two on them then gets back to whatever he was talking about before. Because they concern deep spiritual issues, and we would like to know more about them than is contained in the brief reference. We saw an example of that in last week’s reading, where Paul is talking about the rôle of the Holy Spirit in helping us live the Christian life, and makes a passing remark about the whole creation waiting for mankind to embrace that life. We would love to know more about the relationship between mankind and the rest of creation in terms of our ultimate destiny, but the Holy Spirit, speaking through Paul, brings him back to the subject of the Christian life too soon for us to have our curiosity about creation satisfied. Sometimes we don’t want to be led back to the original subject, and we’re tempted to take these remarks out of the context in which Paul makes them and begin to speculate on them, and before you know it we’re disputing about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers, as Paul said to Timothy on another occasion.
You can see another example in the passage we read today. After his brief reference to creation earlier in the chapter, Paul has returned to the theme of how we are to be led by the Spirit of God to meet the just requirement of the law, and makes the point that the Spirit helps us pray. We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to His purpose. The spirit interceding for us is God working for good with us who love Him, God supporting us and encouraging us, sometimes giving us what we prayed for, sometimes not, but always giving us what is in accordance with God’s will. He does that because we are called according to His purpose. When we pray, the goal is to align our purposes with God’s (not His with ours, which is what we are too often doing when we pray), to seek His purpose in our lives. But as Paul goes on, he uses some words about the way we fulfil God’s purpose that have caused all sorts of kerfuffle among Christians, these words in v 29f about predestination: For those whom God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.
So, I have to say a couple of things this morning. The first thing to say is ‘don’t be distracted’. What Paul is talking about in this passage is what he has been talking about on and off throughout the letter, and will talk about almost continuously from chapter twelve onwards, which is holy living, living by God’s commandments rather than by our own desires. That’s what he means by the phrase conformed to the image of his Son; we who believe in Jesus are to be like Jesus, to imitate Him in our lives as well as put our faith in Him. His words about predestination simply say that living like Jesus, conforming our selves to His image, is our destiny. Don’t be distracted; even in these words about predestination, Paul is calling us to embrace the holiness to which the Spirit is leading us.
But I also need to say something about what he means by the word ‘predestined’, because me saying ‘don’t be distracted from the point of the passage’ doesn’t stop it distracting us, and my experience is that if we don’t address distractions they continue to distract. I approach the subject with fear and trembling, for a couple of reasons. First, there is a royal proclamation from James I, after whom the King James Bible is named, in his rôle as supreme governor of the Church of England, forbidding clergy under the rank of dean to preach on this subject. And while that was in 1622, as far as I know none of his successors in the office has ever rescinded this order, and since I’m a subject of the present supreme governor, I’m not entirely sure that I won’t be thrown in the tower when I go back to England later this year! Secondly, and even more importantly, when I look at this and the other passages on the subject in the New Testament I can’t quite see that they mean what so many people say they mean, and that means I’m questioning at least to some extent the judgement of some of the greatest teachers in Christian history, including Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin. So there are two different opportunities here for a fool to rush in where angels fear to tread; I can only hope you enjoy watching it!
There are two elements to the controversy over predestination. There’s what the Bible actually says, and there’s what readers of the Bible, some of them very influential teachers like those I just named, have deduced from what the Bible says. I think it’s essential to distinguish these, because the Bible is the word of God, but what humans, even the smartest humans, deduce from it is not. Even if what they deduce is true, it’s still not the word of God. What the Bible teaches is essential for our salvation, what we deduce from the Bible is not. So in thinking about these verses we want to confine ourselves to what the Bible says, not what Augustine or Calvin says. When we really can’t understand what it is saying, we turn to teachers wiser than ourselves, but we don’t go to them before we go to Scripture.
