Monday, September 19, 2016

Eighteenth after Pentecost

Proper 20C-1  Luke 16: 1-13

I don’t usually give titles to my sermons, but if I were going to do that this morning I would call this one, “The Two Economies.”  The Two Economies.  When I taught History and Government for a couple of years before seminary I had a 12-week unit for 10th graders, an Introduction to Economics.  A subject always interesting, and especially in an election year.   When we talk about “economics” what we’re talking about begins in the most basic way with an understanding of what is valued in any particular individual or society, what is of importance, and then of how individuals and communities organize their behavior--thoughts and feelings and interactions with one another--in reference to what they value.

 Jesus is talking about economics here in the Parable of the Unjust Steward, Luke 16, verses 1-9—as he was also in the three Parables that he has just told in Luke 15, as we looked at them last Sunday—the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the Parable of the Lost Coin, and the Parable of the Prodigal Son, which is sometimes to keep the pattern going also called the Parable of the Lost Son.  The economies highlighted in the first three parables contrast with the world of the parable we’ve heard this morning, and we keep them all in mind as we move to the second part of this morning’s reading, in verses 10-15, as Jesus speaks to the question of whether it’s really possible to serve “two “Masters.”   

A few years ago I saw a bumper sticker that I thought captured something of the spirit of the roaring 1990’s, at least in certain high-visibility corners of our western culture.  It said, “He Who Dies with the Most Toys Wins.”  An implicit irony, intended to elicit a smile while still calling our attention to a system of value rigorously centered on consumerism.  Toys.  Fancy cars, fancy houses, wide-screen t.v.’s,  designer purses, shiny jewelry, exotic travel.   How do I know I have success in my life?  Check out what’s in my driveway . . . .

As a contrast, I remember sitting with my great friend and teacher, the late Ken Bailey, brilliant New Testament scholar, our Canon Theologian here in the diocese for many years.  He was talking about the passage in the 21st Chapter of the Revelation to John where John has his vision of the heavenly Jerusalem.  The city brilliant, shimmering, shining, its walls and gates dazzling with the glitter of the rarest gems and jewels, its streets paved with gold.   He read through the verses, paused just so we could take it all in, the daydream of a resort destination more extravagant than any ever seen in a full-page, full-color ad in the New York Times Magazine, and Dr. Bailey said, “here’s the point:  in God’s Kingdom, gold is just the same as asphalt and glittering jewels are just all dumped in together with gravel to be mortar for the bricks.   Everything that seems to us so precious—there, it’s just nothing.  Of no importance.  No value at all.”  Turns out it’s the presence of God that gives the city its glorious glow.  The rocks are just rocks.

So two contrasting economies.  Two Masters.  The economy of this world as it is, we might say,  and the economy of the Kingdom.  On the one hand.  The shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to seek after the one.  The woman who caters a dinner dance for half the county to celebrate her finding of a lost coin of only modest value.  The Father who puts aside pride and status and even the privilege of his righteous grievance, to bring about forgiveness and reconciliation in his family.

And then, on the other hand.  Jesus goes on to tell the story we heard this morning about a manager who hasn’t been very good at his job.   The owner of the business has finally had enough and one afternoon sends him an e-mail.  Come to my office first thing tomorrow morning.  As soon as he reads this the manager knows his goose is cooked.  The axe is about to fall.  And he goes into a panic.  He’s got a mortgage, two kids in college, a leased European sedan.  He and his wife already have their non-refundable tickets for a European spring vacation, and they’re up to their eyeballs in credit card debt.   Per the bumper sticker:  they’ve been financing a lot of toys.  What to do?  And then suddenly an idea hits him.  A brilliant stroke!  He pulls the Accounts Receivable file and calls a couple of his big customers and offers them major discounts on their outstanding invoices.  They’re delighted, of course, they thank him profusely, and he is meanwhile crossing his fingers that this newfound good will may open a few doors for him if he’s out pounding the pavement and looking for a new job in the next month or so.  The twist comes at the end of the story, when the owner of the business goes online and sees what the manager has done.  We expect him to be outraged—but quite the contrary!  The next morning comes, and the manager is welcomed into the owner’s office not with a pink slip, but with a smile and a handshake--and a promotion!  “That’s exactly the kind of outside-of-the-box thinking we need around here to take our business to the next level,” the owner exclaims.   “I’ve been looking to hire somebody who could be a real game-changer around here, somebody who could think on his feet--and here you are right under my nose.  Somebody not afraid to take risks, to push the edge of the envelope.  The world is full of paper-pushers, but you’ve really shown me something different.  You’re a guy with real potential, and I for sure don’t want you going out to work for my competitors!”

In any case, what Jesus says here.  You know, there are an awful lot of people around here who have become very successful  in the “he who dies with the most toys wins” economy.   Like the characters in the story.  They’ve got the game all figured out.  Experts.  We expect to read about them both soon in the cover story of Business Week or Barron’s.  They know with crystal clarity which Master they’re serving, and they’re good at it.  And Jesus looks at the crowd, at his disciples, at the Scribes and Pharisees.  “How about us?  What would it be like—just imagine!—if folks around here were to be as skillful in transactions of grace and mercy and love as these guys are with dollars and cents!  Turns out to be an uncomfortable moment yet again for the Scribes and the Pharisees, and we’re going to see that really come to a boil with next Sunday’s reading.  They’re supposed to be the ambassadors of God’s Kingdom in the midst of God’s people, but apparently they’re much better known right now at the local jewelry store’s Rolex desk  than they are, say,  in the local soup kitchen or food pantry.   Apparently they know more about how to make small talk at cocktail parties than they do about sitting and praying with their neighbors in times of need.  So they’re getting fidgety.

