Friday, November 17, 2017

Twenty-Third after Pentecost

Sermon by Pastoral Associate the Rev. Dean Byrom on Sunday, November 12 (Proper 27A2).  The audio is posted to the St. Andrew's website, click here for sermon audio.

I Thessalonians 4: 13-18

                                                “We Grieve, But with Hope”                

“We do not grieve as those who have no hope,”
writes Paul to the Thessalonians.  Yet we still grieve.  Elsewhere, Paul calls death “the final enemy.”  And when that enemy touches your life - snatching from your loving grasp those whom you love - you grieve.  Grief is normal.  Grief is natural.

Randy Jones, my Clinical Pastoral Education supervisor, used to teach us often about “Grief work”.  And having myself engaged in over an hour of grief work with a member of another church just recently, I affirm that for griever and pastor, that is just how it feels.  It is hard, tough work.

“The hour of lead” is how Emily Dickinson named grief.


And it isn’t just in the few days afterward.  Grief goes on.  The way I figure it, in our congregation, on any given Sunday, over 80% of us are in grief over someone.  That’s why we weep at the funerals of near strangers.  That’s why we avoid funeral homes.  Grief keeps coming back at odd times, grabbing us from behind, and throwing us into deep sadness.
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Loss has so many tentacles that hold us in their grip.  Personally, any time that I read in the paper, see a television show or movies that includes the suffering or death of a young child I am frequently moved to tears which harkens back to the death from cancer of my three year old daughter, Melanie.


Paul says that we grieve.  Yet, we do not grieve “as those who have no hope.”  Hope for what”

Here’s what Christians hope.  We hope that the same God who raised Jesus from the dead, shall raise us as well.  We hope that just as Christ ventured forth from the realm of death into life, so shall He take us along with Him.

Our hope is not unfounded, not wishful thinking.  Our hope for the future is based upon what we know of Christ Jesus in the present.  In “Romans” 8, Paul says that nothing will separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.  If our experience with Christ Jesus has taught us one thing, it is that our God longs to be with us, will do almost anything to be near us, will go to any lengths to have us.
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That is the story that we recite and celebrate every Sunday here at St. Andrew’s.  In the ancient Hebrew Scriptures, the prophets, the Law, the Commandments, the psalms; in Jesus’ birth, life, teaching, death and resurrection, God sought us.

When Jesus was resurrected, what did He do, first thing after He was raised?  He came back to us, to His disciples who had betrayed Him.  
That is the basis of our hope.  We are confident that the God who has gone to such extraordinary lengths to be close to us in life, shall not cease those efforts in death.  Therefore, we do not grieve as those who have no hope.

We believe that the same God who so pursued us, and reached out to us, and sought us all the days of our lives shall not cease to pursue us, reach out to us and seek us even in death.  

Our hope is not in some vague and wishful immortality of the soul, or the expectation of some eternal spark that just goes on and on, or in reincarnation, or any other assumption that we possess within ourselves immortality.
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Our hope is that the love of God is stronger than the devastation of death; that ultimately, nothing shall separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.  God, having gone to such great lengths to save us and have us in life, will continue to demand us even in death.  That is why we do not grieve as those who have no hope.

This is the hope that we experience on Sunday here in worship at St. Andrew’s.  Having experienced, on so many Sundays, Jesus’ coming to us, being really present to us in Word and Sacrament, we hope for and count on His presence with us forever.

Our hope is not that we are immortal, not that some eternal spark lives on in us, surviving death.  Our hope is that we will, by the work and will of God, be with Jesus forever.  Death, the final enemy has been defeated.

So think of Sundays as dress rehearsals for eternal life.  Think of our experiences of Sunday worship as our way of loving Jesus now, so that we might love Him forever, and praise God for all eternity.

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“Because I live, you shall live,” Christ Jesus tells His followers in the Gospel according to John.  That’s why we have hope.  Encourage one another with these words.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

All Saints

Matthew 5: 1-12; Revelation 7: 9-17

The  unending hymn of that multitude beyond number, from every nation, all tribes and people and tongues, before the Throne and before the Lamb, and the hymn of our hearts and voices.   Amen!  Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God for ever and ever!  Amen.