Let’s begin by looking at the general witness of Scripture on this subject. We can note that throughout Scripture, Old Testament and New alike, God is sovereign—not only in the sense of having authority, so that what He says should be done, but also of having power, so that what He says should be done will be done. No human being, no created force, can resist God’s will. I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted, Job admits to God in chapter 42 of the Old Testament book that bears his name. There is a huge number of texts to this effect, and I don’t think anyone argues that there isn’t, so I don’t need to press the point, only to say that these are general statements about the relationship of God to creation. Specific statements suggesting that God determines in advance the behavior of specific individuals are much rarer—the word ‘predestine’ is not a common one in Scripture. In fact I can only find four passages that could be put in this category. The first is in Acts 4, where the first Christians state very clearly, as they pray, their belief that Christ’s crucifixion was predestined: Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. Everyone involved in Christ’s crucifixion was playing a part in an event planned and decided before they were even born. Peter’s first letter, 1.20, confirms that this was true of Christ as well as those who crucified Him, saying He was destined before the foundation of the world, but without specifying the crucifixion as His destiny.
This leaves three that refer to Christ’s followers, to us; the passage we read this morning in Romans 8, another passage by Paul, in Ephesians 1, and two verses in the book of Revelation that describe believers as those whose names have… been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life. The book of life appears to be a bit of symbolism such as is typical of the book of Revelation, and that symbolism is notoriously hard to pin down, so we really have only the two passages to consider, Romans and Ephesians.
And when I look at these passages I can’t quite see that they mean what some people say they mean. I looked up ‘predestination’ in several theological works when I started work on this sermon, and they all say in cold print what many assume, that in both Romans and Ephesians what Paul is talking about is ‘predestination to salvation’, or ‘predestination to eternal life’. But let me remind you of the distinction that Paul makes between the act by which we are saved, putting our faith, our trust, in Jesus, and the response we make to His acceptance of us, which is embracing the life to which God calls His people. If you were here last week you’ll remember how we looked at Romans as a whole and saw that distinction made pretty clearly—it’s essential to his whole argument about the rôle of the Old Testament law. And in both Paul’s passages that talk about predestination, you’ll see that they too are speaking about the holy life to which we are called once we put our faith in Jesus. In Romans, he says we are  predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, to live a holy life, following the example of Jesus. In Ephesians 1.4ff, we’re told that God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him. Again, the holy life is the point of what he says. If Paul’s words about predestination distract us, it’s only because of the way they have been applied to subjects other than the one Paul is thinking of when he uses them. We saw last week how once we have put our faith in Christ the moral commandments are no longer a burden to be borne by fleshly obedience but the holy way of life which God’s Spirit will bring about in us if we let the Spirit into our hearts. By the Spirit we are to put to death the deeds of the body, and live. This is one of the purposes of God Paul was referring to when he said all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. One of God’s purposes for us is a better life, a Christ-like life, and the Spirit is telling us through Paul that God wants this for you, for me, personally, and that He wants it so much that unless we turn our backs on Him for ever He is going to draw us to the holy life in the end. Those whose faith is in Christ are destined for holiness. If you are a believer, you are a man of destiny, a woman of destiny.
I don’t know why it is that the prefix ‘pre-’ spooks people. Talking about ‘destiny’ doesn’t seem to punch any of the buttons that talking about ‘predestination’ does. Yet adding the ‘pre-’ doesn’t add anything except a syllable to the word. It doesn’t change the meaning at all. It’s like that awful word you hear people use occasionally, ‘pre-warn’. Irritating and unnecessary, yes, but offensive only to the easily offended. All the Bible is saying—all!—is that a life of obedience to God’s word is the destiny of every Christian. There’s no escaping it, because God loves us, wants the best for us, and just won’t leave us where we are when where we are is in a mess. And the fact is that none of us is going to turn our backs on God, even when we are faced with giving up behavior we love. We might drag our feet, we might pretend our favorite sin is not even sin, but in the end, God is going to bring us to holiness because He has called us by name, and we have answered His call, and we are His. Resistance is useless. Job was exactly right, no purpose of God’s can be thwarted.
Please note that I am not denying the idea that Christians are those pre-destined to salvation; I only say that this is not what Paul is saying in these two passages.
Note also that none of this takes away our freedom; the Bible teaches that man must choose God just as clearly as it teaches that God must choose man. Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell; but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. Paul’s words about destiny simply point us to what we are letting ourselves in for when we choose to serve Christ rather than the world. It includes becoming like Him, being conformed to His image. Once we have faith, that is our destiny, and nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Holiness is what mankind was created for; the way of faith leads nowhere else. Let’s embrace the destiny to which it calls us.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Shore Leave 2014

