Sunday, March 28, 2010

Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday, 2010

Who on Christ’s dear Mother gazing, pierced by anguish so amazing, born of woman, would not weep? Who, on Christ’s dear mother thinking, such a cup of sorrow drinking, would not share her sorrows deep? --paraphrased from the text of a medieval Latin poem, the Stabat Mater, in our Holy Week Hymn #159. “At the Cross her vigil keeping.”

Pieta, Michelangelo Buonarotti, St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican, 1499

March 25th, this past Thursday, on the Church calendar the Feast of the Annunciation of our Lord Jesus Christ to the blessed Virgin Mary. Always an interesting moment as we draw toward the end of Lent and the beginning of Holy Week. The dark clouds overhead suddenly seem to part for a moment—for a moment of Christmas. Catching us by surprise. Thinking of the line from T.S. Eliot, in the Four Quartets, East Coker: “In my beginning is my end.” The straight lines of our lives curve back on themselves.

So, pausing with Mary, as we enter this Holy Week. Catching our breath by her side.

At St. Paul’s Bloomsburg, where I served before coming here, there was a wonderful collection of twelve stained glass windows around the nave with scenes from the life of Jesus. The first window in the north aisle was the Annunciation. Something like the Annunciation panel (lancet) we have in our south transept, in the Clara Miller Burd Nativity window. Ours I just love—very much in the art deco style which I think of as Mrs. Burd’s homage to Louis Comfort Tiffany, with whom she had worked at an earlier point of her career.

But in any case, the window at the head of the north aisle in Bloomsburg was like that: Gabriel and Mary. And across the nave, at the head of the south aisle, a window representing the Pieta. Our Mother, Mary of Sorrows. The traditional scene of Mary cradling the broken and lifeless body of her son as it has been removed from the Cross. As we are all familiar of course from the Michelangelo. And the interesting effect was, in the Annunciation window, Mary’s head is turned away from the Archangel, in her moment of awe and wonder. And in the Pieta, Mary is looking not down at the Body, but out into the distance. And it always seemed to me that their eyes met across the Church. A connection between them, a convergence. A communion. “In my beginning is my end.” In my end my beginning.

By the end of this Holy Week story just about everyone had run for the hills. Burrowed into secret rooms. Windows closed. Doors locked tight. Just a few, as we would hear from all the gospel accounts, hanging around to the end. Some women. His mother. Young John. Otherwise it was just the crowd gathered for the spectacle. The Roman soldiers. A handful of representatives from the religious authorities, to be sure the deed was done.

And for me it’s hardest of all to look at Mary. Frozen in her anguish. Broken. Tears rolling silently down her cheeks. She to whom Gabriel had come so long ago. “Hail, Favored one, full of grace, the Lord is with you.” She who had watched as the shepherds ran down from the hillsides to that Bethlehem stable. The child asleep in the manger. Who was born to be a blessing, Emmanuel, God with us.

And now this.

She stands before us, and we want with every fiber of our being to turn away, because it is so painful to watch. Because when the going got tough, we got going. Because there is nothing we can say.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Fifth in Lent, 2010

(RCL C) Isaiah 43: 16-21

The great journey of Lent once again makes a final turn into the home stretch. The Altar Guild will be preparing the Palms for us for the great procession next Sunday and the layreaders beginning to practice their parts in the dramatic reading of Luke’s Passion. Hospitality team beginning to think about the annual Maundy Thursday service of the Holy Communion shared around the Table in the Parish Hall, and the potluck supper we will have afterwards together in a memorial of the Upper Room. The Choir beginning to rehearse the Bach Passion Chorales for Good Friday afternoon.

All that to say, “Holy Week” just ahead. And certainly as we pause this morning, the haunting reading from St. John in the twelfth chapter. What that might have felt like for the disciples, as they watch this stunning, tender and intimate scene as Mary anoints Jesus with this costly aromatic oil. “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.” That’s what we would call a dark mood.

And yet, underneath it all, rumbling along, this word from Isaiah. “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing.”

Take a deep breath, people. Lean forward. Get ready for what’s coming. Not that you can possibly have any idea. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, saith the Lord, nor my ways your ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.

This whole long story. From that first day, when the Lord walked with Adam in the Garden in the cool of the evening. From the Word to Abraham. From the Covenant at Sinai and the Grand Procession through the Wilderness to the Land of Promise. All streams converging to this one moment. And we’re almost there now.

For as rain and snow fall from the heavens and return not again, but water the earth, bringing forth life and giving growth, seed for sowing and bread for eating, so is my Word that goes forth from my mouth. It shall not return to me empty, but it will accomplish that which I have purposed, and prosper in that for which I sent it.

