Sunday, August 30, 2009

Thirteenth after Pentecost, 2009

Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23

So the weather begins to change, with perhaps just a hint of autumn in the morning, and after our little midsummer excursion into the 6th chapter of St. John, and the extended eucharistic meditations on the Body of Christ as the True and Only Life-giving Bread, we now return in our Sunday morning Revised Common Lectionary “Year B” gospel readings to St. Mark—through these middle chapters of the gospel which will carry us along until the First Sunday of Advent, with breaks in the sequence only for All Saints Sunday and then, for us, on our Patronal Feast of St. Andrew at the end of November. I can almost hear the bagpipes in the distance!

In any case, as we re-enter Mark we would recall some of the overarching themes of this gospel: that the Messiah, the Son of God and Lord of All, arrives in such a surprising and unexpected way that few recognize him. His powerful preaching and dramatic acts of healing challenge the settled and comfortable, with reactions of controversy and opposition, but at the same time inspire and comfort the weak, the lost.

Time and time again Jesus faces down Satan and the demonic powers and forces of darkness, reminding us that behind the superficial appearance of day to day life there is a dramatic conflict and contest that we can only begin to apprehend, between good and evil, the forces of life and the forces of destruction, with the eternal fate of each individual hanging precariously in the balance.

And above all in Mark the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus unfolds as an urgent call to the church, the Christian family, to radical discipleship. The message persistently about turning over a new leaf. Turning onto a new path. St. Mark believes with every fiber of his being that we live as Christians at the very edge of history. The turning point, the fork in the road.

That’s what energizes Mark's telling of the story. That at any moment the trumpet will sound, the final accounting will begin. There is an urgency for us--to use that word again, urgency--to fish or cut bait. Time is of the essence.

In a few weeks we will get to the great parables of Mark chapter 13. “Watch therefore—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning—lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Watch.”

This is the hour, then: this is the moment to make our decision for Christ, and to walk in the way of new and eternal life.

So then, this morning here we are back in chapter 7, Jesus and this little commentary on the Pharisees, the rabbis, the religious leaders, with their stereotypical careful and perhaps even we might say obsessive concern with the tiniest and most obscure details of ritual law.

(Always a little bit of a problem for Episcopalian clergy, including yours truly, who are prone to checking the credence table before each service to be sure that the handles of the cruets of wine and water are aligned in the same direction.)

The point is simple: that it is so typical for us to lose sleep over our efforts to get a million little things exactly right, but then to seem essentially oblivious about the really big and important things when they go wrong in us and around us. This passage in Mark perhaps reminding us of the passage in Matthew 7, in the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus talks about how we are so easily given to pointing out the splinter in our neighbor’s eye, while we blithely ignore the log in our own.

The Pharisees in this story are worried about giving each bowl and plate of the ritual meal its repeated ceremonial rinsing. And how critical they will be of the Altar Guild if something isn’t done just so. But when it comes to the important stuff, you never hear a peep from them.

Evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. The really bad stuff. Because they are what corrupts, what makes a mockery of God’s careful, loving, gracious intention for creation. What distorts and destroys. What infects the heart and destroys the soul and leaves nothing but eternal ruin.

About all this, Jesus says, we hear from these Pharisees nary a word. All quiet. Perhaps a concern about upsetting a benefactor? Or like any of us, wanting to be liked. Not wanting to be the killjoy at the party. Not wanting to get controversial. Or maybe just in persistent and profound denial.

Fussing about ceremonial details—I guess that’s easy. Rules about purity that may isolate a few lepers here and there, perhaps. Or women. Other people, mostly. But somehow always a fastidious concern that leaves most of us “insiders” feeling pretty good about ourselves, all things considered. A word of comfort for the already comfortable.

And Jesus says: Hey Pharisees. If you want to see something really in danger of being defiled, just look into a mirror. And if you want to see what it is that is likely to do the defiling, then you need look no further than your own mind, and our own heart. In Matthew 23 Jesus calls these Pharisees “whitewashed sepulchers.” A great phrase. Glistening and elegant containers of great beauty, hiding within the corruption of death.

And the thing is, just to say, this late summer mornings, what is perhaps obvious-- that when Jesus is talking this way, we are meant to be taking it personally. We.

If we don’t feel a bit under pressure as we read and hear these words, if they don’t make us squirm a little, feel like the spotlight has suddenly pointed in our direction, then we’re missing the point. It’s all about us. Calling us, to use that critical word for St. Mark, to come with a sense of urgency to a point of decision.

The message of Mark as he tells us these stories about Jesus is that we’re supposed to stop playing games and living in a pretend world of self-indulgence and denial. If we think things can just go on, the way they are, then we have another “think” coming. We’re only kidding ourselves. This is a gospel about the need to wake up. Here he is: Jesus. And this is the hour; this, the moment to decide.

There is an interesting statistical trend that has popped up again and again over the past decade or two in polls and surveys. Which is that while the second half of the 20th century saw a dramatic decline in the U.S. in reporting of church membership among the general population and of church attendance even among those who continue to report church membership, there has been at the same time a very significant rise in the number of people who report that they are interested in “spirituality.” Books about angels, about meditation, about Yoga, about the mysteries of the East, about healing, about spiritual journaling fly off the shelves at the Barnes and Noble.

But at 11 a.m. on Sunday mornings, things haven’t been moving in the same direction. Some individual churches and denominations may grow, but as a percentage of the total population, church attendance continues a direct and actually fairly dramatic decline.

I don’t know all the reasons for this. I think they’re complex—and certainly worth some serious reflection. And I don’t for a moment discount the sincerity and important of that impulse for meaning and that yearning for a spiritual experience. But I do think that it’s important to say that hearing in these words of Jesus this morning this call to an honest and unflinching self-examination, hearing a call to repentance, to doing something about it, to being as dedicated to the cleansing and reformation and renewal of the inner life as to the cleansing of the ceremonial vessel, about walking from henceforth in a new way, sometimes that’s harder stuff for us. It can be.

Perhaps not the mountaintop of mystic sight, designer-model philosophy of life constructed to meet my personal needs and desires, but instead the hard path uphill, one step after another. Who wants that?

It’s a long list. Not comprehensive. But we get the idea. Again: Evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. Which would be quite a sermon series. I’m sure the pews would be packed to overflowing week after week. (Or they would be anyway, if I promised to “name names.” --Which of course I could do easily just by reading the white pages.)

The point is through Mark, and through this reading this morning, good friends: we have some work to do. On ourselves. Different assignments for each of us, of course. But for sure, not just casual labor, tinkering around the edges, but hard work, and important work. Essential work. And if we don’t get it done, the consequences can be tragic beyond measure. Beyond imagination.

