Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Dr. Robert Carl Block

Burial Office
Robert Carl Block, M.D.
November 1, 1933 – August 22, 2015
August 26, 2015

Jesus speaks to his disciples in the 14th chapter of St. John.  Very familiar traditional words to all of the Christian family:  . . . Let not your heart be troubled . . . . In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you.  I go to prepare a place for you.  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also. . . .  Whither I go, ye know, and the way ye know.  He says this in the night of the Last Supper, with the whole story of Good Friday and the Cross about to play out for him and for his friends, and for all of us, at all times and in all places.  You know where I’m going, and you know how to get there.  The guiding light of the Easter Candle to show the way. 
I am the way, the truth, and the life; no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.

And Maryrose, Paula, Diana, Carl, and all your families, friends and loved ones here this morning--simply to pray that the words of our Lord for all of us would shine a bright and steady light.  As we have been caught short by Bob’s death.  Such a short time between this last medical diagnosis and this day—and I know it has been and continues to be so much to take in.  Rich memories and thanksgiving for a life well-lived, of course, but also just the jumble of the unexpected.  Moments of life that we prepare for in one way, but find ourselves not entirely prepared for in so many others.  And so we would continue to encourage one another in prayer, day by day, in the sure confidence of God’s unfailing love and of the victory of the Cross, so that the grave and gate of death becomes for those who rest in Christ a new door opening wide to all the blessings of eternal life.

It is very much for me an honor and a privilege to share this morning in this service for Robert Carl Block, who entered this life on November 1, 1933, and who entered Greater Life this past Saturday evening, August 22, 2015, at the age of 81.  To remember his life in all its richness.  Husband and father—his life of service, in medicine and science, his career in the Navy—of which we would all be very proud, and later in this service we will honor that part of his life and career with the singing of the Naval Hymn, “Eternal Father.”  And then in practice here in Western Pennsylvania for so many years.  Remembered by friends and colleagues.  As we offer together the prayers of the church, not just as we say the words but as we gather the faith and life and witness of the whole Christian family and offer the deepest knowledge and desire of our hearts to almighty God.  As we hear the words of scripture, the psalms, the lessons, the Good News of Jesus Christ.

I was and am very much touched by the two readings selected by the family and read by Bob’s grandsons this morning.  The reading from the Wisdom of Solomon, with those powerful opening words, “the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God . . . .”  And then, “the faithful will abide with him in love, because grace and mercy are upon his elect, and he watches over his holy ones.” Remembering today this man of such deep integrity, such great dedication, and with all that, these words: grace and mercy.  And I’m recalling the quiet sense of dignity that was about Bob, and also his kindness, and his good humor.  I know friends here at St. Andrew’s will have such warm memories of so many mornings in the space of time before the 9 a.m. service, wonderful conversations around the table over a cup of coffee.

And then of course the extravagant words of St. Paul in the 8th Chapter of Romans.  So deeply in the heart of every Christian, the affirmation of faith, our victory in Christ.  Who can separate us from Christ?  “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, to angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

In the two decades that I’ve known Bob there has been so much that has impressed me about him, so much about him and about his friendship that I have enjoyed.  His warmth, his generosity.  I recall one very fun conversation over in our Parish Hall when he explained to a group of us all the problems with the lab work on television shows like CSI.  And I would even say just a short while ago over at St. Margaret’s Hospital when he and I were talking about his recent diagnosis, suddenly he began to give me a little lecture on what happens with metastatic cancer.  There were gaps, of course, when he would search for a word.  But when he got going he was drawing diagrams in the air with his fingers and giving definitions in a simplified way for me, his non-medical audience.  It was like going back several years, actually, and just a really touching moment.

Thinking about the interest and enjoyment that he felt in our quieter 9 a.m. Chapel Service here on Sunday mornings, —the great friends over those years.  Not exactly a starry-eyed mystic, perhaps, but a man who knew deeply and experientially the presence and care of God. 