Looking at this question is actually the deeper spiritual and theological invitation of the ordinary year-to-year work of the parish “annual stewardship campaign.”  Or should be, anyway, when we do it right, which I’m not sure we always do either here at St. Andrew’s or most places in the wider church.  But what we would be doing, if we were doing it in a way that is shaped by Scripture.  Thinking about our lives in terms of Stewardship for the New Economy.  The economy of heaven.  And I think our Vestry is leading into a very substantive conversation this year.   I’m certainly looking forward to hearing my good friend and colleague Adam Trambley when he joins us as keynote speaker at the kickoff dinner on October 7.  The central point not about raising money to fund a church budget—although while we live in this world budgets will always need to be funded.  But the disciplines of tithing, of the offering of first fruits our time, our talent, and our treasure, are more importantly exercises to assist us in navigating the transition from one economy to the other--to build up our spiritual character, to help us become more and more acclimated to the economy of heaven.   

Jesus isn’t talking about just tweaking the present system.  You wouldn’t need a Cross for that.  Just write a book, have your TED talk go viral on social media.  He’s talking instead about something as old as the first hour of creation, yet for us now also so radically different as to seem entirely new: an economy of grace-- where the currency of compassion and forgiveness, humility and obedience, and joy and generosity will begin to replace the gold and jewels and glittering prizes of this world, a fragment of bread and a sip of wine a banquet far above any earthly feast--working a deep change in us, to prepare us in heart and mind to see and know and love and dwell forever the brightness and the beauty of the City God has prepared for us in himself, in Jesus.  Again the Collect for today:

“Grant us, O Lord, not to mind earthly things, but to love things heavenly.  And even now as we are placed among things that are passing away, to cleave to those that shall abide.”   

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Seventeenth after Pentecost

Proper 19C-1 Luke 15: 1-10

In our readings from Luke we’ve been watching the tensions build between this uncredentialed but charismatic rabbi from the Galilee and the well-credentialed but not-very-popular leaders of the mainline religious establishment.  This morning Jesus pours kerosene on the fire by ostentatiously consorting  with the edgiest  folks in the neighborhood—those who don’t observe the ceremonial law, those whose daily work marks them as ritually unclean, those regarded as sinners and indeed those who truly were sinners by any measure of moral conduct and Biblical norm.  Even to include those pariahs who have prospered by collaborating with the Romans in the structures oppressing God’s people.  Quite a crowd: tax collectors, prostitutes, publicans, who were kind of the street corner drug dealers of the day, pickpockets and shoplifters.  A cast of characters you for sure wouldn’t want to meet while walking down a dark alley.  As before, the religious leaders voice their objections, trying to do whatever they can to tamp down the fire of this rising “Jesus movement.”  And so they point their fingers and proclaim with indignation, “this man receives sinners, and eats with them.”   Hard to imagine any right-thinking, God-fearing person would want to get within a country mile of this guy and his rabble followers.

To answer, Jesus shares three parables.  The first two in this morning’s reading, the Parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin. These set the table for the third, the highlight--unfortunately not included in the lectionary today, but I’m going to refer to it anyway-- and we’ll need to use our best memory and imagination:  Luke 15, verses 11-32, the Parable of the Prodigal Son.   So together three little vignettes, a Lost Sheep, a Lost Coin, a Lost Son, catch our attention.  Have for two thousand years.  I think for every Christian at the very heart of what we understand the good news of the gospel to be.  To venture into theological language, these parables interpret the Cross for us.  They present the portrait of a God whose love is extravagant -- who will do anything, who will go the extra mile--and then another, and then another: who simply can’t bear to take no for an answer.  Whose heart yearns for us.  Who loves us more than life itself.  Who will do whatever it takes to restore our relationship with him.

First of all the shepherd.  Quite a peculiar story, if you think about it.   If you’re the owner of the flock, or even better, if you’re the company that wrote the loss and liability policy, you’re going to fire this guy and fast.  What was he thinking?  We had a hundred sheep, and one somehow wandered away--and so, let me get this straight, you left the 99 out in the field somewhere, where there are wolves and poachers and all kinds of potential dangers, and you went out with your whistle and for hours and hours hiked over hill and vale—wouldn’t stop looking, until finally at long last you happened to find the one that was lost?  Are you out of your mind?  And then the woman in the second parable.  Talk about obsessive!  She loses a coin, which is too bad.  Something of value.  But then she goes nuts.  She puts her whole life on hold.  Talk about a disproportionate response!  She stops preparing food for her family.  She skips the monthly altar guild meeting.  Forgets about going to work.  Her yard is overgrown with weeds.  The dishes have been sitting in the sink for who knows how long.  The kids don’t have their back-to-school shopping done.  But she can’t let it go.  Like Captain Ahab in pursuit of the Great White Whale--searching day and night until finally, finally, she finds that coin!  And then, of course, the Father.  We know him the best because we have heard this story so often and because it is so beautifully developed.  A theological and literary jewel.  ( It wasn’t included in our reading this morning because we’ve already had it appointed on the Fourth Sunday in Lent.) Betrayed in a deep way by this son who blows off his share in the generational inheritance of the family business and heartlessly asks for his share right now and in cash.  Too much trouble to wait around until the old man dies.  He takes the money and runs off to the big city to live it up in one long party of wine, women, and song.  For days and weeks, perhaps for months and years.  And certainly never a postcard home, never a phone call.  Until every penny is squandered.   And for all that time, every day, the father stood watching at the gate.  Every day, surveying the road all the way to the horizon.  Looking out to the horizon, with pain in his heart, tears in his eyes.  Hoping, praying.

And the parables end in joy. Big joy.  The shepherd returns singing, carrying the precious lamb tenderly in his arms--the flock is made whole again.  Such a beautiful picture.  The window in our narthex dedicated to Harry Briggs Heald, one of my illustrious predecessors.  The Good Shepherd, who is not willing that even one should be lost.  And the woman finds her coin.  Finally.  And so overjoyed, she doesn’t rush off to put it in the bank or spend it on some essential purchase.  She throws a party!  The celebration of her life, probably spending twice as much on refreshments than the coin was worth in the first place!  This is what it’s like, the joy of the angels in heaven, says Jesus.  Their celebration, for even one sinner who turns away from his sinful life.  And then the Father, as he wraps the boy in an embrace even before his carefully-rehearsed words of repentance can be spoken.  Bring a robe, a ring, new shoes, a fatted calf!   I’m never letting go of you again, he says.  I’m never letting you go.

