Sunday, December 27, 2009

First after Christmas Day, 2009

John 1: 1-18

As we come to the end, we arrive at the beginning.

If that sounds a bit like T.S. Eliot, perhaps he’s echoing in my mind as we sail along in this early Western Pennsylvania winter. Still bathed as we all are in the soft glow and memories of the Feast of the Nativity. The Third Day of Christmas, my true love gave to me—three French Hens? That’s easy. I tend to lose track later in the song.

The First Sunday after Christmas for us always as well the last Sunday of the calendar year. The Sunday Next before New Year’s Day, the turning of the calendar page, making of resolutions, starting off with a clean slate. Don’t know how you’d assess your 2009. For me it had some up’s and some down’s, but on the whole I’d say it’s not particularly a year I’d want to repeat, if I had that choice on the menu.

If our Church Calendar is just beginning, Advent behind us now, then a bit more than a week of formal Christmastide still to go. Officially Christmas lasts up to or through January Sixth, the Feast of the Epiphany, traditionally associated with the arrival of the Magi. Sundown on the 5th marking the 12th Night, and then at sundown on the 6th we move into a green season called “After Epiphany.” Our Roman Catholic friends just call it “Ordinary Time.” Though in a more informal way I tend to count Christmastide through Candlemas, the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary, the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple. So 40 days.

But the point: Advent and Christmas just the beginning of the new year, as we in the wider world of our lives are just watching the old one come to an end. As we come to the end, we arrive at the beginning. Time marches on, of course. No replay features on the remote. But there is at the same time this circularity. The calendar of our lives a both/and kind of thing. A straight line, a vector, a ray, sending us forward, and a wheel, bringing us around again, time and time again, to the place where we started.

The Gospel for the last Sunday of the year: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. “

A character of William Faulkner’s says, “the past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” True in so many ways of course. Thinking about all those misbehaving ballplayers and politicians and all the rest who hold their press conferences to announce that they’re “putting the past behind” them. And I suppose we all play that game to some extent. As they say in the 12-Step movement, “Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt.” It is of course a deep and wide river running through the center of all our lives in so many ways.

In theological language the miracle of Incarnation and the Birth at Bethlehem is a beginning that inaugurates a new season of the universe, the “last days.” In these Last Days, he comes to us. He who is both the foundation and the apex, the First Mover, and our Final Destination. Asleep in a Manger Bed, ruling on the Throne of Heaven from before time, and forever.

If it all seems a little poetical, that perhaps we can forgive that, at least at Christmas time. Asleep in a Manger Bed, and here on the Altar, “that he might dwell in us, and we in him.” Again, this circularity. The point on this Sunday after Christmas. That no matter how far we travel away from Bethlehem, no matter how much distance we would put between him and us, in the complexity of our lives, just look up, and there he is. Right in front of us again. And it is and will be Christmas.

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

Bruce Robison

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas Day, 2009

My favorite.

Christmas Eve, 2009

December 24, 2009 Christmas Eve

How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given . . . . So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.

Nativity, Lorenzo Lotto, 1523

Dear friends, a word of welcome on this holy night. I know we gather from near and far, old friends and new. Grace and peace to all, expansively, wide as the universe tonight. And a prayer that the holy Word of God spoken first in that Bethlehem stable may now be spoken in our hearts and in our lives, with tenderness and gentleness, kindness, compassion, and generosity. A prayer that the Light of God that first shone that holy night may now be for us a light to bring healing and strength, clarity, and a sense of purpose and direction. In the name of Jesus, born for us all, grace and peace.

Thinking this year about how we get there. How we get to Bethlehem.

For Mary and Joseph, of course—we know the story. The census and the requirement to return to the ancestral city. The long road from Nazareth in the Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea. Many miles, and perhaps with some real danger for those on the road after sunset. And this, the last hard night. Mary beginning her labor, the effort to find a place to stay—until finally there is this simple shelter. Anxiety, and then relief. At least off the street and protected from the cold wind.

For the Shepherds, the song of the angels sends them running from the hills into the village, to see this wonderful thing. I know I go for my morning run up in Highland Park while it’s still dark most of the year, and even on pavement or on well-marked trails, and with streetlights, that can be dangerous. I’ve had a few falls over the years—a rock or a pothole, or in the winter sliding on ice. No streetlights where the shepherds were, and probably no trails, until they got nearer town. Just a mad scramble down hillsides and across meadows. Slipping, sliding, falling in a scramble, then up again, breathless. Sailing along in their excitement, in their eagerness to be a part of something more dazzling and more glorious than they had ever thought possible. “Come, let us see if what the Angel told us is true.”