“In my Father’s house are many mansions.”  “Whither I go, ye know, and the way ye know.”  You know where I’m going, and you know how to get there.  Jesus is talking to his disciples about something more than what we might call our religious opinions and theories, our interpretations, our theological positions or understandings of various issues and concerns of the day.  The whole of ecumenical, Anglican/Roman Catholic dialogue in some ways at the home front.  Right here in Pittsburgh prayers from St. Andrew’s and St. Scholastica’s and St. Bede’s all rising to the throne of Heavenly Grace.  But of course what Jesus is talking about is a deeper kind of knowing than that.  The kind of knowing that we talk about when we say that a child knows his mother.  It’s about relationship, connection.  About the word we use in the Church with real meaning and sincerity: about faith.  About being in relationship with God deeply and securely.  “You know where I am going, and how to get there, because you and I are going to the same place, returning to the same home, to that mansion that the Father has prepared for us.”  To hear again, I am the way, the Truth, the Life.  No man cometh unto the Father but by me.”

Remembering the prayers we shared just a few days ago, as Bob was over and over again covered with prayer and anointed with holy oil, to hear assurance of God’s blessing.  “The Almighty Lord, who is a strong tower to all who put their trust in him, to whom all things in heaven, on earth, and under the earth bow and obey: be now and evermore your defense, and make you know and feel that the only Name under heaven given for health and salvation is the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The Funeral Sentences from the ancient prayers of the Church, “In the midst of life we are in death.”  Thinking how very fragile we are in this short life.  How precious every day is.  And so as we come together hear, to remember, to comfort one another, to give thanks, we might also hear an invitation.  Bob might be an inspiration for us in this way.  Courageously, with a great and open and tender heart, to love one another, to do good work, to enjoy the good gift of the life, the family and friends God has given us.

In the sure and certain hope of life in Christ Jesus, what we all have to be about this morning, with all the sadness that there is—what we all have to be about is to learn to live every day of this short and precious life in the love of God and of one another, serving God and one another, knowing that to be such a privilege.

If you would please stand with me now and we will turn in the hymnal to Hymn #390, where we would sing together the selected hymn, and such a great Christian message on this morning, “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation.”

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

John 6: 56-69 (Proper 15B)

Good morning.  It was toward the end of July, five Sundays ago--the second of the two Sundays that Cathy Brall spent here as supply priest and guest preacher.  Susy and I and my brother-in-law Michael heard the same gospel reading up at St. Luke’s Church in Scituate, at the beginning of the last week of our summer vacation.  Seems like a million years ago!  But I’m sure the story is still fresh in our minds: the opening of the sixth chapter of St. John.  The hour was growing late and a multitude numbering in the thousands, following Jesus into the wilderness, far from their homes and villages, sat down on that broad expanse to feast on the meal that was provided miraculously, at his blessing of that young boy’s five barley loaves and two fish. 

Next Sunday in the lectionary we’re headed back to St. Mark, but this morning we pause one last time, as we’ve moved week by week and are now at the end of John 6, continuing as Jesus and the disciples have moved from the countryside to the village synagogue in Capernaum, continuing in the wake of the miraculous feast,  in this extended, deep, mystical, and we might almost say sacramental exploration of what it means when we pray in the Holy Communion, the “Prayer of Humble Access,”-- “that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.”   Jesus taking the moment and leading us ever deeper and deeper.

That miraculous meal in the wilderness launching us into a challenging consideration of who Jesus is—and about how “who he is” makes a difference in how we understand “who we are.”  Provoking new questions, new concerns, new possibilities and new anxieties.  All of a sudden it feels like dangerous territory.  Just how much do we want our identity and our fate, our destiny, to be wrapped up in his identity, his destiny?   Not just a question for those in the synagogue at Capernaum,  as almost daily stories in the news continue to illustrate, in the Middle East and Africa, ISIS and Boko Haram and Al Shabab.  --To be one with Jesus.  To be “of his Body.”   To take on his identity.  In Syria and Iraq the ISIS troops when they occupy a new town will put the Arabic letter “N” on the door of the homes of those known to be Christians, to stand for “Nazorean,” the word used in the Bible to describe Jesus.  A terrifying mark to see on your own front door.  Nothing will ever be the same for you again.  Get out of town now, or, as we know, the threat of imprisonment and cruel executions, hangings, beheadings, even crucifixions.  And yet somehow also, a blessing, a benediction, an honor.  A privilege.   That’s what the survivors share in the refugee camps.  To be called by his Name.  They say many of the condemned go to their deaths singing hymns joyfully--like hearing stories of the martyrs on their way to the lions in ancient Rome come to new life in the second decade of the 21st century.

