Sunday, February 28, 2010

Second in Lent, 2010

(RCL C) Genesis 15: 1-12, 17-18

The Second Sunday in Lent. In the great sweep of the Biblical story of salvation history again and again God reaches out to enter into covenant with his people. A deep union and unity of commitment and care. Adam and Eve in the Garden. Noah under the rainbow after the flood. A theme our Old Testament readings through this season return to again and again.

And here this morning in this most intense and personal way with Abram. The ceremony in Genesis 15 is fascinating. God makes this incredible promise, that Abram is to be the father of a great nation, God’s own people, and as numerous as the stars across the night sky. And Abram’s response—we might translate as something like: “that all sounds great, but I need to get it in writing.”

Susy and I have these friends from our church many years ago in State College, Gary and Laura Knoppers. She is a great Milton scholar and he is one of the foremost experts in the languages and cultures of the ancient Near East. And I remember Gary telling me long ago about this ancient form of a contract ceremony, with great formality, as in the completion of a treaty between two kings. The cutting up of these symbolic animals, and then making the pledge while standing in the midst of them. What it means is, “if I break my promise, if I don’t keep up my end of this contract, may what happened to these animals happen to me.”

So Abram with the King of the Universe, the Master of All Creation: “I’m not just going to take your word for it: cross your heart; put your hand on the Bible and swear.” A little odd, at least it seems to me. I mean, this is God we’re talking about, after all. But I think the whole scene plays out for us here in a way to emphasize dramatically the seriousness of God’s commitment. No matter what would come, year after year, generation after generation. We are his people and sheep of his pasture, and we’ve got that in writing! His sure and certain pledge. Absolutely to be trusted, world without end.

We notice that Abram doesn’t promise to do anything in return, in this contract, treaty, covenant. All free gift. But simply to trust. As St. Paul would write in the fourth and fifth chapters of Romans: “The promise to Abraham and his descendants, that they should inherit the world, did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith.” And Paul says, “ . . . the words ‘it was reckoned to him’ were written not for his sake alone”—that is, not only for Abraham—“but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him that raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”

This of course the heart of Paul’s gospel affirmation and renewed in later writers like St. Augustine and Martin Luther, and the heart of the great theological renewal in the era of the Reformation: “justification by faith.” The great mystery of the cross, to say that there is nothing we could ever do by our own hard work to repair the brokenness between God and our humanity, but that God himself would act once and for all, and as we in faith would unite ourselves to him in that action we would be made a part of the new life of a restored creation. In the Cross, his free gift of grace. As we remember Sunday by Sunday through all of our lives, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.

A great story in any case to hear again in Lent, along this journey toward Jerusalem and Holy Week. This existential encounter, Abraham and God, and the word of promise, hope, commitment, love. All about healing and forgiveness and renewal. For us. In our lives. When Abram looked up into that starry sky, we were there.

In the New York Times a few weeks ago there was this story about a couple who were celebrating their marriage. The story was that they had been high school sweethearts, but then had drifted apart after high school, and then college, career, moving from one part of the country to another. I think she was in New York City and he was in Texas or something. And then, fifteen years or so after their high school graduation, they reconnect. Where else? On Facebook. Friends of friends, in the vast web of social networking.

They read each other’s updates, make a few comments, exchange an e-mail or two. Turns out both had been in relationships over these years, but that at the moment both were unattached. Many months go by. And then, a business trip, and he was going to be in New York for a few days, and they decide to meet for lunch. And the story was, well that by the end of that lunch all the intervening years had slipped away, and in the distance the sound of wedding bells. He said something like, “I looked at her across the table, and I realized that I had been in love with her all these years, that I had never stopped loving her, but that somehow all that had been hidden. Until that moment. And there it was again.”

It’s a story that I think is a good story for us for Lent. As we hear week by week these stories of the ancient covenant, and as we would in this season be reminded of the one who first loved us. That we would be refreshed in that memory. From the days of Abraham long ago, to this day, this morning. Our first love, alive in us, renewed, restored. “Love divine, all loves excelling, joy of heaven, to earth come down.” Which is again the heart of this season. His journey from the Manger to the Cross. All for us.

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

Sunday, February 21, 2010

First in Lent, 2010

(RCL C) Deuteronomy 26: 1-11

Grace to you and peace—and certainly a word again of welcome. Even to say “congratulations.” You all deserve an Olympic gold medal in the 3,000 meter event. Which is to say, finding a place to park within 3,000 meters of St. Andrew's.

