Sunday, June 21, 2015

Fourth after Pentecost

 2 Corinthians 6: 1-13

Good morning and grace and peace as we move on into this summer season—the solstice actually at 12:38 p.m. today, just a couple of hours from now.  Again, a warm word of welcome!

This pastoral letter from Paul to the small church in Corinth, Second Corinthians, as he works lovingly but with a firm hand to help get them back on track after they have experienced and to some extent seem to be continuing to experience a great deal of distress caused at least in part by leaders who had been straying away from the gospel message they had heard from Paul.  We’ve been paying attention to this letter now for a couple of weeks in our Sunday lectionary.  

The results of straying from the gospel were clear as it played out in the life of the Corinthian Church:  conflict and division and a culture of negativity and grievance.  I can’t help pausing over that as we look ahead in the next week to the gathering for our Episcopal Church General Convention.  The Church in Corinth becoming something of a political entity where people are striving to be in charge of things.  It’s all about winners and losers, my group and your group, about identity and privilege.   We remember Paul’s prescription, in the perfect literary expression of First Corinthians 13.  Love is patient and kind, not jealous or boastful, not arrogant or rude.  Love seeks not its own way.  Words that sound so beautiful in theory when you read them at a wedding.  But so difficult to make the words real, to walk the walk and not just talk the talk--whether in a marriage or, as Paul originally intended them, in the life of a Christian congregation.

The Second Century North African theologian Tertullian famously accounted for the rapid rise of Christianity in Late Antiquity by saying that where the Church was established people in the neighborhood would begin to say, “These Christians, how they love one another!”   And Paul knows this in his heart.  Not love simply as some sort of general affection and good will, but the kind of costly and sacrificial love that would begin to frame and interpret the story of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus before people had even heard the story. 

A little side note here.  At a continuing education event a couple of weeks ago I heard an English historian, Frances Young, give a presentation on exactly this topic.  Again, accounting for the spread of Christianity through the Hellenistic culture of the Roman Empire.  Her study of the topic was entitled “Holiness and Mission: Learning from the Early Church about Mission in the City,” published in 2010, and what she basically tries to account for is the rise of Christianity especially in places where even the basic story would have been unknown and where what we would call public preaching and evangelism was sharply restricted.  And what she says, and I will quote here from the introduction to her book, “Within in context of Roman cities . . . people seem to have been attracted by belonging to a  community, by support offered, both material and spiritual, and by the lived ethic of love, love of neighbour, stranger, and even enemy.”   

Young’s basic premise is that for us to understand something about mission and ministry in our own context, on into the complexity of life in the 21st century, even here in the East End of Pittsburgh, we may need to take a ride in the Delorean that carried time-traveller Marty McFly “Back to the Future.”  If you remember that great and fun movie and series.  Young in her presentation at the conference talked  about how in the first great smallpox epidemic in Rome in the year 165 AD terrified citizens would abandon even family members to die in the streets, except for the Christians, who cared not only for their own but even opened their homes to care for neighbors and strangers, despite the risk of infection and death.  A community noted for care for widows and orphans, newborns and the dying.  A community noted for scrupulous honesty in trade and commerce, for life-long fidelity in marriage, for generosity, simplicity, kindness.  Before the first recitation of the story of journey from the Manger to the Cross, the character of that story had already made itself known, and in a society storming with violence, greed, rampant materialism, a disregard for the value of life, and a commercialization and degradation of marriage, family, and sexual conduct, these small clusters of Christians would give testimony “not only with their lips, but in their lives.”  First by walking the walk, and then, later, by talking the talk.  But that pattern was critical.  People wanted to hear what Christians had to say because they were drawn first by how Christians lived.

In any event, that’s where we are here in Second Corinthians 6.  When Paul talks about his own qualifications for Christian leadership—and apparently arching his eyes with a sense of irony as he contrasts himself with those who have claimed leadership in Corinth by boasting of their status and accomplishments.  He doesn’t in any event list seminary degrees, ecclesiastical honors, and a track record of institutional success and church-growth.  This is a different kind of a resume altogether.  “Great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger.”  That’s how you’ll know someone has been doing it right.  Show me your scars. 

What you would expect to see in the life of your own congregation, when you’re getting it right, Paul is saying.  How when the going got tough, you pitched your tent.  You made your stand.  Pretty challenging, then and now--and it always does seem like we put other kinds of things front and center in our church publicity materials.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”  Again, and welcome to our newcomers this morning! 

And what else in this recipe?  “Purity,” –already a tough sell in the world we live in.  And  “knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love”—notice, not false love, not superficial love, not easy love, but genuine love—“truthful speech”, and showing day by day not your own strength and authority and success, but “the power of God.” 

But deep down, isn’t that the kind of church we want to be a part of?  Well, you tell me the answer to that question.  Isn’t that how we want to describe our friends?  What we would hope and pray would begin working in our lives?  Of course we desire to have a Church that is theologically centered and true to the witness of Scripture and the Creeds and the teaching of the Apostles.  But what is the sign that this is the case.  Says Paul:  “Purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, the power of God.”  And battle scars.  And not just for an hour and fifteen minutes on Sunday morning . . . .

And then we go on to read these polarities: People treat us as imposters, Paul says, as hypocrites, and yet we hold fast to the truth.  They say we have hidden motives, but we open our hearts and our minds and even our homes to any and all.  They say we are dying, failing, irrelevant, the past and not the future, but see, we are alive.  Even as Christ is alive.

