Monday, July 12, 2010

Eighth and Ninth after Pentecost

At St. Andrew's July 18 and 25 --.

The Rector is on vacation.

For the next two weeks on Sunday mornings at 8:30 a.m. and 10 a.m., we welcome our good friend the Very Rev. George L.W. Werner, retired Dean of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Pittsburgh, and emeritus President of the House of Deputies of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Seventh after Pentecost

RCL 10C Amos 7: 7-17; Luke 10: 25-37

Another fine midsummer Sunday, and grace and peace to you. On my internal and more personal calendar of the season I think of this Sunday as the “Sunday before the All Star Game Break,” but however it is for you, I do hope the summer is unfolding as a time of refreshment.

Susy and I are going to be away for a couple of weeks, heading up to Massachusetts, and while we’re worshiping on the next two Sunday mornings with our friends at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Scituate, my and our good friend Dean George Werner will be here at St. Andrew’s as celebrant and preacher. And George is such a wonderful preacher and great man and such an important leader in our diocese and in the wider church, I would say that I almost envy you all for the opportunity you’ll have to hear him preach. George tells me he’s always delighted to come to St. Andrew’s, and I know you all will give him a great welcome—and I won’t be surprised or offended in the least if there is a moment of disappointment when he leaves and I return at the beginning of August . . . .

Before us this morning, though, this wonderful and famous passage from the great prophet Amos, as our Old Testament lesson, and the Parable of the Good Samaritan as the New Testament reading from St. Luke.

We’re hearing from some of the great Old Testament prophets in this season in the lectionary, and this morning Amos takes us back to the image and understanding of the role of the prophet as we caught a glimpse of it a few weeks ago in the ministry of Elijah. Confronting the King and the Royal Priesthood and the wider culture for unfaithfulness to God, for persistent transgression, for departure from the Covenant Relationship established between God and his Chosen People as Mt. Sinai.

Jereboam is the King who followed Ahab and Jezebel, and it turns out things are no better now than they were before. Going to hell in a handbasket. And the wonderful image of the Prophet with the plumb line here, the tool the builder can use to determine with objective certainty whether the structure he is building is standing up straight.

And of course the measure for Jereboam, as it was for Ahab and Jezebel before him, is not good news. He is tried and found wanting. The whole nation out of line, no longer set upon its foundation, off-center, leaning toward inevitable collapse. And the prophet’s job is simply (!) to tell the truth, without fear, unflinching, no matter what the powers and principalities of this world say or do. He has been assigned this role by God himself, and there’s nothing any threat or promise on earth can do to shake that vocational certainty.

The priest Amaziah, the King’s Chief Minister for Religious Affairs, is assigned the job of silencing the nay-sayer. Putting a lid on him. Making sure the Royal ceremony proceeds without interruption. No one in authority seems at all concerned that what the prophet is saying may be true. The key is simply to get him out of the way, off the front page. He is a foreigner by birth, from the Kingdom of Judah in the south, so send him back there. He’s telling us things about ourselves that we just don’t want to hear. And the obvious point is that when we have the choice of a truth that makes us feel uncomfortable or a lie that makes us feel good about ourselves, we’ll go for the lie every time, no question about it.

In fact the Kingdom of Israel at this moment is only a couple of decades from its destruction at the hands of the Assyrian armies of the north, and I’m sure the survivors in exile looked back and remembered the words of prophets like Amos with a good deal of remorse. “If only we had paid attention, things might have been different. If only . . . .”

Although the Parable of the Good Samaritan seems fairly tame to us, in all its familiarity, probably it was a little more disturbing to those who heard the story from the lips of Jesus the first time around. For us the message may be something fairly straightforward, like, “don’t be like the priest and the Levite, who were so full of themselves that they couldn’t be bothered to help a stranger in distress, but be instead like the Good Samaritan, who even though he was something of an outsider and even outcast person had a compassionate heart and was willing to step in to this difficult situation with kindness and charity.

And I think that is a part of the message, no question. We all of us can be pretty self-centered some of the time, maybe even most of the time, the implicit self-ishness of the human condtion, and it is easy to look past those who are hurting, to be so focused on our agendas that we walk right past the agenda God is setting before us.

But this is a story with a sharper edge, which we know about historically, and we on reflection read it not simply as a personal call to a greater attentiveness and spirit of generosity and charity, but very specifically as an illustration of what is I think for all of us just about the hardest thing that Jesus ever asks of us, in his command, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

What it means to be like a Samaritan who would help a Jew at the side of the road.