For the next couple of weeks Susy and I will be off to Massachusetts to enjoy a bit of beach time in the pleasant seaside town of Scituate


--which is Susy's ancestral home.




Many thanks to Deacon Jean Chess and Assistant Dean Byrom for attending to pastoral concerns (call the Church Office if you need to be in touch with either of them) while I'm away.

Susy and I will be slipping into a back pew at St. Luke's, Scituate, for the next two Sundays, where my friend Grant Barber has been rector for a number of years now . . . .


And in the meantime on Sundays, July 20th and 27th, the 10 a.m. St. Andrew's service will be led by a good friend . . . our Priest Associate, the Rev. Dr. Philip Wainwright.


I of course will return rested and ready for action on Sunday, August 3!


                                                                                     Affectionately,

                                                                                      Bruce



Fifth after Pentecost: a Sermon by the Seashore

Proper 10A Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23

Again grace and peace.  It’s very nice that in this summer in the season after Pentecost and in Year A of our Revised Lectionary we have the opportunity and hear and reflect on this long middle section of St. Matthew’s Gospel.  As I noted I think last week, Matthew is sometimes called “the Church’s Gospel,” because it often captures and communicates the attention that Jesus was paying in the time of his earthly ministry to the relationships and mission and ministry that his disciples would continue in the years and decades and generations to come.  I find this interesting and helpful especially for us, as we are here at St. Andrew’s approaching one of those milestone markers.  Looking forward to what we’re calling “Renaissance Sunday” this year.  Round Up Sunday of years past now cast in a new frame.  Sunday, September 7, and I hope circled already on your family calendar.  The dedication of the many renovations that have been made possible through the stewardship “Opening Doors” Capital Campaign, as Bishop McConnell will be here, as some have suggested, to cut the ribbon or to break a bottle of Iron City at the Parish House entry, for a great picnic with all kinds of entertainment and activities-- and as we will all find many traditional and new ways to launch into the fall season not simply as another fall but as a time when we have and do offer prayers for a true spiritual renewal in our lives and in the life of our church.  

That God’s Holy Spirit would work in each of us, in our homes and families, in our congregation and in our wider community, for a “renovation” of the whole household, stirring up faith and energizing our witness and outreach.  You think the new church floor and all the electrical and plumbing and heating infrastructure, new and renovated meeting rooms, elevators, all of it—you think that’s a great step forward.  You haven’t seen anything yet.  To see that this really needs to be all about our being the people and the church that Jesus calls to us to be.   Just wait to see what God is getting ready to do with us, in us, for us, through us. 

And the Biblical witness so important to guide us along the way.  That commission from Jesus that we heard a few weeks ago at the beginning of Matthew 10.  “He called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every infirmity.”  “Go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  And preach as you go, saying ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’  Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons.”  And “when they deliver you up, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given you in that hour; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.”

This not about sitting back and enjoying the show.  Not about standing on the sidelines or being consumers of some processed religious entertainment.  Not actually even about “going to church” at all, when you get right down to it.  Which is kind of the connection here with our Summer Book and our St. Andrew’s Lecture.  About a “missional” life, about being “People of the Way.”  It’s about who we are and what we are about 24/7/365.  How we raise our kids.  How we relate to our neighbors and friends.  What we tell them about what God has done in our lives, what they hear from us and what they see in us. A renovation that is less about events and programs and all the inevitable structures of busyness, more about what settles into our DNA, our identity.  Less about “where we go to church,” more about how we are and who we are at work or school, in the neighborhood, in our families. 

I love reading about the Desert Fathers, back in the earliest Christian centuries, and about how often the stories would be about how the Evil One would manifest himself to them in these burning hours of temptation in their secluded Egyptian caves.  Confronting them with doubts, offering seductive alternatives, testing their faith.  And how the spiritual strength founded in years prayer and fasting, singing psalms in the loneliness of the mountaintop cell, deeply ruminating on the words of scripture—how all that would gather together in power to push back in that moment of testing, to cast the Evil One out with a force of spiritual strength.  

But then to see that this isn’t something Jesus talks about as something for the few religious athletes of the ancient wilderness, but for all his disciples.  Each and all.  With authority over unclean spirits wherever they may be found in this world, and real authority.  In the deep places of our hearts and souls, and in the wide world, relationships, communities, nations and peoples.  To face the Evil Spirits head-on, and to cast them out.  And to think about what that looks like not just in Antony’s cave, but at home in the East End.  At the pool, the playgroup, the garden club, or in the office.  Here, for us.  About how we go into the towns and villages to proclaim for those whom God has prepared to hear us the saving call and announcement, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  To make an accurate translation of this constant message into the particular languages of our lives.  To think about what that looks like here.  To think about what elevators and meeting rooms and floors and ramps and six new accessible restrooms have to do with casting out demons, healing the sick, pointing to Jesus, announcing his Lordship, his Kingdom.