We continue in so many ways in the grip of this hard season of winter storms and their aftermath, and all these mountains of snow and ice. Understand we may get a bit more this week. Even with the glimpse of sunshine the last couple of days. A time when even the simple routines of everyday life seem to be almost overwhelming in their difficulty. Getting out and coming to church on a Sunday morning requires I know an extra effort and it is I think itself an act of worship and an offering. So, as my grandmother used to say: Stars in your Crown!

And we thank of course especially in that our Choristers, as they sing so beautifully for us this morning, and moms and dads and brothers and sisters and all who support them in this new ministry—and of course Matt, and Beth, and Pete, and Joe, and Liz, and all who are leading the way. On this First Sunday in Lent, as we turn the page in the calendar of the Church Year, grace to you and peace.

I mentioned I think in all our Ash Wednesday services that this word “Lent” comes from the Anglo-Saxon, “Lencten,” which means pretty much what it sounds like, “lengthen.” The name of the season of the year when the daylight hours lengthen and the long nights of winter begin to recede.

Lent means “spring,” and even if it doesn’t feel entirely like spring for us yet, it is happening—slowly, deep down. The hard mantle of winter to give way inevitably, and rebirth and renewal to follow. I saw this on Friday afternoon as a great wall of snow let loose from a pitched roof in the bright sunshine and began to slide in an avalanche to the ground. Winter loosening its grip. A pattern as a kind of metaphor, a symbolic progression to match the great theological theme for Lent and Easter.

If Advent and Christmas and Epiphany are for us each year the Season of Incarnation, now we come to the Season of Atonement. Which is to say, the Work of Christ. From the Manger to the Cross. From the winter of sin and death to the everlasting spring of God’s goodness. The restoration of God’s love in Creation. Forgiveness, healing, renewal. And life everlasting. At the Cross and in his death there is for us mercy, kindness, grace. His Body broken and his Life poured out for us, to be gathered together again, the Bread of our Life and the Cup of our Salvation. “A full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.”

This week I spent some time reading and praying my way through the propers for these Sundays in Lent in our new lectionary, which turn out actually to follow the same pattern in the lectionary we were previously using in the Book of Common Prayer, from today and on until we get to Palm Sunday and Holy Week. And I was especially drawn to the lessons appointed from the Old Testament—from Deuteronomy this morning, and then from Genesis, Exodus, Joshua, and Isaiah. In each of these lessons there is what I would call a moment of Covenant Renewal. The restoring of the relationship between God and his people. A perfect theme for Lent of course.

Even as this morning in Deuteronomy, as Moses presents in his great Farewell Discourse the outline of a kind of formal ceremony and liturgy, so that this renewal can be something not as a one-time event, but a perpetual theme and reality. Again and again, generation after generation. You bring an offering. You recall the story of first love. “A wandering Aramean was my father.”
Old Abraham, the great ancestor.

You remember how that was lost, through brokenness and sin. And then you celebrate what is now still a fresh and new and living reality--the new reality and the future promise: “’The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm . . . and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey . . . . ‘ Then you . . . shall celebrate all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house.”

It is a story of rescue. “I once was lost, but now am found.” A story of promise. And Ground Zero for us up ahead at the great culmination of this Lent, Good Friday and the Cross. By his death, death itself is crucified. As we are at the cross joined with him in his death, so in the miracle of Easter we are raised with him. And so in our reading this morning: “We cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice.”

And so, simply again as we set out into this season of Lent, as we come to the Table, as we stand before his Cross and look into his face—to see him more clearly, and so to know ourselves more honestly, grace and peace. Remember the story, Moses says. How with his strong right hand and his mighty arm, he has won for himself the victory. We do the work, sometimes hard work, we need to be doing to deal with the winter of our lives.

Shoveling the sidewalks, breaking up the ice, clearing away the mounds of snow. Both in reality, and as those are metaphors. We all of us have some work to do, no question about it. But Lent and spring on the way for us as the gift of his love.

Bruce Robison

Monday, February 15, 2010

Shrove Tuesday, 2010

Shrove Tuesday at St. Andrew's, Highland Park:
Pancake Dinner and Mardi Gras Party, Tuesday,
February 16, 5:30 p.m. - 7 p.m.

From Wikipedia:

The terms "Mardi Gras" (pronounced /ˈmɑrdi grɑː/, "Mardi Gras season", and "Carnival season", in English, refer to events of the Carnival celebrations, beginning on or after the Epiphany and ending on the day before Ash Wednesday. Mardi Gras is French for "Fat Tuesday" (in ethnic English tradition, Shrove Tuesday), referring to the practice of the last night of eating richer, fatty foods before the ritual fasting of the Lenten season, which started on Ash Wednesday. Related popular practices were associated with celebrations before the fasting and religious obligations associated with the penitential season of Lent. Popular practices included wearing masks and costumes, overturning social conventions, dancing, sports competitions, parades, etc. Similar expressions to Mardi Gras appear in other European languages sharing the Christian tradition. In English, the day is called Shrove Tuesday, associated with the religious requirement for confession before Lent begins.

