Sunday, March 27, 2011

Third in Lent, 2011

Year A, John 4

Grace and peace to you indeed as we have come now some distance along the Lenten journey this year, and I do hope and pray it has been so far a good and meaningful journey for you, as we recall over and over again that invitation we heard first read on Ash Wednesday “to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditation on God’s holy Word.”

In our three-year lectionary it is interesting and I think very appropriate that for two of those years, Years A and B, these middle weeks of Lent have appointed gospel readings from St. John. So as we are this year in Year A of the cycle last week Phil preached on John 3 and Nicodemus. This morning we have the Woman at the Well. Next Sunday John 9 and the Healing of the Man Born Blind. Then the Fifth Sunday in Lent we conclude the series with John 11 and the Raising of Lazarus.

Each of these really powerful and deep stories for us as places to pause on this road and invitations to go deeper and deeper, until on Palm Sunday we will share the story of the Passion in St. Matthew and come finally on Good Friday in St. John once again to stand at the foot of the Cross. I would invite you to make these stories part of your daily devotions during these weeks. Perhaps just to keep the Sunday service leaflet with you and in the week ahead take a few minutes to read the story again, to let the details settle in and to be suggestive and evocative. Something for a bus ride, or while waiting for your turn in the shower in the morning—or in whatever spaces may open up for you. Each of these readings from St. John framing this part of our journey for us in a pattern of transformation, death and rebirth, the pattern of the baptismal mystery, from Friday to Sunday, with the encounter with Jesus himself always at the center, the critical point of transition.

Often we don’t always know why a writer has written a book. Some simply have a story to tell, I suppose with the hope of receiving a royalty check from the publisher. Others want to promote an agenda, to express a point of view, to persuade. St. John specifically tells us why he wrote his Gospel, at the end of the twentieth chapter, and I think it’s absolutely essential to hear this and to have it before us as we turn to look with care at the particulars of any part or section. So John chapter 20, verses 30 and 31: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written” – and here it is—“these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.”

That you may believe, and that believing, you may have life.

And these are of course the central themes not simply of John’s gospel or of Lent as a season of the Church Year, but of what it means to be a Christian at all. That we enter into a relationship of faith and trust and communion with Jesus, and that through that relationship as we are united in him there is in us and for us and through us a deep healing, a restoration, a renewal of life, confidence, hope.

So also we would turn all the way back to the first chapter of the gospel, as we read it several times in the celebration of Christmas: “The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world . . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father . . . . And from his fulness have we all received grace upon grace . . . .”

There are so many evocative, deep, and rich moments in the story this morning by that ancient well. The place itself, outside the city of Sychar, or Shechem, where in Genesis 33 Abraham's grandson Jacob bought his first piece of land in Canaan, conjuring up the ancient memory of God’s promises through the patriarchs. “By you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.”

And there is the conversation about water. The water of the well, the water of the Old Covenant, and the fresh and new and living water in Christ. “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

And there is the way Jesus looks into the life of the woman. Our friend the New Testament scholar Dr. Ken Bailey, who has spoken here at St. Andrew’s several times over the years, points out how significant it is that the woman comes to the well at midday and not, with the rest of the women of the village, in the early morning. Perhaps to avoid the finger-pointing and tongue-wagging that she would expect to receive from the others. She would studiously avoid the subject of her own brokenness, but Jesus gets the whole business out on the table. And then the contrast of the shrine of the Samaritans and the Temple in Jerusalem, and the coming hour, when those earthy sanctuaries are swept aside. “The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.”

But we would perhaps just stand with the woman for a few moments this morning, and through this week ahead, and allow Jesus to reflect back to us whatever it is that he would see in us. What we have tried to avoid thinking about or talking about. About ourselves. Because it is only then and there that we come to the turning point of the story. As we are known by him, so he shares himself with us.

The woman says, “When the Messiah comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” And Jesus says to her, in this remarkable and stunning and breathtaking moment, “I am he. The one who is speaking to you” And then something happens in her. And she who so carefully avoided her neighbors suddenly is on fire to connect with them, to tell them what has happened to her. And in a mysterious process that we can’t really see happening from where we are standing, something happens with them too, in them, among them, and the whole of the community is gathered into the Spirit to offer their own confession of faith. A stunning, instantaneous, miraculous transformation. “We have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

The one who was broken, marginalized, rejected—now she is healed, and in that healing, in communion with Jesus, and through that healing , she becomes the catalyst and agent and evangelist to make possible the transformation in hope of her community. And we would see that grow from there, like the expanding ripples in the pond that follow the dropping of a single stone, in wider and wider circles. Across many miles, many generations.