That’s how Jesus answers his accusers.  In the midst of a dry-as-dust professional religiosity based on the external formalities of elaborate Temple ceremonies and a harsh and obsessive judgmentalism focused on customs, rules, laws governing in minute detail even arcane aspects of food preparation and diet and clothing and just about every aspect of ordinary household and community life and work and relationship.  To say nothing of the issues of deeper concern of faith and moral conduct.  In the midst of a culture of arid judgement and even a kind of mean-spirited unforgiveness.    Then we hear Jesus:

“Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. . . .”  “Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”  Joy.  The longing of God’s great heart, that we who are lost, would find our way back into his arms.  “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”  Joy, joy, joy.

This is a personal God we’re talking about.  Whom Jesus is talking about.  A personal God.  Not a philosophical abstraction.  Not some hazy remote universal spiritual force.  Every page of scripture speaks of his deep desire, his passionate and focused longing.  He knows us and wants us.  We are his people, the sheep of his pasture.  He seeks for us when we are lost.  (He’s out there looking right now.  And that is a promise.  He won’t give up.)  He calls us to return, and knows us by name.  To turn around.  To put on a new mind and a new heart.  To walk with him in a new way.   The beating heart of the universe, his heart, fills with joy when we do turn back to him.  Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven.  That’s what he lives for.  He proves himself to be not far off, but near, yearning to forgive, and bless.  Willing to go to the Cross, if that’s what it takes to break the chains of sin and death.  Whatever it is going to take.  Disproportionate, extravagant love.  More than we deserve.

These stories of Luke 15 touch my heart I know every time I have read them and heard them.  I hope for you too.  A good place to begin a new season here at St. Andrew’s on Rally Day Renaissance Round Up Sunday.  There really isn’t any expression of Christian doctrine more to the point than  we’ve heard in these parables this morning.  If we have wandered, and we have wandered, if we have gotten lost, and we have gotten lost, just to know:  he’s out looking for us right now.  Right now.  We have representations of his Cross all over the place here at church and perhaps in our homes and even to wear around our necks sometimes, and this is what we  would remember whenever we see that Cross.  Why it is so important to us, so precious.  He stands at the gate, watching for us, waiting for us to return.  Never sleeping, never turning aside, never forgetting us.   Eager to forgive us when we return.  Eager to bless.  Eager lift us up when we have fallen, to restore, to give a fresh start.  Eager for us, and full of love.

And so, Rally, Round Up, and Renaissance: walk in love, as Christ loved us, and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Sixteenth after Pentecost

Proper 18C-1  Luke 14: 25-33

He had them eating out of the palm of his hand!    I mean, it was this great moment. For the crowds in the street, the multitudes, the common man, the religious and social elites were like, locked up in their ivory towers debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  We saw that play out in our reading the last couple of Sundays in the first part of this chapter of Luke.  The high-and-mighty Pharisees of cosmopolitan Judea are isolated in their ivory tower debating obscure technicalities of the law about what constitutes “work” on the Sabbath.  And then Jesus pushes his chair back from their table and goes out onto the front porch of the house where the neighborhood has gathered, and instead of delivering some obscure theological address, he steps into the crowd and in a mighty act of power blesses and heals a man who is suffering from a major  illness.  The gasp of amazement is followed by applause and louder and louder cheers.  

And then when the Pharisee and his colleagues come out of the house to see what’s going on, and when they begin to criticize Jesus for behavior unbecoming an observant rabbi, Jesus responds with two pointed parables about what is going to be revealed, when the spotlight of God’s Kingdom shines on the proud, the self-centered and self-satisfied, the self-appointed elites--who think it’s their calling in life to walk a superior path.  Perhaps Jesus is remembering words from the song his mother had sung many years before, “he has put down the mighty from their seat, and hast exalted the humble and meek.” 

This is what the political consultants are talking about when they talk about throwing “red meat” into the crowd.  Appealing to those deep animal cravings.  The multitudes are roaring their approval.  This unpolished rabbi from the backcountry of the Galilee, he’s our guy now!  We’ll follow him anywhere!  To the barricades, Jesus!  Let’s go! 

But then—we’ll it’s just really fascinating.  He’s got them right where the leader of any messianic movement with a chance of success is going to want them.  But all at once, as he begins to speak, and as the crowd falls silent to hear him, he turns in a very different direction.  We’re still a little ways away in Luke’s gospel from Palm Sunday and the beginning of Holy Week, but in this moment of hot energy and bright enthusiasm there is all of a sudden a chill wind, a dark shadow.  A glimpse of Good Friday.

Not so fast, friends.  Not so fast.  You’re going to need to think a little before you enlist in my army.  The battle that is about to begin is something the world has never seen.  The Enemy:  darker and more dangerous than any king or emperor.   In this war there will be no compromise, no negotiated settlement, no terms of surrender.  The effort will be total, with nothing left in reserve, and in victory there will be no going back to the way things were before.  So, not so fast.  “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”   You say you want a revolution.  But think first what that means, what this revolution is about.  Not about tweaking the current system to make those who are uncomfortable now a little more comfortable.  But about calling in the power of God as he will make all things new.  It’s not about taking a vacation.  It’s about turning in your old passport, to receive a new citizenship and a new homeland, a new identity.  And this revolution, it’s not free.  Not by a long shot.  “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me”--where I’m going, all the way now to Good Friday--“who ever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”

So consider.  Builders review their capital budgets and supplies of material before they send their crews out to begin construction of a tower.  Kings calculate the strength and resources of their armies and take stock of their enemies before they declare a war.   This business we’re about, it’s no walk in the park. Not for the hobbyist.  Not something to dabble in for a while until some more interesting project comes into view.  “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”   (He had them in the palm of his hand.  And big things were possible, big things . . . . ) 

I read articles from time to time by writers in what is sometimes called the “church growth” movement—about how in an era of declining church membership and interest in traditional organized religion there is this effort to increase congregational membership.  How to reach the unchurched.  Lately a lot of focus on how to “connect with Millennials.”   And in all that material I would say I can’t recall much of focus on what Jesus has to say in this section of Luke 14.  “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”  And please do join us for a festive, family-friendly, fair trade coffee hour after the service!