If this Second Corinthians 6 sounds familiar, we might be remembering that it is also the epistle reading appointed in our lectionary for Ash Wednesday, when the theme is all about waking up from a life of dreams, from a false life, and meeting the true life that is only known in Christ Jesus.  Ash Wednesday echoing on the First Day of Summer, a reminder of that day of fasting and prayer and reflection about how to live in his world truly in the light of Christ.  His Cross, the generous love that forgives us our sins and showers us with grace.   The opening words of the reading this morning, “We urge you not to accept the grace of God in vain.”  Like getting tickets to a play as a birthday gift, and then when the day comes, just forgetting about them, not valuing them, not paying attention.  “Forgiveness of sins, resurrection of the Body, life everlasting.”  An ancient creed and words on a page, but all in vain if we don’t allow them to live in our lives.  Doesn’t it make sense that people who have received blessing would then be a blessing?  That people who have received grace as this free gift of God given in the life of Jesus, in his costly sacrifice, would be characterized above all else by graciousness?  Which is a decision, really.  Turning this way rather than that way.  Putting our cards on the table.    And no time like the present.  I always love the way this lesson rings like an alarm at the early-morning Ash Wednesday service.  Paul asks, what are you waiting for?  Little church in Corinth.  And the words echoing down through the centuries.  What did you think this was all about?  There are easier answers out there, though whether they are the right answers or not—you’ll just need to sort that out.  Not so for Paul, here.  Little Church in Corinth, he says, what did you expect?  What are you waiting for?   “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!”    What in the world are you waiting for?

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Third Sunday after Pentecost

Second Corinthians 5: 6-17

As I mentioned last week, the very personal tone of St. Paul’s pastoral ministry comes to the fore in Second Corinthians, and here in the fifth chapter this morning we hear him opening his mind and his heart.  There is this tender and introspective  character.  A vulnerability.   Paul is deeply aware of the pain that this small congregation has experienced in its recent history, a story of conflict and division in leadership and in the congregation.  They have been through a lot—and in many ways it is apparent that they are still struggling.  Paul: addressing these issues at a distance, issues of leadership, ministry, Christian life—perhaps most of all to assure them that the hard experiences of their recent past are not signs of the inadequacy of the Gospel.  The overarching substance of this letter, to look deeply into our own experiences of pain and loss, brokenness, even of death, and to see and understand this pattern of life not as a kind of punishment but instead as an instrument of blessing.  A way of being brought authentically into a close relationship with Christ himself.  A sense of “Holy Communion” with him.  As individuals growing in faith and wrestling with all the challenges that come with that.  As a community, a church, a Christian family.

As I’ve been trying to frame this idea this week I found myself thinking of the Prayer Book Collect for Fridays in Morning Prayer, in succinct and elegant language: “Almighty God, whose most dear Son went 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,”—walking in his footsteps--“may find it none other than the way of life and peace, through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord.”

And the Friday Collect in Evening Prayer: “O Lord Jesus Christ, who by thy death didst take away the sting of death: Grant unto us thy servants so to follow in faith where thou hast led the way, that we may at length fall asleep peacefully in thee,”—this image of being infolded in Christ, so beautiful: “fall asleep peacefully in thee”—“and awake up after thy likeness, for thy tender mercies’ sake.”

A couple of weeks ago on Trinity Sunday we had as our Gospel reading John 3, with the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus.  Nicodemus asked, how can someone who has grown old really have a fresh start?  And Jesus talks about being “born again” in and through the Holy Spirit.  Coming into a fresh relationship with the Father through the Son by the action of the Spirit.  The great imagery of Trinity Sunday.   And Paul here calls the Christians of Corinth back to that sense of being incorporated into the fullness of God in Christ.  Walking faithfully with Christ.  Not to follow a highway of happiness, but to hold fast to him through the difficulties that come in this tragically and inevitably broken world.  Failures, hurt, even persecution.  Being misunderstood.  It is to walk with Jesus up the hill to crucifixion and so to rise with him in a new birth on Easter morning.

This is a shift of worldview and value.  Paul is talking about a different kind of witness for the church.  A different set of expectations.  For a community that has been undermined by leaders who seemed more full of themselves than full of Jesus.  For a community that has been living for a while in the whirlwind of personality politics and theological controversy.  But now all of that fades, as we adopt a different perspective.  The New Testament word translated in English as “repent,” metanoite, literally something like “think again.”  Put on a new way of thinking and being and valuing.  Jesus preaches, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near.”  Perhaps we might translate: “Get your head on straight.  Open your eyes to reality.  Quit living in a dream world.  See things as they really are.  Wake up and smell the coffee.” 

We are, Paul says, already and right now, here and now,  with one foot in the presence of God.  Alive in Christ whether we are prospering or suffering.  Alive in Christ, whether we are alive in this world, or dying in this world.  We seem to be citizens of this world, in the context of law and culture.  Be we are in reality even now subject to his perfect judgment and authority.  Fully alive in this turbulent world, fully alive in the Kingdom.  Each so complete that it is the same to us, whether we live or whether we die. 

And so we are free to live and to love and to give and to serve and to witness to the love of Christ without fear.  And to think about what happens in us as individuals, as a community, as a church, when the truth of that really settles in.  A freedom from the culture of possessiveness and anxiety, which is really what the Bible calls idolatry.  Trying to hold on to things, to worship things, to imagine that it is somewhat what the world gives that will save us, bring us fulfillment and meaning and blessing.  Leading to the scramble to accumulate more, and to the sleepless nights, when we fear that what we have will be taken away from us.  Cultivating a life based on a vision of scarcity and limitation, filled with fear and grievance. 

For us a different perspective, Paul says.  For us, another way.  There may be earthquakes and storms, persecutions and betrayals, suffering, and loss, but we are already safe, already at home. 

And so—chapter 5, verse 17:  “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.”    Already here.  Let that sink in. Already victorious.   Allow the reality of that message to soak in. 