 A privilege, they say:  to participate in him, to be nourished and sustained by the Bread of Life, the Cup of Salvation.   The fulfillment of the ancient sign, the manna that God caused to rain down upon the Chosen People as they wandered in the wilderness after their escape from slavery in Egypt.  Fulfilling and surpassing, completing God’s holy work.  Manna is a gracious gift, but with that also a sign and reminder of absolute dependence.  Without me you are nothing—dry bones bleaching in the desert sun.

The imagery is at once both deeply intimate and disturbing, even offensive.  Who are you, Jesus, even to imply that I am nothing without you? That I can’t really live without you?   That’s a little much—a little too much.  The word in our translation here. “Does this offend you?”  Jesus asks.  And apparently so, because as I mentioned last week, anticipating this, many of his followers decide at this point that they’ve had enough and need to move on.  They were perhaps hoping for a second course, more miracles, as I mentioned last week.  A free car for everyone in the studio audience.  But that’s not how this story is going to play out.   This is a decision point, and it seems to be dawning on everyone that there’s no such thing as a free lunch.  Pointing to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously called, “the cost of discipleship.”  The shadow of the Cross already falling across the scene.   It’s a fork in the road.  Either you’re all in with Jesus now, all in, or you go home.  Jesus asks the twelve, who have been his closest companions, and Peter offers his Confession.  “No Jesus, we aren’t leaving.  There’s no place else we can go.   No one else could ever be for us what you have become for us.  “You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

The somewhat eccentric but always very interesting Scottish Presbyterian Biblical scholar William Barclay says this about Peter’s Confession in John 6: 

“Peter's loyalty was based on a personal relationship to Jesus Christ. There were many things he did not understand; he was just as bewildered and puzzled as anyone else. But there was something about Jesus for which he would willingly die. In the last analysis Christianity is not a philosophy which we accept, nor a theory to which we give allegiance. It is a personal response to Jesus Christ. It is the allegiance and the love which a man gives because his heart will not allow him to do anything else.”

We talk about this relational sense of loyalty in terms of faith.  Not simply to believe that what Jesus says is true.  Not simply to believe that in and through Jesus God was and is fully present in the world.  But as we would say, to believe in Jesus. To have him in our minds and in our hearts as we sing the metrical paraphrase of Psalm 23, “I nothing lack if I am his, and he is mine forever.”  Softly and tenderly, Jesus is calling.

So how does this happen, this relationship, this sense of loving and trusting companionship. Of being in it for the long haul. With him and in him,  for better, for worse?   For Peter and those first disciples there was of course the personal presence of Jesus, day by day, walking with him, eating, drinking, laughing, crying--sharing both the great moments of revelation, healing and exorcism and signs of power, and as well quiet moments, sitting in the shade by the side of the road in the heat of an afternoon. For us, Word and sacrament, the testimony of faith, each word of scripture, the waters of baptism, the call to this Holy Table, to receive the Bread of Life, sacred memory of Jesus now stirred within us to new life and fresh witness in the Holy Spirit.

“He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not.”  Remember those words in the first paragraphs of John as we heard them in the flickering candle light of Christmas Eve Midnight, our eyes on the Baby in the Manger.  They seem to echo again.  In the synagogue at Capernaum.  And here, now.   “He came to his own home, and his own people received him not.  But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God . . . .  And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.”

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

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Twelfth after Pentecost

John 6: 51-58 (Proper 15B)

Good morning!  Our gospel reading begins by repeating the last verse of our gospel reading last week,  John 6:51.  “Jesus said, ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven.  Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’”

The saying causes some confusion, a strong reaction, from those who are nearby.  They’ve gathered around following the miraculous feeding of the 5,000 because they think there’s more to come. If he can do this with fish and barley loaves, what else might be possible?  Maybe somebody remembers what happened at the Wedding Feast in Cana and thinks that there might be a party about to happen, a banquet spread out over the hillside—great stone jars overflowing with fine wines, a feast in abundance of the most exotic gourmet foods.   