Good morning and always such a beautiful day and a meaningful day here at St. Andrew’s.  With special thanks to our Choir and Orchestra, Pete Luley, Tom Octave—and Tom, so very nice to have you with us this year to lead our Music Memorial.  The music welling up in our hearts and overflowing.  And a word of thanks as well to all who have contributed to our congregational offering of memorial flowers this morning.  Remembering the saints and heroes of ages past, and in our memories and our hearts as well the names and faces of those we have loved but see no longer in this life.  On the calendar of the Episcopal Church this “Sunday after All Saints Day” brings together the two traditional observances, All Saints Day on November 1st, and All Faithful Departed, All Souls, on November 2nd.    A high moment of worship.  For remembrance and reflection, for inspiration, and we might also say of motivation.  To hear in the remembrance of all the saints and holy people of God an invitation to a closer walk with Christ, lifting our sights higher, encouraging us to renewed joyful commitment, the common life of the whole company of faithful people. 

We speak of the “two states” of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.  The Church Militant, and the Church Triumphant.  The two sides of the stream, yet continuing one Body, a Cloud of Witness, All who in the gracious mercy of God are redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, who are justified and brought into relationship to God the Father through faith, who are sanctified by the Holy Spirit, to walk in newness of life, ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven.  Apostles and evangelists, martyrs, faithful witnesses in every generation.  And remembering in our own day the heartbreaking faithful witness of martyrs in places from Egypt to Iraq and Syria, Kenya and Nigeria—it seems almost daily stories of oppression, persecution, and execution for those who will identify themselves as Christian.  Figuring out how to live faithful lives is a challenge in any context, for sure.  But when I hear these stories it does just lead me to a time of reflection and to wondering about how I, how we, live, about witness, courage, all those big questions.  Peter and Andrew, James and John, and their line continues.  Those who stood near Jesus on the Mountain as a preached to the crowd, who heard him with their own ears, and all of us since.  “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.”

Saints and heroes.  In the 1979 Prayer Book lectionary, before the Episcopal Church adopted the Revised Common Lectionary a few  years ago, we had for All Saints  the reading from Ecclesiasticus, which perhaps you’ll remember.  “Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers in their generations.”  The introduction first of the celebrities of the sanctoral calendar, those with calendar days and stained glass windows, bishops and kings, martyrs and miracle workers--but then also this, that “there are some who have no memorial, who have perished as though they had not lived; they have become as though they had not been born, and so have their children after them.  But these were men of mercy, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten; their prosperity will remain with their descendants, and their inheritance to their children’s children.”   Moms and dads, grandmas and grandpas, neighbors, friends, teachers, maybe even a preacher or two.   A reflection in the memorials in our prayers this morning.  Whose faith and character and love in Christ—tenderness, kindness, generosity, will shape our lives in so many meaningful ways.   The images in the stained glass windows of our hearts.  I can’t help but think this morning of our dear friend Dorothy Graham, who died last Sunday and was buried from St. Andrew’s Thursday morning.  In her 91st year—she and her husband Albert lived and raised their family in a little house down on the 700 block of North St. Clair, just a few blocks from here.  Dorothy and Bert’s kids came to St. Andrew’s Sunday School,  went to Fulton School and all the rest, Peabody High, off to college, grew up, married, moved away, had families of their own.  Six great-grandchildren. 

Dorothy for many decades a bright and delightful member of the Altar Guild, best known probably as the one who would every year on the Saturday before Palm Sunday show all the rest of the Guild how to fold the most beautiful and elaborate Palm Crosses.  She always made a dozen or so especially fancy ones for me, asking me to carry them to our shut-in or hospitalized parishioners.   The best ones, really special, so that they would know we were thinking of them.   She was shut in herself pretty much for most of the last 20 years, first in her little apartment over in Aspinwall, then when even that was too difficult to manage, in a nursing home out in Wexford near her daughter’s house.  But always with this great warmth and smile.  No matter what her health was at any particular moment, just a sense of being delighted to be there with you.  She loved to brag on her kids and grandkids.  And there was a lot about them to brag about.   She loved hearing the news of the church, what special events were happening, what was going on in the neighborhood-- receiving communion, praying together, and she always prayed for St. Andrew’s and especially for the children of the parish.   Such a pleasure and such a privilege.  Anyway, just one story.  A bit of memory, reflection.   I could go on all day.  The Church Triumphant, and the Church Militant too, as we would look around old St. Andrew’s this morning.  Just look around.  Who are these like stars appearing?  For all thy saints.  As the children’s hymn goes, “you can meet them in school or in lanes or at sea, in church or in trains, or in shops, or at tea, for the saints of God are just folk like me . . . and I mean to be one too.”  And so we sing on.

