Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sixteenth after Pentecost

Matthew 21: 23-32

Good morning, and grace and peace.  A new season for us now, as this the first Sunday of the Fall, after a long and mostly cool summer.  Once again in the next week a taste at least of October baseball, which is of course a highlight on my calendar.

 A new chapter begun for Jesus and his disciples as well.  In Matthew chapter 17 and a number of weeks ago now in terms of our Sunday lectionary Jesus and Peter and Andrew and James and John came down from the Mount of Transfiguration and set out with the rest of the disciples on the road toward Holy Week and Good Friday.  We’ve heard Jesus speaking to these friends and to the gathered crowds along the way, sharing with the beginnings of what I’ve called his Last Will and Testament:  commands, concerns-- stories he wants them to remember when he’s no longer with them to guide them step by step, inspire, shape them individually and together  though the challenges of the day.  Equipping them for the new mission that they will discover when the Holy Spirit fills them at Pentecost.

And now our feet are standing within thy gates, O Jerusalem.  Psalm 122, a song that would be in the heart and on the lips of every pilgrim approaching the Holy City for the Passover festival.

The first half of the 21st chapter of Matthew, just before the reading we heard this morning, the Entrance to the City.  Palm Sunday.  The crowds recognizing Jesus, waving their branches and throwing their coats and shawls onto the path as he passed through the ancient gates.  A kind of homecoming.  Which would be true for every Jew of Jesus day and of ours and I suppose of every Christian too.  That’s what people tell me who have been there: a homecoming like no other.  I know Dean will be going again pretty soon, and perhaps others of you have made or will make that trip sometime.  Making that pilgrimage.  

It is of course in a unique way homecoming for Jesus, at Mt. Zion.  God from God, light from light.  Very God of very God.  Not just because he is a celebrity preacher and prophet and miracle-worker, though that certainly would have been what the people in the crowds were responding to.  Joseph and his mother certainly would have told him of the story, what happened when they travelled with him as an infant, after his birth, to make the offering of the 40th day.  Old Simeon with his prophesy.  “Mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people.”  Anna singing the praises of God.  And he would have remembered the family journey to Jerusalem for the festival when he was a boy.  When he slipped away from his family to explore the Temple, when even as a youth he had met some of the esteemed scholars of Judaism’s holiest place and astonished them with the questions he asked them.  And then when Mary and Joseph had finally found him—“How is it that you sought me?  Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

And so now the Son returns, all these years later, and once again engaging the scholars, the Chief Priests and the elders, in a pointed conversation.  Which they receive a little differently.  Still astonished, we might say, but any smiles they may have had years ago for a precocious teenager are long gone, and they understand that the stakes are higher, that in this encounter there is much at risk for them.

The question is about authority, about loyalty, about affiliation and identification, about where Truth and Assurance and the presence of God is to be found-- and Jesus of course here saying that true authority comes not from your ecclesiastical office or the academic degrees on the wall or even from the praise of the people, but from God, demonstrated as in John by  a life of faithful obedience.  It is a direct challenge, and one they can’t duck.  John the Baptist had no ecclesiastical office and no Master of Divinity degree.  But he looked at the world with a vision and with moral and spiritual clarity shaped by and grounded in God’s continuous word to Israel, the Law and the Prophets, and he proclaimed a message of repentance to the people, calling them to put down their easy accommodations and their casual and sometimes not-so-casual hypocrisies, and to return to the Lord their God.  How the song goes:  You’ve got to change your evil ways, Baby.   He called them to repentance, and so to point to and prepare the way for the Promised One of Israel.  The time is now, he said, to worship the Father not simply in external ceremony, but with the sacrifice of the heart, “not only with our lips, but in our lives.”    What kind of authority did John have?  Where did his power come from?  Fine clothes?  Social standing?  High office?  Academic degrees and credentials?  The question Jesus asks them.  When he pointed his finger at you, and called you to change your ways?   When he declared, Behold the Lamb of God?  What made that a word from above, a word with authority?  You give me an answer to that question, here in the midst of this crowd of witnesses, and then I’ll tell you who I am.

And then Jesus punctuates the moment with the Parable of the Two Sons.  The one who uses the right words, who gets the ceremonies right, the outward observances, who prays from the authorized Prayer Book, but then puts the text down at the end of the service and goes away with his heart and his life unchanged, and the one who doesn’t have all the external signs of conformity.  But at the end of the day, he is a new man.  “Rend your heart, not your garments,” as the Prophet had said.  “Then turn to the Lord, and he will have compassion.”  

And perhaps here we remember the other parable Jesus once told about a man with two sons.  The younger one who did everything wrong, but who returned humbled and broken in tears to the embrace of the Father, and the older one, who fulfilled every demand of the law, but whose heart was made of stone.  Echoes here as well of the parable of the Good Samaritan, I suppose.  The stunning contrast between the religious leaders who turn their eyes away and pass by on the other side, and the Samaritan who held none of the high offices or honorary titles, but who stopped to help.