We come to his table this morning not because we are perfect and complete, but because we would find our perfection and our completion in him. It’s a process, with slow parts and fast parts, forward movement and sliding back. Lots of work to do, and the need to encourage one another and to open ourselves to his encouragement. As with him we can accomplish for ourselves what would have been impossible otherwise.

And for us here , the invitation I will read in a moment at the beginning of the Confession, but that we would hear wherever we are along the way, as the invitation to this Table, and to every good and perfect gift of a life holy and acceptable to God: “Ye who do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbors, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways: Draw near with faith.”

And as St. Mark will be telling us week by week this fall: no time like the present.

Bruce Robison

Saturday, August 29, 2009

August 29, 2009

Holy Matrimony

Mallory Elizabeth Fisher and Benjamin Larry Cowell

[Exodus 3] Canticles 2:10-13, 8:6-7;
Colossians 3: 12-17

Mallory and Ben, what I want to say first to you, is thank you. What a great day this is! It is for us all, and for me personally, a privilege and a joy to be sharing this moment with you, to be with you as witnesses and as supporters and cheering fans as you exchange the vows and promises, the words, and the commitments of the heart, that will make you one in Christ, as husband and wife. It has been a special privilege for me to get to know you--actually beginning before your formal engagement--and through all this time of preparation and anticipation.

You are two remarkable young people: smart, funny, talented, deeply in love with each other. Rooted and grounded in Christian faith and life, with a rich and joyful relationship with Jesus Christ, knowing him as Lord and Savior. With great families and a wonderful circle of friends.

And with such a romantic story. Just about love at first sight at the end of your college years, deepening friendship, and then the night of that proposal (did he get down on one knee?) on a bridge over the Seine, in Paris, the City of Lights. (I’m sure some of your friends may be a little annoyed with that, as you set the bar really high for future proposals. “That was nice, but it wasn’t Paris!”)

In any case, now here, this great day of your marriage. Congratulations to you, as I know your friendship and deepening relationship have been rich in so many ways, and as I know that the story that is yet to be told of the life and family you will share as husband and wife will be a great one, and rich in blessing for you and for many others. As it already is.

The first lesson that you selected, from the Old Testament book of Canticles, or the Song of Solomon, is a wonderful and very appropriate reading for this day. It is a love song, through and through, a poetic expression of the deepest passion and compassion of the human heart, as we know that in our deepest and most intimate relationships, and as we would understand through that, that we are for at least a brief moment in this world catching a glimpse of the deep love, the passion and the compassion, that is at the heart of God’s life, and that we are all ultimately destined for.

This day, the commitments you bring, the words and promises, speak about who you are today, and also about who we are all destined to become, God’s hope and intention for each one of us since the beginning of the world.

Many waters cannot quench love, no flood can sweep it away; if a man were to offer for love the whole wealth of his house, it would be utterly scorned. The rarest thing of all, the most precious, the most fragile, the hardest to find and the easiest to lose, yet somehow also the most durable, the most patient, the most forgiving, the most welcoming.

As we come to this day, in this celebration, I would like to ask all of us here in our imaginations—not literally, but in our imaginations--to take off our shoes. (If we all would do that—please just close our eyes for a moment and imagine ourselves taking off our shoes!) Here’s why: and it’s not to get more comfortable, though maybe in our imagination that’s nice too . . . .

In the Old Testament Book of Exodus, chapter 3, there is one of my favorite stories, about a moment of life-changing experience, a “vocational” moment, a moment of transformation-- in a way kind of like this moment. Moses is working for his father in law, tending his sheep out in the wilderness, and one day he sees something off in the distance that looks strange to him. He moves closer and finally comes to this great big tree or bush that is on fire, fully engulfed in flames, burning and burning—but no matter how long it burns, it doesn’t burn out. He watches for a while, amazed at the sight, and then all at once a great, deep voice comes from the flame. (I like to think it was the voice of James Earl Jones.) “Take off your shoes, Moses, for the ground on which you are standing is holy ground.” Holy Ground. That’s my point.

This is the moment when God tells Moses about his plan for his life, how from the day of his birth he has been shaped and prepared for the mission to lead God’s people out of slavery in Egypt and across the Wilderness and into the Promised Land. God speaks into this world, into our lives, and what was an ordinary place is now made sacred by that holy word.

And Mallory and Ben: in the vows and promises you make today, in God’s sight and in the presence of these friends and family members, the ground under our feet is consecrated, and made holy. Not because of what you are saying, but because we believe, and certainly why in our tradition of the Christian family we call marriage a sacrament, that God’s word is being spoken to you now. We can imagine that burning bush, right here, right now. That God’s holy presence is with you, surrounding you, above you, and beneath your feet, with richness and blessing and purpose.

The prayers and blessings of this day don’t just happen in this one moment of your wedding, but they go out with you into your marriage and life together, from this day forward, and will be around you and under you and with you all the days of your life. He has great plans for you, for each of you, and for you together as husband and wife and family. That’s the great and wonderful thing we celebrate. I don’t know what they are. None of us do. But he is beginning to reveal them to you now, in this moment this afternoon.

And so, Mallory and Ben, my word of pastoral advice for you this afternoon, as you go forth into this great marriage, is actually one you’ve already heard, and that you have shared with us in selecting the second reading we’ve heard today, from the third chapter of the Letter to the Colossians, which is St. Paul’s very tender word to this new Christian community, to talk about the character of life as it is shaped by the message of the Gospel. And what I want to highlight or emphasize is simply the first part, the first few words of the 16th verse of that chapter. Paul says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” That’s it, and that’s my prayer and my word of advice for you. A little marriage counseling to begin with on Day #1.

That like Moses, you would each continue to have eyes and ears and minds and hearts open to God’s word and presence and direction. Through the prayerful reading of scripture, by continuing to share in Christian fellowship, by attentiveness to what God may be doing and saying in the situations of your lives and your life together: the challenges and the opportunities that will continue to unfold. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly,” at the heart of your marriage, and I know there will be an abundance of blessing for you and for others for many years to come.

Again, thank you. May God bless and keep you with joy all the days of your life together. It’s going to be, and already is, a great story. And now: friends, as Ben and Mallory come forward to exchange the vows that will make them husband and wife, I would ask that we would all bow our heads for a moment and in our own words ask God’s care and blessing for them.

Bruce Robison

Monday, August 24, 2009

Saint Bartholomew

The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew,
Jusepe de Ribera, 1624

O Almighty and everlasting God, who didst give to thine apostle Bartholomew grace truly to believe and to preach thy Word: Grant, we beseech thee, unto thy Church to love what he believed and to preach what he taught; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Click Here for Background

John 22: 24-30

And there was also a strife among them, which of them should be accounted the greatest. And he said unto them, The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors. But ye shall not be so: but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve. For whether is greater, he that sitteth at meat, or he that serveth? is not he that sitteth at meat? but I am among you as he that serveth. Ye are they which have continued with me in my temptations. And I appoint unto you a kingdom, as my Father hath appointed unto me; That ye may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Twelfth after Pentecost, 2009

(RCL Proper 16B) John 6: 56-59

This morning, the fifth and last Sunday in a kind of summer interlude, as since the end of last month the course of our readings in Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary has paused on the journey through St. Mark’s gospel for a sustained time of reflection on the 6th chapter of the Gospel of St. John.