Amen!  Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God for ever and ever!  Amen

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Fall Retreat

I'll be away from the parish Wednesday, October 25, through Monday, October 30, on my annual fall retreat at St. Gregory's Abbey, Three Rivers, Michigan.  With thanks for your prayers.

Twentieth after Pentecost

Matthew 22: 15-22

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Nineteenth after Pentecost

Matthew 22: 1-14 (Proper 23A2):  Dress for Success!

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Eighteenth after Pentecost

Proper 22A2 Matthew 21: 33-46

It’s Monday of Holy Week—that’s the setting of our New Testament reading, Matthew 21.  The time left is very short.  The storm is gathering.  Jesus at the Temple, the rabbi from backwater Galilee on center stage at last.  It doesn’t get any more prime time than this.  His last extended public teaching, in debate with the preeminent religious scholars and leaders of the nation and with a large crowd of Jewish pilgrims in attendance, as they have come from every corner of the world to observe the Passover in Jerusalem.   Jesus begins to speak with two parables, two short, symbolic, allegorical stories that share in common a concern for, a focus on, a Vineyard:  The  parable we had as our gospel reading last Sunday, the Parable of the Two Sons, who are called by their Father to work with him in the Vineyard,  and as we heard this morning the Parable of the Unruly Tenants , who abuse the privilege of their stewardship of the Vineyard.  Jesus is being poetic, I guess we could say, but not obscure.  Everybody listening understands, and our Old Testament reading of course reminds us, that the vineyard is a deep and rich Biblical symbol.  Israel as the Vineyard of the Lord.  God’s Nation, God’s Kingdom.

So a father calls his two sons to come work along with him in the Vineyard.  The first son seems to react impulsively in the negative:  he says “no, father, I’ve got better things to do,” but then comes to himself, reconsiders,  repents, rolls up his sleeves, and goes out to join his father.  A pattern that might remind us of the other “Parable of the Two Sons, that we usually call the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  The Son who gets lost, but who finds his way home.  The second Son this morning on the other hand gives a positive answer right off the bat, says all the right words, very enthusiastic, everything you’d expect from a “good son.”  Perhaps we remember the other Son in the Prodigal Son parable as well.  A similar profile.  But in any event, when the appointed hour comes, the Second Son flakes out, goes back on his word, decides he’d rather spend the day at the mall.  He never shows up as he promised, to work with his Father in the Vineyard. 

Jesus asks, “Now, which of these did the will of the Father?”  And the Priests and Pharisees there in the Temple hear how Jesus words the question and concede the obvious point:  “the First son, of course.”  The Second Son was the one who gave the right answer when the Father called, but that’s really beside the point.  Certainly better to say the wrong thing but then to change direction and do the right thing, than to go in the other direction.   What you do in fact matters more in the end than what you say you’re going to do.”  Lots of people know how to “talk a good game.”  But actions speak louder than words.  Kind of reminds me of that sad quotation, that “everybody talks a lot about Christianity; somebody should give it a try.”  The allegory of the parable isn’t hard for anybody in the crowd.  When you want to know who actually is working with the Father in the Vineyard, who is tending God’s people, you don’t go by who was talking a good game, or by superficial markers, like offices and titles and credentials. You don’t listen to promises and formal declarations.   We see politicians all the time after all, even here lately in Western Pennsylvania, who talk the talk and say they stand for something—but when the newspaper gets hold of text messages and e-mails show themselves to be living in another world altogether.   It’s sad to see always, but not really much of a surprise.  You get the feeling that people will say whatever they think they need to say to get ahead, no matter what they really think or intend to do in their real lives.  Which son does the will of the Father?  You look at what actually happens, who actually gets there, who rolls up his sleeves and comes alongside the Father in the heat of the day.  That’s what counts.