Back in the 5th chapter of St. Matthew Jesus began a famous sermon we call the “Sermon on the Mount,” and this morning at chapter 13 we get a second extended sermon.  Perhaps appropriately named for this summertime, “The Sermon By the Seashore.”   Everybody invited to apply some sunscreen and sit back and listen to Jesus as we enjoy the afternoon sun.  –It is a sermon that as it continues through this chapter is made up of a series of Parables, brief vignettes, often rich with metaphorical and symbolic and allegorical resonance.  A deceptively simple way of preaching and teaching, to allow the listener to continue the sermon internally, to think about the images and stories and to be shaped and informed and enlightened by the process of that rumination. 

The sermon begins in this morning’s reading with the Parable of the Sower, or sometimes it’s called the Parable of the Soils-- and our reading includes both the Parable itself in verses 1-9 and then the interpretation of the parable that Jesus gives in verses 18-23.

The sower sowing with such abandon, reaching into his bag and taking the seed and then tossing it wildly into the air, so that it just seems to be carried in the wind.  Some falling on the road, some in the brambles, some on the hard ground, and, finally, most importantly, some on good soil, where it quickly takes roots and brings forth a magnificent and abundant crop, better than any could have predicted.  And in the interpretation in the second part of the reading Jesus reminds us that we’re not just talking about corn or wheat here.  “But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in once case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.” The Kingdom Harvest.  

In the words of the Morning Prayer canticle taken from Isaiah 55, “for as rain and snow fall from the heavens ad return not again, but water the earth, bringing forth life and giving growth, seed for sowing and bread for eating, so is my word that goes forth from my mouth; it will not return to me empty; but will accomplish that which I have purposed, and prosper in that for which I sent it.”

You might think on a first take that if you were the farm owner and this sower was a farmworker, you might want to send him back to agricultural school for more training.  Incredibly wasteful, just to be out there hurling handfuls of seed into the wind.  What kind of stewardship is this?  But to look again and see that it is in the sower’s extravagance that the point of the story seems to take hold.  The seed is essentially free, but the crop, once that seed finds good soil, is abundant and valuable.  And that process of finding good soil seems to be something the sower just doesn’t concern himself with.  He trusts.  He lets go of control, the idea that he can manage and micromanage.   If you could you might even follow the example of the farmers in Central California who plant from airplanes.  Just get that seed out there.  Don’t spend all day measuring it out in teaspoons, worrying about precision and order, trying to record and document every last grain.  Let it rip, and just see what happens then.  If we really believe God is in charge.  

If we have read the 21st Chapter of St. John’s Revelation and know how the story ends, we know that what needs to happen is going to happen, and not because we were running the show.  We’re going to make mistakes, and a lot of them.  But the abundance of the harvest is assured, not as the result of our mighty efforts, but as his free and good gift.

What that all has to do with us?  With this great place, now renewed and refreshed, with the stewardship our personal and corporate resources.  With these crazy ideas that people keep coming up with—and some of them do sound a little crazy sometimes.  Your grizzled old rector thinks to himself, and mutters out loud--“that will never work.  We tried it back in ’96, and it didn’t seem to work well then.”  In fact most of them probably won’t work.  But that’s not the point.  When you hear that from me, give me a quick slap I guess, and tell me to practice what I preach.  There’s just no telling, not by us anyway, when that seed as it’s tossed up into the air is going to find good soil. That’s God’s business.  He’ll get done what he needs to get done.   For us it’s about getting into the game with the extravagance of the Sower—and then trusting the one who is in charge to do what he will do.

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







Sunday, July 6, 2014

Fourth after Pentecost (Proper 9A)

Matthew 11: 16-30

Grace and peace on this Fourth of July/Independence Day Weekend—as it really begins to feel like summer, picnics and band concerts and fireworks.  A great time of year.   