I think of the Magi too. They aren’t really a part of the Christmas Eve scene, but the crèche isn’t really complete without them. Even now, this night, in their distant land, they are studying the skies. Even now they see the first light of the star. They are consulting the ancient manuscripts of prophesy, making plans, getting ready for the journey. A journey that would be not days or weeks. Many months, certainly, and perhaps years before they would see home and family again. Hundreds of miles, across ancient trade routes, over mountains, across deserts. Setting out—if not tonight, then soon, very soon. Like the shepherds, their minds racing. Their hearts full. Excitement. Wonder.

All of us, drawn here tonight. Which is kind of amazing, when you think about it. Not just because the weather forecast was a little iffy. It has been such a hard year for so many. The Great Recession, of course. Can’t think of a family that hasn’t been affected in some way. The continuation of war—families with dad or mom deployed away at Christmas, and we remember them very much tonight in our prayers with love and respect. In this long season of conflict. The struggle to deal with brokenness and polarization and social and political uneasiness. A time of so many losses. And of course in so many personal ways. Certainly here in this parish this has been a year when we’ve lost some good and much loved friends. As I know is true in many of our families also. And there is the continuing story of loss even in the life of the Church.

I’ve heard more than one person over the past month or so say that it just seems kind of hard to find the energy for Christmas this year. And who can blame them? The excitement of the shepherds, the enthusiasm of the Magi, even the humble strength and determination of Joseph and Mary. That all may feel a little abstract, a little distant this evening. We nod in the right direction, for the kids maybe. But the underlying feeling is that we need to get back to reality.

With all that, let me just say that wherever we are this evening, I have a prayer for us. Because the reality is that nobody ever gets to Bethlehem on his or her own strength. Mary had Gabriel to break the news. Joseph had his dream. The shepherds heard the angels. Gloria in excelsis Deo. Glory be to God on high. The Magi saw the star. The point is not for us to dig deep or work harder at it. The point is that we would open our eyes and our ears, our minds, our hearts, the fullness of our imaginations, and let God speak to us and reveal himself to us, just as he did to them. Whether by visions on the hillside or signs in the heavens or dreams in the night. To let him be the fuel that moves us forward, the wind that fills our sails. That moves us from the place where we are, and puts us on the road toward Bethlehem. We don’t earn our way there. We can’t force our way. For all the shopping and decorating and carol singing, Christmas is fundamentally, and at its heart, not something we make happen. Not a product of our best efforts. Rolling up our sleeves.

So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.

The Lord Jesus is born. Two thousand years ago. In Bethlehem. And the story began. His life, his perfect words of peace and hope, his perfect kindness. Word made flesh, among us, full of grace and truth. His manger. His cross. His resurrection. The Lord Jesus is born, the baby lying there in the straw. The Blessed Mother sings him softly to sleep.

And it is for us. All for us. For our healing, for our joy. For our renewal, in this life and in the life to come. To be our hope, our present, our future. God with us, Emmanuel. At the altar tonight, God with us. In the heavens above us, God with us. In the songs of the angels, echoing around us. In our dreams. In the quiet spaces and back corners of our minds and our hearts. Where every road can take us. Grace and peace, that the holy Word of God spoken first in that Bethlehem stable may now be spoken in our hearts and in our lives, with tenderness and gentleness, kindness, compassion, and generosity. That he may be born in us, tonight, and live in us forever.

Blessings, and Merry Christmas!

Bruce Robison

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve, 2009

Out of the Ash

Solstice of the dark, the absolute
Zero of the year. Praise God
Who comes for us again, our lives
Pulled to their fisted knot,
Cinched tight with cold, drawn
To the heart’s constriction; our faces
Seamed like clinkers in the grate,
Hands like tongs—Praise God
That Christ, phoenix immortal,
Springs up again from solstice ash,
Drives his equatorial ray
Into our cloud, emblazons
Our stiff brow, fries
Our chill tears. Come Christ,
Most gentle and throat-pulsing Bird!
O come, sweet Child! Be gladness
In our church. Waken with anthems
Our bare rafters! O phoenix
Forever! Virgin-wombed
and burning in the dark,
Be born! Be Born!

William Everson (Brother Antoninus, O.P.)

Thursday in the Fourth Week of Advent

Jerusalem, strip off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, and put on for ever the glorious majesty that is the gift of God. Wrap about you his robe of righteousness; set on your head for diadem the splendour of the Everlasting; for God will show your radiance to every land under heaven. You shall receive from God for ever the name Righteous Peace, Godly Splendour.