Susy and I really enjoyed seeing the film, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.”  The story of this sweet and idealistic young man, who’s called “Sonny” in the film,  who has a dream of turning a derilect old hotel in  India into a luxurious residence for English retirees.  Lots of humor, missteps, small and sometimes large problems.  And Sonny has a wonderful saying, which recurs several times.  Classic understated Indian humor and insight.   “Everything will be all right in the end,” he says, as the walls are almost literally tumbling down around him.  “Everything will be all right in the end.   And if things aren’t right. . .  that’s because it’s not yet the end!”

I mean, let’s just read and re-read the 21st and 22nd Chapters of the Revelation to St. John.  The last page or two of the last book of Scripture.  Read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.  Maybe something we should do as a kind of spiritual discipline every month or so, just to keep it fresh.  As a framework for our approach to leadership and mission and ministry, as a guide to the life of the church, to the conduct of our lives every day.  In our families.  At work.  In the cultivation of our inner life.  The feast of God’s victory.

Since we know the end of the story, since we already live in the end of the story, the way we live our lives is just going to be different.  What Paul is trying to communicate to the Church in Corinth this morning—and then for us too.  The way we live our lives will be different.  More spacious.  More patient. With humility.  Grace.  The willingness to let the other go first.  Free from the urgency of reactivity.  Free to be passionate and yet modest, free to be compassionate, to be generous, to take risks.  To suffer loss.  To stand against the crowd.  Free to be, we might say, “counter-cultural.”   If any man is in Christ, he is a new creation.  The old has passed away, in Christ.  Something new has begun.

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

Friday, June 12, 2015

John Patrick Egan, Jr.

Burial Office, Thursday, June 11, 2015
John Patrick Egan, Jr.
November 5, 1949 - May 30, 2015

Good evening and grace and peace to you.  It is such a privilege to take part in this service, as we commend to God’s care and love John Patrick Egan, Jr.  “Jack.”  As we express our care and love and sympathy and prayers for Jack’s brother Dan and his sisters Kathy and Mary Pat.  And with thanks to Peter and the Choir this evening.  As I said to Mary Pat as we looked at the hymns and psalms and anthems: we’ll sing him to heaven.  We sing him to heaven, as our songs on earth mingle with the chorus of the angels, until it’s all one song.

I hope you will take a few moments to read the very touching remembrances and tributes that are included in the service leaflet.  There are a number of nice observations and memories, the expression of deep and meaningful care.  But also in the midst of those thoughts a recurring theme, that John Patrick Egan, Jr., was a difficult person to know.  Behind the curtain of a life dealing with the challenges of mental illness, separated from family, estranged from so many of the kinds of common platforms of experience that help any of us to know and share with one another.  Education and interests, work, hobbies and recreation, relationships, family and friends.   A man whose inner life was a life lived in secret, except perhaps for moments here and there when something more could be glimpsed.  When there would be a hint.

In your tribute, Kathy, as I think I first read this when you posted it on your Facebook page, you talked about, and this is your insight, how “Jack’s existence made others reevaluate what it means to be a “good” or “normal” person.”  And Mary Pat talks about how in some ways Jack’s very existence almost became a kind of secret.  To talk about him, even in the family, especially in those earlier years, you would almost need to whisper.  His brother Daniel’s poetic insight: “A life unknown, to all but One.  What purpose?  What effect?  To what point done?”  And perhaps the asking of those questions get to the heart of Kathy’s point.  To struggle with questions about what a “good life” is, what a “normal life” looks like, even to raise those questions, to draw them out, can be a frightening thing for any of us.  Easier to look away, pretend we didn’t hear the question.  As they say in the Twelve Step movement, “Denial isn’t only a river in Egypt.”  It is a river that runs with a strong current through all our lives.

To give thanks for the life of John Patrick Egan, Jr.  Son of John Patrick and Mary Louise, brother of Dan and Kathy and Mary Pat.  A man who lived his life on the margin, at the edge.  Like all of us.  A man whose inner life, whose depth, whose hopes and fears, joys and sorrows, will be forever mysterious even to those who knew him best.  As is true for you and for me, for all of us. 

And yet to say all that, it is also so meaningful to know and to see and read in these tributes, in each one of them, these words of faith.  Daniel talks about the “One” who did know John, who does know him.  About plans that are true even when we don’t see or understand them.  “majestic purpose, loving embrace.”  Thank you for that.  Kathy reminds us of her brother’s destiny in God.  The better place, where there is rest and peace.  Mary Pat connects the life that was real and true here in these last 65 years with the Life that is real and true and everlasting.  Alisa pictures a heavenly reunion of a family that has been healed and made whole.  Edward in his memory of cheeseburgers and fries turns to brilliant vision of, to quote him here, “a holiness rooted in things, in a simple and unadorned way.”  How even in the simplest of moments--hot dogs at the ballgame—we can catch a glimpse of such transcendent and holy grace.

“In my Father’s house are many mansions.  I go to prepare a place for you.  And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again, and bring you to myself.  That where I am, there you may be also.”

“For neither death nor life, no angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

It’s all good, which is what I’m trying to say.  Not to diminish the pain that John may have known in so many ways through his life.  Not to diminish the complicated pain of his parents, his brother and sisters, those who knew him, those who wanted to know him.  But to turn our eyes for the moment as these beautiful readings and anthems and hymns invite us to do, to turn our eyes from the place where we stand now to the place of the Cross.  And to allow this gift of God’s grace and love, his forgiveness,  his blessing, to be received in our hearts and in our lives.  Nothing good is lost.  Nothing good is wasted.  No one of us is forgotten. 