A few years ago as I recall Oprah suddenly announced that she was going to give everyone in her studio audience that day a new car.  Maybe something like that!  Hanging close to Jesus, because all kinds of good things seem like they might be about to happen.

There’s actually a long tradition of thinking this way.  Jesus as a good luck charm.  Like praying for a parking place on your way to the symphony or the ballpark.  Sometimes you catch that theme in preaching.  In its most explicit form, “accept Jesus and all your problems will be over.”  Things will get better!  Money, relationships, jobs, health.  The idea that wearing a cross around your neck is almost like carrying a rabbit’s foot.  The storms of life will miraculously give way to sunny days and fair winds.  Blessing upon blessing!  

There are more subtle expressions, sometimes with aspects of Christian proclamation blending in with the self-esteem movement in popular contemporary western psychology.  Our God is a happy God, and he wants us to be happy too!   There’s a funny and telling Facebook piece floating around that shows devotional drawings of ancient martyrs as they are being stabbed, drowned, burned, hanged, crucified, devoured by wild beasts.  As they die their last words are quotations from the Twitter feed of Pastor Joel Osteen of the Lakewood Church in Houston, who is perhaps the most prominent currently in this genre.  As the flames rise up, as the ax falls, as the lion leaps, the saint proclaims:   “God is ready to take you to a new level.”   

Note as an aside: Lakewood is the largest Protestant congregation in the United States.  When the Houston Rockets built a new basketball arena, Lakewood purchased the old one, and they regularly fill it with 15,000 in attendance on a Sunday.  Those who aren’t at home live-streaming or catching the service later on cable.  It’s good news, that God is happy, that God wants us to be happy, that he will make us happy, if only we would let him!

But instead of rallying the crowds and winning more and more applause by spreading out before them all the desires of their hearts, Jesus pulls the blanket out from under them, meeting their requests with this hard to understand, metaphysical language, not at all the kind of bread and wine they were hoping for, but flesh and blood, the shocking imagery of death at the altar of sacrifice in the Temple, mystical union, promises not of fulfillment here and now but of some kind of life above and beyond this life, which somehow they can have only if they become one with him.  My flesh is the bread you need.

Hearing this, most all of them are getting ready to head for the nearest exit, as we’ll see just a few verses below,  John 6, verse 66:  “After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him.”

Which brings me—and I hope you’ll forgive me for this—to Donald Trump.  (And let me pause and say that I’m not intending any kind of political comment here.  I haven’t decided who I might vote for next year—and it’s all way too early.  And besides,  if I were ever to tell you who I was voting for, it wouldn’t be in the pulpit anyway. 

But to say I was intrigued not for political reasons but for theological reasons, when I read a few weeks ago an exchange from an interview that Donald Trump had given to CNN in which I guess some questions about religious belief had come up.  Trump told the interviewer that he believed in God, and that he regularly went to church.  Apparently he’s a Presbyterian, not an Episcopalian, but perhaps you already knew that!  In any event, at some point in the conversation the interviewer asked Trump if he ever prayed for forgiveness.  Something of an odd question, but perhaps it was meant to be a prelude to questions like, “what in particular do you feel  you need to be forgiven for?”  

Interestingly, and not sounding like much of a Presbyterian in this I would say, or any Christian really that I’ve ever known or talked with, but Trump said, no, he hasn’t ever asked God for forgiveness.  At least not directly.  But then he paused, and went on, and said that he does, though, participate in Holy Communion.  And here’s the quote:  “When I drink my little wine—which is about the only wine I drink—and have my little cracker, I guess that is a form of asking for forgiveness, and I do that as often as possible because I feel cleansed,” he said.  “I think in terms of, “let’s go on and make it right.”

“When I drink my little wine . . . and have my little cracker . . . and I do that as often as possible because I feel cleansed.   I think in terms of ‘let’s go on and make it right.’” I’m not wanting to be too hard on Trump here.  I think he’s trying to get at something, though he clearly has a problem with the vocabulary.  It’s a perspective that we may hear a lot.  A friend of mine wrote a blog piece recently in which he talked about what we might call the pharmacological approach to Holy Communion.  You take a pill and it makes you feel better.  “A little wine, a little cracker.”