I believe the largest Protestant congregation in the United States is the Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas—which has an average Sunday morning attendance of 15,000 in a converted basketball arena, and with those services and the sermons by their pastor, Joel Osteen, syndicated on cable television across North America.   Osteen is deeply rooted in an American tradition of preachers most recently associated with the  20th century preacher Norman Vincent Peale, whose great theme was “the power of positive thinking.”  Osteen says again and again, and in very thoughtful and emotionally powerful ways, that it is God’s firm intention that you will “live your best life now.”  Live your best life now.  That your family will be strengthened, that your vocation will be filled with success,  that your days will prosper. 

Thinking about that great Easter scene in John’s gospel, chapter 21.  The risen Lord surprises his disciples by meeting them by the lake after they have been fishing all night.  They are in awe, and joyful.  And then Jesus calls Peter to stand before him and asks him three times, “do you love me?”  Each time Peter says, “yes, you know I do,” and Jesus says, “then feed my sheep.”  A vocational moment, about the life ahead, ministry and purpose.  And then Jesus says to him, “Truly, truly I say to you, when you were young you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.”  A foreshadowing of Peter’s cross.  

Thinking about how in the traditional Confirmation services there was a direction, a rubric, that the bishop after the sentence of Confirmation was to strike the new confirmand on the cheek.  Gently, of course.  But with enough force to be felt.  To be a reminder of what suffering every Christian will endure and must endure as he or she follows Jesus.  As the mid-twentieth century German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, simply: “the cost of discipleship.”

I will say that someone sent me a blogpost the other day written by a younger writer in the “how to attract Millennials” genre that I thought was interesting because it basically said, “if you want me to consider becoming part of your church, don’t just try to tell me what you think I want to hear.  Don’t go out of your way to try to make it easy for me.  Instead, challenge me.  Don’t be afraid to confront me with ideas and practices that may seem strange and difficult at first—that might cost me something.  Instead, show me by what you say and what you do and how you live that you are yourselves really taking this repentance and renewal and death and resurrection stuff seriously—and in a way that has an impact on your whole life, and not just what you talk about on Sunday mornings.  Believe me, I’ll pay attention then.  But otherwise, please don’t waste my time.

I’ve mentioned before that the English historian Frances Young has written about the growth of Christianity in late antiquity, though the later years of the Roman Empire.  It was a Church that came to the attention of the world not because of public evangelistic preaching—since that was pretty much illegal everywhere—but because of the distinctive way Christians lived and conducted themselves in their homes and relationships, their marriages and families, their work, their social and economic behavior.    In a society that was rooted in materialism, hedonism, and violence, Christians sought to live lives of quiet simplicity and humility, moderation and restraint, obedience and sacrifice, discipline, and love.  Just to step back from the rush of the cultural river all around them.   It wasn’t a popular way.  People would roll their eyes at the club.  “Who invited these Puritans to the party?”  

And of course sometimes the whole business would lead them to arrest and imprisonment and the roar of lions in the coliseum.  But for a few--perhaps those whose lives had been pushed to the margin, perhaps some who had stood back for a moment to look at the froth of the world around them and wonder about deeper things—for a few, something moved in their hearts, a Holy Spirit curiosity, we might say.  Who watched how the Christians lived and then how they could die, not with terror and bitterness, but singing hymns and praying for those who were sending them to their deaths.  From the world’s point of view it looked like so much nonsense.  But, could you tell me more about what it is that inspires you to live like this?  Why you who have so little seem to have so much, while I, who have so much, seem to have so little?

And that went on and on.  The work of the Church.  Living faithfully and dying faithfully.  Year after year, generation after generation.  As Luke writes in the second chapter of Acts, “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”

And so next Sunday is our Rally Day and Round Up and the annual fall Renaissance of worship and programs and activities of our congregation, this place and community of our Christian life.  I’m sure it will all be great, a great new year in many ways.  But a helpful reminder this morning, before we might rush out with the crowd that Jesus is addressing this morning.  So for the life and work that we will share in a new season and a new year, we would keep before us the Morning Prayer Collect appointed for Fridays: “Almighty God, whose most dear Son when not up to joy, but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.”

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Sunday, August 28, 2016

Fifteenth after Pentecost

Proper 17C-1:  Luke 14: 1, 7-14
Baptism of Harrison Graham Moquin

Again, a great day, and with Harrison’s baptism this morning--entry #10 in the register so far in 2016!--we conclude this series that has given our summer a distinctively “wet” character.  Lots of splashing in the font!  I think it has meant a lot to all of us, as we have every week or two had the opportunity to stand with parents and godparents and to witness their vows and to reaffirm our own.  Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your savior?  Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?  Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?  

The baptismal vows this morning followed our reading from Luke 14, and perhaps we can find that juxtaposition helpful. Jesus and his disciples have come from the Galilee to the outskirts of Jerusalem.  It’s not time yet for the dramatic entrance on Palm Sunday.  Jesus is continuing the ministry he had begun in Nazareth and Capernaum, but now in a much more high-profile setting, where his teaching and his actions begin to draw crowds and so come to the attention of the authorities.  They are trying to keep things quiet, trying to avoid disturbances that might bother the Romans.