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.”

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

Monday, March 21, 2011

Second in Lent, 2011

Our preacher this past Sunday morning at St. Andrew's was the Rev. Dr. Philip Wainwright. Dr. Wainwright, who retired from service as rector of St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Brentwood, Pennsylvania, in 2010, has recently been involved in a diocesan ministry initiative on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh. He also has been participating here at St. Andrew's on Sunday mornings and in our Adult Education programs. The text this Sunday was John 3: 1-17.

Food for Thought for Nicodemus

My text this morning is the one we just read from John’s gospel, describing a conversation between Jesus and a man called Nicodemus. It contains two or three famous verses, and we read it during Lent because it helps us understand Good Friday and Easter, and I want to take a few minutes to make the connection explicit. The text is in the service leaflet, and I urge you to follow along as I go through it.

John introduces Nicodemus as a Pharisee, which means he was a devoutly religious man, and as a ‘leader’. The Jewish Encyclopaedia says he may be Nicodemus ben Gurion, mentioned in the Talmud as a wealthy and popular spiritual leader of the day. Jesus refers to him in v 10 as a teacher of Israel, which is consistent with that. And clearly he is more than usually thoughtful about spiritual things, because although as a Pharisee he would have heard the disapproving comments many people were already making about Jesus—John has just referred to that in the preceding chapter of his gospel—Nicodemus was curious to know more, to find out for himself if Jesus has anything interesting to say. But Nicodemus came to see Jesus by night, which must mean a time late enough to be worth pointing out—when John refers to Nicodemus again later in the gospel he describes him as ‘Nicodemus, you know, the one who came to Jesus by night’.

Most commentators assume he comes at this odd time because of the disapproval of other Jewish leaders; Nicodemus didn’t want anyone else to know he was interested! As a result of that, Nicodemus has given his name to people who have to be, or think they have to be, secret Christians, people who can’t admit to their faith publicly. Anglican history is full of Nicodemites—people who had to keep quiet about their beliefs because the authorities disapproved of them. During the reign of Henry VIII almost everybody was a Nicodemite at some point!

Whatever the reasons for the time, it leads to a pretty deep discussion. Nicodemus begins by giving Jesus the opportunity to say more about the thing that troubled the Jewish leadership most, His lack of authority. You are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God. ‘You’ve turned water into wine, they say, and you created a big scene in the Temple during Passover when you drove out the people selling animals for sacrifice and upset the table of the currency exchange—I guess you’d say you’re God’s messenger or something along those lines?’

Jesus, as on many other occasions, not only ignores the question, but turns the spotlight back on the questioner. No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. Now I have to do a bit of editorialising here, because this is not the usual translation. The usual translation is born again, not born from above. What’s going on? Well, the Greek word written by John is anothen, and it can mean either, or according to my Classics teacher, both.

To use an ambiguous word in both of its senses at the same time was a popular literary device in the ancient world, and when we look closely at this passage it’s clear that both meanings are being drawn on here. We’ll begin by translating it born again, because that’s how Nicodemus understands it, but we’ll see how Jesus uses its other meaning to show Nicodemus, and the rest of us, how to be born again. But don’t let this figure of speech prevent you seeing what Jesus is doing in terms of the conversation; His reply is basically, ‘Never mind about My status, what about yours? Are you a citizen of the Kingdom of God? Have you been born again?’

I don’t think Nicodemus takes Jesus seriously at first. How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born? Perhaps it says more about me than Nicodemus, but I picture a bit of a superior expression on his face at this point. ‘What on earth can being born again mean? Come on Jesus, I’m trying to discuss serious things here.’

I am serious, says Jesus. Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above’. Now I think that Jesus is now beginning to draw on the alternative meaning of the ambiguous word; ‘If you want to understand Me, if you want to know if I’m really from God or not, if you want to know whether God is at work or if I’m just a cult-leader, you need to change, you need to be born again, and this second birth needs to be God’s work, not a physical birth but a spiritual birth, a birth from above. If you haven’t experienced that, Nicodemus, my teachings will never make sense to you, you’ll never know if I’ve come from God or not.’