Actually a pretty common way folks talk about Communion, about church in general  sometimes.  Looking for something to make them feel better.  Sometimes people will say, “have you found a church that meets your needs?”  Something worth reflecting on.  I was hungry, and because I was following Jesus I got this great meal of bread and fish.  How cool is that?

And again, not to push back on Trump, but shortly after I read his CNN interview I happened across an article by Faith McDonnell, a journalist who has been writing for some time about the tensions between Muslims and Christians especially in Africa and the Middle East.  And the language struck me quite differently, as she wrote about an interview with a man she calls “Pastor O.,” from a Protestant Church in a smaller town in Central Nigeria.  A mosque near the church had become a center for members of the group Boko Haram.  And I’ll just read a few sentences.

“Reverend O. told how he had been leading a service of Holy Communion when his church was attacked by Muslims from the local mosque.  “I don’t like telling this story because it makes me cry,” he admitted, but added that he thought it was important for us to hear.  He continued that the Muslims had left their mosque and surround the church, where they began stabbing and slashing at people with knives, and committing “all kinds of attacks.” 

“We tried to gather up the children and get them out or hide them,” Reverend O. said.  His voice faltered and he was silent for a moment as a tear rolled down his cheek.  “My daughter was among them,” he told us.  Then he asked the people, “Do you want me to close the service so you can escape?”  After pausing to remove his glasses and wipe his tear-filled eyes, Reverend O. continued, “They said to me, ‘You taught us that Jesus is worth dying for.  This may be our last Communion.  We will take it and die.”    (Shortly thereafter on this occasion soldiers arrived, and the mob was dispersed.  Though of course we know that that’s not always or even usually how these stories end.)

Just a contrast, for us to hold in our thoughts this morning as we approach the Holy Table, about what this meal and what this Christian life is really all about.  Not about what he can do for us, but about who we are in him.  “You taught us Jesus is worth dying for.”  And John 6: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.  Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Eleventh after Pentecost

John 6 (Proper 14B)

Ordinarily when we talk about a diet of bread and water we are talking about what we might call the bare minimum.  The exact opposite of what we'd find at the typical St. Andrew's potluck!  What hermits live on as they sit in their wilderness caves.   In a Victor Hugo novel that’s what gets fed to prisoners in the dungeon.  Just enough to sustain life—that’s all.

But here in the early chapters of John Jesus talks about bread and water and moves with it in a different direction.  Back in the fourth chapter Jesus meets a woman of Samaria at an ancient well, and he asks her for a drink of water.   One of the most well-known of all the gospel stories about Jesus.  They exchange a few words, and then he says to her, “you know, if you really knew who I am, you would ask me for a drink—because anyone who drinks from the water of this well of yours will be thirsty again, but the water I would give you would be quite different. 

He says to her, “Whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

And she says, “I’m not exactly sure what you’re talking about, but it sounds pretty interesting. Tell me more!”

And  now here in chapter six, as Jesus has just fed the multitudes with the miraculous blessing of that little boy’s five loaves and two fish,  the crowds come to him again, hungry again, looking for more to eat, looking for more bread.  And Jesus says:  you’re looking for the wrong kind bread.  No matter how much you eat of that bread, you’ll be hungry.  I want to talk to you about a different kind of bread.

“I am the bread of life,” he says. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.  Whoever believes in me has eternal life.”  Hear that again: “Whoever believes in me has eternal life.  I am the living bread that came down from heaven . . . .  And I will raise him up on the last day . . . . Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.”

In one frame of reference a diet of bread and water doesn’t sound like much.  Quenching our thirst for an hour or two, filling our stomach for a short time.  Meeting day to day needs, as they return again and again.  

A hamster on a wheel.  A dog chasing his tail.  Asking us this morning from John’s gospel to the pews of St. Andrew’s Church:  what are we thirsty for, really?  What are we hungry for?  We know how to use those words to point to something other than what we do at lunchtime.   Recognizing the reality that so often we will go on consuming and consuming and consuming even when it becomes apparent to us that no amount of bread and water will fill our hunger, ease our thirst. 

If I can just find the right person, the right relationship; if only I could live in that neighborhood, achieve those educational and financial and career goals.  If only, if only.  The next job, the next boyfriend or girlfriend.  The next house.  The next big sale.  The next award or degree or accolade.  The prize bank account.  The approval of others, cheers and applause.