And so the privilege of sharing these few minutes in thanksgiving for the life of John Patrick Egan, Jr.  To commend him to the continuing care of the One who has known him and held him close from his very beginning.  And to be reminded ourselves of what is of greatest value and importance.  And so Paul in First Corinthians 15: “For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.  So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.  O death, where is thy sting?  O grave, where is thy victory?  The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law.  But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory, through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Second Sunday after Pentecost

II Corinthians 4: 13 – 5: 1

Good morning—and grace and peace as we step out into  “Trinitytide,” the long season into summer and early fall between Trinity Sunday and the First Sunday of Advent.   In the Sunday lectionary this morning we enter into a new pattern of readings, and for the epistle lesson we’re jumping right into the middle of Second Corinthians.  It’s a book we would I think best read in the light of what we know from Paul’s earlier pastoral letter to this church community:  First Corinthians.  

Something of a long story, but the Christian community at Corinth was one that was built on the missionary evangelism and preaching and pastoral care of Paul himself.  They knew him well—and he knew them well and had a special love for them.  After Paul moved on in his missionary ventures there were additional pastors and evangelists and leaders at Corinth, and it happened that over time divisions and conflict emerged in the church.  No big surprise, of course.  Churches and conflict seem to go together like bread and butter. 

We hear in First Corinthians about differences and truly significant differences of theological perspective and devotional and spiritual practice arising as the teaching of other leaders began to compete with Paul’s message, and those differences exacerbated by further differences of social and economic class, educational and cultural background, ethnicity and religious background, even newcomers and old-timers--and always by eccentricities of personality, ego, leadership styles.  “Just church,” we might say.  The usual mess.

In any event, the letter we call First Corinthians was Paul’s first attempt to intervene and deal with these concerns, and his message to the Church was that these divisions were all signs and symptoms of a deeper disease--that the Church was losing its grip on the central core and message of the Gospel:  how God’s love perfectly expressed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus was and is the only ground of our hope and the source of our salvation.  When we hold fast to that message, Paul says, the result will be not division, but a reflection in us of Jesus himself, his divine, self-giving love in all our lives and relationships.  It will be what everyone will see when they look at the Church:  Love is patient and kind, not jealous or boastful, not arrogant or rude, not insisting on its own way.  That thirteenth chapter, one of the most familiar and most loved of all scripture, the high aspirational word of Christian culture and community.

We learn in Second Corinthians that Paul’s first letter didn’t resolve the situation.  In the interval since this first Letter Paul even made a quick, in-person pastoral visit to Corinth to try to set things right, and perhaps especially to challenge the leaders who had been not teachers of gospel truth, unity and love but of a distorted gospel, and one that has led to this continued division. Then some time later,  there seems to have been yet another letter from Paul, even stronger in rebuke.   So that the Letter we have today as Second Corinthians might actually have been “Third Corinthians.”  Apparently the Corinthians didn’t keep copies of that letter—not the sort of thing people want to hand on to their children, I guess, as it must have been stinging in its tone and content-- though some scholars think that Paul may have incorporated at least a part of that second letter in the later part of Second Corinthians. 

Finally in any case, with these letters and visits, the dust seems to have begun to settle.  We don’t know exactly how.  But things back on track.  Perhaps Paul’s message began to rally the main body of believers, and perhaps those individuals or groups that were sowing discord have departed.  Or perhaps there has been a season of repentance and conversion and deeper reconciliation among them all.  It seems in any case that new teachers and leaders have risen up, and I think it’s for them that this letter is mostly intended.  In any case, I think we don’t exactly see the whole picture, but perhaps those of us who have lived through church conflict and division ourselves may have a bit of intuition about the consequences.  The aftermath.  Those remaining  may feel bruised and battered.   Or angry.  Or resentful.  Or skeptical about the truth of the message that brought them together in the first place.  The whole spectrum of emotions may be in play.  Some may be in denial, pretending all is well and critiquing others for “living in the past.”   Certainly in the wider community the reputation of the church must have  suffered:  not seen as a shining and attractive witness to Christ, but perhaps almost the opposite.  Who would want to join a church like that, where people seem to be fighting all the time.  They don’t even seem to like each other . . . .

Which is where we come in, for this follow-up pastoral letter, Second Corinthians, written by Pastor Paul to be a deeply personal word that will encourage the right kind of healing and renewal in the life of the congregation.   And the central thrust of the whole letter is to reaffirm and refresh and reinforce  the themes we’ve already heard in First Corinthians.  To lift up a vision of Christ’s healthy Body.  To say that we would  be called to measure ourselves by the measure of Christ, by his love, his humility, his patience, his suffering, his sacrifice.

The climax and center-point of Paul’s personal testimony, which comes right at the end of the Letter, as we may get there in a few weeks, in chapter 12, when speaking of his own personal hurt, which he calls the “thorn” in his flesh--which he has prayed God to relieve, to hear this word from the Lord, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  And then Paul goes on, “I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  For the sake of Christ . . . I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”

When we experience distress, persecution, hurt, loss, brokenness, personally, or as a community, we would experience that paradoxically as an opportunity and blessing, even when it is a blessing that can be in some ways a heavy burden--to participate more deeply in the work of Jesus, in his suffering.  To die with him.  Not that we go looking for trouble.  But Paul’s image is that the life and death and resurrection of Christ is faithfully repeated and fully recapitulated in the life of his church, and in the life of every believer.