Their strategy seems to be to discredit Jesus by showing him up as a not-ready-for-prime-time country preacher.  But it turns out to be a little trickier than they thought it would be.  This morning we continue the story that began in last Sunday’s reading.  Jesus has been invited to a Sabbath dinner at the home of one of the most prominent religious leaders of Jerusalem to meet some of his colleagues.  These were the tenured academics in the Temple Divinity School--and the host was something like the Chairman of the Theology Department.  A big wheel.  The invitation to Jesus of Nazareth—we might say, “Jesus of Stump Hollow, West Virginia”: --perhaps it had the outward form of hospitality, but there was clearly another agenda at work.  They wanted to expose this so-called “messiah” as someone who couldn’t play in this league.  But almost before they could sit down their plans are scrambled.   As we heard last week, they are interrupted by noise outside on the street--people from the neighborhood gathering out front because they had heard that the famous healer and miracle worker Jesus was inside.  One man has been brought forward who is suffering from what our translation calls “dropsy”--which my dictionary suggests might have been what we would call congestive heart failure.  In any event, a serious medical condition.  Jesus gets up, leaves the distinguished host and dinner guests, and goes out on the front porch to greet the crowd. He offers his blessing, and then specifically blesses and with a word and a touch heals the sick man when he is brought forward. 

The distinguished theologians have followed Jesus outside and now are at a loss.  They were hoping to discredit him, but now he’s the center of attention and the crowd is cheering.  What to do now?  The only response they can think of on the fly, and it turns out not to be a very good one,  is to accuse him of violating the provisions of the Torah related to work on the Sabbath. But Jesus turns it back to them quickly, and you may remember this from last week, when he says, “give me a break!”  That’s a paraphrase . . . .   “Which of you, having a child who had fallen into a well, wouldn’t pull him out—even on a Sabbath?”   

 I try to picture this scene— the neighbors all standing around now, in wonder and joy, cheering, gasping in awe and amazement, at the healing of their friend, and these out of touch, elitist ivory tower types not celebrating with them but instead trying to parse some kind of obscure legalism to call the whole affair into question.  Killjoys.  Spoilsports.  In our political vocabulary this moment would reflect what would be called “really bad optics.”  Whatever the technical point of their objection, it just LOOKS really bad. 

And Jesus doesn’t help them out as they are standing out on the porch with the neighbors all around.  He goes on instead with a little speech--the two parables that we have in our reading for today.   The first, the man who comes to the wedding reception and ostentatiously goes up to the head table—and who then is humiliated when the host has to ask him to move.  Contrasting him with the man who comes in and takes the place nearest the door, with the catering staff and the children, who is approached by the host and escorted to a higher place.  “He who exalts himself will be humbled,” Jesus says.  Looking around at the Pharisees, and then at the crowd by the front door.  “And he who humbles himself will be exalted.”   And then the second parable.   Luke says that Jesus even more explicitly directed this to his distinguished host.  He looks right at him.  When you throw your next party maybe don’t invite all your A-list,  important friends.  Those who remind you when you see them of what a swell person you are, too.  But instead try this: invite the poor, the uneducated, the weak.  Like these people,  gathered in front of your house right now, for example.  Each one of them people whom God loves.  Even though their presence at your table won’t add a bit to your own status or prestige.  A dinner party that won’t be included in the newspaper “high society” column.  Guests who might make your colleagues at the office and friends at the country club roll their eyes.  But that’s the point.  You’ve read about this in the Scriptures, haven’t you?  Scholars and teachers and religious leaders.  You’ve read the Law and the Prophets . . . .  Where does God tell us his heart is?  The first end up going last, the last come first.

And so:  the tables turned.  An event that was designed to take Jesus down a few notches in the public eye has accomplished exactly the opposite.   And this Sermon on the Front Porch still seems to have the power to rattle our cages.  Nothing new under the sun.  In a social and cultural and economic and political environment that seems to be all about us, all about my desires, my rights, my identity, my grievances—a world 24/7/365 all about “me.”   Me First:  The way we live now.   And then on the day of Harrison’s baptism--here is Jesus out on the porch talking about another way.  A way that actually this morning leads us up to the font.  The way of the Cross, we would say.  A way that is more about dying to that self, the old self, and rising to life again as something new, someone new—and how that dying and rising again that is in one sense invisible, but that at the same time is expressed so simply, so beautifully, as modesty, humility, obedience, restraint, kindness, generosity.  

So interesting that of all the wonderful athletic moments of the recent Olympics, the scene that seems to have touched the hearts of the world more than any other has been not of some Gold Medal world-record victory, but of two young women running back in the pack in a middle distance semi-final race, tripping and falling, and then one helping the other up, and both of them not dropping out in defeat, but limping forward together, supporting one another, encouraging one another, painfully, but triumphantly,  to the finish line.  They later on said they didn’t really think any of this through.  It just seemed the natural thing to do.  But of course it is the most unnatural thing, and we would recognize that there must have been a lifetime of formation and preparation.  It was actually a high spiritual moment.  What we used to call “Christian virtues.”  Standing back.  Making space.  Remembering what John the Baptist said once Jesus arrived to begin his ministry: “I must decrease, so that he may increase.”  A way of life for us that begins at the font.

To pray again, this summer morning, as we prepare to share the Meal together: Grant, O Lord, that all who are baptized into the death of Jesus Christ your Son may live in the power of his resurrection and look for him to come again in glory; who lives and reigns now and for ever.  Amen.

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

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Fourteenth after Pentecost

Proper 16C1 Hebrews 12: 18-29
The Rev. Daniel J. Isadore

Hebrews 12:18-29 – “What Lasts?”

So, what lasts?
-        What can we bank on?
-        What is sure and sturdy, able to endure, come what may?