If you were beaten and robbed and left by the side of the road, which of these would you hope would pass by along the way?  You give thanks for the one who stoops down to pick you up, and you don’t ask questions.  Are you wearing the correct vestments for this service?  Do you have a Masters Degree?

Even the most flagrant of sinners will be ahead of you in line at the Kingdom’s Gates, Jesus tells these men, revered of the people, respected theologians and scholars, ecclesiastical leaders.  Even the riff-raff, they got it.  At least when they heard John’s word of hope, about a God who has more and better things in mind for them,  when he told them of God’s Anointed One now entering the world in their midst,  they listened and yearned for that message to be true.  They knew it was true, in their minds as they heard the proclamation of the Scriptures, and in their hearts.  You just spent all your time trying to defeat the message and kill the messenger.

The authorities know better than to make a move in that public place, but they’ve heard all they need to hear.  The solution to the Jesus problem was going to have to be what had also been for them the solution to the John the Baptist problem.  They were just going to need to find the right opportunity to make that happen.

And now our feet are standing within thy gates.   Jerusalem, and Holy Week--and the question hanging over the Parable of the Sons frames not only one moment in time, but every moment—and of course our moment.  About who he is to us, really.  Not about dressing the part or saying the right words, but about getting up when we hear his voice, about turning towards him as he calls our name, and about trusting him, following him. 



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

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Fifteenth after Pentecost

Matthew 20: 1-6

Good morning and welcome, grace and peace.  The turn from summer to fall officially at 10:29 p.m. tomorrow night, but of course with the schools opening in mid-August and the chilly mornings the past couple of weeks and Christmas displays in the Target-- it feels like we’re well along in the season already. 

A bit of chill in the air also for Jesus and his disciples since they came down from the mountaintop “transfiguration” experience in Matthew 17 and now are heading into the last leg of the journey--moving on towards the final chapter, as they have come from their home region of the Galilee and entered Judea, moving on with deliberate speed toward Palm Sunday and Holy Week and Good Friday and the Cross.  A long shadow overtaking them.   All of which seems in the mind of Jesus as he teaches the crowds who come out to hear him and most especially his disciples.  A certain urgency and intensity of focus.  To share himself with them and to communicate with them in a deep and lasting way what they would need to know not simply to navigate the dangerous waters immediately ahead but also as they would reassemble and in the power of the Holy Spirit in the energy of Pentecost to begin to live as his Body in the world—to be the church.  A “last will and testament” to leave with them, to support and guide and direct them along the way when he would no longer be there in the way that he had been up until now.

So we heard over the last couple of weeks from Matthew 18, as Jesus talked about things like conflict resolution and forgiveness, and reflecting in that his deep love and his prayer for the unity and communion of the fellowship that would be his Body.   “That he might dwell in us, and we in him.”  As he would say as recorded in John, vine and branches.  An organic whole.  Drawn together in him and through him, all of his disciples,  in the same spirit of love that Paul would write about to the Christians in Corinth.  Patient and kind.  Not jealous or boastful.  Never failing.  A love that seeks not its own way, but always instead to be a blessing to the other, and to the whole Body.

As the story moves along Jesus continues as he does so well to preach by means of these parables.  Evocative stories.  Not to set out his word for us as a series of directives, but to ask us to allow these stories to reach into our imaginations, from the inside out,  to touch not simply minds but also hearts.

Here in Matthew 20, Jesus begins, “the Kingdom of heaven is like . . . .”   Jesus uses this word all the time in Matthew’s gospel in particular. The “basileia” of heaven.”  “Basileia” not really to refer to a particular place but to the expanse of the king’s royal power and sphere of influence.   The dominion of heaven, the reign of Heaven’s King.   The Kingdom of Heaven IS.  Present tense:  about what is to come, but also about what is possible, a reality now, for those who live in Christ.  Leaning forward into God’s future.  Theologians use the term “realized eschatology.”  How the end of all things and the purpose and goal of all things is anticipated and made present.  The sacrament of the Kingdom we might say.  Outward and visible signs here and now of God’s eternal fullness.   Back at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 Jesus says “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”   Already living in God’s domain, under his rule and authority and protection.  A little later on in the Sermon Jesus tells his disciples not to worry about material things like food and drink.  “Seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.”

So the Kingdom not simply about some place up in the sky, or about some condition of being possible in the distant future, but about how we live now, about authority and values and character.  Who we are now.  We may not be in heaven yet, in one sense, but in another sense, yes, we can be, now.   We can bow our head and bend the knee and kneel before the one who is at once here and now and always, past, present, and future, King over heaven and earth.  To be ourselves, let’s say, outposts of heaven.  I picture the 16th century explorer planting the flag in a newly discovered land.  That’s a Matthew way of thinking about the church.  An outpost of heaven.   I had the occasion with my daughter a number of years ago to visit the embassy of Mongolia down in Washington D.C.  (Many of you will remember her 2 ½ year Mongolian adventure.  Some years ago now.)  In any case,  kind of the same idea.  A small building in Georgetown, a little over four hours from Pittsburgh, but I could say when we got home that evening “Now I’ve been to Mongolia too.” 