But Nicodemus still doesn’t get it: How can these things be? There isn’t time to look at all of Jesus’s answer, but do look at v 13: No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. Jesus is the One from above; the way to be born again is through Him. And then Jesus explains to Nicodemus exactly how this works.

He does this by using an image from the Old Testament that every devout Jew knew well, the story about the bronze serpent in the wilderness. This story comes from the time when God had answered the prayers of His people by delivering them from slavery in Egypt, and is leading them through the wilderness to a land He tells them will be wonderful, a land flowing with milk and honey. But getting there through the wilderness is hard; they suffer in all sorts of ways, and eventually they begin to criticise God for delivering them, for answering their prayer in the first place. ‘Even slavery in Egypt was better than this!’

Now Jesus tells us that to call something God is doing evil is the sin against the Holy Spirit, and that there is no escaping the consequences of that; and on this occasion the consequences come in the form of a plague of poisonous snakes, and people are dying all over the place. Moses prays to God for help, and God says Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.1 Now I know that sounds about as strange as anything could, but the point is that Moses did what God told him, and sure enough everyone who looked at the bronze serpent was healed of his snakebite.

So when Jesus says just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life, that’s the story He is referring to. He is saying ‘This time, I’m going to be the snake for you. God is going to mount me on a kind of pole too, a cross, and there I’m going to absorb everything that came from the original serpent, the one who tempted people to disobey God in the first place, and all anyone who wants to be part of God’s kingdom needs to be is to believe in me the way the ancient Israelites believed in the bronze serpent, and then he can be part of God’s kingdom now, and have eternal life next.’

Humankind needs this, because we are dying of sin as surely as the Israelites were dying of snakebites, and we cannot put that right ourselves. Without intervention from above, we are doomed. And, fortunately, God loves His creation too much to leave us to the fate we have brought on ourselves. He loves Nicodemus, and you, and me so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

We don’t know for sure what Nicodemus eventually made of all this. If he had decided to put his own faith in Christ right aftr this conversation, it’s hard to imagine that John wouldn’t have mentioned it. The probability must be that he went home not knowing what to think, but realising that Jesus had given him a lot to think about. We know he continued to hang around when Jesus was speaking in public; he pops up again in chapter 7, when some of the Pharisees tried to say that Jesus was accursed, and he reminds them that they are supposed to listen and think before jumping to any conclusions. Perhaps that’s what he was still doing. After the crucifixion, he donates the spices and ointments used to prepare Jesus’s body for burial, perhaps simply a gesture of sympathy, but perhaps because by now he was part of the Christian community. There is a tradition that says he was martyred sometime in the first century, but we cannot be sure; but I like to think that we’re not being very fair to him when we use his name to refer to a secret Christian.

But the real question for today is not about Nicodemus, but about us. Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? asked Jesus. Do we understand these things? That Jesus taught that there is no way into the kingdom of God except through faith in the crucified messiah? Is that teaching a stumbling block for us? Or is it our hope and lifeline? It is, after all, the reason why Good Friday is called Good Friday, why it is something to celebrate, even if in our culture good manners tell us to put off the celebration till Easter Day. Something to think about, until it becomes something to thank God for every day of our lives.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

East End Lenten Series, Week One

For the past decade a cluster of "East End Pittsburgh" congregations of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh have shared a very meaningingful and enjoyable program of dinners and services on the five Tuesday evenings between Ash Wednesday and Holy Week. Last night, March 15, we began the 2011 series at Calvary Episcopal Church, in the East Liberty neighborhood.

The theme of the series this year is "Raised up . . . Made new" (from the phrase in the wonderful collect from the 8th century Gelasian Sacramentary found in several places in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, including the bottom of page 280, in the Good Friday service, "Let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new . . .").

Our Guest Preacher was the Rev. Dr. David Gleason, Senior Pastor of the First Lutheran Church of Pittsburgh, which is located on Grant Street downtown. It was a wonderful sermon, and David was kind enough to share the text--and I am glad to publish it here.

On Tuesday, March 22, 2011, we'll be at the Church of the Redeemer, in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, with dinner at 6 p.m. and the service at 7 p.m. Our preacher that evening will be the Rev. Dr. Harold T. Lewis, Rector of Calvary Church, Pittsburgh.