A few common answers…

Especially in the near future, politics is certainly something that people lean on…
-        We hear it all the time…
o  “This election will determine not only the future of the United States, but of the world.”
-        Billions of dollars and millions of hours will be, and maybe have been already, put into this upcoming election…as if a particular outcome is the one thing we can bank on…
-        …the one thing that, against all odds, will really bring lasting change. (pause)

Another answer has to be sports, silly as that may sound…
-        People wept when the Cleveland Cavaliers won the NBA championship. (pause)
-        Fans celebrated like there was no tomorrow when the Penguins won the cup.
-        Spectators paid thousands just to be in the arenas where these championships were won.
-        Think about all the time, money, and effort that has had to go into preparing for the Summer Olympics in Rio…
o  …and the risks that accompany competing in and watching those events.
-        …as if these competitions are worthy of it, worthy of our total investment of money, time, and passion. (pause)

And then think about the way that we treat our jobs…
-        For many, 8, 10, 12 hours per day…5,6, or even 7 days per week….
-        For 20, 30, 40, or 50 years…
-        Passion, worry, effort, money…all toward securing tenure, or gaining a promotion, or getting a raise…
-        …as if these are sure things that we can trust in, that will hold up come what may.

Maybe some of us would even answer by turning toward our religious acts…
-        At the end of the day, we count on the creed we confess, or the traditions we enact, or the conduct that we adhere to…
-        We look to our public and private acts of goodness, the prayers we say, and the songs we sing…
-        …as if, finally, we place our hope in what we’ve done for God (pause).
-        …just like many of the ancient Jews who believed that their actions performed according to Torah and in the Temple made them who they were…(pause)

When it comes down to it, what will indeed last? (pause)

The writer to the Hebrews would take issue with each of the answers that I’ve mentioned…
-        …not because they are unimportant things, or evil things to spend time, money, and effort on…
-        …but because all that I’ve mentioned are dependent upon what we do. (pause)
-        Whether politics or sports, jobs or acts of religious devotion…we remain the primary actors…
-        …and it doesn’t take much time to realize that the work of human beings isn’t stable. (pause)
o  We are fickle creatures.
§  For every step we take forward, we take one (or more!) backward.
§  Every good decision we make is inevitably followed by one that isn’t so good.
§  We may experience health for a time, but all of us get sick or injured eventually.
·      We break down.
§  And, deny it though we may, all of us will taste death. (pause)

And so, what are we left with? (pause)
-        If not our actions, where can we look to find a stable place to stand?
-        Will anything ultimately remain? (pause)

“But you…you have come to Mount Zion, and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect…and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (pause)

There is a reality, says Scripture, that has been constructed to last, a reality promised and established by God Himself…
-        …a reality, we are told, to which we have come. (pause)
o  Or, perhaps more accurately, that has come to us.
-        In, through, and as the man Jesus, God has done a new thing.
o  He has laid a foundation that cannot be shaken for a city that will not crumble in which a celebration that will never end is even now taking place (pause)…
-        And we are included…
o  …not by virtue of how well we have or haven’t performed…
o  …not because of how we look or what we’ve achieved…
o  …but because the Holy Spirit has been poured out upon all flesh, and through the Word and the Sacraments, has met us, embraced us, and made us partakers of this unshakable reality. (pause)
-        Here, in the Eucharist, in Baptism, in the Scriptures read and preached, in the Absolution, we are promised a share in something good, something that will endure…
o  …we are given the new creation that God has set in motion and will one day complete, when all wrongs will be righted, all tears will be wiped away, and everything will be made new. (pause)

That’s why the writer to the Hebrews pleads with us in this morning’s epistle, “See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking!” (pause)
-        Don’t turn away from God’s gift of God’s Kingdom in our midst, giving ultimate allegiance to lesser things! (pause)

We can participate in politics, and cheer on our sports teams...we can pursue our careers and go to church…
-        …but we are to do so freely and joyfully, in order to give and grow and live life well
-        …not under the pressure of thinking that what we do is definitive of who we are or where this world is ultimately headed. (pause)
-        We have been claimed by the God who is a consuming fire, and who will surely set this world right…
o  …and so that’s not our role.  We are not meant to assume the pressure of being God. We can…we must, allow God to be God.
-        And when we do that, we can finally be human, not worrying about securing ourselves or our destiny, but rather being concerned with how we can participate with God and His unshakeable Kingdom of agape…
-        …how we can love each other, providing hints, tastes, and glimmers of that which God will surely bring about on earth as it is in heaven. (pause)

What lasts? The living Christ, His Kingdom, and the new creation to come. The forgiveness of sins, and the promise of total restoration.  The reign of love, and the fullness of shalom.  The Good News of the Kingdom of God.

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

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Thirteenth after Pentecost

Luke 12: 49-56
Baptism of Zander William Bursick-Brown

Good morning again.  Back in 2012 we recorded 16 baptisms in the parish register of St. Andrew’s Church.  I’m into my 23rd year here as rector, and in my tenure and actually looking back through several of our previous registers up in the archive room I could find no other year that equaled or exceeded that number.  As I recall 12 was the previous high, which we actually had reached several times.  I’m not sure what we’re going to end up with as a total in 2016, but young Zander  William Bursick-Brown has been carried to the font and has made his splash there, passing through the death of his sinful nature and into his new life in Christ Jesus this morning as #8 in our 2016 registry, and on Saturday August 20 Evelyn Rose Noakes has a reservation for line #9, and on August 28 Harrison Moquin will be added as #10.  There are a couple of other families with newborns and younger children and a couple of adults who are at some point in a discernment process about baptism and various calendars and scheduling concerns, and as we know from our weekly prayer list we still have several “players to be named later” getting ready to make their entrance. 

Baptism sometimes an entry not simply for the one baptized but also for a family—as entry or very often as renewal.  It’s not unusual for the rector to receive a call from someone in the neighborhood.  “We haven’t been to church for years and years, since we were kids ourselves, but when our baby was born we found ourselves thinking about whether we would have him baptized, and whether at this new point of our lives something should change for us too.”  Always a very nice telephone call for the rector to receive, I assure you!  Unknown yet whether we’ll get to 16 or beyond this year, though it seems at least possible.   I suppose all part of God’s plan.   In the end numbers are not the point in and of themselves.   