And if we want to be in heaven, Jesus is saying to his disciples again and again in St. Matthew’s Gospel—if we want to be in heaven for all eternity, in the Mansion prepared for us by the Father from the beginning of time, right here is where that begins to happen.  We can move in today.  Corner of Hampton Street and North Euclid.  But definitely think in a wider frame than that.  It’s not about stone walls and gothic architecture, though sometimes things like that can stir our imaginations in this direction.  Wherever two or three are gathered in my name.  If we’re people Redeemed by the work of Christ and inspired to follow him and through him to be in communion with the Father, dying with Christ and rising with him in the waters of our baptism—then heaven is to begin now to live in God’s presence, his eternal home.  The Kingdom of Heaven not simply our future and final destiny but our present reality.  And in these parables a way to begin to recognize the landmarks, to internalize our citizenship.

So before us in Matthew 20 this Parable, the Laborers in the Vineyard.  A familiar story.  A little odd.   Some called to work in the early morning, some at midday, some in the last hour of twilight.  And the story of how they are paid.  Which seems as peculiar to us as it did to the characters in the story.  Turning our notions of fairness and equity and justice up on end.  It jostles especially the morning laborers, of course, because it challenges their sense of entitlement.  But actually it gives all of us a good shake.   The old world crashes into the new world, the collision of heaven and earth.

My ways are not your ways, says the Lord, nor my thoughts your thoughts.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts your thoughts.

The pivotal moment in the movie Jaws comes when Roy Scheider finally sees the Great Shark and turns to Captain Quint and says, “You’re going to need a bigger boat.”  We’re going to need to begin to think bigger thoughts.

Maybe that was what the Holy Spirit was whispering into the hearts of this congregation as the “Opening Doors” campaign kicked off last year.  The work we were able to do around the building an outward sign, to say, “we need to be getting ready for something more that God has in mind for us.”  Something more.   This story of the Laborers in the Vineyard is about catching a glimpse of a whole new way of thinking about what’s important, about value, about justice, about the moral template of the universe.  About who we are, about who God is.  Just a glimpse—but enough to know that the way we have making sense of things in this old world of ours won’t work in heaven.  God has a different calculus.  We’re going to need a bigger boat.  

In theological vocabulary this is about grace, about the atonement, about the Work of Christ and the Power of the Cross, the Proof of the Resurrection--and in the ordinary language of our lives and relationships it is about faith and forgiveness, reconciliation and hospitality and love.  All about what happens when lives are renewed and refreshed in Christ Jesus. 

Doesn’t matter what hour we arrived in the Vineyard.  No timeclocks to punch  in heaven.  Not about earning points.  Whether our accomplishments seemed great or small.  Whether we were well-known or unknown.  Diplomas on the wall, Commendations and Letters of Appreciation and applause, heavy bank accounts.  How many riches we have gathered into our barns. 

If we thought we were something special.  If we thought we weren’t good enough.  Our secret pride, our secret sins, the trophies on our bookcase, the dark corners of the mind and of the heart.  Not about working to pay for a right to be here, but about hearing his voice, and that we would know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads.  It was enough for the Laborers, that when the Vineyard Owner called them in, they came.

Catching a glimpse in the parable about what Jesus is sharing with us, over the centuries.  About what it means to follow him, to live in him.  One of my favorite hymn texts, by the old Victorian English Anglo-Catholic  and then Roman Catholic F.W. Faber.  The Song of the Vineyard, all around us this morning, and the song-track of heaven. What we might sing while we’re setting new furniture up in our beautiful new meeting space—and up the center aisle on our way to communion.

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea; 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.



Sunday, September 14, 2014

Fourteenth after Pentecost

(Year A)  Matthew 18: 21-35

Grace and peace this morning.  Still officially summer, but a taste of fall in the air, for sure.
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Today I want to pause in our worship with attention to this reading from St. Matthew, in the 18th Chapter.  Not a long reading, but it has two distinct sections.  The first this dialogue between Jesus and Peter over the question of forgiveness in the life of the Christian family.  “What are the rules?” Peter asks.  Need some minimum guidelines.  And of course Jesus replying with this phrase that is translated variously as “seventy-seven times” or even “seventy times seven.”  His point obviously being to push back at Peter’s fixation on a rule, a limit.  And then in the second section, Jesus moves on to what is sometimes called the “Parable of the Unmerciful Servant.”  The moral of the story as a kind of ironic, eyebrow-raised reply to Peter’s question.  “How could someone who has been forgiven for so much, who has received such a generous and extravagant gift of mercy himself, turn right around and be so stingy, so harsh and unforgiving with another?”

