Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Holy Matrimony

Linda Devlin West and Frank Klavon

Linda and Frank: what a wonderful day! I would begin this afternoon simply by expressing my appreciation, and I know this is on behalf of all the family and friends here today. It’s an honor and a privilege and a joy to be here to stand with you as you exchange the vows that will be make you husband and wife. And certainly I know that the memory of this day will be for all of us, as it will be for you, a gift of great blessing.

As we were looking over the Church Calendar a few weeks ago someone said, “Wednesday is an unusual day for a wedding.” And it is true that it is unusual. But this Wednesday in particular seems to me to be quite appropriate, here in Christmas Week, with all the beauty of the season still around us. We think about Christmas as a Feast of the Holy Family, as for the first time we glimpse Mary and Joseph and the Baby Jesus all together there in the stable. And it is as a family we gather this afternoon, and as by your vows all the richness of your relationship is now lifted up into a new level of meaning, as your two families are today made one family.

I also have been thinking how appropriate and fun it is that in the Christmas Carol today, December 29, the Fifth Day of Christmas, as associated with this great gift, “Five Golden Rings!” To add to four Calling Birds, three French Hens, two Turtledoves, and the Partridge in the Pear Tree. The Fifth Day of Christmas, and this big and extravagant gift. Precious gold and jewelry. And on this Fifth Day of Christmas, we come here to witness the exchange of vows that make you husband and wife, and to witness the giving and receiving of rings.

In the old Anglican Prayer Books the words that the groom would speak to the bridge at the giving of the ring were meaningful and memorable in a deeply poetic way: “With this ring I thee wed; with my body I thee worship; and with all my worldly goods I thee endow.”

The giving of rings with the vows of marriage will represent for us in a symbolic way the totality of the gift that you make today, one to the other. “What’s mine is yours.” “My life now is in your hands.” A gift freely given, of vulnerability, and so of trust. And we think today about what it means to give that gift to another. And what it means to be given that gift. A sense of such profound stewardship, and responsibility.

This gift is of course at the heart of the sacramental miracle of Christmas. As God allows himself to become weak, vulnerable. To be born in a stable, to lie in the manger bed, to depend on his Mother, on his new human family. And this gift is what inspires us to call Holy Matrimony a sacrament. Because in it, in what you two promise today and in the life you share, we are privileged to catch a glimpse of what it means to say that “God so loved the world.”

And so, blessings to you today. Merry Christmas. Joy in the New Year. And joy and peace and happiness and abundant blessings in your life together.

Bruce Robison

Sunday, December 26, 2010

First Christmas

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 Second Day of Christmas, my true love gave to me—two turtledoves? 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 2010. For me it had some up’s and some down’s, and there have been some wonderful highlights, 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 nearly two weeks of formal Christmastide still to go. Officially Christmas lasts 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. Which would make for a song way too long sing at Christmas parties.

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 pinnacle, 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

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Sermon

December 24, 2010 Christmas Eve

Good evening, friends, and as we gather here in the embrace of heaven’s first light, grace and peace to you, from God our Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ, who is King of Kings and Lord of Lords, Firstborn of Creation, the Head of the Church, the Author of our Salvation, born that winter night so long ago in the Bethlehem Stable, and, I pray, to be born this night fresh and new in our hearts and in our lives. To be born this night fresh and new in our hearts and in our lives.

Some of you if you were cruising around the internet early this morning may know that I posted up as my Facebook status a quotation from J.C. Ryle, the great old 19th century Evangelical Church of England Bishop of Liverpool, and one of my favorites as a devotional and theological writer. Just this word: Christ is He who has the keys of death and hell. Christ is the anointed Priest, who alone can absolve sinners. Christ is the fountain of living waters, in whom alone we can be cleansed. Christ is the Prince and Savior, who alone can give repentance and remission of sins. In Him all fullness dwells.

And so, may this night and this holy season be truly a blessing for you, rich and abundant in every way, as we gather here at the stable. An opportunity here at the turning of the year to be renewed in Christ, to renew as a matter of our own conscious decision, our loyalty to him--as we join with Mary and Joseph and the Shepherds and all the Angelic Host to welcome him into our lives. However we got here. Whatever the circumstances. To know and believe deep down that it has been God’s plan and in his heart and mind from the beginning of creation to bring us here tonight.

Our “Prince and Savior . . . . In him all fullness dwells.” And he has better things in mind for us than we could ever ask for or imagine.

O Jesus, I have promised to serve thee to the end; be thou forever near me, my Master and my friend. I shall not fear the battle if thou art by my side, nor wander from the pathway if thou wilt be my guide.