There’s a tradition to call Matthew “the Gospel of the Church,” in that this first book in our New Testament seems to have a special focus to remember Jesus’ concern with  how his followers should organize themselves and live faithfully in years and generations to come.  Over the last few weeks in our Sunday gospel readings we have been moving through the tenth chapter of the gospel and listening to Jesus as he spoke to his disciples about--and commissioned them for--the work that they were about to begin as they would go out first into the local towns and villages and eventually into all the world, casting out demons, healing, blessing, in his name.  Mindful of the inevitable opposition and persecution that would come their way, they are to be seeking out and encouraging and enlisting those who were prepared to hear the good news and to respond to it by turning around their lives and joining the good work of God’s Kingdom.  Not a mission or commissioning for one day only or for them alone, but a charge to repeat again and again in the life of the Church.  We as Christian people who read the gospel are clearly invited to picture ourselves in the group of disciples hearing Jesus on that day, as we continue that work of confronting the evil one, proclaiming forgiveness of sins, the healing of the brokenness between God and his creation, pronouncing his blessing, the good news of Christ and his kingdom.

And then Jesus turns out not to be one of those arm-chair generals who gives orders to the troops and then retires to the rear.  In Matthew 11 immediately on the heels of his instructions to the disciples he launches himself right out into the thick of the action himself, into the cities and towns of the Galilee.  Into the synagogues and in the town squares, street corners and country crossroads.  If the disciples weren’t quite sure at first what this new mission enterprise was supposed to look like, they were right away going to see it begin to happen with their own eyes.

The first fifteen verses of this chapter, just before the part we have in our reading this morning, Jesus introduces himself and his message in the context of John the Baptist and his followers.  John we remember has been arrested and soon would be executed as a result of his confrontation with King Herod Antipas over the matter of his scandalous marriage to his sister-in-law, and there is apparently some question about whether John’s followers should now, with their master and teacher no longer available, shift their allegiance to Jesus.  They ask Jesus on John’s behalf if John should now tell his followers to join Jesus and his disciples, and Jesus tells them simply that he’s not going to make an argument.  They are instead to rely on what they can see with their own eyes.  “The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.”   In other words—think for yourselves, people.  Do you really think you need to wait for some leader to tell you what’s going on?  Open your own eyes and see what is happening.  “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”   Christian mission not some academic enterprise of abstract speculation, not about something someone named “God” might do in some far distant future, but about the power of God here and now to transform and renew.

And then the passage appointed for today, as Jesus turns from this conversation with John’s followers to address the crowd of bystanders.  “With what shall I compare this generation?  It is like children sitting in the market places and calling to their playmates . . . .”   Like five year olds playing dress up in the attic.  Putting on grown-up clothes and pretending to do grown up things.  But not for real.  Maybe that’s the alternative vision of the Church.  All show and no go. The neighborhood of Make Believe.  John the Baptist came, and you turned-out in great numbers to cheer his sermons, but then you went home again at the end of the day, and changed nothing about your lives.  Here I am, Jesus says, and you all gather around and cheer my sermons, but again, no change.  John had one preaching style and I had another, but the message was and is the same.  The time is now.  God is acting.  This is our opportunity to turn things around.  The day of decision.  And at the end of the service for both of us you shook our hands.  “Enjoyed the sermon today, preacher,” and out the door.

Woe to you, Chorazin, woe to you Bethsaida!  These little backwater villages of the Galilee.  If they had heard preaching like this in London and New York there would have been a revival that would made Billy Graham look like small potatoes. But the precious words of salvation, the call to repentance, an invitation to renewal, restoration, transformation, are for you like water off a duck’s back.  Nothing sinks in!   Woe to you, Capernaum.  If they had seen what you have seen, right here in front of you, right here, right now,   the whole city of Las Vegas would have lined up for the altar call.  The showgirls, gamblers, and pawnbrokers, sinners, con-men, criminals, the dregs of society:  they would hear what we’re talking about.  But it just sails over your head.

Fascinating, isn’t it, Jesus goes on, to see how the message of salvation is plain enough to be heard by uneducated fishermen and rough laborers and addicts and thieves and drunkards, and they are honest enough to look into the mirror and see what is really going on, and what they really need to do to turn their life around, and the word of God comes alive in them--but that it’s all just too complicated and nuanced and entertaining in an intellectually playful sort of way for those who are the better sort?  A friend of mine once said he wished his local church and congregation on Sunday mornings had even one-tenth of the spiritual seriousness and life-changing power as he found among the members of the AA group meeting in the church basement on Sunday evenings.  “Hidden from the wise and understanding,” plain as day to the babies.