And this whole section following immediately the reading from the first part of Matthew 18 last Sunday, which perhaps you’ll remember—a long and somewhat complicated procedure that Jesus outlines for the resolution of disputes in the congregation.  First (not blind copy e-mails, not back channel gossip, not secretive chatter in the parking lot): First: go to the person who has been causing you a problem privately, and try to work it out.  If that doesn’t work, bring in a couple of respected elders, so that they can listen to both sides and give mature and thoughtful Christian perspective and help you reach a conclusion.  And if even that doesn’t work, then open the situation to the whole church.  Let the sunshine in, with full public accountability.   No triangulation.  None of the pathology of secret conversation in the shadows.  Accountability and clarity.  And if after that time things can’t be resolved, make a clean break.  Nothing worse than a festering wound.  A rotten apple in the barrel.  Maybe the congregation as a whole will need to decide who has to leave,  but you and your alternate should probably be able actually to figure that on your own--and then everyone will need to respect that decision.  No backward-gazing, in any case, no telephone calls in the middle of the night to a remnant of secret allies.  Sometimes there needs to be that space, Jesus says, and you go  your separate ways, and don’t look back.  Start over fresh someplace else.  A better option than the poison of ongoing unresolved murmuring.  St. Benedict uses a surgical metaphor when he talks about the situation when a member of the monastic community is the toxic source of division and conflict, murmuring and jealousy and resentment.  Sometimes he says, amputation is the only remaining life-saving measure.

In that context, specifically looking at the life of the church.  In this section of St. Matthew Jesus and his disciples have come down from the Mount of Transfiguration and turned in the general direction of Jerusalem, and we can hear so vividly in the words and stories of Jesus this deep desire that he has to give his disciples the tools, the perspectives, the deeper understanding that will be necessary for them to have to survive and to be effective and to flourish in the mission that they will have in the days and years and centuries after Easter morning. 

There is something so precious to Jesus about the peace of the church.  If there's a feeling for us to have after that reading last week and then this morning, I hope it is just simply to know deep, deep down, how much he loves us.  It’s the way he continues to feel when he looks at this little congregation of St. Andrew’s.  And as he looks at each one of us, in our homes and families.  So precious to him.  The saying sometimes attributed to St. Francis, “preach often, when necessary use words.”  How the potential of this little band of Jesus is  deeply rooted not in sermons and mission statements and church programs and campaigns, but in the transformed heart.

Thinking here about the familiar passage of scripture, from St. Paul,  First Corinthians 13.  It has been read in a couple of the weddings we’ve had at St. Andrew’s this summer and it was one of the readings this past Friday afternoon at the Memorial Service for Professor Jannie Swart in the Chapel of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

In any event, the famous chapter about Christian love, which was of course written to a church community full of strife.  Love is patient and kind, not jealous, boastful, arrogant, or rude.  Such familiar words for us. Division between the well-off and the poor, between the well-educated and highly cultured and the poorly educated, between those who feel that they have achieved spiritual maturity and those who are new to Christian faith and life, between old families and newcomers. And it’s the fifth verse of the 13th chapter that just leaps out at me every time I read that text.  “Love does not insist on its own way.”

It seems to me that those simple words could have been the words inscribed by Pilate over the Cross on Good Friday.  Love does not insist on its own way.

It’s the relational and theological principle that lies under both last week’s reading about resolving disputes and this week’s about forgiveness and mercy.  And of course it is just about as counter-intuitive and counter-cultural as anything we could imagine.  It doesn’t mean don’t have an opinion, don’t be an advocate, don’t find all wholesome and appropriate ways to contribute as you truly feel is appropriate, as you feel God has equipped you to contribute.  Doesn't mean we don't have differences.  

But you can just see Jesus in what I suppose was an intensity of compassion.  He knows this is hard to get.  Know when “insisting” begins to bring harm to the Body.  He’s not going to be with them much longer, and he needs for them to have this way of understanding what they are about to witness on the hill of Calvary.  Understanding it and incorporating it for themselves, so that the Body stretched out on the Cross will become mystically and sacramentally and in reality his Body the Church.

In any event.  The really hard time to forgive the bad behavior of someone else is when you know that the behavior really was bad, that you were right and they were wrong, and especially when they still don’t seem to understand that they were wrong, and when there’s nothing to look at in terms of repentance or any commitment to amendment of life.  When things aren’t going to get any better.  When you breathe in and breathe out and let it go, simply because unforgiveness is toxic to the Body.  Because the unworthiness of the one we would forgive pales in comparison to our unworthiness before the one who has forgiven us and blessed us with grace and mercy beyond anything we ever could have hoped for.

How many times do I need to forgive.  What is the minimum passing score on the test of love?  What is the rule about how joyful I need to be?  How much gratitude am I required to feel?