This chapter, beginning at the end of this past July with the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand and then unfolding to this very profound and mystical meditation on what is to be our true food and drink, the Bread of Life, the Cup of Salvation, the Body and Blood of our Lord and Savior—who is now and always our nourishment, our strength, our life, and our eternal life.

This eucharistic meal, as we receive him, so that he might receive us. So that there might be this state of “abiding.” Such a great word. To abide. One life resting fully in another. To have together, one home. Our lives subsumed into his. Each one of us as individuals, and all of us together. In the Liturgy for Christian Marriage we say about marriage, “it signifies to us the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church.” And here: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” The two become one.

And of course as I pointed out last week—not that I needed to, as we all read this for ourselves, but to quote the disciples in their response: “This teaching is difficult: who can accept it?”

And there is this great falling out. “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” The first schism, we might say. The division of the Church. And we have some real sympathy for those who depart, no question about it.

“I thought I was signing up for one of those continuing education classes. Tuesday and Thursday nights, 7-9:30. Last year we took Italian, and I was maybe thinking about Yoga. Some personal enrichment. Maybe some good hints about improving family life. A new idea or two about spirituality. Fresh perspectives on the issues of the day. But this thing is going way too far. And this teacher . . . . Is he crazy, or what? I wonder if they really checked his credentials before letting him teach the class.”

So, the great division. The fork in the road. Many leave. And Jesus turns to the 12, his inner circle. “Do you also wish to go?” And one of those moments when I kind of picture him talking to his disciples and then kind of glancing out over their shoulders and making eye contact with me. With us. Across all that time and space. “Do you also wish to go?” The good times of that wonderful picnic of loaves and fish suddenly seem very much long ago and far away.

And the answer, honestly, Jesus, from my heart, is . . . maybe. Maybe: there are times, there have been times, when I’ve thought about it. I guess I say that I’m as American as the next guy, which at least partly means that I like to have things go the way I want them to go. In family and other relationships, in work, in society in general, in the church.

And when things don’t seem to go my way—well, I have a pretty strong sense of persistence and patience, but that doesn’t mean I don’t take a careful look around to be sure I know where the exits are located. Just in case. People do it all the time. Relationships. Jobs. Even in the church, as we all know from recent painful experience, sometimes it just seems tempting to fly away. As some of my dearest friends have done. People I respect and love. And of course maybe sometimes it is even the right thing to do, which is what discernment and prayer need to be all about. Sometimes relationships or jobs or communities can be so toxic that the only thing you can do to survive is abandon ship.

But the critical point as we check the state of our own hearts and our own loyalties and commitments, is that in all our comings and goings, our departures and our arrivals, our separations and our reconciliations, we not lose sight of the one who calls us to himself here this morning. It sometimes gets to be all about us, and when it is all about us, our preferences, our opinions, our choices, he can slip off the radar screen.

Sometimes our running away is about our not wanting to face the truth about some aspect of our lives. About not wanting to do the hard work. About a Fantasy Island escape to those greener pastures that always seem to be over the next horizon. And so the reminder in the affirmation of the 12, in their holy discernment at this critical moment in the story: “ Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

The late Attorney General John Mitchell once said about his wife Martha, and perhaps some of us will remember this from the days of the Watergate hearings: “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.” Which was I think an unfortunate and somewhat denigrating comment for him to make about his wife. But it is a saying that has lived on in popular culture, because it says something true about us perhaps as a society, and perhaps just about the human condition.

Looking for the easy way. Not much for the long haul. Thinking about the story in Genesis of Jacob and Esau, when after a long day of hunting the older brother in his hunger sells his patrimony to his younger brother for a bowl of lamb stew. Or simply about the reminder that comes from one of those sayings in the 12-step movement, “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

The invitation this morning is to come closer. To approach the Holy Table this morning, as we approach him who is our food and drink every day of our lives. Opening our eyes and ears, our minds and our hearts, unlocking the doors. Dismantling the defenses. If there are all kinds of things to be anxious about, to take a deep breath and come closer anyway.

As I said last week, quoting my friend, this coming forward to be an altar call, a decision for Christ. To let this be our answer, my answer, to the question Jesus asks. Are you staying or leaving? Because there is no one else to whom we can go. No other word of life. Because he is true, and here for us. To receive the gift of his presence. To abide in him who is the Bread of Heaven, the Cup of Salvation.

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

Bruce Robison

Saturday, August 22, 2009

August 22, 2009

On August 7, 2009, Mike Eversmeyer's family gathered at St. Andrew's for the Burial Office and Committal. My sermon at that service may be found here.

Today the wider parish, neighborhood, and city have been invited to a Service of Thanksgiving.

Service of Thanksgiving
for the Life of Michael Dean Eversmeyer

Wisdom of Solomon, Chapter 3; Romans, Chapter 8;
Matthew, Chapter 5

Friends from our wider community, neighbors here in Highland Park, members of St. Andrew’s, and Janna, Alex, James, and all your family, I would begin this afternoon simply by offering a word of welcome--and with special thanks to Pete Luley and the Choir, Jinny Fiske, Becky Usner, and our Hospitality Committee, and the Vestry of St. Andrew's for all you have done to make this afternoon possible.

We come together today as family, friends, colleagues, parish, neighborhood, and wider community. I know this is a time of thanksgiving and memory, appreciation—and also, that we all continue to feel shock and deep sadness about Mike’s last illness and untimely death. It is one of those facts that are just hard to get our minds around. It’s that way for me, anyway. It doesn’t seem possible.

And in all of this we continue to share our love and care and support—for you, Janna, Alex, James. The loss of a husband, a father, a son, a brother: just no away during these few weeks of August even to have begun to measure all that this will be in the days and years ahead.

As Christians we affirm with certainty the heart of the gospel, the sure and certain hope of our true home and eternal life in Christ Jesus—won for us at the cross and already begun on Easter morning. The sign of the Paschal Candle here before us. And we come to a gathering this afternoon, this time of remembrance and thanksgiving, knowing that in all our sadness, we are surrounded and embraced and supported in spirit by a generous and tender and gracious Lord, who will not leave us comfortless, or without hope.

Michael Dean Eversmeyer was born on May 19, 1953, and he entered Greater Life on August 2, 2009, at the age of 56. Just two weeks ago on a Friday afternoon his family gathered here for the prayers and readings of the Burial Office, and following that brief service we moved to an alcove out along the west wall of the Church, where Mike’s earthly remains were placed in the Memorial Garden.