Anyway, that is the bigger picture of Second Corinthians.  A foreshadowing of this conclusion in the reading appointed for this morning at the end of the 4th chapter.    (Finally in conclusion getting to this morning’s reading!)   “Do not lose heart,”  Paul tells the little church of Corinth.   Encouraging them by his own example—encouraging them not to give up or to give in, when believing and proclaiming “the spirit of faith in accordance with scripture” brings not cheers but jeers, not reward but deprivation.  When things are hard, when there is conflict, when there is opposition, when there is loss.  This why what is sometimes called the “prosperity gospel” is so contrary to the spirit of those who knew Jesus best and who lived closest to him.  The idea that our faithfulness of belief and proclamation will rewarded by health and happiness and popularity and prosperity.  How dangerous that can be—magical thinking.  If the “earthly tent” seems perfect, perhaps that would confuse the message and turn our attention away from the “building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens,” which is the life we are called to in Christ Jesus.

 I remember our old friend Bishop Henry Scriven talking about a little mission that he and Catherine were called to serve in Argentina many years ago.  As I recall him telling the story, the team had six members when they arrived, with high hopes and great energy, and that was to be the core group to begin a new work, a new congregation.  Several years later, when the Scrivens were forced to leave at the beginning of the Falklands War, Henry tells us that the original group of six had grown through all their efforts to number now . . . . three!  And he talked about how discouraged he and Catherine were as they left—what a sense of failure they felt.  How so much of their ministry had been frustration, hitting one brick wall after another.   Problem after problem.  And then he tells about how 20 years later he received a communication from that congregation.  They were celebrating an anniversary and wanted the Scrivens to return for the occasion.  He was surprised even to know that the mission still existed, but they went, and were astonished to find that what they had left in shambles and on the brink of utter disaster was now a vibrant Christian community of several hundred members—and they were even more astonished to hear that the members of this congregation attributed their life and growth and vitality to the ministry that had begun through Henry and Catherine’s early work.  They were complete failures, yet in the mystery of the working of God, their failure prepared the ground, planted seeds, for something greater to come.

So you can’t always tell.  What looks like victory may be entirely the wrong kind of victory.  What looks like failure may be part of God’s plan for something much greater.   I sometimes remember and quote a famous word from Mother Teresa of Calcutta when she said, “God doesn’t call us to be successful, but only to be faithful.”  If I were writing a study guide to Second Corinthians, and a commentary on the passage we’ve heard this morning,  that quotation would go right at the top of the page.  Perhaps be a great line to write on a 3x5 card and tape to the bathroom mirror, and to read every morning.   “Only to be faithful.”  Because we know the end of the story, because we know his victory, and our victory with him, we can be encouraged in whatever condition we find ourselves.  Top of the mountain or bottom of the heap.  We just keep our eyes on him, speak the truth in love, follow where he leads.  Or as Paul here in Second Corinthians 4: “Just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—we also believe, and so we speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus . . . so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the Glory of God.”

Sunday, May 31, 2015


Grace and peace to you, and good morning.  Trinity Sunday—something of a transitional place on the church calendar—hints of Easter and Pentecost hovering still in the rearview mirror, but then turning ahead to what is sometimes called the long “green season” of “ordinary time” through the summer to come.  We won’t have the festive white paraments out again on a Sunday morning until the first of November, All Saints Sunday—which will also be the day we turn the clocks back to standard time! 

There is a long-standing joke about assigning the sermon on Trinity Sunday to a seminarian, with the rector to sit off to the side keeping score, to chart just how many of the classic third and fourth century heresies are inadvertently promoted as the preacher seeks to communicate this ancient and foundational doctrine, that God is one Being made up of three distinct Persons who exist in co-equal essence and co-eternal perfect communion, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Three-leaf clovers don’t cut it, nor do analogies like ice, water, and steam, and don’t even begin to try diagrams with triangles spinning inside of circles--and on and on.   There are in fact some wonderful sermons, lectures, and books and essays on the doctrine of the Trinity, ancient and modern, and it is I think important to pause at least for a moment on this Sunday to acknowledge the power of this model, this theological “lens,” as a way of seeing and understanding the fundamental proclamation of our faith: that God in Christ without differentiation or distinction was reconciling the world to himself.  Making it possible for us to come into relationship with him, the perfect source of grace and mercy and love.   There’s the letter of St. Athanasius to Serapion, back in the first years of the fourth century.   In the twelfth century a wonderful series of sermons by St. Bernard of Clairvaux on the Song of Solomon.  And just a couple of years ago I recall our own Dean Byrom preached a very fine Trinity Sunday sermon.  For many of us perhaps the version of the great theological poem, the Lorica, sometimes called the “Breastplate of St. Patrick,” certainly a powerful expression, perhaps something like the “national anthem” or alma mater for the great family of the doctrinally orthodox Christian family across continents and generations.  I bind unto myself today the strong name of the Trinity.

So what I want to say about Trinity Sunday, that this is a day that is first about Christology and Pneumatology, the Son and the Spirit in the fullness of the Father,  but finally and in triumphant conclusion it is about Doxology.

First Christology.  The theological discipline of thought in which we discuss the nature of Christ and his work.  Who was this Jesus, anyway, and what are we to make of what he said and did?  What the doctrine of the Trinity helps us to see and know about Jesus. Thus the wisdom of the compilers of our Sunday morning lectionary, to give us this morning the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus in John 3, the memory verse and summation of the gospel so pervasively cited that we sometimes see enthusiastic Christians lift up signs at basketball games.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”   To understand that “sending” not as a delegation of a servant to do his master’s bidding, but as a self-offering.  God in his essence and in his fullness, born of a woman, laid in the Manger,  broken on the Cross.  For us and for our salvation, our healing and our reconciliation. 