It’s a great lesson to hear again, from Matthew 18, the week after Renaissance Sunday.  A reminder that if the mission and ministry of this body of Christian people is going to flourish in the days and years ahead, it will be not because we have elevators and restrooms and meeting space and a great acoustic, but because we would seek to live lives faithful to Jesus, allowing ourselves to be occupied by him.  Of course don’t get me wrong.  Those things are important and great.  But they aren’t essential.   This is the way that the mission can happen with grace and beauty and wholesome life.  What is essential: These Christians, how they love one another.  Think how that message plays in this sad and broken world of ours.  The promise of renaissance, the Holy Spirit, Jesus dwelling in our hearts and in our lives, and right here in these wonderful buildings!  That this would be a place and that we would be a people so deeply patterned in his presence, in Word and Sacrament, that we would be ourselves so filled with him, deeply breathing in what he has given us, that his grace and mercy and love and forgiveness, his gentleness and his generous, generous compassion, that his peace would be the banner over us day and night. 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

September 11



Friends,

The World Trade Center. The Pentagon. United 93 and the field outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

On this anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001, we would pause in a moment of silence to remember and offer our prayers for those who were killed on that day, for those who were injured, and for their families and loved ones. We remember and give thanks for the police, fire, and emergency workers who responded to the crisis, at risk of life and personal safety, and we offer our prayers for those who died in that effort, and for those who have suffered health consequences in subsequent years.

We would remember in our prayers the leaders of our country and of all those around the world who have joined the effort to defeat those who instigated this attack and continue to endanger the safety and well-being of our world. We pray for the men and women of our armed forces as they continue this effort in Afghanistan, now again in Iraq, and in Syria, and all around the world--especially remembering of course those of our extended parish family whom we remember in our prayers every Sunday.

Please note as well the reflections on this day by my colleague and friend, Jim Simons, rector of St. Michael of the Valley Church, Ligonier--the parish nearest the crash site of United 93.



Grace and peace,

BruceR

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Thirteenth after Pentecost: Renaissance at St. Andrew's!

Proper 18A(1)  Exodus 12: 1-14; Romans 13: 8-14
Renaissance Sunday!

Grace and peace.  “Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost” doesn’t sound like much of a festival, but certainly for us this morning it’s a big day.  The old Sunday after Labor Day “Round Up” at the beginning of the fall this year retitled “Renaissance Sunday.”  Formally marking the culmination of more than three years of work with the Opening Doors Capital Campaign, concluding successfully with pledges substantially above our initial goal of $1.5 Million.  A bit more finish left here and there, as you can see for yourselves, but also a day to dedicate all the renovations and improvements this stewardship has made possible.  Assuring the structural integrity of the church, providing a new floor, an accessible passageway from the church to the parish house, the new entries, restrooms, and stairways on all three floors of the parish house, a new larger meeting room downstairs in the parish house, an elevator, new heating and ventilation equipment, electrical service, plumbing.  And with the creation of new resources for a reinvigorated commitment to ministry and mission and outreach locally and around the world.    

It has been quite a year.  A year of gestation.  As the child is knit together in his mother’s womb.  And now a day of celebration.  New birth, getting started again.   It’s going to be a gradual exploration.  With a lot of listening and experimentation.  Not just to go back to what everything was like before we got started, but with a nicer facility.  But to open new doors, test new possibilities.  To ask God to take this as an offering and to make of it what he will, to guide us in new directions.

The words at the beginning of the passage appointed as our Old Testament reading this morning seems to catch something of the spirit of the day.  God’s commands to his people about the observance of the Passover, which is to be the foundation of their life as his people.  A mighty miracle of deliverance is about to be accomplished before them.  Something never seen before.  The great historical anticipation and foreshadowing of the universal deliverance that was to be known in Christ Jesus.

You will remember what I am about to do for you, and you will tell your children and your children’s children forever.  God’s Chosen, those who remember that it was he who saved them, lifted them from bondage, carried them safely though many dangers, toils, and snares, to bring them safely home.  “This month shall mark for you the beginning of months.  It shall be the first month of the year for you.”

This is a day of course when we are acknowledging what is in a sense a great accomplishment for this congregation.  We’re not all that big and strong, and when we first looked at the challenges we were facing we weren’t at all sure we were going to be able to do what we thought needed to be done.  But to use a baseball metaphor, the people of this congregation really did step up to the plate.  There are some special heroes, as we all know.  But it was truly and is truly a team effort.  The whole village.  Hard work, creative planning, excellent leadership, inspired and inspiring stewardship.  And a home run, no question about it.  A home run.

The reality is and of course the deeper point of this reading from Exodus is as a reminder of perspective.  Moses didn’t free the Hebrew slaves.  Moses didn’t part the waters of the Red Sea.  Moses didn’t write the Commandments or lead the trek though the wilderness.  Moses didn’t defeat the enemies they encountered along the way.  Moses didn’t feed the hungry multitudes with manna for the heavens.  Moses is chosen by God to tell  the people what God is going to do--and then God does what God does.