Do not remember the former things. I am about to do a new thing.

On the calendar we do this every year, every spring, every Lent. Like clockwork. But in the unfolding of the story of our lives, this is the only time. This is the only time there is. The past isn’t anywhere. The firing of neurons in the electric chemistry of the brain. This Lent the only Lent there is. This word of the Prophet Isaiah not something that exists in the past. Because nothing exists in the past. It is present, spoken directly to us, into our lives. I am about to do a new thing.

And what new thing is there that he can do, in our lives? Yours and mine. What new thing needs to be done? In our personal lives? In our families? In the life of this Church, this neighborhood? For any and all of us. Take a deep breath. Lean forward. Get ready for what’s coming. For who is coming.

The Bread we eat this morning together, the Cup we drink. Just a taste, a hint, and then it is gone. Taken in, received, absorbed. That he might dwell in us, and we in him.

We can already guess what New Thing would happen on Easter Sunday. The suspense of Holy Week is already framed in our mind, and the kids will be coloring their Easter Eggs on Holy Saturday afternoon, as every year. We know what happened then, even if it continues after two thousand years to be hard for us to understand and to explain. Resurrection. The head that once was crowned with thorns is crowned with glory now.

But what will his Resurrection be, in us? The Jesus who died for us, long ago and far away. What New Thing will he have for us, will he be for us? Here and now. What blessing, what hope?

I am about to do a new thing.

Don’t discount this possibility. Here and now. Don’t underestimate what might happen. Here and now. Where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. In your life. In my life. In our life together. In this Church, in our neighborhoods, in the wide world. Don’t discount this possibility. Don’t underestimate what might happen. Here and now.

Take a deep breath, people. The message whispered into our ears, from before time and forever. Lean forward. Get ready. Hear him as he whispers this in our ear. I am about to do something new.

March 20, 2010

Holy Matrimony
Shanna Ariel Pulaski and Robert Charles Haberman
I Corinthians 13

Shanna and Rob, what I want to say first to you, and I know I’m speaking for all the family and friends gathered here this morning, is thank you. 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 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’s a great day! We’ve been thinking about it and planning for it, and I know you and your families have been very busy these past few weeks--and now here we are. Congratulations to you, and with so many blessings upon you as with your Julian you now step forward into this new chapter of your life as a couple and a family.

Rob, we’re all very proud of you for your service to our country, and we will as you go off for training and your time of service have you and Shanna and Julian always in our thoughts and prayers.

The lesson that you selected, from the New Testament Book of First Corinthians, is a wonderful and very appropriate reading for this day.

It is a love song, about truly the greatest gift that God gives us, and a poetic reminder of both the care God has for us, and of our call to live always with one another in that same spirit of humility and tenderness. Love is patient and kind, and certainly as we know God’s patience and kindness in our own lives over and over again, so we are called to be patient and kind people ourselves.

And to know that especially in our marriages and in our family life, with our husband or wife, our children, our parents, to reflect God’s love in that way. Patience and kindness. A recipe for a successful marriage, and in those moments of our lives, as we would understand throughthat we are 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.

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends . . . .

It is a beautiful poem, a beautiful image, for this beautiful day, and, I would simply offer the thought that the gift of this moment is one that doesn’t ever need to wear out or to be exchanged. It’s the best gift of all, the richest of all blessings, a life-changing gift, and one that will last for a lifetime.

In the midst of this I’m reminded that in the Old Testament Book of Exodus there is one of my favorite Bible stories, about a moment of life-changing experience, a “vocational” moment, a transformational moment-- in a way kind of like a wedding. Young 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.

Now, Rob and Shanna, we don’t need to take that literally, and you can keep your shoes on. But we would remember that 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.

That God’s holy presence is with you, surrounding you, above you, and beneath your feet, with richness and blessing. The prayers and blessings of this day don’t just happen here, in this one moment of a 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.

Here in Pittsburgh, and wherever your life takes you, holy ground. And it is my and our best prayer for you that in God’s love you will continue to experience his love and his blessing always, and that your life together will be a catalyst, an inspiration, for that sense of God’s goodness to be known by others. That you will be blessed, and that you will be a blessing.

Now as Shanna and Rob come forward to exchange the vows that will make them husband and wife, I would ask all of us to bow our heads for a moment to offer a prayer for them, for their protection and their blessing, their joy, in all that God has for them in the days and years ahead.

Bruce Robison

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Fourth in Lent, Laetare, 2010

RCL C Joshua 5: 9-12

As we are reminded on the cover of our service leaflet this morning, the Fourth Sunday in Lent has a traditional name, Laetare Sunday. And as you know I love the way the old calendar traditions would speak to us.