But to say again, for a congregation our size these are quite remarkable numbers—to have in one year a number of baptisms  at or even above 10% of our average Sunday attendance. Someone said to me a few weeks ago as we noted this most recent cluster of baptisms, “hey: maybe Somebody is trying to tell us something.”  (I put a capital “S” on that “Somebody,” by the way!)  “Somebody.”  And that’s really what I’d like to highlight this morning.  “Maybe Somebody is trying to tell us something.” 

Something about what we might call the emerging field of mission and ministry context for our congregation, for one thing.   It’s an interesting observation about our current demographics.  A friend who is a member of a congregation in a more rural part of our diocese commented to me that in his church there would be at most one or two baptisms a year, and almost always of the grandchildren or even great-grandchildren of present members.  He said, “even the younger members of our congregation have Medicare cards  . . . .  And in fact, there really are not even many families around in the surrounding community who are of child-bearing age.”  One aspect of life in parts of Southwestern Pennsylvania, economic and social dislocation in old mill towns and smaller rural communities--but of course not here in the East End of Pittsburgh.  Strollers abound!  Articles in the newspaper about the rising tide of the millennials, Google at Bakery Square and hipster coffee houses on every street corner--and we see that reality every day more and more in the neighborhood and here in St. Andrew’s.   Brandon told me last week that we would need more seating in our new Children’s Chapel, which is a good kind of problem to have, for sure.  A fun problem.

But I’m also just thinking about how we as a congregation are again and again and again this summer being asked to pause in front of the massive and life changing turning point of Holy Baptism—to hear again and again from candidates and parents and godparents the promises and commitments that stand at the heart of all our lives as Christian people.  Somebody trying to tell us something.   Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?  Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?  Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?  I do.  I do.  I do.  As we greet the newly baptized: “ Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.”  Over and over and over again.  This year of 2016, this baptismal summer and August:  and Somebody trying to tell us something.   So more than just about neighborhood demographics.  A reminder of who we are, each of us individually, all of us together in Christ.  A crash course in the fundamentals of a deep Biblical theology.

The reading  from Luke 12 sits somewhat uncomfortably over what we might call the most common cultural aspects of baptism.  Much as we love them.  Families coming together from near and far, baptismal gowns handed down from one generation to the next, festive lunches, a new page of photos for the Baby Album.  The baptism Jesus is talking about here isn’t painted in such festive colors.
In these last few chapters of Luke we’ve been following Jesus and his disciples as they move around the outskirts of Jerusalem in the weeks before Holy Week and Good Friday.  The rising crecendo of crisis, conflict, opposition.  A palpable hostility.  The sense of the power of Evil gathering forces for the horrible  and bloody battle that will be brought soon to the very foot of the Cross.  

“This is the kind of baptism I’m talking about,” Jesus says. A baptism of fire!  Fire, stress, division.  Families wrenched apart.  The arid and empty and scorching and killing heat of the south wind.  The gathering storm.   A baptism that costs something.  Remembering the hymn we sometimes sing on the feast days of the martyr saints, “the peace of Christ, it is no peace, but strife sown in the sod.”  Martyrs like our own Saint Andrew, of course.  Perhaps like Father Jacques Hamel, so recently in our news—and I’m sure most have heard this story--the 85 year old French priest who just a couple of weeks ago was attacked and beheaded by terrorists as he celebrated a quiet midweek Communion with a congregation of six or seven in a small town in Normandy.  His last words were “Begone, Satan.”   “Begone, Satan.”  

A man we might say who knew his enemy, who understood not simply the conflicts of our present age but also the great spiritual battle that continues all around us.  He wasn’t so much I think talking about the particular man who was attacking him, but about the dark spirit in the room and surrounding them at that moment, the Father of Lies, the Master of Hate, the source of violence and despair, who would use every power at his disposal to turn us from the One who has saved and redeemed us, who would seek to lure us away from our place at the Cross.  An old priest who knew his enemy and our enemy, and who stood firm, as we hear again and again in those baptismal promises.   Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?  Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?  Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?  I renounce them, I renounce them, I renounce them.  Somebody trying to tell us something.

Zander William Bursick-Brown:  what a blessing today.  Number 8 of 2016!  So much we celebrate: your birth; the joy and excitement of your family.  A fresh beginning, and a really big deal.  A splash in the baptismal pool on a summer Sunday.  From death to life.   And we are invited to keep listening for the word that may be intended here for us.  From death to life.

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

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Twelfth after Pentecost

Proper 14C1:  Luke 12: 32-40
Baptism of Henry Edwin Nachreiner

Good morning.  Wonderful to be home after a couple of weeks with family up in Massachusetts.   And wonderful to return for this occasion--the baptism of Henry Edwin Nachreiner.   

Eric and Jennifer, just to say as a prelude: you and your family have been so much in our prayers this year.  In the gestational season of preparation for Henry’s birth, of course--and as you have met the challenges with big brother Nolan and his experience with transverse myelitis.  Certainly if there is one foundation and ministry that we share as members of Christ’s Church it is to support and encourage one another with sincere and constant prayer in the love of Jesus-- and all that love and prayer surrounds you today as we celebrate with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven the new life in Christ that is Henry’s as he passes from death to life through these baptismal waters.  With thanksgiving for God’s presence and blessing and continued healing and strength in your home and family.

The passage in Luke 12 is a kind of commentary on the affirmations and promises that we will soon repeat .  I’m going to pause on just the first three verses of this morning’s reading, verses 32, 33, and 34, and we can all of us then on our own can reflect on and take to heart the two short parables that follow, as they both encourage us to be alert for what God is doing--not to sleep through the critical hour of decision, not to find ourselves still standing on the platform as the train pulls away from the station.