~From the Fifth Chapter of Baruch

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Wednesday in the Fourth Week of Advent

For the grace of God has dawned upon the world with healing for all mankind; and by it we are disciplined to renounce godless ways and worldly desires, and to live a life of temperance, honesty, and godliness in the present age, looking forward to the happy fulfilment of our hope when the splendour of our great God and Saviour Christ Jesus will appear.
~From the Second Chapter of the Epistle, Paul to Titus.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Tuesday in the Fourth Week of Advent

Those that stand against the LORD will be terrified
when the High God thunders out of heaven.

The LORD is judge even to the ends of the earth,
he will give strength to his king
And raise high the head of his anointed prince.

From the Second Chapter of the First Book of Samuel

Monday, December 21, 2009

St. Thomas, Apostle

Caravaggio, The Incredulity of Thomas, 1601

Everliving God, who didst strengthen thine apostle Thomas with sure and certain faith in thy Son's resurrection: Grant us so perfectly and without doubt to believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God, that our faith may never be found wanting in thy sight; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Monday in the Fourth Week of Advent

The LORD your God is in your midst,
Like a warrior, to keep you safe;

He will rejoice over you and be glad;
He will show you his love once more;
He will exult over you with a shout of joy
As in days long ago.

From the Third Chapter
of the Book of the Prophet Zephaniah

Friday, December 18, 2009

Fourth Advent

At St. Andrew's this Sunday, 11 a.m.

A Children's Pageant of Christmas

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

O Lord Jesus, thou great Shepherd of the sheep: Look on these thy children; embrace them with the arms of thy mercy, pour on them the riches of thy blessing, and so fill them with thy manifold gifts of grace that they may continue thine for ever; to the honour and glory of thy name. Amen

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Third Advent

Zephaniah 3: 14-20

Again, grace and peace on this Third Advent Sunday.

I know a busy time and becoming busier in all our lives. As always in the holiday season, and this year in so many ways—as we come to the end of the old and the beginning of the new: the year of the Great Recession, as that has impacted so many lives; with two major wars; with polarized political discourse over all kinds of issues—health care, economic policy, international tensions. And of course we bring to the table the concerns of our personal lives. Work, family, health, finances, relationships.

It will certainly be true for all of us, as we sing by candle light not even two weeks from now the words of Philips Brooks’s hymn—O little town of Bethlehem. “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” What we all will bring with us that night, what we carry with us wherever we go. Our hopes and fears of all the years, as we turn onto the road toward David’s City today, on our journey to the Stable, to the Child in his Manger Bed.

Grace and peace. In the seventh century before Christ this stunning work associated with the Prophet Zephaniah, and a time of turmoil in the life of the Southern Kingdom of Judah and the great royal city of Jerusalem. A time of danger from within, social dislocation, economic distress, weak government, injustice, and a profound corruption of religious life in relationship to the God of Israel. A time of danger from without. Powerful enemies on many sides, rising foreign powers, wars and rumors of war. And from so many, I’m sure, the thought that God has abandoned us to our enemies, foreign and domestic. That we are cut off forever from the sources of our true life. That nothing lies ahead but disaster and more disaster.

And in this moment, then, Zephaniah, with this wonderful text of promise. Return to me, Israel, and there will be healing and restoration and renewal of life. Sing to me in worship, turn your minds and your hearts toward my love and my righteousness, make yourselves new in obedience to my word. And

I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast. And I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you: for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the LORD.

I’ve mentioned each of these Advent Sundays so far the four great themes of the weeks of this season: Death and Judgment, Heaven and Hell. Intended to express what I guess we would call ultimate concerns. At the end of the old year and the beginning of the new. In the approach to Christmas, to the mind-bending contemplation on the word, “You shall call his name Immanuel,” God with us. God with us. He’s got the whole world in his hands. You and me brother, you and me sister. In whom we live and move and have our being. God with us.

And perhaps old Zephaniah could look with the insight of a prophetic eye into the heart of the people all those years ago, and could anticipate that things would get worse and much worse before they would get better. Unfaithfulness at home, danger in the wide world. To foresee the collapse of his beloved city, the destruction of the Temple, the people killed or dispersed or led off in chains. Yet even with that vision, he knew to speak words of gentleness and tender love. Good news. “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem.” Nearly 700 years before the first Christmas Eve, and already we begin to hear the skies open and the songs of angels, while shepherds watch their flocks by night.

That there might be healing and forgiveness, renewal, and hope. God’s blessing upon God’s faithful people. And at any moment, at every moment, it can be Christmas.