That’s not a Christmas carol, but it is what we might all sing here this evening. A prayer Renewal. Rededication.

What I would hope we will hear in all the wonderful readings and anthems and hymns of this night and in this holy place, is that he has dedicated himself to us. To me, to you. Each one of us. No matter how far away we may have drifted. No matter how ambivalent we may feel about the meaning and direction of our lives.

He didn’t wait until we somehow got our lives up to a higher standard. Which is a good thing. I don’t need to look around the room for evidence of that. All I need to do is look into a mirror. Born for us in Bethlehem, and on his way to Good Friday and the Cross for us. He’s here tonight. Our “Prince and Savior.” Ready or not.

And Mary looks across at us. Would you like to hold the baby? Would you? You came all this way. Here, take him for a moment and hold him close.

I don’t know what kind of messes you may have got yourself tangled up in 2010. I know I got myself into a few. When you get right down to it it’s pretty much the same story for all of us. We give as good as we get. We break promises. We lie cheat and steal. One way or another. Certainly even in undramatic ways fall short of our ideals. Even our better intentions are broken at least half the time by pride, lust, gluttony, all the patterns of self-centeredness. Sometimes just laziness.

But then in the same world we live in, the Shepherds hear the Host of Heaven. Christmas Eve, and they didn’t even have to go to Church. The choir came to them. Found them where they were. And so St. Paul in Romans 8: “Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” That’s what the real message is and needs to be in every Christmas card.

All around us, then, tonight, the encouragement of this wonderful song of Isaiah, as Melinda has read it for us. To the lost and the least, the broken-down and the broken-hearted, God’s Chosen People from the first breath of the universe now defeated, scattered, lost, good for nothing.

Break forth into joy, sing together, ye waste places of Jerusalem: for the LORD hath comforted his people, he hath redeemed Jerusalem. The LORD hath made bare his holy arm in the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.

The power of God, his strength. The love of God, his mercy. The compassion of God, his sacrifice. All for us. “In him all fullness dwells.” See him in a manger laid, whom the angels praise above.

Baby Jesus: how still we see thee lie. Born that dark winter night so long ago in the Bethlehem Stable, and, I pray, to be born this night fresh and new in our hearts and in our lives. An invitation for us to open the doors, as he comes knocking tonight. Not only for the contemplatives and mystics, but for us all. That he might dwell in us, and we in him. To be born this night fresh and new in our hearts and in our lives.

Blessings, friends, and joy, peace, in Christ Jesus, in the New Year ahead. And Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve, 2010

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.)

December 24, in the Morning

The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom like the rose. It shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice even with joy and singing; the glory of Lebanon shall be given unto it, the excellency of Carmel and Sharon; they shall see the glory of the LORD, and the excellency of our God.

Isaiah 35

Friday in the Fourth Week of Advent

Look upon Zion, city of our solemn feasts,
let your eyes rest on Jerusalem,
a land of comfort,
a tent that shall never be shifted . . . .

Isaiah 33

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Thursday in the Fourth Week of Advent

I saw no temple in the city; for its temple was the sovereign Lord God and the Lamb. And the city had no need of sun or moon to shine upon it; for the glory of God gave it light, and its lamp was the Lamb. By its light shall the nations walk, and the kings of the earth shall bring into it all their splendor.
~~Revelation 21

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Wednesday in the Fourth Week of Advent


~ R. S. Thomas

Moments of great calm,
Kneeling before an altar
Of wood in a stone church
In summer, waiting for the God
To speak; the air a staircase
For silence; the sun’s light
Ringing me, as though I acted
A great rôle. And the audiences
Still; all that close throng
Of spirits waiting, as I,
For the message.
Prompt me, God;
But not yet. When I speak,
Though it be you who speak
Through me, something is lost.
The meaning is in the waiting.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Tuesday in the Fourth Week of Advent

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had vanished, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready like a bride adorned for her husband.

I heard a loud voice proclaiming from the throne: "Now at last God has his dwelling among men! He will dwell among them and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes; there shall be an end to death, and to mourning and crying and pain; for the old order has passed away!" Then he who sat on the throne said, "Behold, I make all things new!" Revelation xx

Thomas the Apostle

Thomas saith unto him, "Lord, we know not whither thou goest, and how can we know the way?" Jesus saith unto him, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man cometh unto the Father but by me." John xiv

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, December 20, 2010

Monday in the Fourth Week of Advent

O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum, super quem continebunt reges os suum, quem gentes deprecabuntur: veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.

From the Eleventh Chapter of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah:

And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots:

And the spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD . . . .

O Root of Jesse, who stands for an ensign of the people, before whom kings shall keep silence and unto whom the Gentiles shall make supplication: Come to deliver us, and tarry not.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Fourth Advent, 2010

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

Friday, December 17, 2010

Holy Matrimony

Lara Elizabeth Novelly and Michael Joseph Lueck
Song of Solomon 2: 10-13, 8: 6-7

Lara and Mike, what I want to say first to you, and I know I’m speaking for all the family and friends gathered here this afternoon, is thank you. It is for us all, and for me personally, a privilege and a joy to be sharing this day 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 and bless your relationship as husband and wife. It’s a great day!

I know you and your families have been very busy these past few weeks, with all the arrangements of the day, and not to mention work and school and final exams! I would just say, congratulations to you, and with so many good thoughts of friendship and blessings upon you as you move forward together into this new chapter of your life. You are two great young people, and we thank you for this day, for the good things that will come in your life. And Mike, also, just to say that we would thank you as well for your commitment to serving our country as you complete your education.

We’ve had the chance to get to know each other during this time, and as so much has been going on in your lives, and with your family. I want to say this afternoon what I’ve said to you privately, and that is simply how much a gift it has been for me to get to know you, in this time that has been for you both and for your families full of much joy but also of many challenges. A time of energy and new beginning, but also of tenderness and vulnerability. What I’ve seen in you has really been a gift, and actually an inspiration. You are young people, but you have shown me deep maturity, responsibility, and thoughtfulness and wisdom and grace and generosity, and courage, in your lives. Sometimes in a wedding we talk about these characteristics as things that are going to grow over the years, and I know they will for you. But these are also present now for you in a very rich way, and will be a foundation already for years to come.

The lesson that you selected, from the Old Testament Book of the Song of Solomon, 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 his hope for us, each one of us, as we grow to be the people he has created us to be at our best. The song of the Lover and the Beloved. And I am reminded of the beautiful lines of the New Testament book of First John in the fourth chapter. “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God . . . . God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.” My prayer for you is that the love that you so clearly have for each other will continue to grow, with the gifts of personal affection and of faith, for you personally and in wider and wider circles, all the days of your life.

And of course also this reading of the Prayer of St. Francis, which is to me just about the most perfect expression of what we might call a Christian lifestyle. To pray not to be loved so much as to have the strength and grace to love others. Something we all certainly will fall short of much of the time, but a vision of what it might be to live in a Christ-like way.

And I think with a very appropriate application to a marriage. For you as you relate to one another now as husband and wife, and for you as a couple as you make the decisions about how you will live together, about work and family, your friends and neighbors. The whole world seems to want to tell us sometimes that I should want everything to be about me, about what makes me happy.

But the message, to say simply, that the deepest happiness, the Christian hope that will lead us successfully through this life and to eternal life, is about what we give rather than what we get. About giving ourselves away. As we say in those offertory words every Sunday morning, to “walk in love, as Christ loved us, and gave himself for 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, Mike and Lara, 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 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. 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 Lara and Michael come forward to exchange the vows of their marriage, 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

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Third Advent

Year A Isaiah 35: 1-10, Matthew 11: 2-11

Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness. And put upon us the armor of light.

The opening words of Archbishop Cranmer’s great Advent Sunday collect certainly echoing down the centuries to us, and echoing in us as year by year they are repeated through this season as the year turns toward winter, nights growing longer and longer--and the ancient and almost primordial yearning for light and warmth and vitality now the lens through which we see the birth, the life, the death, and the resurrection of our Lord Jesus.

A prayer that in Christ and through Christ and with Christ we will ourselves in this season of incarnation be reborn and renewed, given new life, new identity. To borrow a phrase, as we set out into a new year we pray that we would “dress for success.” We pray, dress us now “with Christ.” Let us put him on, our “armor of light,” so that when the world would look at us, he would be the one seen and made known. In a season, maybe even a culture and a world that keeps trying to seduce us with the idea that everything should be about us, this turns us in a different direction. It turns out, it isn’t all about us. Which when you get right down to it really is good news.

The lighting of the Rose Advent Candle on the Wreath this morning reminds us of the name of this Sunday, Gaudete Sunday. Latin, “Rejoice.” In the traditional mass order the Introit for this Sunday the text from Philippians 4 that our Choir will sing at the offertory. Gaudete in domino semper. Rejoice in the Lord always. That not meant as a kind of encouragement to go to Church on Sunday, but even more as a statement about Christian life, ethics, morality. How we live. Metaphorically, what we wear. Put upon us the armor of light, so that we are ourselves in the process of becoming windows. That he may be seen in us.