 John 6, and we would hear what Jesus offers instead.  If we’re ready to put all that down and look for something else.  In Jesus, now, in the midst of this day to day routine life of ours, our thirst and our hunger will be lifted up and transformed to complete what we have been yearning for, to assure us of the fulfillment of God’s promise that has echoed in our ears since the beginning of creation. 

The ancient curse, the consequence of sin, back in Genesis 3, as God speaks to Adam, as the gates of the Garden of Eden are closed and guarded by angels with flaming swords.  “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  Words that we hear as ashes are imposed on Ash Wednesday, as we move into Lent on the journey to Holy Week and Good Friday.  As we are ejected beyond the gates of the Garden.  “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” 

Mankind’s ancient catastrophe, now, now for us, on this summer morning, echoes of Easter, and turned to victory.  God himself stepping in—himself our food and drink, a spring of water welling up to eternal life, the bread of paradise, heavenly banquet, not to keep body and soul together here for a short season, a few days, a few decades, but to lift us, to raise us up to be with him and in him, to welcome us with him to the new Garden.  As the ancient Easter song would say, echoing St. Paul in First Corinthians 15, “as in Adam die, even so in Christ all be made alive.”  About real living.  Not playacting, but with the deepest authenticity.  To be alive as we have never been fully alive before.

The word and invitation of the gospel this morning for us.  To believe in Jesus, as we allow ourselves to turn in our minds and our hearts to him, to turn from the life of the first Adam, with all its sin and brokenness, evil, and to seek a new life with him and in him.  To trust him.  To walk in his way.  Forgiveness, renewal, life eternal.

To paraphrase the Woman at the Well:  that all sounds pretty good—tell me more!

We have heard the story and so the invitation this morning.  To believe in him, to receive in our hearts and minds and lives the gift of his sacrifice in a spirit of repentance and renewal.  That is the one true meal.  Not just bread and water, but real bread, living water.  Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us.  Again the Easter hymn.  Christ as been sacrificed for us--therefore let us keep the feast.

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

Friday, July 17, 2015

Shore Leave, 2015

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

--which is Susy's ancestral home.

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

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

And in the meantime on Sundays, July 19th and 26th, the 10 a.m. St. Andrew's service will be led by a good friend . . . the Rev. Canon Cathy Brall, former Provost of Trinity Cathedral, downtown Pittsburgh, and now Canon Missioner for the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh.

I of course will return rested and ready for action on Sunday, August 2!



Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Seventh after Pentecost

Mark 6: 14-29

Good morning and grace and peace.  The reading from Mark familiar to us not simply from our Bible reading but also and perhaps more vividly from countless paintings and plays and cinematic representations.   The passage begins as King Herod begins to hear the buzz about Jesus--his preaching of the need of repentance and new life, his miracles of healing, casting out demons, announcing that the Kingdom is at hand,  gathering great, enthusiastic crowds.  

This is “Herod Antipas,” one of the sons of Herod the Great, who was the king we heard about back when the Wise Men from the East came searching for the newborn king.   It’s not clear that Herod Jr.  makes any connection, whether he might be recalling some story his father might have told him about his fears  when he first heard of the supposed birth in the Davidic City of Bethlehem of  a Jewish Messiah foretold in the ancient scriptures. 

But what he hears about Jesus does trigger another memory for Herod, and a then a powerful cascading of anxiety.  Just as Jesus was doing now, John the Baptist had some time ago rolled onto the scene with a passionate and compelling message.  Also gathering big crowds, which always worries tyrants and dictators.  Calling the people of Jerusalem and Judea to take their blinders off and to see just how far they and their political and religious and cultural leaders had wandered from the pathway of life that God had intended for them.  How bad things are both in how they are conducting their personal lives and in terms of the society around them.  Calling them to turn around before it was too late.  Before they would be swept up into the chaos of complete darkness and evil.   Revolutionary talk.