The point is certainly that Jesus doesn’t pull any punches.  He’s not aiming for popularity here by telling people what they want to hear and patting them on the back and telling them that they’re just fine just as they are.  His message is that God is real, and that God means business.  The message, and a timeless message, is that if we want to be a part of what is real, if we want to be a part of what God is doing, if we don’t want to be left on the platform while the train is pulling out of the station, then we need to begin by opening our eyes and our ears—to see and hear him, and to get up out of our circles of self-absorption and mutual admiration, and to follow him.  Not only with our lips, but in our lives.

It looks really hard to do that.  Change always seems that way at first, as I can tell you from personal experience.  Maybe seems like it might be easier for those who don’t have so much invested in things as they are.  But that’s not true at all.   This change is all gift and grace and refreshment, if only we can bring yourself to taste and see for yourselves.  Like the transformative power of a gentle rain on a draught-stricken field.  Remembering that this is the same Jesus who says in John 10, “the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.  That’s not me.  Not me at all.   I come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”  Gift and grace and refreshment.  Mercy, forgiveness, love.

Don’t know how many of you may remember the movie “The Matrix.”  But the scenario might be helpful.  The choice there.  The red pill or the blue pill.  Really a matter of life and death.  What Jesus and his disciples are about as they head out into all the world.  A decision with ultimate consequences.  Not playing games or putting on shows.  The choice  to continue to live in an artificially-induced dream world, or to wake up to a reality that for all its challenges the only place where true love and meaning and hope are possible.

Waking up is hard, no question.  At least in the first moment or two.  But not to be afraid—that’s the conclusion of Jesus’ sermon.  Remembering what I think the church does sometimes forget.  That this is good news.  Healing and blessing.  The invitation we would hear as we receive the gift of Holy Communion and then are sent out like those first disciples--the words of Jesus echoing in our ears, inspiring us, waking us up, filling our lives—to be not words of fear but words of love.  Tender assurance.  That he might dwell in us, and we in him.  What I have for you is better than a dream.  So much better than the neighborhood of Make Believe. 

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea.”  #470 in our hymnal.  Always one of my favorites.  “There’s a kindness in his justice, which is more than liberty.  There is welcome for the sinner, and more graces for the good; there is mercy with the Savior; there is healing in his blood.”

And the conclusion of his sermon with the bystanding crowd, with the promise that our traditional Anglican Prayer Book tradition places immediately following the words of absolution.  Don’t be afraid.  An invitation as we would both hear and respond.  Not only with our lips but in our lives.  Having laid our old selves down at the foot of the cross, this is going to be good.   Very good.  A promise that can and will begin to be a reality in our lives, even today.  “Come unto me, all ye who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”



Sunday, June 29, 2014

Third after Pentecost, Proper 8A

Matthew 10: 40-42

Good morning, grace and peace.  It is wonderful to see you on this summer Sunday.

In the last few weeks in our Sunday lectionary we’ve been hearing and reading together the Tenth Chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel.  What the 17th and 18th Century English Biblical Scholar Matthew Henry called Jesus’ “ordination sermon.”  Not that we’re supposed to think about the twelve disciples here as  ordained or about-to-be ordained clergy, but more we would think about how Jesus is ordering his church—we might say, “giving us, all of us, our marching orders.”   Perhaps it was this moment with Jesus and hearing these words that St. Peter was thinking about many years later when he wrote in the second chapter of the letter we now call First Peter “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his glorious light.”  Chosen, possessed, called.  The “ordination service” for a “royal priesthood.”

In any event, in the first part of Matthew 10 Jesus confers spiritual authority on his twelve disciples.   Have to remember back a couple of weeks.   In verse one of chapter ten, anyway, he gives them, “authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every infirmity.”  Wow.  They were to go out into the highways and byways, the towns and villages, seeking the “lost sheep of the house of Israel:” not simply to talk about the Gospel of the Kingdom, but to put it into action, effectively and with power.  And then a few verses on in this commissioning sermon Jesus tells them that this kind of power isn’t necessarily going to be received well.  On the contrary.  That it can and will incite anxiety, jealousy, even hatred.  Violence.  He warns them about the certainty of opposition and persecution.    As we read last week, he reminds them that all that opposition and persecution is not really just about them, but that it is a part of the deeper and we might even say the cosmic rebellion of evil against God.  The students are hit by the arrows aimed at the teacher.  That as his disciples suffer, they participate in the deepest way possible in his battle and then, finally, the victory of his Cross.  “You will be hated by all for my name’s sake,” he tells them in verse 22, “but he who endures to the end will be saved.”  The last sentence of the portion we read last Sunday, verse 39, “He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.”  Serious business.