A fitting resting place, here in this place where for a couple of decades now Mike has served so faithfully and with such a sense of affection and care and stewardship as Surveyor of the Works and Property Committee Chairman and Junior Warden. He taught me pretty much everything I know about the repair of century-old slate roofs and the conservation of stained glass and the care and feeding of antique boilers. He knew this place inside and out, from tower to undercroft. Every inch of it.

As he knew so many of the great historic homes and public buildings of this city and region. I know many of us have enjoyed the fascinating book Mike published just a short time ago with that wonderful collection of historic architectural postcards of Pittsburgh. As Janna has said, we all know that that was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of Mike’s encyclopedic knowledge and perspective. And in some sense this wonderful book is also a poignant reminder of books that now will not be written. Making that much more precious that part of Mike’s legacy, which is our sharing of stories and memories, all the casual conversations and observations he shared with us over the years.

In 1723 the great English architect and engineer and scientist Christopher Wren was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral, in the City of London. That was his cathedral, along with 50 other great church buildings in the City, and his major life work the supervision of the rebuilding of that city after the Great Fire of 1666. Inscribed on the stone marker, the epitaph composed by his son, Christopher Wren, Jr. , a sentence that certainly has lived on through the centuries: Lector, si monumentum requiris, Circumspice.--Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you.

I can’t imagine a better word for Mike than this. It’s true of course, as we are here at St. Andrew’s. (And to think what this place would be if he'd ever had any real budget to work with!) But to think of all the projects of his professional career, the homes and businesses and public buildings, and all the rest. The care of this neighborhood, in his work to have Highland Park designated as a National Historic District. His work of oversight in the city and region, in all the ways that this 21st Century City of Pittsburgh has been able to grow and be renewed in continuity with the texture of our history and heritage.

Others will have more to say about this: but I would simply say how thankful I am for what Mike contributed to my church and my neighborhood and my city. For his spirit of enthusiasm and creativity, his good humor, his integrity, his wisdom and insight. And on a personal level, I am so very thankful as well for the courage of this past year, and especially through the challenging months of late spring and early summer. For the example of a deep heart in his love for his wife, his sons, all his family.

Janna suggested the reading from St. Matthew, the opening passage of the Sermon on the Mount. Appropriate in all ways as a portrait of Christian life, and I think especially appropriate today as we remember Mike. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid. That’s just right for a man who gave so much for this city, who had such a great vision for the way that the beauty and grace of wonderful homes and places of business and common life can make our lives more beautiful and more graceful. And let your light so shine. A man who didn’t hide away, but who shared his own gifts in such a generous way, with such a spirit of integrity and insight.

Again, thank you for coming to St. Andrew’s this afternoon. I know we are family and friends from many different parts of Mike’s life and community, from many different faith traditions and life experiences, and each of us with our own way of understanding and expressing these deepest concerns of life and death, of meaning, purpose, and hope. It is my prayer that the offerings this day, prayers and music and these readings from scripture, will be meaningful for you, will speak in your heart, to be yet another way in which Mike’s life and legacy can be a gift and a blessing. To the greater glory of God, and in thanksgiving for the life of this good friend.

In the 14th Chapter of St. John’s gospel Jesus says, “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.”

Bruce Robison

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Eleventh after Pentecost, 2009

(RCL Proper 15B) John 6: 51-58

And the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.

What we’re doing this morning and in these readings from St. John over the past several weeks is getting down to brass tacks. We’ll pass through the libraries of Christian theology and the formulas of doctrine and liturgy and the great clouds of culture and behavior, and all the patterns of going to church, and all rest, and just come face to face with the central matter and point of the conversation.

It is at once wild poetry and straightforward statement of fact. It is at once the source of anxiety, and comfort. A stumbling block, and an open door. An impediment, and an embrace. The ultimate in craziness, and the only true sanity:

Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you.

Hearing that carefully. Taking a deep breath. Not rushing past it. Radical exclusion, and radical inclusion. The narrow way. The easy yoke. The generosity of forgiveness, and the persistent call to self-examination, repentance, and amendment of life. That this one way is always to be both the way of austerity, and the way of extravagance. It’s easy. It’s impossible.

In the codes of ritual purity that surrounded Jesus in the world of First Century Palestinian Judaism, to come even briefly, even accidentally, into contact with a dead body, was to be associated and we might even say contaminated with death itself. It got into you, distorted and diminished your own living essence—so that even those who prepared the body of a loved one for burial would afterwards require a time of both physical and spiritual cleansing before they could return to ordinary life in family or community. So in the Book of Numbers, chapter 19, verse 11: "The one who touches the corpse of any person shall be unclean for seven days.”

So it’s this huge thing. Eating is a lot more than touching. Beyond imagination that it could be done without deep deliberation. That anyone would. Certainly not casually. Come forward for this meal, and there is no turning back. It is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet and the generous meal of hospitality and friendship.

But it is as well, even more deeply, this costly step across the River of No Return. If it takes long ritual prayer and a week of ceremonial purification to return from casual contact with a dead body, how would you ever come back from this? He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him.

From now on after this meal we may be in the world, as St. Paul said, but not of it. Not ever again. In many ways, outcasts. Unfit for society.

He calls us away, invites us, not to the old life slightly improved, but to a new reality altogether. Not in spite of his death, but because of it. In it. Through it. His death now residing deep within us. It was why he came, only begotten Son of the Father. His Cross not the unfortunate interruption of a promising teaching career. It was from the beginning the whole point, and it is for us the only way forward to reconciliation and restoration and life eternal. Choosing this meal.

Costly as it may be for us in so many ways, again and again. Now we are a society of unclean outcasts. Made so by him. Through the grave and gate of death, his and ours, all bound up together as one.

We do of course have lots of questions, things to work out. That’s the problem with poetry. How to live in the world, when we are no longer of the world. How to be at home here, where there is no longer home for us here. As we are called not to isolation but to the deepest identification of love. Not to the arrogance of separation, but to the humility of his way. Not a psychological distortion of self-esteem, and yet stepping back from the claims of entitlement and the bitterness of grievance. All pretty abstract, I guess.

And so the poet Isaac Watts, “When I survey the wondrous cross where the young Prince of Glory died, my richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.”

And so Martin Luther in his great hymn, “. . . let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; the body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still, his kingdom is forever.”

The walk to the Holy Table for us this morning—not quite like a hike up a mountain. Not quite like the soldier racing across an open field in the midst of a fierce battle. But it is a big deal. And it is a concrete physical reality. Nothing abstract about getting out of the pew and approaching this Table. A steeper hill and a passage of greater risk. We don’t let ourselves forget that.

A friend of mine who came to the Episcopal Church from the tradition of Evangelical Revivalism says, this is our “altar call.” This is when we get up and come forward. Intending to lead a new life . . . walking from henceforth in his holy ways.