I mentioned to Bill Ghrist this week in our Wednesday morning Bible Study that this passage from St. Matthew, the dialogue between Jesus and the disciples of John the Baptist, reminds me right away of the famous saying attributed often to St. Francis. “Preach always; when necessary use words.” If those John had sent were expecting a theological discourse from Jesus, they were at least somewhat disappointed. “Just look around for a while, and then go back and tell John what you have seen with your own eyes.”

Not exactly to say that talk is cheap. But when you get right down to it, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. If you’re going to talk the talk, it’s important to walk the walk. A basket full of clichés, but they become familiar because deep down we know just how true they are.

Jesus obviously knows his Bible, and Isaiah 35: “The eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; the lame shall leap like a deer, the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” But the reality here comes first. Jesus doesn’t come to tell us about the kingdom.

Instead, where he is, the Kingdom happens. Comes to life. And there is healing, and renewal, and life. An abundance of goodness, peace and good will, kindness, generosity, forgiveness. Because he is there. Because God is there acting, as never before, or at least as never since the first day of Creation, when he said “Let there be light,” and there was light.

“God himself is with us. Let us now adore him, and with awe appear before him.” An old German hymn from the 18th century, and of course right at the heart of our Advent and the season ahead. What are we waiting for? Who are we waiting for?

These Christians, how they love one another! Certainly the challenge before us on this morning and in this Advent and Christmas. For our lives as individuals and in our families and in the life of our congregation and as God’s people, his Church. Where he is, the Kingdom happens. Healing, renewal. Generosity, forgiveness.

Give us grace, that we may cast away the works of darkness; and put upon us the armor of light. To dress for success. Not that he would serve our purposes, but that we would be drawn up into his, and into him.

I am always struck in our services of Holy Communion with the invitation at the time of the Confession: “Ye who do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbors, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways: Draw near with faith . . ..”

Not about charting up a list of misbehaviors from the last week to apologize for. Instead, to intend to lead a new life. And amazing that we say that again and again, from childhood to old age, in every season. Wherever we are. However we are living. Not something we can accomplish in ourselves or for ourselves. But to say that we know and believe, that where Jesus is, the Kingdom happens, and that we ask him to be here with us.

And so Advent blessings on this Gaudete Sunday. Rejoice in the Lord always. Life in abundance and life eternal. Grace and peace. Forgiveness, healing. New life. Our King and Savior draweth nigh. O come, let us adore him.

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

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Second Advent, 2010

Isaiah 11: 1-10; Romans 15: 4-13; Matthew 3: 1-12

Advent blessings to all again this morning, as we roll on now into December and in so many different ways in so many different parts of our lives involved in a season of preparation. Getting ready for the holidays. Getting ready for the new year. Preparing our homes—as Susy and I have been puttering around for our Open House this afternoon (and I hope you all have that on your calendars!). Cleaning, decorating, cooking, gift-buying. Planning. Watching with the children of our lives as they hear the stories in fresh ways, with all the wonder and excitement that comes with it. That’s always the best part.

And as we enter into the pattern of the season as well, that process in us that sometimes gets caught up in the activity of “New Year Resolutions.” Whether we do that formally or informally. It’s been a whole year since last Christmas, which is in so many ways so hard to believe. Seems sometimes like 15 minutes, other times like a decade. Thinking of all the events, changes, accomplishments, losses. Joys and sorrows. Births and deaths. Victories and failures. Thinking of who we are becoming in the big picture of our lives. Growing in some ways, and perhaps not so much, in other ways. Moving in multiple directions at the same time. And aware of the places where we may be stuck. And where we’ve lost ground. Wondering how we did with those New Year 2010 Resolutions, if we can even remember them.

There are lots of ways to approach Advent as a season of the new Church Year. The lectionary gives us this wonderful series of messianic readings from Isaiah, a sequence from Paul to the Romans, and in the gospel two Sundays of John the Baptist and then this year Matthew’s story of Joseph’s dream, wherein the angel tells him of Mary’s pregnancy and instructs him to marry her. As our Church School families light the candles on the Wreath and the kids rehearse the pageant, once again we hear about characters of the Christmas story: prophets and shepherds and angels. Which is sort of how the little Bible-themed Advent Calendars work.

In earlier times the four Advent Sundays were associated with what were called the “Four Last Things.” Death and Judgment, Heaven and Hell.” Certainly an attractive sermon series for the season! Just the thing to get everybody into the mood for the coming festivities . . . . We smile at that, perhaps. But it’s not because we don’t want to take things seriously. It’s easy for this season to be all about superficiality. Superficial things and activities and relationships. But I think we yearn for what is deeper. For clearer messages, for a truth that will last, something that really means something.