And at that John had with boldness pointed the finger not simply at some generic  class of leaders, but directly at the conduct and character of Herod himself.  He made it way personal.  Although Herod ruled this Jewish people he was not himself Jewish, descended from the line of Greek autocrats that had first shown up in the region with Alexander the Great--and Herod’s public manner of life was rife with harsh in-your-face  immorality, shocking and offensive certainly to the sensibilities of a Jewish community rooted in the moral culture of Scripture.  He was known and even seemingly proud and ostentatious about his greed and cruelty, his gluttony, his disregard for any ordered sense of sexual conduct or the dignity and sacred character of marriage.  

John made it all real personal, pointed the finger, denounced the unholy marriage of the king to the woman who had been his sister-in-law--and the consequence was inevitable.  Arrest, imprisonment, torture.  You just don’t mess with the king.  And it would have been automatically a death sentence, except—and this is so interesting--except that Mark seems to say to us here that somehow  in spite of everything John had managed to find a chink in the armor of the king.  His word had penetrated, touched a place of vulnerability.   Herod hated John for what he was saying, and yet he found it hard to turn away, to stop listening, because at some deep-down level, Herod found himself wrestling with his own conscience, some glimmer of recognition, the poignancy of conviction, with a sense gradually emerging that what John was saying  just might be true.  The Evil King wanted to turn away from John, turn to a different channel, but he just couldn’t.

I don’t know.  Maybe you’ve been there.  I have, that’s for sure.  A little Herod in all of us.  That moment when the people who seem to be against you suddenly seem to be the people who know you best.  Maybe even better than you know yourself.  Who see right through the fa├žade.  So Herod is torn, until this cinematic dinner party, music, feasting, drunken laughter, and behind the scenes the plotting of Herodias, the wife of the King, who is beginning to see that her husband is beginning to question his actions in regard to their marriage.  And then Salome’s seductive dance—the alluring highlight of all those C.B. DeMille movie scenes--and the rest is history.  The gruesome head on the platter, now haunting the dreams of the king as the days and weeks and months and years roll along.
And now: Jesus--and it all comes back at once, and the sudden crushing weight of the memory is such that Herod can hardly breathe.  As if the Baptist himself has returned from the dead.

The gospels share John the Baptist with us as a kind of anticipation and forerunner and even key and clue about Jesus.  All four gospels seem to say that for us really to understand the story of Jesus, the story of John the Baptist is essential.  Like Jesus, John’s birth was remarkable, foretold in scripture, announced by an angel.  Like Jesus, John had a work of proclamation about repentance, calling the people to a renewal of life in a restored right relationship to God, who was about to come among us in power with judgment and authority.  Like Jesus, John came into conflict with civil and religious authorities because of this proclamation.  Like Jesus, John was executed by those authorities.  Like Jesus, John had disciples who cared for him, even in death, and who took his body out from the place of execution and laid it in a tomb.  “A voice crying in the wilderness: prepare ye the way of the Lord.  Make his paths straight.”

If we want to understand what God is about in Jesus, what God has done, Mark is telling us, we can let this story of John the Baptist settle in and teach us.  To show us first of all what it is that we’re up against.  Which is where this story of John’s execution brings us.  The Herods of this world.  What Paul in Romans 8 may be thinking of.  “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness or peril or sword?  As it is written, “For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”  What drove Herod the Great to the Massacre of the Children of Bethlehem—and what pushed his son in that moment of drunken vulnerability to order the execution of John.  This cosmic battle not “out there” but in here—inside, in the human heart.  In me, in you.  Serious business.

If we want to understand what God is about in Jesus.  If we want to understand what Jesus had in mind for us, for you and me, as he held us in his mind and in his heart at the Cross, we can let this story of John the Baptist settle in and teach us.  If we need to be taught.  About the cruel and dark and horrific inevitability of sin and the consequences of sin. The children of Bethlehem in all their innocence were helpless, without defense.  Even John in the strength of his spiritual power and proclamation of the truth fell before the power of wickedness.  On our own any of us might put up a good fight for a while, but the end is darkness.   If we don’t get that, we won’t every really understand why Jesus matters.  How desperately we need him.

As Martin Luther sang, “Did we in our own strength confide, that striving would be losing.  Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing.”  John cries in the Wilderness, and the pathway is opened.  “Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”    “He is on his way!” John announces.  And then as promised, Jesus arrives with power, Cross and Resurrection.  Again Romans 8, which I keep connecting to as I read this story:  “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor thing things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  Herod may be strong,  but there is one who is stronger still.  The forces of Evil are great, but their end is certain.