And we’re going to spend the rest of our lives figuring out how to live differently. Aliens. Strangers in a strange land. Hearing his promise and trusting him and then affirming the new and different life that is in him over any other version or definition of life. Not the old food of the wilderness journey. New food. The bread of life and the cup of salvation.

Bruce Robison

Friday, August 14, 2009

August 15, 2009 The Blessed Virgin Mary

The Falling Asleep of the Blessed Virgin
Feast of the Dormition, Feast of the Assumption

O God, who hast taken to thyself the blessed Virgin Mary, mother of thy incarnate Son: Grant that we, who have been redeemed by his blood, may share with her the glory of thine eternal kingdom; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Click Here for More

If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.

But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept.

For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.

For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.

But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ's at his coming.

Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have put down all rule and all authority and power.

For he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet.

The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.

For he hath put all things under his feet. But when he saith all things are put under him, it is manifest that he is excepted, which did put all things under him.

And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all

1 Corinthians 15:19-28

Ancient Hymnody of the Dormition

Troparion (Tone 1)
In giving birth, you preserved your virginity!
In falling asleep you did not forsake the world, O Theotokos!
You were translated to life, O Mother of Life,
And by your prayers you deliver our souls from death!

Kontakion (Tone 2)
Neither the tomb, nor death, could hold the Theotokos,
Who is constant in prayer and our firm hope in her intercessions.
For being the Mother of Life,
She was translated to life by the One who dwelt in her virginal womb!


Sunday, August 9, 2009

Tenth after Pentecost, 2009

Tenth after Pentecost (RCL Proper 14B)
2 Samuel 18: 5-33; John 6: 35-51

It’s been a month since I’ve stepped into the pulpit, which feels like an exceptionally long time for me. And that’s probably dangerous for you—so get comfortable! As they say at the warehouse, we have to work through a backlog of orders, and that might take some time. This turned out to be kind of a long sermon, so I’m glad we’re on our summer schedule and got an early start. As I sometimes say, if I’d had more time I could have done less.

It has been a full summer, with a great deal of rich reflection and experience for me personally, and I would even say some soul-searching and wrestling, on two old Benedictine themes: obedience and stability. Two of the three great vows of monastic life—and the third, conversatio mori, the conversion of a manner of life, I may get to later this summer. But these three themes I think about a lot.

(For those of you who don’t know, the character of Benedictine life was the theme of my sabbatical five years ago, and the subject for the last ten years or so of much of my reading, writing, and thinking about Christian life and ministry.)

For Benedict obedience and stability, deeply related, are two of the critical foundation stones for the life of the monastic community. But foundational for the monastery not in some distinctive way. Foundational for the monastery because these two themes are foundational for Christian life and ministry in any context, in any place or community. Vitally important for monks. But vitally important for monks because they are themes of character and of a manner of life that are vitally important for Christian people as Christian people always and everywhere. For all of us. So again, and not really typical American virtues, and counter-cultural, and always challenging: stability and obedience.

Staying put, and doing things the way they’re supposed to be done.

Anyway, hold that thought. I’ve been all over the place the last few weeks. Away the first part of July at the General Convention. The fourth time I’ve been to General Convention, but my first time as a deputy. And of course we’ll have more to say about that—Steve Stagnitta, Mary Roehrich, and I—a little later this month at the Adult Education program we’ve scheduled for August 30th. But I would just say in a very general way that for me it was of course an honor, a privilege to be a part of this, to be sent by our diocese at this important time of our life. And personally I had a great time in so many ways.

And yet at the same time, I have to say that for me personally also the Convention itself was really very much a mixed bag. Accomplishing some things that I thought were important and good, and moving in other ways in ways that I think were steps in probably the wrong direction, and that may I fear have negative consequences in all kinds of ways in years and perhaps even generations to come. So really mixed feelings. I haven’t digested it all yet, of course, and there are many unknowns in the calculation. And I know many of you have been following these things and will have insights and opinions that I’ll continue to be able to learn from as our conversations continue. But that’s just where I was as I packed my bags and left Anaheim on July 17. Uneasy.

But, just to go back to where we began. Obedience, and stability.

The next weekend I was still in California, and on Sunday the 19th of July I took my mom to her church, St. Bernard’s Roman Catholic Church, which is in the Eagle Rock neighborhood of Los Angeles. Because of her disabilities it had been quite a while since she had been able to attend mass. There’s a Minister of Communion who visits her nursing home every couple of weeks, but I know she enjoyed seeing some old friends and hearing a sermon and listening to the music and being able to worship with the community. Though for me also there was that painful point, at the time for communion, when I helped my mom up to the communion station, and then stepped back, not to receive with her and in that worshiping family. Simply to experience this piece of brokenness of the life of the Christian community in a personal way, and which I do experience every time I go to church either with my mother or my sister and her family.

(As somehow this old family that used to be a bunch of Lutherans and Episcopalians and Presbyterians, now all my surviving close relatives are Roman Catholics. I almost tremble to imagine what my Norwegian Lutheran Grandfather Pederson would have said.)

In any case, if it is our teaching that all baptized Christians are welcome, if they desire it, to receive communion in the Episcopal Church, that isn’t the teaching and practice of our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters. And so here again, just to say, a gift to be able to spend this time with my mom and family, and I loved being able to take her to church. But mixed feelings also. And all this in the further context, as you’ll have noticed in our prayers this morning, as we have added my mom to our prayer list, that her medical condition has taken a turn for the worse in just the past couple of weeks, so that works into some of my emotional perspective as well.

And bringing me back to—well, obedience and stability.

And anyway: after all this time in California at Convention and with my family, I then got on a plane and flew up to Boston, where I met Susy—and we drove down to the little town of Scituate, her old family home, and where we were able to spend a few days at the shore. A kind of mini-vacation, which was really wonderful. And just to keep the theme going, I’d mention that on Sunday the 26th of July Susy and her brother Mike and I went up the street from the old family house, as we do every summer, to worship at St. Luke’s in Scituate. My friend Grant Barber is the rector there, and he had a great sermon on miracle of the loaves and fishes, and a simple but beautiful summer Sunday morning service.

Afterwards over coffee we chatted about things. Partly about General Convention, but more about the challenges of life in the church in the present economy. Rector to rector. They’ve been struggling there with a stalled capital campaign trying to raise a quarter of a million dollars for some really important but also unfortunately really unglamorous projects. A new septic system for the church and rectory, major roof repairs, new electrical service and wiring. Especially in the midst of this recession, some challenges. I said, “it’s hard to figure out where you put a brass memorial plaque on a new septic system.” And as I think you know, I had some stories to share as well. Roofers and plumbers and electricians. Both of us rolling our eyes and with a little bit of a sense of humor, but also with some deeper truth, saying, “I didn’t take this class in seminary.”