The word is the first word of what for a thousand years in the life of the medieval and modern Church, perhaps still in the Roman Church, I’m not sure. Laetare was the beginning or incipit for the appointed Introit Psalm of the day. Laetare Jerusalem: et conventum facite omnes qui diligitis eam . . . .

"Rejoice, O Jerusalem: and come together all you that love her: rejoice with joy, you that have been in sorrow: that you may exult and be filled from the breasts of your consolation.” A wonderful maternal image. Jerusalem our consoling Mother, giving us birth and nourishing us with her comfort and care.

That first word rings out with a surprising brightness in the subdued atmosphere of Middle Lent. “Rejoice . . . Rejoice.” In the many Churches where altar flowers are not used during Lent, this Sunday is an exception. And in some Churches as well the altar paraments and clergy vestments shift from the Lenten purple to a soft, pastel rose. Places where they stop putting out cookies for Coffee Hour have them again on this day. Certainly our Collect and the Gospel Lesson are all about the deep and nourishing refreshment we have in Christ.

In all our Lenten discipline, and even as we are beginning to notice with seriousness that the end of our Lenten journey is coming into view, with Jerusalem and Holy Week and Good Friday and the Cross not far ahead at all—with all that around us and ahead of us, we pause this Sunday to sing what sounds pretty much like an anthem of Easter morning. “Rejoice, O Jerusalem, and come together all you that love her: rejoice with joy, you that have been in sorrow: that you may exult, and be filled from the breasts of your consolation.”

I’ve been following along the Old Testament readings this Lent, and this moment in the Fifth Chapter of Joshua is a wonderful one for Laetare Sunday, as the Covenant Meal of Passover is celebrated for the first time in the Land of God’s Promise, and as the provision of the Wilderness, the manna from heaven that had sustained them through these years, is now replaced by the abundant produce now all around them.

And this word from the LORD to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” Think of that: “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” A baptismal announcement if there ever was one. In the abundance of his mercy. No longer a slave people, no longer a refugee people, by the act of God they are this day renewed and transformed. Today they are free. Today they are home.

“I will bless you and make your name great,” God had promised Abraham, “so that you will be a blessing.” “To your descendants I will give this land.” “Look toward heaven and number the stars . . . . So shall your descendants be.”

To be a blessing. To be God’s people and to bring his blessing into the world. “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” Or as the great choirs would sing, “Rejoice, O Jerusalem, and come together all you that love her: rejoice with joy.”

The 40 Days of Lent are patterned after the 40 days Jesus spent in the Wilderness after his Baptism in the Jordan River, and those 40 days themselves an echo of the 40 years that passed between the miracle of deliverance at the Red Sea and this hour of homecoming at Gilgal.

And the pattern each of us follows by one path or another in the journey of our lives. In the Wilderness, but not alone. Wandering, but not lost. People—each one of us—people of the New Covenant. Nourished along the way with the Bread of Heaven, and with glimpses even now of a Heavenly Banquet, as we will at last come home. Lifted up along the way with the assurance that even now we are being renewed and refreshed and transformed in God’s blessing, and that even now—sometimes in big and celebrated ways, sometimes in the side aisles of the world, and in secret—even now being made agents of God’s blessing in the places where we live, in our homes, our neighborhoods, our communities. Signs of new life. Living and breathing demonstrations of the Passover Mystery of Easter Morning.

It was winter, and four feet of snow in Pittsburgh in February, and it all seemed like it would never end. But here it is. Daylight Saving Time. Baseball in Florida. A few days of sunshine anyway. And spring rain. And the songs that are Easter songs 52 weeks a year, whatever the season, and all our lives long. The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end.

Dark nights. Long lents. A generation in the desert of Sinai. His mercies never come to an end: they are new every morning, new every morning. Great is thy faithfulness, O Lord. Great is thy faithfulness.

So simply to say with blessings on this midlent Sunday, and refreshment, and encouragement to keep our spirits up and all of us moving forward through the weeks ahead.

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

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Third in Lent, 2010

(RCL C) Exodus 3: 1-15

Moses Before the Burning Bush

Domenico Feti 1613-1614

What you some of you may know is that this is one of my favorite stories in the Bible, and that I often talk about it when I preach at weddings and baptisms and the couple of times over the years when I’ve been asked to preach at services when friends of mine were celebrating new ministries and their institution as rectors. It is always something I like to imagine at these vocational moments, these moments at the threshold, moments of new beginning. A key event and story in the long unfolding of salvation history. And so a critical memory for us in this Lent as we return to these stories again and again in the process of finding our own roots and uncovering our deep identity.