It wasn’t Christmas when Paul wrote to the Romans. That concept wouldn’t have made any sense to him or them at all. But as we listen to this—what is arguably the single greatest work of St. Paul and perhaps the most important essay and exploration of Christian theology ever written—we hear implied in Paul’s audience, as it were, so many of the same issues that we wrestle with in our lives. Concerns about the larger meaning of life, about how we do the right thing in a culture of moral ambiguity that seems in many ways alien, strange. About how to deal with relationships that don’t work. About conflict and disagreement and anxiety. All what we might call the “pastoral context” for the letter.

There are of course libraries of books written about what Paul does in these sixteen short chapters. It is in reflection on Romans that St. Augustine of Hippo begins to formulate a theology and spirituality that in many ways lies at the very heart of our western theological tradition. It is in reflection on Romans that Luther begins his great work of Reformation, and a couple of hundred years later that inspires John Wesley in his conversion experience at the Aldersgate Meeting to his ministry of renewal in the Church of England. In the early 20th Century Karl Barth, the Swiss Reformed theologian who really framed and frames the theological conversation for us even today, who Pope Pius XII said was the greatest Christian thinker since Thomas Aquinas, re-energized modern theology with his Commentary on Romans.

To say that “the God who is revealed in the cross of Jesus challenges and overthrows any attempt to ally God with human cultures, achievements, or possessions.” 90 years later Barth is still the at the center of just about every theological movement and discussion in one way or another. And all that just to say that to be coming again to Romans in these first Sundays of the new Church Year is to come to an important place, at the heart and center of Christian life and identity.

In any event, the reading from Romans 15 this morning certainly has an Advent feel, especially in its quotation of the messianic material from Isaiah. Echoing in the context of the life of the early Christian family the ancient word of hope about God’s action to restore and renew his Covenant, this time not simply with the Chosen People of Israel, but through them to bless and restore relationship with all the human family. Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles . . . in him the Gentiles shall hope.

In all of this, on this Second Advent Sunday, I would just like to highlight two sentences, actually three verses--5, 6, and 7. “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” That’s sentence number one. Then, “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”

Probably these are sentences that Augustine or Luther or Wesley or Barth would have highlighted in their deep encounters with Romans. But I think this stands out for me in some ways because I continue to be dismayed, and have been thinking about this a good deal lately, by the ways in which division, separation, exclusion, and hostility have infected not simply the world, not simply the nation and the body politic, but communities, neighbors, families. And also the Church. Environmental biologists will talk about how a particular area may become a “toxic environment,” and that phrase seems to describe things in a lot of different contexts. Not for the first time, of course, and perhaps it’s even true to say that it has been true pretty much at all times. The human condition. But it would be dangerous if that led us into complacency. There is an urgency in Paul’s words here that would have a sharp enough point to penetrate our thick skins and get through to our thick skulls.

That what we as Christians need to be about, if we aren’t just going to be about the superficial things—what we need to be about, and perhaps in our “New Year’s Resolutions” this Advent and in the year ahead, is to share in the work of glorifying God not simply with our lips but in our lives—our lives individually, and our lives together as a community. Family. Neighborhood. Nation. And Church. Parish, diocese, all the interweaving relationships.

Our friends of Presbyterian background will remember that wonderful phrase at the beginning of the Westminster Catechism. The Chief End of Man is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever. And that includes what we do in these wonderful services of worship, but it goes beyond as well into the character of our lives. About welcoming, forgiving, healing, renewing—about being ourselves the visible evidence of what Christ accomplished at the Cross. Which is what we would be called to think about as we think about how to be Christian people.

How to be a Church. How to be ourselves like the Manger in the Stable, the place where people would come to see Jesus. Signs of grace, generosity, true affection. Called to make peace, even in the places and even with the people who are difficult for us. As Isaiah says, “the wolf shall live with the lamb.”

It would be a prayer of Advent, our prayer, and of Christmas, Incarnation and Atonement, the sacramental mysteries of the Manger and the Cross. Jesus born in us and giving himself in us and through us, as we await his return. That we would find a way in our lives and in our communities not to entertain and scandalize the world with our conflicts and controversies, but to astonish with our love.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


The observance of Hanukkah, the Feast of the Dedication, begins this year 2010 at sunset on December 1.

From the Hebrew word for "dedication" or "consecration," Hanukkah marks the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem, in 168 B.C., 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.