It’s true in every vocational way of life, of course, but simply to say that sometimes the things you end up spending most of your time and energy on are not the things that sang to your heart when you began the journey. One of the things that has made working around this old place not just a chore but actually something creative and positive and fun, over these many years, has been my friendship and our sharing so much with our long-time Property guy and Junior Warden Mike Eversmeyer, and of course his death this past week and his illness through the last year has been a part of this all as well. I can’t really look at the roof here or switch on a light or turn on a faucet without thinking of him. Just so sad, and I know a loss we all feel.

But--obedience and stability.

And to bring this to a conclusion. Or at least the beginning of the end, also the end of the beginning. It was great last Sunday to be back here at St. Andrew’s, and to have as our guest preacher Lucia Lloyd, the priest in charge of St. Stephen’s in Heathsville, Virginia. With so many of her family here in our neighborhood I know it was really a gift for her and for them also that she could be our preacher while in town on her vacation. Of course it was something of a gift for me to have a guest preacher in the pulpit on my first Sunday back from vacation. Made vacation more of a vacation! And I also appreciated the energy and creativity and affection Lucia expressed in her comments about the renewal of ministry at St. Stephen’s following the division of their congregation two years ago. But she and I also did talk about the heartbreak in all of that, as we’ve experienced here in Pittsburgh. The sense of loss, of broken relationships between colleagues, even divided families. All this: another class we didn’t take in seminary, I guess.

Obedience and stability.

In ancient days in classic Benedictine monasteries when a novice made his first solemn vows, formally leaving the time of inquiry and entering the community, the ceremony of profession was followed by the superior taking the newly enlisted monk into the refectory, and assigning him now his place at the dining table. From now on. And then into the dormitory, and assigning him his cell, his bedroom. From now on. And then into the oratory, and assigning him his stall in the choir. From now on. And then out into the churchyard, where he was assigned his burial plot.

You have many spiritual adventures and life stories ahead of you, many journeys. And they all will take place within these walls, and with these people. Some of whom you’ll like and love and respect. And some, not so much. And you’ll be living according to this rule of life, which has been since long before you were born, and which will be the same long after you’re gone. Some of which you’ll agree with, and maybe some not. Getting up when the bell rings. Praying these psalms at these hours. And many spiritual adventures, many journeys. Here. With these people.

Obedience and stability.

And then here we go to the lessons this morning. To talk about the wildness and tragic instability and disobedience underneath the story of Absalom’s rebellion against his father David. This the tragedy flowing from David’s disobedience long ago in the story of Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah the Hittite. The Prophet Nathan had told David then, “Now therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me and taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife; Thus says the LORD, ‘Behold I will raise up evil against you out of your own house.’” Disobedience, instability. And now a dead son. A ruined life. What goes around comes around.

In Chapter 3 of the Rule St. Benedict says, “In all things, therefore, let all follow the Rule as guide . . . Let no one in the monastery follow his own heart’s fancy.”

A long journey to a short conclusion. As my late mother-in-law Fran Johnson used to say, “If you ever find a perfect church, don’t go there. You’ll only spoil it.” Which I think she meant as a general principle, not a word for me personally. I think. Which is I think the inevitable story for our friends around us who have left this part of the church for what they hope will be greener pastures. Thought about them a lot this summer at General Convention, where their absence was very "present." God bless them, of course.

But to think that we can somehow avoid mixed feelings and disappointments and brokenness and division by picking up and moving somewhere else, where we imagine we can have things more the way we want them to be. Just not the way things are on planet earth. Which is again about obedience and stability.

But to say the world we are called to live in, is simply this world. Imperfect, broken, mixed-up, frustrating. This world. This Church. This neighborhood. This family. Remember I think it was Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof who says, “Marriage, family: the whole catastrophe.” Or the bumper sticker, “My family put the “fun” in the word “dysfunctional.” It’s here we are to work, to serve, not complaining all the time about how we deserve a place or a people more to our own liking. Not about having our way all the time, or even necessarily any of the time. But about how in this particular place, in this time—the place, the time, the people given to us by God—how are we to serve him here? How are we to give him glory here?

In any case, friends, just to say: it’s good to be home. Here with you.

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

Bruce Robison

Saturday, August 8, 2009

A Benedictine Reflection (with Anglican Overtones)

One of my favorite "bloggers" is Brother Stephen, a Roman Catholic Cistercian from Wisconsin.

I posted this for on my Facebook loop, but thought I'd reference it here also. Through the Middle Ages England was known as "the Land of the Benedictines." In the 16th Century Henry disbanded the establishments and confiscated and sold the real estate to pay off some of his credit cards, but the Benedictine spirit lived on distinctively, and lives on, in the pattern of life of country parish and village church, and in the deep background of their scattered daughters and sons around the world. Even here in Highland Park, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania . . .

Brother Stephen (by the way, he is a former Episcopalian, with much continuing affection for his Anglican brothers and sisters) writes this morning--

At their best, Benedictines are free of enthusiasms. Long experience teaches that fashions in both heresy and piety come and go. We're not above learning new tricks, but they do not define us. Evangelization, reparation, adoration, bi-location, and even flagellation all have their place and some are needed more in some epochs than in others, but none is the sum total of the gospel. In short, monks don't believe in killer aps for the spiritual life. Instead, we mostly believe that the things that worked in the deserts of Egypt, at the court of Charlemagne, and in the monastic revival of the 19th Century still work. Like Tolkein's ents, Benedictines want nothing that's too hasty.

Click Here to read it all

Bruce Robison

Friday, August 7, 2009

August 7, 2009

Burial Office
Michael Dean Eversmeyer
May 19, 1953 – August 2, 2009
Romans 8; Matthew 6; John 14

Click for Tribute to Mike Eversmeyer

Click for the Family Notice

Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more. Death hath no more dominion over him. For in that he died, he died unto sin once, but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God. Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Alleluia.

Janna, Alex, James, family and friends, it is a privilege, a sad privilege though, for me to stand here this afternoon, to say a word about the core of Christian life—about faith, hope, and love, about the Cross and the Empty tomb, Good Friday and Easter—as we come together with so many feelings, thoughts, memories, to give thanks for Mike’s life--husband and father, son, brother, who entered greater life this past Sunday morning, after this very difficult time these past few months, and really for most of the last year.

I know it was a wearing, tiring, difficult, painful time for him, and for all of you, and I do want to say to you a word of thanks and appreciation--for him, and for you, for the spirit of grace and gentle love, with dignity and compassion and courage—I think that’s the best word—that has shown through it all. Mike was a person of strength and dignity and compassion and courage in so many ways all his life, and it really did shine through in this last year, in him and in all of you.