So what is God going to do with a reinforced foundation and some new rooms and improved accessibility and an elevator?  I think we’re just beginning to catch a first glimpse.  There’s so much we don’t know yet, so much we can’t see yet.  But if the past is any indicator, the word we might have emblazoned overhead today is something like this:  “Fasten your seatbelts!”

And with that word in mind, I would ask us to turn our attention to the 13th chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, verses 11-12, “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.  For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.  Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”

And just to place along side that the words of Jesus himself, in Luke 12: “from those to whom much is given, much will be expected.”

It’s an exciting day.  But it could be a dangerous day, a spiritually catastrophic day, if what we celebrate today were to tempt us to think highly of ourselves and our accomplishments. 

This is a day most of all for deep humility, and for preparation, and for commitment.

It’s a great privilege to be here, of course, at this moment of new beginning.  But what is happening today is not that we are being presented with a prize, but with some new tools, some equipment that will be necessary for a much bigger job that God now apparently has in mind for us. 

As we have said before, if God gives you a hammer, you are right to expect that there are nails in your future.

I hope there’s a lot of excitement for that.  Time to wake up and smell the coffee, as Paul has said this morning.  The energy of renaissance.  But I hope that there’s also some anxiety.  Something of an edge.  Do I know what I need to know for the work God is preparing?  Am I in the right kind of shape?  Where am I in terms of my manner of life, my conduct, my relationships?  How am I doing in the inner space of my mind and heart? 

Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.

Simply to know that God has moved in this congregation in a new way, not for our purposes but for his purposes.  It’s an honor for us, something that we will now with all our heart and mind and strength want to prove worthy of.  As we are honored, so as Paul says, that we would live honorably.  To hear the word of the returning master in the Parable of the Five Talents, “Well done, good and faithful servant.  You have been faithful with a few things.  I will put you in charge of many things.”


We’ll enjoy the celebration today.  And know that he who has done this great thing for us has more in mind for us, and better, than we could ever ask for or imagine.

Holy Matrimony: Laura and Ian



September 6, 2014 Holy Matrimony
Laura Elizabeth Zwicker and Ian Blythe Everhart
Tobit 8: 5-8; Colossians 3: 12-17; Mark 10: 6-9, 13-16

Wow.  Good afternoon everyone!  Family and friends . . . .  Great to be here as we are witnesses and participants in this much anticipated celebration of Christian marriage.  On Facebook it has been called “the Royal Wedding.”  Laura and Ian, I would personally and I know speaking for everyone, express my and our deepest thanks for inviting us to be with you as this new page is turned, a new chapter begun.  Her eyes met his across the choir of St. Andrew’s Church, and the rest is history!   All your lives now coming together in a new harmony.  Making beautiful music together.  (There are a lot of possibilities with this metaphor, but maybe I’ll leave it at that.  Will try to, anyway.)

I of course loved knowing you as Laura, and as Ian, before I got to know you as “Laura and Ian.”  Over this long season as I have had a chance to get to know you as a couple, I very often have had the thought that “this is going to be something special.”  You should know that that’s the consensus in the room today.  We’re all smiling!  In the mysteries of his Providence, God is doing a great thing with you.  He has a plan, only just now beginning to unfold.  Two exceptional young people, gifted in so many ways.  We’re your cheering section, with applause, with love, and as you have heard with promises to support and even more: to share with you the good work God is giving you to do.  The Choir sings at St. Andrew’s, the great organ rumbles and roars, and the Angel Chorus is joining in, magnificent descants,  in the choirs of heaven.  A day of promise and blessing—and again, it’s so great to be here with you.

You both gave careful thought to the selection of the readings from Scripture for this service, and we would pause for a moment to allow God’s Word to inform what we are about to witness.

The reading from Tobit, perhaps a story of the tradition not that familiar to everyone.  But this glimpse of what we might call the honeymoon of Tobias and Sarah.  I’m sure there must have been champagne and candlelight in there somewhere.  But so meaningful that what they do first together as husband and wife, is turn their hearts to prayer.  And that I think is just such a helpful image.  How, as they say in the Twelve Step Movement, “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”  Back in the 1950’s the National Council of Churches ran a campaign that popularized the phrase, “the family that prays together stays together.”  Not that there is some magic formula to guarantee marital bliss.  But when you pray, when you will open your hearts to God--and to be open in turn to what he has for you, and when this is a consistent part of your lives, you will come to a sense of humility and grace that will allow you to continue to know God’s presence and blessing.  As we will pray today that it will be as you grow deeper and deeper in faith, in prayer and worship, growing into communion with God, you will at the same time grow deeper and deeper in communion with each other.