And Pneumatology  The theological discipline of thought in which we discuss the nature of the Holy Spirit in the life of God.  To note that this is a different way of talking about the Spirit than when we sometimes hear and talk about “spirituality.”  When people say they are “spiritual, but not religious.”  The Spirit as we speak of the Holy Spirit on Trinity Sunday is to address God’s continuing gift of himself to and for his Church, his continuing presence, as Jesus spoke to his friends, “I will not leave you Comfortless, but I will send you the Holy Spirit,” and at the end of Matthew’s gospel, “Lo, I am with you always.”  God in his essence and in his fullness, speaking to us and revealing himself to us in and through the Scriptures, and as we pray in the Name of Jesus, and as we offer ourselves as his hands in loving service. 

So finally, where we are together here this morning,  Trinity Sunday and doxology.  The Greek meaning a “word of praise.”  All worship.  In God’s presence.  The call to worship, “Sursum corda!”  Lift up your hearts.  Thinking of that great Trinitarian doxology we sing pretty much every Sunday morning at the presentation of the gifts.  Praise God, from whom all blessings flow.  And the fantastic and stunning and even terrifying language of Psalm 29, appointed in the lectionary for this morning.  “The voice of the LORD makes the oak trees writhe and strips the forests bare.  And in the Temple of the Lord, all are crying, “Glory!”

The psalmist calls us to worship the Lord “in the beauty of holiness.”  Not the “holiness of beauty,” which would be to talk about what we make and do, but in the beauty of who he is.  Above and beyond all our scales and standards, whose breath moves galaxies.  Source of all light, in his own perfection.    To get that tough message somehow into our heads, to comprehend what is so strange and unthinkable in the container of our ego, and how we understand ourselves.  That this is not about us.  About the hardest concept ever to get our minds around.  Almost an impossible idea, since we seem born with the notion that we are the center of the universe.  But the message of this Sunday: It is not about celebrating who we are and what we do.  If a friend asks, “why do you go to church?” and our reply begins “because I,” that’s a warning light on the dash.  “Because he.”  God in three persons, blessed Trinity.  It’s all about him, first and last.  Trinity Sunday.  Father, Son, and Spirit.  High and lifted up.

One of my favorite movies, quite a few years ago now, Robert Duvall as “The Apostle,” the story of this profoundly broken and imperfect preacher and evangelist who has everything stripped away from him and gets himself into all kinds of trouble--yet who somehow manages to hold on to a vision and a certainty of the glory of God.  Constantly muttering that one word.  “Glory.  Glory.  Glory.”  And it is through that one word, “glory,” that we begin to see God’s redeeming work.

“The Lord sits enthroned above the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as King for evermore.  The Lord shall give strength to his people; the Lord shall give his people the blessing of peace.”

Trinity Sunday a day to open ourselves in mind and heart to the magnificence of God, the glory of God, who is real--who found us when we were lost, who healed us when we were broken, who is present with us in Word and Sacrament, who offers even now, and right now, forgiveness for every evil thought and intention and action of our past, who reaches out to bring us safely home. 

An old friend of mine used to say that at least once a year every Assembly of God Pentecostal ought to take a Sunday to visit the local Episcopal Church, to touch base I guess you would say with the power and depth and meaning of sacramental worship—and that at least once a year each of us in the honored tribe of introverted and restrained Book of Common Prayer Episcopalians ought to give ourselves up to an hour or two of hand-clapping, arm-waving, halleluiah-shouting abandon of praise in return.  Or maybe in all the denseness of our liturgical vocabularies and our aesthetic ceremonial, to sit in the plain simplicity of a circle of Christian Friends at a Quaker meeting, attending to the movement of the Spirit, and to meet Jesus in silence.  To shift our frame of reference, anyway.   To get ourselves away from that odd question, “what sort of worship do you prefer?”  As if coming into his presence was something like deciding which box of cereal to choose at the grocery store . . . . 

An old definition of art is that it is a process to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange.  Perhaps that should happen in our worship as well, to explore the far reaches of doxology.

I’m not prescribing the necessity of an actual Sunday morning exchange, mind you.  Some may find the idea helpful, others not so much.   But simply to say that this is about our frame of reference—about how in our hearts and minds on this day of the Holy Trinity we are called to lift our eyes and our minds and our hearts to take in the glory of God in the absolute and radiant splendor of his magnificent complexity—and of his profound simplicity.  To come into his presence with thanksgiving, to show ourselves glad in him, to give thanks unto his Name.    To allow ourselves in this instant to be lifted out of our “comfort zones” and into the light of his countenance.

So the old hymn.   Trinity Sunday.  God himself is with us, let us now adore him, and with awe appear before him.  God is in his temple, all within keep silence,  prostrate lie with deepest reverence.  Him alone, God we own, him our God and Savior.  Praise his name for ever.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Day of Pentecost: Whitsunday

Acts 2

Hail, Festival Day!  And grace and peace  this holiday weekend of Memorial Day, of course, and on the church calendar the Eighth and last Sunday in the long reach of Easter.  Whitsunday: Pentecost.  Balloons and bright red paraments and Sunday School cakes to celebrate the Birthday of the Church, great choir anthems, organ fanfares and liturgical alleluias. 

Ten days after the first Passover and God’s Chosen People, the descendants of Jacob, have been lifted from their bondage in Egypt, and saved through the parted waters of the Red Sea, and delivered by God’s mighty hand to the base of Mount Sinai.  And then Moses begins his steep ascent skyward, up the mountain and into the clouds, in deep and personal communion with the Almighty.  And 40 Days later he returns—cradled in his arms the great Tablets of the Law, God’s word for God’s people.

Fifty Days from Passover, this long gestation and pilgrimage, and then Pentecost!  In Hebrew, Shavuot.  The spring festival to be kept from that day forward, the giving of God’s Word Written, his very breath the finger that carved the text of the holy Covenant.   Torah. 