And Janna, you and Mike have shared this long life and marriage together, your thirty-fourth anniversary just a short time ago. I appreciated so much your suggestion of this reading from St. Matthew, in the Sermon on the Mount. “Consider the lilies of the field.” You told me that was the reading at the service of your marriage, and I think that seems just right for both of you, and in a couple of ways.

Part of what Jesus is talking about here is about a life that is devoted to something more important than the outward signs of success. A life that is free to follow the stirrings that God places in our hearts. Not necessarily always making the choices that bring fame and fortune, but having a sense of deeper and truer priorities. That seems to me to be so true about Mike—what made him great as an architect and community leader, and in life here around the church. It didn’t need to be about him. And that seems so true to me too about your family. About decisions to be a teacher or a nurse, for example. Values that are part of who the parents are, that get passed on to the children, generation after generation.

And Alex and James, I know that you know this, but I want to say and remind you this afternoon, because it is so fresh in my mind, how much your dad loved you, how much he respected you as you have grown now into young adulthood. Even during this past summer, as he was dealing with so much discomfort and sickness, and with all the emotions of his own life situation, he would time and again talk with me, Alex, about your new teaching job, and how exciting that was for him, and James, about your job at the hospital and about the direction of your life and career in nursing.

He loved you both and was, and is, so incredibly proud of who you are and what you have accomplished, and of the good things that are ahead for you in the years to come. He wanted to be here to enjoy it all with you and to watch your adventures as they would unfold, and I know that was so much of his sadness in these past weeks. But I also know that he continues as a part your lives, as a part of the great cloud of witnesses, from new perspectives and in ways beyond our understanding. He will always be with you.

And of course the other part of “Consider the lilies of the field” is how it calls us to notice and appreciate the wonderful and breathtaking beauty that is around us as a gift. A field or a park or a city garden, a landscaped backyard, a castle or a simple Victorian house on a sidestreet. Again, it is a sense that world can have this grace and beauty about it, and that what we do, how we make things, build things, design things, repair and restore things, how all of that can lift our hearts and bless our lives.

A good reading for your marriage, 34 years ago, and a good reading to hear again today, as we turn the page, and a different chapter begins.

Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more. From the Pascha Nostrum, the ancient Christian hymn for Easter, as we light the Paschal Candle for this service this afternoon. A song of joy, triumph, victory. A song full of the promise of new life and life abundant fully transfigured and eternal, as we share with Christ in his resurrection.

Some of the rich poetry in scripture and tradition will talk about death as “the old enemy.” But that’s really I think not quite right. As we affirm the precious character of human life and relationships, the love of marriage, the joy of being husband and son, brother and father, a life of creativity, the breadth and depth of emotional and intellectual experience, the adventure and joy of so many activities.

As Christian people we would simply affirm in this moment that death has no power over any of that. No power at all. None. Through the mystery of our baptism and through the power of what Christ has done for us at the Cross—in the words of scripture, “life is changed, not ended.” We move from strength to strength, in that greater life, the life of perfect service, that he has had in mind for us since the first breath and dawn and morning of the universe.

A reading from the 14th Chapter of St. John:

Jesus said, Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. 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. And whither I go ye know, and the way ye know.
Thomas saith unto him, Lord we know not whither thou goest; and how can we know the way?
Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.

In my Father’s house are many mansions.

Some contemporary translations give us this word from Jesus in John 14 as “In my Father’s house are many rooms.” Which I guess makes sense, and which may be truer to the pattern of Greek as it is heard not in 16th century English but at the beginning of the 21st Century. But I want to say this afternoon, as we commend Mike Eversmeyer--who was such a great architect and someone who knew just about everything you need to know about structure and design and building and beauty—as we commend him into the arms of our generous God, as we affirm our bonds in Jesus Christ for this life and the life to come, that there is a mansion prepared for him, and for all of us. Of a grandeur and a glory and an abundance beyond anything we can imagine. Although in my mind’s eye Mike is there now looking at that mansion with an interested eye, to say “I have an idea about a way to restore that back stairway . . . .”

But with seriousness of mind and heart: the fullness of sharing with Christ. As he said, “that where I am, there ye may be also.”

As we express our friendship and sympathy today, acknowledging what is lost, may all that be embraced in a spirit of hope and expectation--as we are born in him in baptism, as Mike was 56 years ago born to new life in his baptism, as we live, as we die, and as we are reborn in his image and presence, to live in all fullness in the place, in the mansion, he has prepared for us.

Again, may our Lord bless and keep you.

Bruce Robison

Thursday, August 6, 2009


Luke 9:28-36

28 And it came to pass about an eight days after these sayings, he took Peter and John and James, and went up into a mountain to pray.

29 And as he prayed, the fashion of his countenance was altered, and his raiment was white and glistering.

30 And, behold, there talked with him two men, which were Moses and Elias:

Icon of the Transfiguration
Russian, 16th Century

31 Who appeared in glory, and spake of his decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem.

32 But Peter and they that were with him were heavy with sleep: and when they were awake, they saw his glory, and the two men that stood with him.

33 And it came to pass, as they departed from him, Peter said unto Jesus, Master, it is good for us to be here: and let us make three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias: not knowing what he said.

34 While he thus spake, there came a cloud, and overshadowed them: and they feared as they entered into the cloud.

35 And there came a voice out of the cloud, saying, This is my beloved Son: hear him.

36 And when the voice was past, Jesus was found alone. And they kept it close, and told no man in those days any of those things which they had seen.

For over 25 years now Susy and I have been Associates of the Community of the Transfiguration, a religious order for women in the Anglican Communion, with the Mother House in Glendale (suburban Cincinnati), Ohio. On this day we pray for our old friend Sister Teresa Marie, Mother Superior, for all the sisters, and for the many ministries of the order. We pray as well for new religious vocations.

O God, who on the holy mount didst reveal to chosen witnesses thy well-beloved Son, wonderfully transfigured, in raiment white and glistering: Mercifully grant that we, being delivered from the disquietude of this world, may by faith behold the King in his beauty; who with thee, O Father, and thee, O Holy Ghost, liveth and reigneth, one God, world without end. Amen.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Ninth after Pentecost, 2009

Our Guest Preacher on August 2, the Rev. Lucia Lloyd, has generously shared the text of her sermon. It was very much a pleasure to have her (and her family) with us at St. Andrew's.

August 2, 2009
RCL Proper 13
John 6:24-35

I particularly love Biblical passages about wilderness.

The congregation I serve has been going through a wilderness experience for the past two and a half years. Two and a half years ago the previous rector and a majority of the congregation voted to leave the Episcopal Church and join the Anglican Church of Nigeria, and to take the property of St. Stephen’s Church with them. The members of St. Stephen’s who remained Episcopalians continue to worship God without the buildings. We have our Sunday services outdoors, with the birds singing and the breeze blowing through the trees, which adds an element of the wildness of nature to our worship, and can feel like we are in a wilderness space. In addition to feeling we are in a wilderness spatially, it feels we are in a wilderness temporally, because we really have no idea how long it will take for the property case to go through the litigation process, and what the future might bring. It is in many ways an experience of great uncertainty, and at the same time it is a holy adventure for me to be with them, living our faith in this church without walls.