So our context again, as we have been following the story.  Jesus and his disciples the Galilee, the rural villages like Cana and Capernaum and Nazareth, shortly after the dramatic moment at the top of the Mount of the Transfiguration, to journey to Jerusalem.  After the incident of rejection in the Samaritan village and after 70 of the disciples get their first real taste of evangelistic mission, they arrive at last at the outskirts of the Holy City, perhaps staying with Martha, who’s still out in the kitchen,  and devoted Mary and their brother Lazarus in the nearby town of Bethany.  Jesus is continuing his ministry of preaching and teaching, healing and casting out demons.   But on a way bigger stage now.  The crowds gather:  the high festival season,  and with pilgrims not just from Judea and Samaria and the Galilee but from Egypt and Persia and Syria and Turkey, all in these weeks before Passover--and as Jesus is now nearer the centers of religious and civil power he is encountering considerably more opposition from the authorities, who are worried about what impact he and his movement might have on the restive crowds, on the institutions and officers of synagogue and temple, and on the uneasy equilibrium with the occupying forces of the Roman government.   Their security is on high alert.  The last thing they want or need is some new messiah from the Galilee!

As the opposition of the authorities builds, Jesus’ teaching also begins to become more focused on how the disciples are to live as his body the Church after Holy Week and Good Friday and Easter and Ascension.  He knows there isn’t much time.  How they are to continue in ministry and mission themselves, and with a vision as well for those who will come after.  Jesus is laying the foundation, building his Church, looking with love on his dearest friends, and then lifting his eyes above them to look out across generations and centuries.  All the way to Pittsburgh and Highland Park, to this font, to the hand that is laid upon Henry this morning.

Earlier in Luke 12 Jesus is surrounded by a multitude, but his words are really directed to his disciples.  In verse 22, just before our selection this morning, he told them to live fearlessly.  He reminded them of God’s love and provision: “consider the lilies of the fields, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”    Don’t be anxious.  Don’t be afraid, no matter what stresses and distresses befall you in time to come.

And then this morning in verse 32 our reading begins with a great assurance, a great promise.  And certainly just right to hear on the day of Henry’s baptism:  “Fear not.”  “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  Wow.  O.K. , then.  Take a breath.  Despite all the evidence around us right now.  We may be few, we may be weak, we may be threatened by very strong forces in the wide world and culture around us that confront and undermine the gospel entrusted to us.  Up against principalities and powers, deep and dark forces of opposition, social, political, spiritual enemies.  But in the greater reality of God, all of that is passing away.  The good news is that the battle is already decided.  Fear not!  We may appear weak, even broken and defeated.  But just as the defeat that Jesus would know at the Cross would become in that same hour his great triumph, so our weakness and brokenness and loss here and now is about to be transformed into the greatest of victories.  The Father’s good pleasure:  to give us the kingdom.  To be known by him, to be grafted into his body through the awakening of faith, to be lifted with him and through him into glory.  That is his promise. 

With a promise like that, we would live now less as citizens of this world that is passing away, more as people who are already alive and taking our place in the coming world of God’s kingdom.  It’s a case of “dual citizenship,” in any event:  life in transition.  At the turning point between what we have been and what we are becoming.  So the instructions in verses 33 and 34.  To let go, to loosen our grip on what we may think is most meaningful in this world.   Sell your possessions, and give alms.  Don’t think that your bank account or your diploma or your professional title or your social status is the plan God has for you.  Lift your eyes higher.  Live now as though the kingdom that is about to come is already here.  Have treasure not bound up in an earthly purse, but one made from the fabric of the new age.  Live not for an abundance of earthly rewards, but invest all you have and all you are, your deepest hopes, in the promise of heavenly treasure, the fullness of God’s presence and grace and blessing.  Choose wisely and rightly, because where your treasure is, that’s where your heart is, your true self.

We’re talking here about questions of behavior and identity.  The process of moving, again, from what we have been to what we will be.  We’re in the midst of that process of the conversion of our lives.  We’re not there yet, but we’re on our way.  And Jesus encourages us to move ahead with confidence, not holding back, giving ourselves entirely to what lies ahead.  And of course the font this morning and Henry’s baptism is a key milestone and landmark.  A turning point.  Crossing the river into a new land.

J.T. Ryle, the famous 19th century Bishop of Liverpool, said this about this pattern or process of conversion in a great quotation I ran across a couple of weeks ago.   A word about what it begins to look like even in this world, even now, to begin to live as citizens of this new kingdom.  Signs that it is really happening.  What we begin to see that our new life is becoming, now reflected in these waters of baptism.  It struck me as especially meaningful in the context of the stressed and polarized and increasingly conflicted political and social environment—an external environment that if we’re not careful can begin to be absorbed by a kind of osmosis into our own psychological and emotional and moral and spiritual character.  And just to use Ryle’s words as a reflection of what would be in our minds this morning as we welcome Henry into the fellowship of Christ’s body.  Ryle from his long pastoral journey and experience sketches this out, about a person who is experiencing conversion in Christ and beginning to live in the kingdom.  He says, you will see that person “hating sin, loving Christ, following after holiness, taking pleasure in his Bible, persevering in prayer.  You will see him penitent, humble, believing, temperate, charitable, truthful, good-tempered, patient, upright, honorable, kind.  These, at any rate, will be his aims,” Ryle says, “—these are the things he will follow after, however short he may come of perfection.”    To highlight those words again: “hating sin, loving Christ, following after holiness, taking pleasure in his Bible, persevering in prayer . . . penitent, humble, believing, temperate, charitable, truthful, good-tempered, patient, upright, honorable, kind.”

In the midst of crisis, in a moment when evil, sin, death seems to have the upper hand, Jesus tells his disciples: Fear not.  And he points in his Word and in his flesh the way to our new homeland.   We’re headed there now.  Henry Edwin Nachreiner, a great morning, for you and for us all:  we receive you into the household of God.  Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.