This ordination sermon, the marching orders and commissioning and commendation that Jesus gives his disciples as he sends them out into the field, coming to a rousing conclusion in these final three verses of chapter 10 this morning:  “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”   Encouragement perhaps after the words of warning.  These moments on the road, in these little villages and towns, as you offer what I have given to you to the poor, the broken, the lost, one by one, in quiet rural corners and dusty back alleys.  Seems like not much: marginal moments.  But really, this is cosmic, what you’re doing.  The whole arc of history bending to this hour.  Don’t underestimate for a minute what is going on here.  God working in and through and with you to set the world back into order, to renew and refresh, to cleanse, to heal.  Straightening things out.  Calling to repentance.  Proclaiming forgiveness.  Just think about that!  He says, I am with you every step of the way.  And then, “Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous.”  This is what is happening.  As you are a prophet, speaking God’s Word, the one who hears you and welcomes you and  receives that Word, becomes one with you, as you are one with me, and I am one with the Father.  As you are righteous, walking with me, announcing the new work of the Kingdom, putting the love of God into action as I have commanded you, and as the healing you offer is received and welcomed, that one becomes one with you, as you are one with me, and I am one with the Father.  “And whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”   It’s not the scale of the response that matters.  Don’t expect or even concern yourself with fireworks and drama.  Not about filled arenas and national cover stories.  Not about Sunday morning attendance statistics or pledge drives or capital campaigns.   A story those metrics can’t even begin to reflect.  So much bigger, wider, deeper than all that.   It’s how the Holy Spirit has worked in the sincerity of the heart.  Converting and renewing.  Exercising spiritual authority over the forces and the force that rebel against God, casting out demons, pronouncing forgiveness, healing, restoration in the love of the Father.

So marching orders this morning.  Giving shape and substance and direction to his church. 

And off they go.  The Twelve.  The Church.  Commissioned and launched into the fray.  About as unlikely a bunch as you could imagine.  This is the plan?  Shaking our heads a little bit as we look around in the pews.  You’d think the Creator and Master of the Universe could come up with something at least a little  better than this.  Peter, Andrew, James, John.  We picture them out on the distant margins.  Broke, uneducated, rustic, the lowest rung on the social ladder, flawed in just about every way.   And the whole arc of history bending to this hour . . . . 

I’m reminded in all of this actually of the really lively and interesting conversation we had this past Tuesday evening over at Chris and Beth Schunn’s house for our first summer “Cottage Meeting” to discuss the Summer Book, Dwight Zscheile’s “People of the Way.”  Talking about bout issues of control and trust in the life of the church.  About not trying to organize God’s life and work for him, not trying to force the Holy Spirit into boxes and top-down structures that we imagine we can manage and direct.  How the church always seems to want to make it about a program, a strategy, a plan.  Which is of course not a terrible thing—so much important Christian ministry and mission accomplished over generations and centuries through program and strategy and plan.  But it can also be quicksand.

 Thinking instead here.  About how vulnerable these disciples are when Jesus sends them out.  About how they need to dig deep into their own hearts to trust that Jesus is with them, that he has gone on ahead of them and is already there, working secretly in deep and powerful ways in the places they are going.  Unfamiliar places.  Unsafe places.   Obviously some fear.  Sailing out of a harbor and into the open sea without a map.  How they have no idea what to expect.  Maybe that’s where some of us are right now in our lives.  No longer connected to the familiar mooring.  And even as we think about the life of this congregation.  A moment when something new seems to be approaching, but we’re not exactly sure what.  Standing in the sandals of the Twelve on this day with Jesus.  Trusting somehow, somehow, that they will be able to exercise the spiritual gifts that he has given them when the time is right.  “I’ll tell you what to say when it’s time to speak.  I’ll tell you what to do when it’s time to act.  Don’t worry.”  Trusting that he is with them, even when they can’t see him.  That even when they can’t see any results, or that even when the results they see may be negative, even if they are rejected, persecuted, killed, for his sake, God will receive their faithful offering and in his own time and in his own way use it to accomplish his purposes. 

And he called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every infirmity.”