The  passage from St. Paul’s letter to the Christians in the Greek town of Colossae, in what now is southern Turkey.  We don’t know too much the context of this particular letter, but it’s evident that news had come to him that there were controversies—spiritual and theological--that had begun to cause division in the congregation.   So glad those kinds of things don’t happen in churches in our day!  In any event, Paul addresses the issues at hand with clarity, and absolutely correcting those who have wandered from the message of the Apostles.  But then in the third chapter he goes on in I think an even deeper way about Christian life and conduct in community, to describe what it means to live together as Christian people, as we do the hard work of dealing with differences.  As there are always differences, whether in a large community, or even in a Christian community of two.

Paul lifts up what perhaps we could call a shopping list for a new wardrobe, the deeper themes of what we are and what we can be at our very best in Christian relationship.  How we are called to “dress for success,”  as Christian people, to  live by sharing  in the image of Jesus himself, by clothing ourselves with him,  by patterning ourselves in love following the pattern that he shared with us.  “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  Bear with one another, and if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.  Above all clothe yourselves with love” –and here again our musical metaphor—“clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”

Thank you especially for selecting this reading.  A great word as Paul addresses problems in the early church, but always also for all of us to keep close, in our friendships, in our families and communities,  and meaningful that you have shared it with us today on the day of your marriage.  We might almost say that sharing this reading with your family and friends is the first step, the first example, of the work you are being called to do in your marriage from here on out.  When we call marriage a “sacrament” we do so because in marriage you two become outward signs of God’s grace and love.  He is going to be using you to communicate that grace and love to others, and that is the work you are called to do and that we acknowledge and celebrate today.

Finally, just a moment on the reading from St. Mark, as Fr. William has read it for us.  The 10th chapter of Mark along with the 19th chapter of St. Matthew rich and critical texts as we seek to know what God’s Word has to say to us about marriage and family, these foundational human institutions and relationships.  Lots more to say, but I’m going to hang for a moment on the first five words that Jesus speaks in this discussion.  “From the beginning of creation,” He says.  That’s how he begins.  “From the beginning of creation.”   We remember just a few moments ago in the Opening Address of this service we heard, “the bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation.”

So to say this afternoon, that what we do as we pray that God will bless your marriage vows, what you do as you exchange these vows, is not to ask God to enter into and bless something that you have created or are creating, but to see that it is for you now to enter into what God has already made.  This is your day, for sure.  But Marriage: it’s not about you, your lives, your happiness and romance,  your plans for the future.  This is about stepping into his plan.  His future.  Not a way of life that you choose, but a way of obedience, a way of  life that he chooses for you, and that you choose to accept.  The prayer we call the Prayer of St. Francis begins, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”  And we would let that be what you and we are about this afternoon.  “Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to thee.”  Again with humility and grace, a moment of vocational turning, as you open your lives to allow him to guide you, and direct you, and correct you, and bless you, for his purposes. 

Which we really don’t know, don’t understand.   But just to say,  and a good word for all of us: Fasten your seatbelts!  I have a feeling that what God can do with this marriage in particular is going to be pretty exciting!  So: all good, Laura and Ian.  We’re cheering!  It is good to be here.

And now as Ian and Laura come forward to stand at the altar 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 a prayer of love and blessing for them.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Twelfth after Pentecost, Last Summer Sunday

 . . . and at St. Andrew's, "The Sunday before Renaissance Sunday" --

Proper 17A     Matthew 16: 21-28  (with a bit of Hopkins at the end)

I want to apologize right now if you feel like you’ve been sold a bill of goods.  Like one of those Labor Day Weekend Furniture Sales that don’t actually seem to have saved you any money when you finally get home and review your credit card statement.   You discover you’ve fallen into a kind of low-level bait-and-switch transaction.  One of those glossy advertisements, all sunshine and sea-shore, brilliant colors and breathless text.  Didn’t even notice the small print--just a gray smudge at the bottom of the page.  Have to take out a magnifying glass to read it. 

The sign out front on Hampton Street says, “You are Welcome Here.”  Come as you are!  The spirit of hospitality—with room for everybody! 

Almost miss the warning on the back of the label.  The side-effects list.  You know the ones I’m talking about.  On the television commercials.  Medication to treat even relatively minor complaints, then with a terrifying list of potential consequences rolling along in the background.  The cure so often begins to sound far more dangerous than the disease. 

I mean, it says on the website (and we have a new website launching even as we speak--check it out later this week!)  that we’re a bunch of friendly folks who enjoy a spirit of generous hospitality.  And so we are.  You come in, take a leaflet from a smiling member of the Pews and Sittings Committee, listen to a lovely bit of organ prelude, share a smile with the family across the aisle.

And then: a word from the Founder and Director of our organization--who looks us dead-on this morning without so much as a smile, and now that we’re more or less stuck here for the rest of the hour anyway he gives us the straight scoop.  Plain and simple:  nobody gets out of here alive.

I mean, look:  of course there’s no coercion.  It’s a free country.  The doors aren’t bolted.  But I guess if we thought we were in one of those realms where “the customer is always right,” we have another think coming.  People have been heading for the hills after they meet Jesus for 2000 years, so no need for any of us to be shy about hightailing it out of here.  In fact my guess is that there aren’t too many of us in the building this morning who haven’t bailed on him at least once or twice.  Sometimes once or twice per week . . . . 