In this encounter between the Samaritan and the Injured Traveler, there are layers and layers of pain. Grievance. Discrimination. Susy and I the other evening rented the film “Invictus,” with the story of Nelson Mandela and his efforts to unify his new country not by punishing the Afrikaaner minority for its years of oppression and persecution, but by looking at the world through their eyes and ears and minds and hearts, by identifying with them, by finding in the symbol of the old South African national Rugby team a way of honoring their culture and heritage and tradition. And how Mandela did this, even though it cost him significant support initially from those who were closest to him. “Love your enemies; pray for those who persecute you.”

So that’s the story, I guess. The parable of the black township resident walking home from his demeaning, underpaid work as a houseboy, who sees an Afrikaaner alone at night, his BMW broken down by the side of the road in a dangerous part of town. Something like that.

This story is meant to push the buttons that we don’t particularly want to have pushed. For the Obama Democrat and the Palin Republican; for the serene Mainline Protestant and the fiery Evangelical; for the liberal Episcopalian and the conservative Episcopalian, for that matter. –Just who pushes your buttons these days? I guess that’s the place to begin. Who gets under your skin?

Maybe not politics or theology, maybe not a matter of race or economics or social class, but even something personal. The kid who made fun of you in the third grade. The colleague at the office who said something about you behind your back, that got back to you. A mean-spirited former spouse. Someone who subjected you to physical or psychological suffering or abuse. “Which of these," Jesus asks, "do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” It’s just really hard stuff: this business between Samaritans and Jews. Hard stuff.

It is an old saying, that the mission of the Church is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable, and I’ve heard that repeated a number of times--and I suppose the point of these moments with the Prophet Amos this morning and with the Parable of the Good Samaritan is to be a reminder that if we don’t feel significantly afflicted from time to time by God’s word as a plumb line, if we don’t feel measured, weighed, tested, to show us with absolute clarity just where we’re off center, out of alignment with the foundation, then the Church isn’t really doing an important part of its job. Then the Church becomes a “non-PROPHET” organization. Which feels good, for a little while. A place of safety in the middle of the comfort zone. A mutual admiration society. A fellowship of the like-minded. What used to be called "a chapel of ease." But as Amos tells Jereboam, when a house is built out of alignment with its foundation, sooner or later it will fall. It just will.

So something challenging to wrestle with, in the midsummer. The hard process of taking the heart of stone and replacing it with a heart of flesh. God taking us seriously when we pray “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

How do I learn to listen to the news I don’t want to hear? What would it really mean, to love my enemy as my neighbor, and to share my prayer, my heart, my spiritual center, with the one who would not in a million years wish to love me and to share with me in that way? For all our magnificent prayer and worship, our energetic outreach and service and witness, what if that is the one high road to heaven? Love your enemies. Not just tolerate them. Be for them comfort and forgiveness and healing. Be for them, good news. We’ll just set that out there and see what we can do with it.

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

Bruce Robison

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Independence Day, 2010

Our fathers' God, to thee,
Author of liberty,
To thee we sing;

Long may our land be bright
With freedom's holy light;
Protect us by thy might,
Great God, our King.

Samuel Francis Smith, 1832

O Eternal God, through whose mighty power our fathers won their liberties of old; Grant, we beseech thee, that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain these liberties in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sixth after Pentecost, 2010

RCL 9C: Second Kings 5: 1-14; Luke 10: 1-11

Good morning, and grace and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ, on this Fourth of July Sunday. The day always of significance as something of the opening day of true summer, brass bands and parades, picnics in the park, fireworks—and certainly may it be the opening day of a good summer for you, with all best wishes for refreshment and good times with family and friends. Of course life goes on, work, all the ups and downs of our personal and family lives, and our life in our wider community, but however and wherever we would spend the season, may there be a sense of God’s blessing and presence with us.

Independence Day most importantly, of course, a day of national observance, to celebrate the founding of the nation, in the great story of 1776, and of all the history since, acknowledging both the high moments and the low moments, great accomplishments, and of course always a good distance more to travel before we can hope to live up to the high goals and aspirations set before us so long ago. A most appropriate day of prayer for our nation, and of thanksgiving. In all this, Happy Fourth of July indeed.

To notice in the propers of the day just quickly something of a connection between our Old Testament and Gospel readings, and a connection that might always be helpful for us, individually, as a congregation, and in perhaps many other contexts.

First to this great Elisha story. We remember last Sunday in the account of Elijah’s assumption into heaven and the passing of the baton to Elisha, that as they travelled together from Gilgal Elijah asked Elisha what gift he could give him. Elisha replied, “Let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” Remember that Elijah replied, “That would be really something, but if you stick with me to the very end, God just might give you that gift.”