The sign of this promise, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.”  The poetic association as well of the spring planting season.  As the farmer plants seed in the earth, to bring an abundant harvest, so God plants his word in the hearts of his people.  To bring forth new life in him.

And it was on Shavuot, as here in this second chapter of the Book of Acts—on Shavuot, on the Festival Day of Pentecost, that the friends of Jesus are gathered in one place, in that Upper Room that we have come to know so well, from Maundy Thursday and all the way through the life of this Easter season.   Leaning forward in anticipation after the amazing experience of the Mount of the Ascension, has they had been instructed, to see what will come next.  

And then the promise of Jesus, that he would come to them in a new and fresh way is fulfilled, like a rush of wind, filling the room with electricity, bright flames, energy.  Lo, I am with you always.  The Holy Spirit will come upon you.  Comforter and Advocate, Companion and Guide.  Very God of very God.

Balloons and bright red paraments and Sunday School cakes, great choir anthems, organ fanfares and Easter alleluias.  That all seems just right.  The Lord and Giver of life.  Who proceedeth from the Father and the Son.  With the Father and Son together, worshiped and glorified.  Who spake by the Prophets.

I was sorry to miss church at St. Andrew’s last Sunday—though Susy and I were glad that our Bed and Breakfast was right around the corner from St. Stephen’s Church, in Westborough, Massachusetts.   We were able to walk over in the morning and share in a wonderful service there for the Sunday after The Ascension before heading out into the afternoon of our Linnea’s graduation from the Tufts Vet School.

But Phil and Garrett were both kind enough to share their sermons from Sunday—Phil in the morning, Garrett at Evensong—so that I could post them on my Rector’s Page sermon blog.  And just so very meaningful  to read both of them. 

Phil reaching into the word of Jesus and his promise of the Holy Spirit at the Mount of the Ascension, and to say that even as that word was spoken it was already fulfilled in the precious word of Scripture itself.  As we confess in the Creed, “He has spoken through the Prophets.”  A reminder that the Spirit lives in us and among us in every syllable of God’s Word, every fragment of Sunday School memory verse, every Biblical echo of Prayer Book liturgy.  A reminder that the reader who stands at the Lectern to read God’s Word to God’s People is in the same place as the minister of the Holy Communion, in the administration of bread and cup.

 A reminder that as we eat and drink and commune in the fullness of his presence in his written Word, so our lives our nourished and our minds and our hearts are changed and renewed.   Phil quoted Archbishop Cranmer’s great Collect for the Second Sunday of Advent, as we now have it in the last set of Propers right before the beginning of Advent.  This classic Anglican meditation on the truth of Scripture as God’s Incarnate presence.  Of these Holy Scriptures, “Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them.”  --Inwardly digest.  So that as the saying goes, “you are what you eat.”  We become what we hear, as we hear him speak, take in his Word.

And Garrett’s very fine sermon at Evensong last Sunday, moving also from the Mount of the Ascension to the affirmation of the Creed, “He is seated at the right hand of the Father.”   That in the Ascension, the truth that Jesus doesn’t so much leave his disciples as he does lift them up with him in anticipation of God’s Kingdom and the fullness of his glory.  This vision that Garrett called “radical.”  Transformational.

Two Mountains, one at the beginning of the Story, in  Exodus, and one at the end of the Story, in Acts.  Torah and Ascension, Word and Spirit.  Shavuot and Pentecost.  All one story.  Creation and New Creation.  God in action.  

And as I’ve shared in my recurring reflections on “Acts 29,” not a story that ends long ago and far away.  Our story.  To us and for us and about us.  I think when I saw that magazine, Acts 29, in the library of St. Mark’s Berkeley all those decades ago, and in the moment a few hours later when the significance of that title popped like a lightbulb, there was this moment when the ground for me just seemed to shift a little bit.  I wasn’t “slain in the Spirit” and singing in tongues—and I didn’t rush out into the street like Peter and the others to shout the news.  As Garrett pointed out correctly last Saturday: we are, after all Episcopalians.  I say that I’m descended from a long line of Introverted Northern European Males, and that is something of the DNA that so often characterizes our Anglican inheritance.  A sense of decorum and restrain and understatement.

But if there’s a day to whoop and holler, to see our own names written in the pages of Acts 29, to rush out into the highways and byways, like those first Christians, our mothers and fathers, all of us with them to babble and sing, to tell the story of Jesus, to declare the great things God has done,  it is today, Whitsunday, Pentecost, Shavuot. 

Quietly, reasonably, and with restraint, of course.  Rite I, plainsong . . . .

The Child’s name was to be called Emmanuel, God with us, and the whole reality of his story returns again and again to that name, from the Manger to the Cross, from last December to this morning,  from the Empty Tomb to the Garden to the Upper Room and to the Mountaintop, and  now that name opens for us and settles in with us.  Look at that wonderful  Clara Miller Burd Ascension Window here in this North Transept as hours go by and days and year after year, and nothing changes, because he is lifted up,  but he doesn't really anywhere.  On high, at the right hand of the Father.  Yet truly here with us.  At the Lectern and on the Holy Table, on our lips and in our hearts.  Flowing outward from us, in word and action: the love of God, in Jesus Christ our Lord.  Whitsunday, Pentecost.

The to hear in our minds and hearts, our imaginations, all our lives, the prayer of the old Pentecost hymn: Breathe on me, Breath of God, till I am wholly thine, till all this earthly part of me glows with thy fire divine.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Seventh Easter Sunday: After The Ascension

Sermon at Evensong, by C. Garrett Yates, Seminarian

It’s so wonderful to be here this evening, and share this beautiful service with you all. I want to think a little bit with you about the Ascension – for we are in the part of the year where confess and pray that Jesus’s cosmic reign has begun. Jesus is not just resurrected, he didn’t just head to heaven and join the ranks of the celestial company. He ascended. And we are told he sits at the right hand of the Father, ruling and reigning until he comes again in glory. 