Remembering what John Mitchell said about his wife Martha back in the Watergate scandal.  “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.”  Even if we don’t literally run, we are usually pretty good at hiding.  At self-medication.  Skimming over the hard parts.  Jesus says to Peter, “you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things,” and we all experience that moment of self-recognition.  Just keep thinking about the comfortable parts, and maybe the nasty bits will just go away on their own.

In the “Church Bulletin Bloopers” department, some years ago when I was at St. Paul’s in Bloomsburg our church secretary absent-mindedly typed in the first line of a communion hymn, #707, “Take my life and let me be.”   And I suppose who hasn’t offered that prayer with all sincerity?  Not “take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to thee.”  But, “let me be.”  I want to be close to you Jesus, but only if you promise not to change me in any way.  Just “let me be . . . .”  

In the background we see fleeting images.  Tax Collectors leaving their offices and going to the bank and emptying their savings accounts of a life-time of profits.  A Young Ruler, discouraged at the word to sell all he has.  The woman caught with a man not her husband, told to change her ways.  Fishermen who leave their father and their families and all their situations and plans of life behind, as he invites them to follow him.  Bonhoeffer famously talks about “costly discipleship.”  As if there ever could be any other kind. 

Yet strangely, we keep coming back.  Kind of counter-intuitive.  The marketers are always saying, “if you want a lot more people to come to church, the first thing you need to do is to make it easier.”   We are reminded, as we have all been invited to the celebration of the baptism of Jackson Tobias Young, our Church Secretary Michelle’s son, this afternoon here at 3 p.m., that this is an organization whose ritual of initiation is a symbolic drowning.  St. Paul says we’re “buried” in the waters of the font.  And as my old friend Harold Lewis used to like to say, there is no luggage rack in a coffin. 

So the baptismal point is that there’s going to be a lot that needs to be left behind in that water if we’re going to make it back to the surface. 

We may have come of age in the roaring ‘60’s, when Psychologist Eric Bourne’s best-seller was printed as a banner over a generation.  “I’m O.K., You’re O.K.”  But looking up through the clear water from the bottom of the pool, we know that’s simply not the case.  If we had been o.k., we never would have gotten ourselves into this situation in the first place.

It’s the sick people who need a doctor.  Or as the poet Jude Simpson says in the poem that I send around every Advent, Jesus didn’t come for those who have their act together. 

For those who want to save their life will lose it.  Those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

The gospel tells us that many of Jesus’ early followers began to drift away when he started talking like this.  Which makes sense.  The whole thing is actually quite offensive.  Certainly hearing that in Peter’s response to what Jesus is saying.   “Don’t talk like that, Jesus.”  Don’t talk like that . . . .

So we don’t kid ourselves this morning.  Coming through the Great Doors on Hampton Street.  Lining up in the aisle to approach the communion rail.  The stakes are actually higher than we first thought.  Gain and loss.  Life and death.  Beginning to wrestle, each of us in our own way, with the challenge of change.  Not just a bit of tidying up around the edges.  But transformation.  We’re calling next Sunday “Renaissance Sunday,” and it sounds like a lot of fun.  It will be a lot of fun.  But real “renaissance” is a messier business.  Remembering Nicodmus.  “How can a man be born again?”  Too much mileage on the vehicle, Jesus. It’s hopeless.  You just can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

Our Centering Prayer Group is reading Richard Rohrer’s book, “Immortal Diamond.”  I haven’t finished the book yet, but I love the title.  Just to hear those two words this morning.  “Immortal Diamond.”  About what comes up out of the water, after the old has been washed away.  About what gets found, revealed, created new as the Old Adam is stripped away like a rag suit.  Rohrer’s title is from the poem by Gerard Manly Hopkins. What Jesus sees in us, underneath the layers of distortion and disguise.  Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven.   Meaningless to those who are well, I guess.  To those who have their act together.  But for the rest of us, good news.  If you know Hopkins you know that his poetry isn’t the easiest to read aloud, but to try it hear, the last few lines of this magnificent work, “That Nature is a Heracletian Fire, and the Comfort of the Resurrection.”  That’s the title.  Purging fire, then comfort.  It’s a poem we could have a whole year of Adult Education groups unpacking I think, but here is the end of the poem:

O pity and indig ' nation! Manshape, that shone
Sheer off, disseveral, a star, ' death blots black out; nor mark
                Is any of him at all so stark
But vastness blurs and time ' beats level. Enough! the Resurrection,
A heart’s-clarion! Away grief’s gasping, ' joyless days, dejection.
                Across my foundering deck shone
A beacon, an eternal beam. ' Flesh fade, and mortal trash
=
Fall to the residuary worm; ' world’s wildfire, leave but ash:
                In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, ' since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, ' patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,

                                     Is immortal diamond.