Moses out and about the daily business of his herding in the wilderness. The burning bush in the distance, roaring along in flames. And then as Moses stands in wonder and amazement, flames shooting up before him, the voice—which I always do imagine as the voice of James Earl Jones: “Take off your shoes, Moses, for the ground on which you are standing is holy ground.” Just this great moment, as the path and direction of Moses life for all these years is suddenly turned in a new direction.

He had run away years ago from Egypt. Now he is to return. A 180 degree reversal. No more a private man with his family out there in the quiet hinterlands of Midian. Now to move to center stage, with a direction and purpose of historic and universal meaning and importance. To speak on behalf of God. To confront the powers and principalities of this world fearlessly. To rally the hearts and minds of God’s people, with all their fears and hesitations, and to lead them forward boldly into their great and historic and universal destiny. No longer to live for himself alone, to serve his own purposes and satisfy his own ambitions and desires. He is called now to a greater work. A man on a mission. The meaning of his life transformed.

In a way it is no longer his life at all. He is now inextricably bound up with God’s people. Their concerns his concern, their destiny his destiny. A moment of decision. Vocation. Calling. And we hold our breath for a moment as Moses sorts things out. So much hangs in the balance. No Moses, then no David. No Moses, no Jesus. The story comes to a dead end. No Moses, no us. And then we exhale. He moves forward. Just like that moment when Mary answers the Angel. Let it be so. Moses now is God’s man. And the new story begins.

And a good story for us on this Third Sunday in Lent, and as we would think in this Lent about who we are. About our identity, our calling, our place in the story as it still unfolds. Which is the point really that I’ve been thinking about these last few weeks in talking about all these Old Testament readings of Lent—readings about Covenant and Renewal.

Because what Covenant does—God and Adam and Eve, God and Noah, God and Abraham, God and David, and then the New Covenant for us in the Cross of Jesus—what the Covenant does is give us a map to use to find ourselves. To see Moses at that Burning Bush in that moment, to understand then more deeply the moments when we stand there too. When that voice calls out to us. To give us a window into our own hearts and souls and lives. From a time of wandering in the wilderness to a sense of direction and meaning and purpose. So much depends on the moment. On how he answers: on how we answer.

That is holy ground for Moses. But not just that one little plot of wilderness sand where he was standing in that moment. That was holy. But from this time forward, wherever he would stand. It would all be holy. In Pharaoh’s court, or at the head of the line as they approached the Red Sea, or at Sinai, or as he stood at the verge of the Jordan to point the people toward the Promised Land. All of it holy, every inch, because he was in God’s hand. God at his side.

And what I say at those weddings is that they should take off their shoes. Bride and groom, first of all. "Take off your shoes!" (Which usually sparks a moment of anxiety . . . .) At this moment of decision, and new direction. Vocation. Hearing and responding to God’s call.

To say that the ground under their feet at that moment, as God’s word is spoken over them, as they exchange their vows and rings and set out for the life he has called them to live together—the ground under their feet is holy ground. And that it would remain holy ground, down the aisle in the recessional and out into the world and into their lives, at home and at work, in their joys and in their sorrows, for better and for worse all the days of their life. Answering God’s call. Faithful to the claim he will have on their lives from this day forward.

And for all of us. At the burning bush. To know who we are. Our eyes opened as if for the first time. To hear his voice calling our name. To find ourselves in the mind and plan and purpose of God. Take off your shoes!

This is finally and fundamentally what all the business of Lent is about. These purple Sundays before the festivities of Easter. Days of standing at a crossroads. “By self examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” How we would live always, every minute and hour of our lives. On holy ground. How we would be refreshed in this season. As winter turns to spring around us, to find that same transformation in us anew.

“Make me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence, and take not thy Holy Spirit from me.” The words of Psalm 51 that we read and prayed together in the Liturgy for Ash Wednesday—and that monks in monasteries recite and pray in the early hours every morning, again and again, year in and year out. Renew a right spirit within me.

That we would be refreshed and renewed in Christ. Today, in this Lent. That we would hear his voice. Know his hand on our shoulder. And that we would find ourselves in him. So that as we come forward this morning to share the Bread of Life, he himself, as he gave himself for us, we would know our life in his life. That as we would share the Cup of Salvation, it would be in the new day that is his and ours together. That here before this altar and that every day and everywhere—again, in our kitchens and while we’re in line at the Giant Eagle and at work and in every corner of our lives, from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and health, we would know that the ground beneath our feet is holy, holy ground.