Theme: “Raised up … made new”
Calvary Episcopal Church
Pittsburgh, PA

15 March 2011
Text: Isaiah 43:16-21
The Rev.Dr. David Paul Gleason, D.Min.

Some of you, like me, probably grew up in Pittsburgh during the heyday of steel production. Back then, our city was an industrial giant. Its mill workers produced, in enormous quantity, the stuff of automobiles and airplanes and the skeletons of skyscrapers. The city occupied itself with making the makings of modern America. It was a prosperous place.

The average industrial worker felt secure and enjoyed benefits that earlier generations of workers never dared dream of. The city was thriving. It had double the number of residents it has now. Small business districts and family owned shops and stores were viable and profitable. Churches and schools were bursting at the seams. Neighborhoods had active community centers, open public swimming pools, and volunteer service groups. Streets were safe and we all lived a relatively secure existence.

I left Pittsburgh right after graduating from Peabody High School and was away for twenty-five years. By the time I came back, things were different. The American economy was globalized. Steel production and heavy industry were being moved off shore to take advantage of lower cost labor markets or were swallowed up in foreign competition. Much of American industry was gone.

Returning to Pittsburgh 22 years ago was like arriving in a new city, certainly not the one in which I grew up. It was no longer a steel town. High tech companies, medical research, a massive healthcare industry, educational enterprises, and financial institutions had clearly replaced steel production and heavy manufacturing. To be sure, the city was cleaner. It was also smaller. Neighborhood businesses were boarded up. Many parish churches were closed or consolidated with others. There were empty school buildings. And city government was headed into grave financial difficulty. Even my downtown neighborhood was facing hard times.

Twenty-two years ago, there was lots of talk about the need to create a new vision for Pittsburgh’s future. There was an equally great amount of frustration with the fact that no one seemed capable of offering such a vision. The prevailing sentiment among community leaders at the time indicated that if there ever was a vision for the city it belonged to Mayor Richard Caligueri and that when he died, the vision died with him. No one seemed able to provide his visionary leadership. No one emerged as capable of building a coalition of government and the private sector to work at stabilizing and invigorating our city and its economy.

Seeing all this from the perspective of a new pastor in the heart of the city, it struck me that Pittsburgh was caught in the grip of a mid-life crisis. Mid-life crises rear their ugly heads whenever we examine our lives and find ourselves harboring the suspicion that the best is behind us. Such crises afflict us whenever we think ourselves heading into a downhill slide, whenever we begin to wonder if what we have already achieved is all that we can, or whenever we see our health on the wane, moving us slowly but surely to the inevitable end. Mid-life crises strike whenever the future offers little excitement and hope for anything new. Whenever we see our lives as more of the same old stuff day after day, we know that we are in trouble. Mid-life crises also strike whenever we come to believe that nothing can ever be as good as it once was, or that our lives are filled with such miserable failures of the past that we shall never be able to overcome them and move on to something better.

A form of mid-life crises can and does strike even young people. Anytime they begin to believe that the best life has to offer has already been given them, they are in crisis and see little hope for the future. Whenever they see themselves joyously looking back to the carefree days of childhood and looking ahead with dread to the responsibilities that attend maturity, they are in serious crisis.

Perhaps it was something akin to a mid-life crisis that the people of Israel were feeling during their Babylonian exile. They could easily remember how good God had once been. They could recall the stories of their ancestors telling of how God had treated them in glory days gone by. In our text for tonight, the prophet Isaiah reminds them of such glorious times.

He reminds them of how the Lord powerfully delivered them out of bondage in Egypt, of how he made a way for them through the sea, of how he stacked up the waters on either side of them so they could pass through the sea on dry ground, and of how Pharaoh’s chariots, horses, and soldiers were lost when the perilous waters returned to their place. Isaiah reminds of how, in his deep love for his people, God smashed the power of Egypt and gave Israel her freedom. There could be no question of how good God had been to them, of how deeply he loved them, or of how mightily he acted on their behalf.

Now in exile, they see the best behind them and they are losing hope. They have no ability to formulate a vision for their future. So, Isaiah steps to the fore to declare a word of pure Gospel, a powerful word of Good News. He tells them that as good as it once was, as powerful as God’s acts on their behalf once were, they should simply forget them. Forget the past entirely. Forget it because God is now about to do a new thing.