The second Vineyard parable follows, our reading this morning, and it pretty much traces  the same pattern, though it gets drawn out a little farther.   Not just about being all talk and no action-- but here about outright, wild, no-holds-barred, active, hostile rebellion.   This parable contrasts not two sons but two groups of tenants.  The first Tenants sign the lease and agree to all the terms of their relationship with the Owner of the Vineyard.  They enter into solemn covenant with him and move onto the property. But then (just like that second Son in the first parable) they break their word and ignore the terms of their agreement and promise—and  they go even further here, way further, and resist even in the most extreme and violent and murderous ways every urgent and sincere effort by the Owner to restore the covenanted relationship.   I love their traditional name, the “unruly” tenants.  Seems kind of an understated term.  Seizing the Landlord’s property.  Attacking and murdering the landlord’s servants when they come to collect the rent.  Even then killing his son.   I guess that’s “unruly.”  They cross every possible line of good relationship in absolute, resolute defiance.   Jesus asks, “What will the Owner of the Vineyard do?”  What are the inevitable consequences of this kind of willful disobedience and rebellion?  The priests and elders of the Temple fill in the rest of the story here also with the obvious reply.   “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their season.”    The Landlord will take the Vineyard from those who have abused his trust, and present it to new Tenants, good and faithful tenants, who will live in right relationship with him. 

Jesus isn’t exactly being subtle here, obviously.  What happens when those who are supposed to be God’s chosen ones, his stewards, caring for his Vineyard Israel—when they turn away from him, even become his enemies?  Thinking about this setting here in the Temple, really a breathtaking moment-- the language of the Vineyard, the verbal sparring with the religious authorities, the cheering of the crowds, who were probably pretty much the same folks who had welcomed Jesus the day before with palm branches and cries of “Hosanna to the Son of David.”  Crisis and confrontation.  And so, verse 45: “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was talking about them.”    Who are the sons who go through the motions of obedience, who dress the part and mouth the words, but who in their heart choose to walk their own way rather than in the way of the Father?  Who are the Tenants,  betraying their covenant of stewardship and taking what was not theirs to serve their own desires?     If such people imagine in their profound denial of reality that they are going to be able to get away with this, if they think the Father is asleep, if they think he won’t act to set things right—well, they’d better think again.    “When the chief priests and the Pharisees head his parables, they perceive that he was talking about them.”

The scene hangs there in Holy Week, as the clouds gather, tensions rise.

To stand near Jesus is always and inevitably to enter a space where things that have been hidden are made plain.  Our prayer every time we come near him in the Holy Communion: “to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, from whom no secrets are hid.”  It may be possible to skate along in denial for a season.  It may be possible to pretend that God doesn’t see us, doesn’t know what’s in our hearts.  But to stand in the presence of the Son, in the face of his Cross, is to come to a place of inevitable clarity. The lights come on.   A place where costumes and scripts and outward show are all stripped away, and where we are able to see for ourselves what is true.   About ourselves and about the world around us.  What is going to last, what is passing away. 

That was true on Monday in Holy Week, as it became pretty easy to tell who the friends of Jesus really were.   And who would stand with his enemies.   We know that story more or less by heart.  People were going to be showing their true colors.  A lot of the folks in the crowd here at the Temple are cheering Jesus, the great hero whom they greeted with Palm Branches and cries of “Hosanna” yesterday.  But by the end of the week they’re going to be shouting “Crucify him, crucify him.”  And in reality it is I suppose always true, in any time, in any generation, to figure out where we are in relationship to him.   

Back in the 15th chapter of Matthew, before this last journey had begun-- when some Scribes and Pharisees from Jerusalem had journeyed out to the Galilee in an effort to discredit him—perhaps some of the same people who are at the Temple with him in this scene--Jesus challenged them by quoting Isaiah 29, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”   

And it is our heart that he cares about, first, last, and always.   First Century, or Twenty-first Century.  That really is the point of these two Holy Week parables.   And it’s what’s on the line this morning.  That makes us uncomfortable, but pretty much we knew what we were getting into when we came in through those doors on Hampton Street this morning.  In the 18th chapter of Luke Jesus asks, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”  The question Jesus is asking in these parables. It’s about the relationship—about seeing in, past the curated surface, the right words—about where our hearts are, whose our hearts are.  Where we are in our relationship to him. 

O God our Father, open our eyes and our ears, by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may hear you when you call us each by name, that we may hear your call and invitation to come beside you in your Vineyard, as your children, your sons and daughters, and that we may answer  with all our heart and mind and strength, not only with our lips but in our lives--and that we may as worthy tenants and good stewards of your bounty attend to your word and know and welcome with joy and love the One you send to us, your own son our savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

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

Monday, October 2, 2017

Seventeenth after Pentecost

Dan Isadore, on Philippians 2: 1-13