Well I don’t know about you, but some of this language is a bit abstract. This is all very hard to conceptualize. And for some of us, even harder to believe. Is this what it means to be a Christian, to believe in things like this, to know these facts about the world? I do think the doctrine of the Ascension is one of the harder doctrines, but not necessarily because of its metaphysical claims. I think the Ascension is a hard doctrine because of the claims it makes upon us – it is not making claims on our reason, so much as on our lives.

You may remember one of the earliest experiences of the Ascension. It’s the story of the first martyr Stephen. As you may remember, Stephen is killed because of his association with the Jesus movement. Stephen was one of those people whose life was shot through with God’s grace. And Acts tells us that he radiated a tremendous spiritual presence, and his wisdom and insightfulness were utterly contagious to the early Christian community. Stephen believed that Jesus changed everything. Well, as you may have guessed, this Jesus message landed Stephen in a lot of trouble. He was arrested and charged for sedition. Even on trial, the author of Acts tells us that everyone present “saw that his face was radiant, just like an angel’s.” And with just a few minutes left on death row, Stephen gives one of the best sermons ever preached. All about God’s unconditional mercy and kindness in Jesus. But his hearers, sensibly enough, found this message threatening. And so, following the customs of Jewish law for punishing terrible offenders, they picked up their rocks to stone him. But before the first rock strikes his body, Stephen lifts his eyes to heaven and there he sees Jesus. And a few seconds later, literally as he is going down, he draws strength from the ascended Jesus and speaks a word of forgiveness over his torturers.

A word of forgiveness over his torturers.

The ascension of Jesus was reality for Stephen. It was not something Stephen argued about among religious folks, nor did he believe it because, well, that’s just what you believe. Stephen drew energy and life from the Ascension. The Ascended One, who went straight into the heart of darkness himself, empowered Stephen to stare the god-forsakenness of the world right in the eye. And to look at it, not in anger, but in outpouring gestures of love and forgiveness. Stephen lived and died the Ascension of Jesus.

But here we are, living in 21st century America. And lucky for us, dying for our faith isn’t something faced by most of us living on the east end of Pittsburgh. We go about our days and yes we may suffer some discomforts, but it is my hunch that may have very little to do with our faith. The “world”, whatever that is, seems quite alright with us being Christians. And honestly, as I have been writing this sermon, I am not sure how I feel about that. I can’t make up my mind – has the world become a better place or have Christians lost some of their punch? Because, if I am honest with you, as I read Jesus, I encounter a radical. I encounter someone whose passion for love and mercy and justice unsettled some folks. People thought he was off his rocker. They thought he had a demon.

Now, before you think I have gone off the deep end. Let me assure you, I am Episcopalian to the core. Fanatics of any kind make me nervous. I like poetry better than football, and anything less than high Anglican worship makes me think that we’ve cheapened our spiritual offering to God. I am Episcopalian. But as I read the story of Stephen, and how he lived the Ascension, I cannot help but miss the radical beauty of his gospel. The ways in which his life was soaked through with grace. The ways in which his love for Jesus challenged the world. Really upset people; not because he was divisive or argumentative, but because he was aflame with God’s love. They probably thought that he too had a demon. 

So what might living the Ascension look like for us? Let me turn to one of my favorite poets, and one of the great Anglican imaginations of the 20th century, W.H. Auden. His poem “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” captures to my mind what living the Ascension means. And although he is talking about Yeats and other poets, it might not be bad to think of us Christians as poets in our own particular ways – but that’s another sermon. Here’s the last few stanzas: Follow, poet, follow right/To the bottom of the night/With your unconstraining voice/Still persuade us to rejoice/ With the farming of a verse/Make a vineyard of the curse/Sing of human unsuccess/In a rapture of distress/ In the deserts of the heart/Let the healing fountain start/In the prison of his days/Teach the free man how to praise.

That’s got to be something of what living the Ascension means. Learning how to go into the inextinguishable pain of the world, and therein finding the words of praise. Going into the shadowy corners of earth’s night, and learning to see the light of Christ burning there. Or maybe we could say this: Christians are people who persuade others, while they persuade themselves, to rejoice. Whatever this rejoicing may look like, Auden suggests that it is a journey into some amount of darkness.

Maybe your journey is more interior, say you practice centering prayer. Maybe you journey out onto the dark and frightening territories of your own inner life, and you stay there (in the deserts of the heart) anchored as best as you can with a spiritual word. Or maybe you address the darkness in more outward forms: you go to a homeless shelter, and you find the beauty and dignity of Jesus there among people whom the world has written off as dirty and unclean. And it may not be as big and noticeable as either of these: maybe you are swallowed up in existential boredom and numbness, and the journey into the darkness for you is nothing more than allowing yourself to be loved. I cannot say what it means for you to live the Ascension.

But I can say that living the victory of Jesus frees us up to be vulnerable, and to meet others in their vulnerability. Jesus is alive, and your life is hidden with him, therefore take risks. For not even death can separate you from his boundless love. And so we should, as best as we know how, allow ourselves to relax our desperate control grips. It’s safe; as long as he lives, as long as his love and mercy reign, we are safe. Just as he was there with Stephen in the moments of greatest peril, so he’s there with you and me.

Please hear me. I am not telling you to leave here and go be a Jesus radical – whatever that means. But I am saying this: if we can manage to look to him, and slowly acclimatize to his security and hope, I suspect that our lives will be freed up in new ways for radical love. And as we do this, as we go from here and live the Ascension, we may just find that we radiate with the same love that carried Stephen through to the end.