Sunday, June 22, 2014

Second after Pentecost, Proper 7A

Matthew 10: 24-39



Good morning, and grace and peace as we roll on now in summer, officially as of 6:51 yesterday morning, and today, Second Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 7A , at the beginning of the long green season of ordinary time following Trinity Sunday that will carry us through the summer and fall with a couple of festival interruptions all the way to Advent.  In the far, far distance perhaps we can already hear the children of St. Andrew’s beginning to rehearse the traditional carols of the Christmas Pageant!

 In any event--through this “Year A” in the Sunday lectionary we are continuing to read a good deal through the Gospel of St. Matthew, and this morning in the 10th chapter I found myself humming along with the well-known Martin Luther hymn “A Mighty Fortress is our God,” remember especially the great rousing and triumphant conclusion of the fourth stanza,

Let goods and kindred go,
This mortal life also;
The body they may kill;
God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.

#688 in our hymnal.



Jesus tells his disciples, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.  Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?  Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.  And even the hairs of your head are all counted.  So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. “

“Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Back in the early 18th century the great English Biblical scholar Matthew Henry wrote of this passage, “Our Lord warned his disciples to prepare for persecution . . . .  Christ foretold troubles, not only that the troubles might not be a surprise, but that they might confirm their faith.  He tells them what they should suffer, and from whom.  Thus Christ has dealt fairly and faithfully with us, in telling us the worst we can meet with his service; and he would have us deal so with ourselves, in sitting down and counting the cost.”

That we might then  hear this passage this summer morning, be confirmed in our faith, and that we might be prepared and strengthened in heart and mind and body for the steeper climbs that are bound to come sooner or later as we walk with him the Way of the Cross. Persecution turns out in some difficult way to be good news.  Not that we would seek it out, but that when it comes, it comes with the assurance that we continue in his care.  That we experience a reinforcement in faith, as we share in his suffering.   Remembering the unsettling conclusion of the opening Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5, “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.” 

In recent weeks of course we’ve read and heard a good deal about renewed and reenergized and horrific persecution of Christians in places like Nigeria and Sudan, Pakistan, Iraq, Egypt.  Story in the New York Times this morning about a young Christian convert from Afghanistan who lives in hiding and fearful of attack from his own family.  Assaults and murders, homes and churches fire-bombed, women and children brutalized.  Whole communities living under a shadow, in fear, because they are associated with the name of Christ.  And in those moments some amazing stories of courage and faith.  To read about them, to remember them daily in our thoughts and our prayers.  (And please do.)  Inspiring and I think humbling, and perhaps their stories and those prayers as we open our hearts and our imaginations will re-frame our own stories with a gentle discipline.  Seems odd to read about these things while I’m eating my Cheerios and drinking my coffee in the early morning, before heading out into the sunshine of a bright Pittsburgh day.  Thinking about priorities and identity, and with questions of character and value.  What is really important in my life?  Could I withstand the challenges they face?  Just so hard to know.

Certainly to be thankful to live in a local context where this kind of suffering isn’t a part of our day to day reality.   But not closing ears to the cries of those who are suffering so far away, and as well and importantly  to have in our minds that well-known word from Jesus in the 12th chapter of St. Luke’s gospel, about stewardship.  Including I suppose how we use our material resources, but in a wider frame than the annual pledge campaign.  What we do with our lives.  In any event, Luke 12: 48, “Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required.”  As we pray for our brothers and sisters and fellow Christians around the world, probably to say that the best way to put that prayer into action has to do with being faithful where we are.

At the conference I attended last week one of the points of reflection and conversation about our lives and ministries we explored by brainstorming some familiar phrases about vocation, and what came to my mind at one point with great affection,  but also in a way that was and is a little challenging, was the title of the Oswald Chambers famous book of meditations, “My Utmost for His Highest.”  Is that what we can be about?  Every day, every day,  to be a day of discernment and stewardship, and to offer my best gifts,  as we so often say in one of the Post-communion Prayers, “send us out to do the work you have given us to do, to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord, with gladness and singleness of heart.”  For this first Sunday of the summer.  My utmost, for his highest.

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



Saturday, June 14, 2014

Trinity

I'm very thankful that my good friend and colleague the Rev. Kathy LaLonde will preach and preside at St. Andrew's tomorrow morning while I complete my week at the CREDO II Conference in Delray Beach, Florida.

I would share this link to a lovely setting of "I Arise Today," the poem attributed to Patrick of Ireland and so often sung in an adapted version on this feast.  


St. Patrick's Lorica