He will release them from their exile and return them to their home. This time, he will cut a straight path across the more than 600 miles that separate Babylon from Jerusalem. This time there will be no wandering about in the wilderness for forty years. This time he will, straight away, carry them home. They will have no concern for food or water as they travel. God will provide whatever they need. He will give them rivers in the desert. Even wild animals will stand in awe of what God does and will offer their own unique sort of praise. God will care for his people. Everything will be made new and better than ever. Isaiah invites his people boldly to take hold of the freedom God still has in store for them.

A people in exile needed to hear such words of Gospel, such words of hope and vision. But we need to hear them, too. And so does our city and its people and our respective churches. Such words of Gospel, of Good News, are what our life in Christ and as his people are about. Our lives are about possibility; about the possibility God opens through his deep and abiding love for us in Christ. He does not want either the glory of the past or its failures to have the last word on our lives

So, while you may fondly remember the great beauty and joy of your wedding day, God can lead you and your spouse into deeper and more intimate lives of commitment and love. You may recall the ecstasy that attended the birth of your first child and yet God can work in the life of that child in ways that will surprise even the proudest of parents. You may remember the satisfaction and pride you felt when you landed your job. Nevertheless God has the capacity to overshadow your satisfaction and pride with the possibility of genuine contentment in your work. You might recollect that you were once baptized into Christ but God will yet open for you the fullness of his baptismal promise and graciously grant you the eternal joy that only his children can know. You and I both may remember with longing the glorious unity in mission and ministry our respective ecclesial communities once enjoyed before extraordinarily sad divisions shattered our denominational lives. As good as it all has been, it is not as good as it gets.

Forget the glories of yesterday, and forget the failures, too. There have been lots of them; certainly enough to discourage us, perhaps even enough to lead us into despair at times. We have tried a great variety of things, even lots of new things, and we have discovered that not all new things are good and neither are all the old things. We have made many starts that never came to a successful finish. It would be easy to comfortably settle into what we know or just give in to it. It would be enticing to just try to maintain the status quo and not risk any future failure. But forget that, too. God is always doing a new thing and demanding that we seize the vision he holds out to us, and to cities in crisis, and to sadly broken denominations. Visions for the future always carry with them certain risks, but risks worth taking because of the possibility that attends them.

Isaiah calls upon the people of Israel to forget the glories and failures of the past and to envision what God still has in store. God calls us to do the same. His Gospel is always a Word of possibility, of new possibilities for the future. We are not destined to live in the past, no matter how glorious it may have seemed. God opens new worlds for us through his love in Christ. We are not destined to forever live with the pain of our failures, either; not even the failures of our sin. God graciously forgives and grants all of us a blessed new beginning. He invites us into an ever deeper relationship with his Christ, in whom the certainty of new life and even eternal life rests. He invites us to draw closer to him in faithful obedience and asks us to open a vision of new possibilities to all of his children.

We people of Christ have a message to communicate, a word to speak, a Word of possibility, of pure Gospel. It is understandable and all right occasionally to reminisce, to look back on the glories of the past. It is neither healthy nor productive to live there, however. God is always inviting his children to move forward, forward into the world of love, peace, and blessed contentment that he opens to them through the suffering and death of his Christ. So, remember God’s mighty acts of old. Remember them with awe and gratitude. Remember them, then, forget. Open yourself to a vision of yet more mighty acts to come. Look ahead in awe and gratitude. The fulfillment of God’s promises for your life in Christ and the life of his Church is yet to come. The best is yet to be. AMEN

Sunday, March 13, 2011

First in Lent, 2011

Genesis 2: 15-17; 3: 1-7; Matthew 4: 1-11

Good morning, and a word of blessing and encouragement for us as we each of us individually and all of us together sail out into the still mostly uncharted seas of this season of Lent in 2011.

It was the Feast of the Purification of St. Mary the Virgin, the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple, the second day of February, and the Pennsylvania groundhog they say foretold six more weeks of winter, and I know I’m watching the calendar carefully with much anticipation. Loved the sunshine yesterday.

In the C.S. Lewis story they talk about the land of Narnia as living for a long season when it was “always winter, but never Christmas.” I know we did have Christmas back there, though it seems a very distant memory at this point, and I suspect that for all of us in these weeks of Lent there will be much leaning forward as we move toward springtime and Easter. We move the clocks ahead this weekend, and none too soon, at least for me.