The John the Baptist story seems to be one that is about defeat, the good falling before the bad, the worst of our humanity triumphant over the best that humanity can offer.  A story that may be one we sometimes believe even about ourselves.  That we are powerless and doomed to defeat and darkness.  But then we would see that the story of John pushes us on further.  Forcing us to look straight on into the darkness, and then through the darkness to what God has done and is doing.

I’m reminded  of what is as you might remember one of my favorite films.  

In the 2006 movie Superman Returns there is a scene at the beginning.  Superman has returned to Metropolis after many years on some kind of unspecified task far away, I can’t remember the details.  A sabbatical.  And he discovers that in his absence things seem to have changed.  At one time he was cheered as a hero, but now he seems to be regarded more as a problem, a disruption.  He wants to be involved, but he is turned away again and again by people who feel like they no longer need the kind of help he can offer.  Even his old flame Lois Lane has moved on.  A new job, a new boyfriend.  A boyfriend that Superman has real concerns about.  Not that Lois will listen to what he has to say.  She has this amazing conversation with the Man of Steel.  “You seem to think it’s your job to save the world,” she tells him.  “But the fact of the matter is, the world doesn’t need a savior, and neither do I.”

The fact of the matter is, we don’t need a savior.  

Well—if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know that Lois has spoken a bit too soon.  Lex Luthor and his evil gang are even as Lois is speaking at work to bring on chaos and destruction, with a full dose of Kryptonite, and things are about to go very bad indeed. 

That’s what Mark’s gospel has for us this morning.  To say, to remind us, that if we think we don’t need a savior, that Jesus is optional, then we’d better think again.  Because the reality is that in our world and in our lives, without that savior, it’s going to be all Herod, all the time.

Thanks be to God, that’s not how the story ends.  And for us to remember that as we open the newspaper and as we look into the mirror and into our own heart.  Not how the story ends.  No matter how deep the darkness the lights come on at last in the singing of the old Easter hymn.  “Death is conquered we are free, Christ has won the victory.”

Sixth after Pentecost, July 5, 2015

Our preacher this morning was our Parish Deacon, the Ven. Jean D. Chess.

2 Samuel  5:1-5,9-10
2 Corinthians  12:2-10
Psalm 48
Mark 6: 1-13

"He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two"

It's been awhile since you started following him.  Although some of the details of that day when you first encountered Him along the shores of the Sea of Galilee have faded - other parts of that encounter are as vivid as the moment they happened - and that is what keeps you going.  

It's why you're here this morning, actually, still following him.  Because somewhere, deep inside, His words and the example of His life and His faith and just His presence have struck an ancient chord deep inside you and you just can't walk away.  You see other people in the crowd today, listening to His teaching, and you know that they've been touched as well.

This Jesus, he's a man on a journey and you want, actually you need, to be part of it.   It gives you hope.  And we human beings, we are creatures of hope - we need hope as much as we need air to breath, water to drink, and food to eat.  This Jesus, and his followers, well they - we - are bearers of hope.

The book "Hope as Old as Fire" is a series of short daily meditations written by Steven Charleston who is the former Bishop of Alaska and a member of the Chocktaw nation.  I had a chance to hear Bishop Charleston speak to a conference of deacons several years ago and have found him to be a compelling and unique voice in our wider community.

In reading his book, alongside our summer book 'Always we begin again' and reflecting on the idea of journey and the journey of Jesus and his disciples in Mark's Gospel... I was particularly struck by this meditation...

One more day. God gives me one more day. With each sunrise I see, God gives me one more day to make right what is wrong, to open what is closed, to find what is lost, to be what I long to become.  I can work miracles today.  I can change the course of history with a word. In these few hours I have the chance to shape time itself into timeless love.  One more day. That's all I need to live one day as if it were eternity.

On this day, the disciples are gathered with the crowds who are listening to Jesus teach in the villages outside Nazareth.   As they listen to Him, all of a sudden they hear him call them by name to come forward and before they know it, Jesus is sending them out to teach, to heal, to love and to bring a word of hope to all those they encounter on this day.  Stop, Listen - do you hear him call your name?  Amen.