Click Here to Read it all.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Last after the Epiphany, Quinquagesima 2010

Exodus 34: 29-35; Luke 9: 28-43

A rough couple of weeks for all of us and continuing here in Southwestern Pennsylvania, as we manage as best we can the aftermath of two major snowstorms and all the challenges that make even just going to the market for a gallon of milk a physically and emotionally and even spiritually exhausting and depleting effort. Kids out of school.

Amazing to me, to see all of us working so hard. Making it to work, as best we can. Doing what needs to be done. And if I have some complaints about public administration and management during this time here in the city—and I do—certainly no complaints about the public works and public safety guys out there working twelve hour shifts in very rough conditions day after day after day. And our own Becky Usner and Dan Michel and his crew, who have worked so hard through storm after storm here at St. Andrew’s. May God bless and keep them, and keep them safe. And maybe we could be done with this snow for a little while?

So with all that: Happy Valentine’s Day. Put down the snow shovels long enough to say “I love you”—maybe even find the time for a candlelight dinner. If you didn’t use up all your candles in power failures last weekend . . . .

And a day we begin our February participation in the annual Have a Heart for Hunger fundraiser in our partnership with the East End Cooperative Ministry. Even though our major "Have a Heart" Coffee Hour reception is being postponed a week, the basket is out this morning and will remain available for us for the rest of the month, and our contributions along with the contributions from all our fellow member congregations, to be matched by an exceptionally generous donor and devoted to the hard work of providing resources and service and support for the hungry and the homeless in our part of the city.

A huge project, especially at this time of year and in this era of economic dislocation, and too much for any of us as individuals or even as congregations to take on effectively. But with 50 congregations working together, a great deal can happen, and a wonderful witness we in our congregation are able to give to the transforming love of Jesus Christ and the power he gives us to be his hands and his feet continuing in the world, to bring to life in him healing and renewal and refreshment even in the most remote and hard-to-reach corners of our world.

A witness to the power of God in Christ Jesus. The lessons appointed for us on this Last Sunday after the Epiphany, on the old calendar "Quinquegesima," marking 50 days until Easter, are all about that. As we come now to the end of one great seasonal cycle in the calendar of our Church Year. A season with these major festival highlights, the Feast of the Nativity, Christmas, the Feast of the Epiphany, the Feast of the Baptism of Christ, and finally the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple and the Purification of St. Mary the Virgin. A season to bring to the center of our life the great theological theme of Incarnation. All to unfold the mystery of that verse from St. John that we heard at midnight on Christmas Eve: The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us . . . full of grace and truth.

In just a couple of days now we will come together again, Tuesday evening for Mardi Gras fun and Shrove Tuesday pancakes, and then on Wednesday morning the next great season to begin, with Lent and then Holy Week and then Easter ahead to open the next great theological theme, Atonement. From Incarnation and the Life of Christ to Atonement and the Work of Christ. Two themes inextricably linked and intertwined and in a deeper sense a unity of expression about the character of God and his love. Really to say Incarnation and Atonement as one, the central message and identity of Christian faith.

But what we are about. Here and now, this snowy weekend. As we help a neighbor with a sidewalk. As we share what we have with those who are served by the East End Cooperative Ministry. In our relationships. In outreach to Haiti or Five Talents. As we sing and worship. As we break bread and share the cup. Over and over and over again: to be a witness to the power of God in Christ Jesus.

When Moses came down the Mountain his face was still shining so brightly with even the reflected light of the Shekinah of God, his radiant glory, that he had to wear that veil to protect the eyes of those who might see him.

No veils needed, apparently, but it is that same radiance that shines on Mount Tabor that afternoon in Luke’s gospel, as the gates of heaven open just a crack, as the brilliance of Divine Light seems to flow out from him, in the vision there of the visitation of Moses and Elijah—those two mighty men of God’s work in ancient days. A moment of such power that Peter thinks they should build a shrine, put up an altar.

In the writings of the Celtic monastics of Ireland and Scotland there are references to what are called “thin places.” Where the wall of separation between this earthly realm and the transcendent reality of the Kingdom of God is not stone or masonry or wood, but paper thin. Almost transparent. Where if you look hard enough, with an inner discernment, you can see through to the other side, at least a glimpse. But more than a “thin place” here, for this moment. The wall is down. Light brighter, richer, purer than any seen before or since, anywhere. For this breathtaking moment, heaven and earth come together.