In any event, the words from the Ash Wednesday service would continue to echo around us. “I invite you therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” We may not know exactly what he has planned for us in this season, this year. There can be unexpected blessings, and of course also earthquakes and tsunamis. But we would open our minds and our hearts in this way, to be available for his purposes.

The lessons this morning are something like bookends. The ancient crisis, from the sacred word and most distant memory of our human origin. “Of Man’s first disobedience.” Paradise Lost. The moment when Adam and Eve truly became our parents, the mother and father of the reality of who we are, in all our weakness, our brokenness. We would I think watch them on that distant stage in rapt attention and in horror as we imagine all the unfaithfulness to follow.

Even if we’ve never read or heard this story before, we know it by heart. It is where we live. The great and tragic procession of this family of ours, one generation passing on the fatal seed to the next. The character of our human nature curving in on itself. One bite of the apple. And everything that is to come. Lies. Theft. Wars and holocaust. Broken promises. Betrayal. The mundane brutality of so much of our lives. Pride and self-centeredness. The words we speak even when we know they are hurtful and wrong. The choice to turn our eyes away so that we will not need to see. That wonderful phrase of Hannah Arendt in her book on Eichmann: “the banality of evil.” The force we like to minimize, to pretend doesn’t exist. Or at least, if it does exist, that it mostly is known and seen in others, and far away from wherever we are. “She took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.” That’s where our story begins.

And so in the fourth chapter of St. Matthew it is as though we crawl on our hands and knees on this First Sunday in Lent in our fig-leaf loincloths, sons of Adam, Eve's daughters, heading out into the desert to see the story proceed according to the ancient pattern once again.

Has it ever been otherwise? It’s like the empty stage of a Samuel Beckett play. The existential platform. One Man, and the Ancient Enemy. Eye to eye. Toe to toe. But the story takes an unexpected turn. Breathtaking, even.

And here, now, look at this: a new Adam. The power of God intervening turns the page to a new chapter. And then—and then there are angels everywhere. That’s the key, the sign, the most important part. The angels.

If the old story ends with ejection, and rejection, and the primal curse that is our heritage, here there is healing and renewal and all blessing. Here in Jesus. Healing and blessing. The First Sunday in Lent, but already before us singing out between the lines in the story of the Test in the Wilderness, the text of the greatest of the Easter hymns—Paul in First Corinthians. “For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” The Serpent is defeated at last.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent. These weeks. This journey to follow, to Jerusalem, to the Cross of Good Friday. And to the mystery of Easter. To open our eyes, and ears, mind and heart. For a season not of deprivation, but rather in prayer and reflective reading of Scripture and in the practice of generosity and mercy ourselves, to luxuriate in the richness of his grace. To be filled and overflowing with the abundance of his goodness, his love.

Because this story is all for us. In him is our victory. Night gives way to morning. Behold: all things made new, all for us. God’s angels sang above the hills of Bethlehem the night he was born. And when he faced down the Enemy in the desert. And this morning, First Sunday in Lent, they are in the air all around us here, to bring comfort and peace. As the old hymn: “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea; there’s a kindness in his justice, which is more than liberty. There is welcome for the sinner, and more graces for the good; there is mercy with the Savior; there is healing in his blood.”

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Last after the Epiphany, Quinquagesima 2011

Baptism of Lucy Jeanne Field

Good morning, and grace and peace to all.

A big day on the calendar. The official title in the lectionary is “The Last Sunday after the Feast of the Epiphany,” this year the Ninth Sunday after, which is as long is this season can go. Also called sometimes “Transfiguration Sunday” because of the gospel and epistle readings appointed in modern lectionaries for this Last Sunday before Lent begins (but not the Feast of the Transfiguration, which is August 6)—and in the old calendar, Quinquagesima, the last of the three Sundays of Pre-Lent, fifty days before Easter. Leaning forward. Getting ready to get ready.

In several places in the service we’ll notice an extra “alleluia” or two, and that’s because we put that wonderful celebratory acclamation away now during this more austere season, only to come forth again as we greet the Risen Christ on Easter Morning.

Most importantly for us this morning of course it’s a big day on the St. Andrew’s calendar as we join the great chorus of Angels and Archangels and all the Heavenly Host to sing our “Quinquagesima” alleluias with Lucy Jeanne Field, as she is sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.