There are many different ways to approach this episode today in the ongoing story of Elisha—the healing of Naaman, the Syrian general. In the fourth chapter of St. Luke Jesus himself uses the story as a sermon illustration, and there are a number of points of entry for theological reflection. But I would simply pause this morning to express a continuing amazement at the miracle itself. We don’t know exactly what Naaman’s illness was. “Leprosy” in the medical vocabulary of the Old and New Testaments seems to be used for a wide variety of diseases affecting the skin and the outward appearance of the body. Not simply for the condition we now would label leprosy or Hansen’s Disease, although it certainly would have included that.

Apparently this man, who from his position in society had great wealth and status, had tried every known ointment and procedure known to the healers of his time and place, to no avail. Something of an act of desperation to travel on the evidence of a slave girl’s story to another country, to place himself in the care of and to make himself vulnerable to this odd religious character.

To go from the great city of Damascus to the countryside of Samaria would be like going from New York City, with all its resources, to, I don’t know, rural North Dakota. –Thinking about how sometimes people with serious diseases here sometimes find themselves flying to the Phillipines or someplace in Mexico to receive the ministrations of faith healers. But when your back is against the wall and there doesn’t seem to be any way out, sometimes even the most unlikely story can seem better than nothing. Maybe you’ll go anywhere, pay any price.

And we read of Elisha’s response when the great general arrives. He doesn’t even come out to talk to Naaman. No incantations, no burning of incense, no magical spells. “Go wash yourself in the river.” And we see how that story unfolds. Naaman resists at first. His pride getting the better of him. But then the counsel of his servant, and the dip in the Jordan. “And his flesh was restored . . . and he was clean.” That’s of course the key. What we need to know.

Elisha replied to Elijah, “let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” And we begin to get a sense of what that means. The power and presence of God making a difference in and through Elisha, his faithful servant.

And then in Luke 10 this morning, Jesus sends out his disciples. As we have just seen in the previous few chapters, not always the brightest or holiest of people. Sometimes deeply flawed. But he sends them out anyway as ambassadors of the Kingdom. And remarkable things begin to happen. “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” And Jesus sees even more: not just a few healings and exorcisms and words of blessing happening along the back roads of this out of the way corner of the world, but a transition and transformation of truly cosmic proportions: “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.” The powers of darkness overturned, broken, defeated, once and for all. The dawn of the new age.

And to say this morning, as we are invited to come to this Table, that this is our story.

Hard to imagine anything more exciting. Who we are. Maybe it doesn’t always look so impressive on the outside, playing out in our lives. But in the true story that God is writing across the pages of history, we are right in the middle of things. Like Elisha. You and me. Like the Seventy. Fumbling as we may seem sometimes even to ourselves. We have no idea, what he’s doing with us. Through us. To wake up every morning of our lives with this understanding of ourselves. What he has made us, what he calls us to be. Agents of blessing and grace, forgiveness, healing, transformation. Ambassadors of the Kingdom. Key players in the drama.

Even our smallest efforts, offered in his name, with a significance and power beyond our imagination. In Christ, through us, the powers of darkness overturned, broken, defeated. The dawn of a new age. Just look around. Watch each other for a while with this in mind, and you’ll see what I mean. All kinds of power, and miracles--miracles--everywhere.

Bruce Robison

Saturday, July 3, 2010

July 3, 2010

Holy Matrimony
Mary Ellen Hayden and William Arthur Deckard

Maryellen and Art, what I want to say first to you, is thank you. It is for us all here this morning, 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! Congratulations to you, and with so many blessings upon you as you now step forward into this new chapter of your life.

Not to preach a long sermon, but to say that as I have known you both over these years, I have seen in you both so consistently such a gracious spirit. In your care and respect and friendship and affection for each other. And the way that moves through you to your family, and including these fabulous and wonderful grandchildren. A spirit of intelligence, and of honesty, and courage, and deep moral integrity. Care for others. A commitment to have your lives make a difference.

You have known what it is to struggle. And because of your faithfulness, because of your character, you have become incredibly strong people in and through it all. The relationship and home and family that you have made together, your lives and your work, are already a center of great blessing, and I know that as you are married today we celebrate all that you have meant to us and all that you have accomplished, and we give thanks to God for the good new things that he has in store for you and for all of us.

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, we don’t need to take that literally, and you can keep your shoes on, at least until we get outside on the lawn. But we would remember that in the vows and promises you make today, in God’s sight and with us here as your witnesses, the ground under your 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. It’s all “holy ground.” Every place God’s place, every person God’s person. And that’s the gift of this moment. As a reminder for all of us. 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, and with all of us from this day forward, and will be I know especially for you, around you and under you and with you and all the days of your life. It’s all holy ground.

Bruce Robison