I sometimes think back to the words of a Canadian bishop who came to speak to our diocese. This bishop spoke of visiting one of the parishes in her diocese, and listening as the vestry explained, “We can’t really do any outreach to the poor. We are an aging congregation.” The bishop looked at them, and leaned forward, and said, “There isn’t any other kind.” And of course, she is right. Every person alive is aging every day. But why let that stop us? I gained a new vision of what church leadership might look like from this bishop: a church without the word “can’t”, a church without excuses, a church without limits.

My congregation is mostly over sixty, and we have a thriving outreach ministry providing clean drinking water to families in our area whose wells have run dry or become contaminated. From the beginning, while the 30 members of the continuing Episcopal congregation were still looking for a place to hold their worship services and a priest to lead their services, they made it a top priority to serve the poor in their part of rural Virginia. They did not want to just put a check in the mail: they wanted to deliver the water themselves, in person, so that they could develop relationships that crossed the boundaries of poverty, racism, and isolation. They were determined to pursue what God was calling them to do, and if anyone had tried to tell them, “you’re too old, you can’t do that” they would have swept those limitations aside and forged ahead and done it. And last September, when they called a woman to be their priest-in-charge, for the first time in the parish’s history, and a young woman at that, if anyone had said, “you can’t do that; she’s just a young woman” they would have swept those limitations aside and forged ahead and done it. In the wilderness, you simply forge ahead, do what needs to be done, and all the old excuses or limits or can’ts fall by the wayside.

There is also the emotional wilderness. When the relationships you have counted on to support and encourage your faith turn on you, and become condemning or even hostile, making accusations about your faith that you know are not true, how do you learn to trust again? After all the conflict, it seems easier to just stop going to church, to just step back from a deeply flawed institution filled with deeply flawed people. It might seem that you can’t form a thriving faith community out of that much pain, and yet, the deep faith, the steadfast hope, the expansive love, have not only enlivened their relationships with each other and with God, they have also attracted new people to this brave and joyful band, who travel through this wilderness singing and praying.

In many ways, it has seemed like this congregation in the wilderness has found, just in time, the manna it needed for each day: money to buy chairs, or the person with just the right skill for the task at hand, or the solution to the impasse at the vestry meeting. And we are deeply grateful for all the blessings we have received. It has often seemed to me that this is a loaves and fishes congregation, in which the gift of a couple fish and five barley loaves, when given to Jesus, is miraculously enough to satisfy a crowd, with extra left over.

At the same time, I feel the pointedness of Jesus’ remark to the crowd: “You are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” I wonder how that sounded to the folks in the crowd, hardworking farmers and fishermen, doing the best they could to meet the most basic needs of their families. Would Jesus’ talk of spiritual food have sounded pitifully ethereal to them? It is no wonder they remind this strange new rabbi, “Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.”

Students in Psychology 101 often read of Maslov’s hierarchy of needs. It states that human beings’ primary concern is to meet their basic physical needs, such as the need for food, and then once those needs at the bottom of the hierarchy are met, most people move on to meeting their needs for emotional security, and once those needs are met eventually some people progress to meeting their spiritual needs and their need for self-actualization. There is some truth to this theory, of course. But it seems to me that the people who find the most meaning in life are the ones who turn the hierarchy of needs upside down. The people who pursue what matters most in life are often willing to do without a feeling of security, even to do without food and other physical comforts, because they have found something more fulfilling. These are the people who are heroes and saints, the people who capture our imaginations because they inspire us to connect with the part of our own soul that is heroic and saintly, the part that knows that truth and justice and love and faith are of more value than lunch. They are people like St. Francis, who faces the choice of staying in his home with all the comforts of life as the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, or setting off to explore an unknown future in the wilderness, with nothing more than a sense that this was the way God was calling him to live his faith. At the time, people thought he was totally bonkers. And yet today, we have long since forgotten the names of all the most wealthy and prominent cloth merchants in 12th century Italy. But 800 years later, one of the most beloved saints in Christian history is Francis.

We think of good food as something which satisfies us and gives us pleasure, and we are right. But the true reason we need food is that it is fuel. The true purpose of food is to be turned into energy. We can look at faith as something that is a comfort to us and a joy to us, and we are right. But when Jesus gives us the bread of life, it is not only to make us feel good. It is so that God will grant us strength and courage to love and serve God with gladness and singleness of heart, doing the work God has given us to do.

The writer E.L. Doctorow has said, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” I believe that the same can be said about our journey of faith: you can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

I often hear people talking about the way the Church should be. One of my friends from seminary jokes that Church people are always “shoulding on themselves.” Things like: The Church is a place where people should be nicer. There shouldn’t be so much conflict in the Church. The Church should be a place of security. The Church shouldn’t change so much. There is one church like that, and when we die, I hope we become members of it. The one church where everything is as it should be is in Heaven. But it is important that we not confuse the journey with the destination.
We have heard, “be careful what you pray for, you might get it”. So if we pray, “Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength, for pardon only, and not for renewal” God might grant us that prayer. As every athlete knows, the way we gain strength is exercise. The way we gain renewal is dealing with change. The way we get to our heavenly destination is by our journey through uncertainty.

I have been talking about my parish’s experience in the wilderness partly as a way of introducing myself as we get to know each other, and partly because I can’t resist bragging about my fabulous congregation. But I am talking about being a congregation on a journey through the wilderness mostly for another reason. Despite the fact that we all feel a natural resistance to adversity, uncertainty, conflict, and change, despite our fears that we can’t develop the virtues that are involved in being a wilderness congregation, I have the sense that there isn’t any other kind.
As we travel through the wilderness, may God continue to give us the bread of life.

The Rev. Lucia Lloyd

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Guest Preacher at St. Andrew's

Our Guest Preacher this morning, August 2, is the Rev. Lucia Lloyd, Priest in Charge of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, Heathsville, Virginia.

Lucia joined St. Stephen's in 2008 after three years as Assistant Rector at St. Thomas, Richmond. She lives in Tappahannock with her husband Marshall, who is a Latin teacher at St. Margaret's School, and their two daughters, Kendall, 10, and Mary, 8.

Before seminary, Lucia taught English at Linden Hall School, St. Margaret's School, and Rappahannock Community College. She has also served as a chaplain at MCV Hospital.Her education includes an M.A. in English from Middlebury College (Bread Loaf School of English), an M.A.R. in Religion and Literature from Yale Divinity School, and an M.Div. from Virginia Theological Seminary.

Lucia and her family are "on vacation" and visiting her mother, who is a resident of Fox Chapel.

Bruce Robison