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

Bruce Robison

Friday, December 11, 2009


The observance of Hanukkah, the Feast of the Dedication, begins this year 2009 at sunset on December 11.

From the Hebrew word for "dedication" or "consecration," Hanukkah marks the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its desecration by the forces of Antiochus IV and commemorates the "miracle of the container of oil."

According to the Talmud, at the re-dedication following the victory of the Maccabees over the Seleucid Empire, there was only enough consecrated olive oil to fuel the eternal flame in the Temple for one day. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days, which was the length of time it took to press, prepare and consecrate fresh olive oil.

1 Maccabees 4:36-59

Cleansing and Dedication of the Temple

Then Judas and his brothers said, ‘See, our enemies are crushed; let us go up to cleanse the sanctuary and dedicate it.’ So all the army assembled and went up to Mount Zion. There they saw the sanctuary desolate, the altar profaned, and the gates burned. In the courts they saw bushes sprung up as in a thicket, or as on one of the mountains. They saw also the chambers of the priests in ruins. Then they tore their clothes and mourned with great lamentation; they sprinkled themselves with ashes and fell face down on the ground. And when the signal was given with the trumpets, they cried out to Heaven.

Then Judas detailed men to fight against those in the citadel until he had cleansed the sanctuary. He chose blameless priests devoted to the law, and they cleansed the sanctuary and removed the defiled stones to an unclean place. They deliberated what to do about the altar of burnt-offering, which had been profaned. And they thought it best to tear it down, so that it would not be a lasting shame to them that the Gentiles had defiled it. So they tore down the altar, and stored the stones in a convenient place on the temple hill until a prophet should come to tell what to do with them. Then they took unhewn* stones, as the law directs, and built a new altar like the former one. They also rebuilt the sanctuary and the interior of the temple, and consecrated the courts. They made new holy vessels, and brought the lampstand, the altar of incense, and the table into the temple. Then they offered incense on the altar and lit the lamps on the lampstand, and these gave light in the temple. They placed the bread on the table and hung up the curtains. Thus they finished all the work they had undertaken.

Early in the morning on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, which is the month of Chislev, in the one hundred and forty-eighth year,* they rose and offered sacrifice, as the law directs, on the new altar of burnt-offering that they had built. At the very season and on the very day that the Gentiles had profaned it, it was dedicated with songs and harps and lutes and cymbals. All the people fell on their faces and worshipped and blessed Heaven, who had prospered them. So they celebrated the dedication of the altar for eight days, and joyfully offered burnt-offerings; they offered a sacrifice of well-being and a thanksgiving-offering. They decorated the front of the temple with golden crowns and small shields; they restored the gates and the chambers for the priests, and fitted them with doors.There was very great joy among the people, and the disgrace brought by the Gentiles was removed.

Then Judas and his brothers and all the assembly of Israel determined that every year at that season the days of dedication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness for eight days, beginning with the twenty-fifth day of the month of Chislev.

In the Gospel of St. John we hear a story of Jesus as he celebrated Hanukkah with a visit to the Holy City:

John 10:22-30

At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’ Jesus answered, ‘I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.* The Father and I are one.’

A word of greeting and friendship on this day and in this season, for our Jewish neighbors here in Pittsburgh and around the world.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Archdeacon Chess and II Advent

Our St. Andrew's Deacon, Archdeacon Jean Chess, was preacher on Sunday morning, December 6, 2009. Her sermon here:

Advent 2

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be all ways acceptable in your sight, oh Lord our strength and our redeemer.

As a child and even as an adult I was mystified by my mother’s behavior when it snowed. She was outside every hour or so with a broom sweeping the sidewalk and driveway. I, personally, thought it was more efficient and made better sense to just wait until it was done snowing, go out with a shovel and clear it all just once.

Like many things in life, I’ve learned that my mother knew best.

I learned this, especially, in the last 13 years since I’ve had responsibility for the sidewalk in front of my house. Here’s what I’ve learned – it is no big deal to sweep away a little layer of fresh snow. It is a HUGE big deal to try and chip away the packed down snow and ice after it’s hung around for awhile and people have tromped all over it… And, in fact, sometimes it can take weeks for that really packed down snow and ice to clear…

The theme of clearing – or preparing – the way is woven throughout our readings and collect for this Sunday. In Baruch’s message to the exiled people of Israel, we hear that God has ordered the ground to be made level to enable Israel to walk safely in the glory of God. When Zechariah is finally able to speak after months of being struck mute, Zechariah proclaims that his newborn son John will grow up to “prepare the way” for the Lord. And the writer of Luke recalls the words of the prophet Isaiah “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth and all flesh shall see the salvation of God”.