So what it’s all about, as we come to the end of the Incarnation Cycle. The Word became flesh. Full of grace and truth. And we beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son of the Father.

Where we lived in Northern California years ago there was an ecumenical Christian women’s group called “Women Aglow.” The word for us this morning, and as we turn the page now to Ash Wednesday and Lent later this week—the word for us is all about being “people aglow.” To open the eyes of our hearts and imaginations to see in the face of Jesus the brightness of the Father, the brilliance of his love. And like Moses to shine with the reflection of that radiance day by day by day. Whether by contributions to EECM today, as one small example. By the prayers and songs we offer. By the kindness and generosity of our lives, as we would seek to be agents of his healing, his forgiveness, his kindness and generosity. To shine brightly. To shine brightly.

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

Bruce Robison

Monday, February 8, 2010

Fifth after Epiphany, 2010

Snow Day in the 'Burgh!

Attendance at services on Sunday, February 7, 2010, for St. Andrew's, Highland Park, Pittsburgh:

At the 9 a.m. Service: 6
At the 11 a.m. Service: 24

And notably missing from the Sunday count: The Rector, whose Saturday afternoon flight home was cancelled by the closing of the Pittsburgh Airport.

Instead I was counted in the pews at the 11:15 service of the Church of the Incarnation, Dallas --

In any case, I did arrive home late Sunday night and now have rejoined my greater Pittsburgh family in this new post-blizzard era.

I didn't have the opportunity to preach on Sunday morning, then. But I had prepared a sermon. Which I share here. Something of "what I would have said." In the meantime, blessings to all, and stay warm!

February 7, 2010 Fifth after Epiphany RCL Year C

Two very interesting readings from the Old Testament: the “call” of the prophet—last Sunday from the first chapter of Jeremiah, this morning from the sixth chapter of Isaiah. Remembering from Jeremiah: But the Lord said to me, "Do not say, ‘I am only a boy,’ for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, "Now I have put my words in your mouth."

And then this morning, Isaiah: Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts! Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

Interestingly, two of the recommended readings in the ordinal of our Book of Common Prayer, the Jeremiah appointed for the Ordination of a Deacon and the Isaiah for the Ordination of priests and bishops. The deacon commissioned to represent the church to the world and the world to the church; the priest and bishop to share in the councils of the Church, to preach and teach, to declare God’s forgiveness, to pronounce God’s blessing, to share in the administration of Holy Baptism and in the celebration of the mysteries of Christ’s body and Blood. Appropriate readings as we celebrate those ordinations, as we would understand the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the ordering and unfolding of the ministry of the Church.

But of course these readings not uniquely or even particularly about ordained ministries. We would hear them instead as for the whole people of God, as we in one body are called to be his Body. For all our brokenness and division and limitations. The word, the five words, we might all say after we brush our teeth in the morning and look into the mirror, before heading out into the day, to work, to school, to family and friends: Here I am. Send me. Not to wait for somebody else to do it. To open our selves to a deep accountability. Here I am. Send me.

Words of course that reflect up to our Gospel reading. This remarkable story of the fishing miracle. The call of Jesus to his disciples, which as some of you know has one of my favorites sayings of Jesus, when he tells the disciples, Put out into the deep water.

A “call” that we might continue to hear today. We tend all of us perhaps to drift in the other direction. To fish in the shallows. Less potential reward there, but less risk too. Smaller fish, but it doesn’t take as long to get there and isn’t as dangerous if the boat founders.

Yet Jesus here says to put it all out there in a big way. Take a risk. Put ourselves at risk. Don’t settle for the easy way. Try to land the big one. And then the moral of the story at the end of the passage. The risk of discipleship. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid. Follow me, and let’s go—let’s go fish for people. Turn lives around. Turn the world upside down. Not so much to be forgiven, as to forgive; to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved, as to love. Risky business.

To say his Name out loud in a world that is rapidly forgetting what that name is, or why anyone would ever want to know it. At whose name every knee would bow. The story Susy and I have of a young girl we knew a number of years ago who pointed at what Susy was wearing on a chain around her neck and said, “I have one of those too. A ‘T.’” With our words, and beyond words, with our actions and the conduct of our lives.

In any case, there are certain survival strategies that have to do with blending into the wallpaper. With going along to get along. Staying with the middle of the pack. Blending in. But the reminder for us this morning as we come to this table is that he has his eye on us in particular. Not in general, but in particular.

Where we are, who we are, with what we have. That he’s not asking us to be part of the crowd, but to step up, to step out. To set our sails to the wind and head out into the deep waters of the world and of our lives. To follow him. The invitation this morning. That as we would reach out this morning to receive the gift of his life continuing with us: Here I am. Send me.

Bruce Robison