It has been fun getting to know Lucy, as we met her as I recall a month or maybe it was two months before her official arrival, and as we have seen her week by week and as she and mom and dad have settled in to their new patterns of family life. She’s been a regular attender at the 11 a.m. service, and like most who attend regularly she has more or less decided on which pew is hers (usually about four from the back on the gospel side) and she has developed some strong but always diplomatic habits in providing the rector with regular and opinionated sermon feedback. So she’s been fitting right in with the rest of you! I’m sure once she gets her own Facebook account I’ll be hearing from her even more often.

So--welcome to the family, indeed, Lucy, and as we celebrate today and also have you and your mom and dad very much in our thoughts and prayers especially in the days ahead—as Lucy will be having surgery early this week over at Children’s Hospital to correct a problem with her heart that she was born with. I know that’s a lot for mom and dad, and we’ll have you all in our hearts and in our prayers with much love as that unfolds.

In our readings for this Last Sunday after the Epiphany we are all about “mountaintop experiences.” Moses on Sinai. Jesus and his disciples at the Mount of Transfiguration. Above the noise, the crowds. Away from the busyness of everyday life. Responsibilities, deadlines. In the Biblical story God shows himself to people in all sorts of places—in the garden, in the temple, on the battlefield. Awake, and in dreams. Just while traveling down the road. But there is something to these Mountaintop moments. Perhaps wherever you are, when you hear God speak, that is a Mountaintop. A place of vision and revelation.

So for us--here this morning at the baptismal font. At the altar and communion rail. As the scriptures are read and heard. God speaking, making himself known to us. Mountaintop experiences.

I haven't read this since college, but I remember this great moment in William Wordsworth later poem, The Prelude. Wordsworth is out climbing in the Alps with a friend, and ruminating in a poetical way about what it will be like to reach the summit, to be able to see the wide vista there at what would seem like the very top of the world. He and his companion climb the steep winding path with their guide, thinking about all these things, trying to put words together for the literary expression that will mark this great and high moment.

And then Wordsworth and his friend get a little lost, and they wander a bit, follow some side paths, are detached from their guide, and finally after some hours of meandering they meet some other travelers--only to discover, as they talk with them, that in their wandering, unawares, they had already passed the summit. They missed it. John Lennon said in his song, “Life is what happens while you’re making other plans.”

And certainly one thought about this, to say for Chris and Jessica this morning and the first days and weeks with lovely baby Lucy, as a new family together, that you would savor each moment. And then to say, and certainly with many others who have walked this road before you, that you blink twice and she’s borrowing the keys to the car and moving off to college. And you say, “when did that happen?” I find myself saying that all the time, and sometimes with real regret. Peter wants to hit the “pause” button up there on the mountain. “Can’t we just pitch our tents here and hold on to this moment?” They all catch their breath in wonder at the vision. But by the time they exhale, the moment has passed.

The point of the Transfiguration story, all our mountaintop stories, isn’t the altitude and elevation, but who we meet there, what that encounter does for us, in us. Who we become. How we are changed as we head back down to the life of the world. Wherever that mountaintop may be for us.

In Matthew’s gospel we’ve gone from the Sermon on the Mount to this Mount of Transfiguration. And in a few weeks we’ll follow the crowd out of the city to the hill called Golgotha, where God will show himself to us on a cross. And then a few weeks after that we’ll meet him again, on the Mountain of the Great Commission, sending us out to continue his work, to be miracle workers of healing and reconciliation, to proclaim the gospel, to teach, to baptize all nations in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

From mountaintop to mountaintop to mountaintop. God present in our lives, revealing himself to us in so many ways. In word and sacrament. In prayer, in worship. In the quiet meditation of our hearts. This is my beloved Son. Listen to him. If we were to write that on a 3x5 card and carry it around with us this Lent. Listen to him. That we would open our eyes, our ears, our hearts. To receive the gift that he is, for us.

However we got here today, let this place be the Holy Mountain for us, right here, this morning. As we touch also the waters of baptism. With Lucy. We die with Christ here at this font, that we may be raised up in his resurrection. A renewal of life that we begin to experience even now. And as we share in his Body, the Bread and Cup of the New Kingdom. As he shows himself to us. Lifts us up into himself. And sends us out rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.

And now with great pleasure I would like to ask Lucy Jeanne Field to bring her family and her godparents to the front of the Church, as we continue this celebration this morning.