I’ve been intrigued by these images of “preparing the way”. What preparation do we need to do this Advent season to enable God to enter in and be ready to welcome the newborn Jesus? Is there just a little dusting of snow that we need to sweep away? Or, perhaps, are there mountains to level and valleys to fill? Do I need to get rid of obstacles created by others? Or barriers created by myself?

But the first question might be just how clear do I really want that path to be? How close do I want God to actually get? Could it be that I’m happy to have some of those obstacles in place to keep a bit of distance – kind of a safe zone? Sometimes it’s handy to be “too busy” or “too tired” or “too stressed” - a close relationship with God, just like a close relationship with anyone else, brings obligations and insights that we may – or may not – want.

When I want comfort, I know that I want God near. When things are going along well and I’m happy with them and don’t want them to be disrupted – I’m not always sure that I want God to get too close…

I’ve struggled with these questions of God’s closeness. It’s taken me a long time to learn – and to trust - that God will, in fact, respect my oftentimes deeply ambivalent wishes when it comes to closeness. That also means that I really do want to path to be clear because there are many times when I want God to come close – with no obstacles in the way. The other times, when I’m not so sure, I know that God will stop – clear path or not – and wait until I issue a further invitation.
So how do we “clear the path” this Advent?

Well, just like with a snowy sidewalk, it’s good to get into a habit of regular sweeping. Regular prayer, regular scripture reading, attendance at church, giving of our time, our treasure and our talent… all of these are ways to keep the path clear.

Advent is a great time to try out some new practices too and there’s still enough time left this Advent to try something new. One concrete action could be to purchase something for the food bank each we time shop or perhaps each time we go to a holiday party. Maybe you’d like to take home the bulletin and simply re-read the collect or one of the Scripture readings later this afternoon or throughout the week. I knew a family that put money into a piggy bank every time they went out for some kind of treat – like dinner or a movie – and later they decided, together, how to give away that collected money in thanksgiving for all that God had given them. All of these practices help us to sweep off the path and to be ready welcome God more fully.

The other option for clearing the path is to not “do” anything but rather to invite God to come a little nearer and just “be” together for awhile. The light and warmth of God’s presence will, over time, melt down those hard icy obstacles that are too much for us to wrestle away on our own.

The season of Advent gifts us with a chance to pay attention and to practice and to prepare. Each one of us will, in this life, have both great joys and profound tragedies. In the midst of such a high or a low it is good to be able to rely on the tried and true and practiced – and to have a clear path in case we do want to invite God closer…

“Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough ways shall made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Amen.

Pearl Harbor

The USS Arizona, December 7, 1941

Just a word this morning, on the 68th anniversary of the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor.

In memory of those who died that day and in the days and years that followed, with thanksgiving and prayers today for all who served in the Second World War, and for those who continue to serve in the uniform of our country in Iraq and Afghanistan and all around the world.

The Park Service has a great photo side on Pearl Harbor:

Click Here.

This morning's news story in the Post-Gazette.

And, finally, a poem for the day. . . .

Decoration Day

--Henry Wadsworth Lonqfellow (1807 - 1882)

Sleep,comrades, sleep and rest
On this Field of the Grounded Arms,
Where foes no more molest,
Nor sentrys shot alarms!

Ye have slept on the ground before,
And started to your feet
At the cannons sudden roar,
Or the drums redoubling beat.

But in this camp of Death
No sound your slumber breaks;
Here is no fevered breath,
No wound that bleeds and aches.

All is repose and peace,
untrampled lies the sod;
The shouts of battle cease,
It is the Truce of God!

Rest, comrades, rest and sleep!
The thoughts of men shall be
As sentinels to keep
Your rest from danger free.

Your silent tents of green
We deck with fragrant flowers
Yours has the suffering been,
The memory shall be ours.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


In Drear-Nighted December
--John Keats, 1795-1821

In drear-nighted December,
Too happy, happy tree,
Thy branches ne'er remember
Their green felicity:
The north cannot undo them
With a sleety whistle through them;
Nor frozen thawings glue them
From budding at the prime.

In drear-nighted December,
Too happy, happy brook,
Thy bubblings ne'er remember
Apollo's summer look;
But with a sweet forgetting,
They stay their crystal fretting,
Never, never petting
About the frozen time.

Ah! would 'twere so with many
A gentle girl and boy!
But were there ever any
Writhed not at passed joy?
The feel of not to feel it,
When there is none to heal it
Nor numbed sense to steel it,
Was never said in rhyme.