Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Our Guest Preacher's Notes

Mary Beth Campbell, of Five Talents International, long-time mission partner of St. Andrew's, was scheduled as Guest Preacher for Sunday, August 28. Alas, though: Hurricane Irene stormed through, and all Saturday East Coast travel plans fell to the wayside.

Fortunately, though, Mary Beth was able to get to Pittsburgh later Sunday afternoon--in time to join a few members of the Five Talents Prayer Circle for a picnic in Joe and Marty Federowicz's backyard up in Glenshaw. That's Mary Beth, seated in the center of the front row in Paul Chamberlain's snapshot, between Jinny Fiske and Peg Ghrist:

In any event, Mary Beth was "ready to preach," and even though she couldn't make her way through the storm to our pulpit on Sunday morning, she indeed had a good word to share. I asked her if I could distribute her sermon notes here, and she generously agreed.

Texts for Proper 17A, Track Two, are Jeremiah 15:15-21 and Matthew 16:21-28.

Bruce, had I been able to be at Saint Andrew’s I would have said . . .

It would have been wonderful to worship with you at St. Andrew’s on behalf of Five Talents, a Christian micro finance ministry that St. Andrew’s has been supporting since 2006 through a dedicated prayer circle.

Your prayers and your gifts encircle our Five Talents community, especially the 30,000 micro-entrepreneurs in the developing countries in which we work, and especially the 2,213 micro-entrepreneurs, primarily women, who are in Peru. You dedicate your support to those entrepreenurs who live in Lima. There are also their Peruvian sisers, micro -entrepreneurs who live in a rural mountainous area of Huancavelica, which is the poorest region in all of Peru.

The suffering these women and their families have endured, the challenges they have overcome, and what they do to achieve success is not for the faint hearted, but then neither are today’s readings.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is speaking to his closest disciples about what is in store for himself – and then for them as well. It is not the kind of stuff one brings up at the start of a relationship.

Jesus starts with himself explaining that he is going to Jerusalem and will suffer and be killed, but on the third day he will be raised up.

This is too much for Peter. And like any beloved friend he objects.

Jesus sees in Peter’s objections the same kind of temptation he met in the desert shortly after his baptism. He recognizes in Peter’s words the lure of Satan, and he says the same thing he said in the desert: “Get behind me Satan!” What he rejects in the desert and again here with Peter is the temptation to live out his ministry with criteria that humans would use to judge it to be successful. A ministry of "reasonable limits", the conditions placed on how much we love and give — or give up or suffer — and even who suffers. Some suffering —but not too much. Some money to the poor but not too much that I cannot live comfortably.

This reminds me of an anecdote related to tithing. A very wealthy parishioner, whose church was suggesting that people consider 10% of their income to charities and causes of their choice, of which the church would simply be part, did the calculation and said to the minister,
“That is unreasonable! I make too much for that to realistically work. I’d be giving way too much.”

Way too much for who?
And whose money is it anyway if all we have really comes from God?
No gift can be too big for God’s vision.
God’s vision is for abundance for all. God’s love is unconditional. God’s forgiveness is unreasonable. God welcomes and heals everyone. God’s hospitality is radical.
In God’s Kingdom everyone is valued. Everyone has dignity and gifts. In God’s Kingdom our identity is as brothers and sisters in the family of God, our status then is as equals.
In God’s Kingdom all are called. Even though few will follow.

I believe Jesus is calling Peter and us to a deeper understanding of what it means to be a disciple by teaching us that it involves sacrifice and suffering.

This is something so big I think we have to grow into it like Peter. We learn it enroute because our human standards have other ideas.

I think Jesus is also teaching that discipleship involves discerning about sacrifice and suffering: What kind of suffering to accept as a by product of our vocation and calling if you will, and what kind of sacrifice and suffering is a by product of circumstances that need to be transformed and changed? Like the sacrifice of a parent who does not eat so their children can eat. Like the parent and child who suffer from malnutrition.

The entrepreneurs who are lifting themselves out of poverty, through Five Talents programs are able to shed the kind of circumstantial sacrifice and suffering that does not lead to health and wholeness.
Suffering is a big word that encompasses a lot. On a day when you have the time and energy I invite you to sit with your own suffering. Bring it before Christ and sit with it with Christ.

Like Jeremiah each of us can talk to God about it.
At first I did not understand why these two readings were together and then I realized that, Jeremiah’s lamentation is an example not simply of someone taking to God about his suffering, but this is the suffering that has come to Jeremiah because he has accepted God’s call to him. So in Jeremiah we have an example not only of what it might be like to be a disciple, but also one way to respond and pray.

Like Jeremiah, I discover when I sit with my own suffering that it is deeply personal. I hurt. But it also has a spiritual and social dimension. Like with Jeremiah, God is involved and so are other people. I definitely have an opinion about my suffering and an opinion about God and the others. I do not know if like Jeremiah I would go so far as to say that God is like a “deceptive brook, like waters that fail…” but I definitely do not always understand what grace is unfolding or what God’s design is. It can feel like water failing, but I am too polite in my prayer. I want to grow to be more like Jeremiah so that I can be honest and raw in my prayer, asking questions of God, and moving back and forth between the joy and consolation of a relationship with God. Jeremiah says, “ Under the weight of your hand, I sat alone.”

After all these years, I still want to “pretty up” my prayers for God when God already knows my heart. Jeremiah did not have that problem.

At Five Talents we dedicate all our efforts to alleviating poverty, because we believe that it is not the kind of suffering we should buck up and accept. All our efforts are motivated by our Christian belief that each of us has dignity and value in the eyes of God and that all of us deserve an opportunity to develop our gifts and to live out the call God has given us. We take a holistic approach and do not just offer money, but also offer business training and spiritual support and development. And all our work is enfolded in circles or groups of support. Women may be in a loan-based or a savings-based group, but they are never alone and are never sinking or swimming with just a financial bottom line.

Without community how can one live into the suffering and sacrifice that is part of developing and being who God calls us to be? Relationships are at the core of our mission and work.

When I was thinking about this passage this week I was especially thinking about our entrepreneurs. People like Olga and Nicolasa in Huancavelica, Peru.
Olga is a single mother whose husband abandoned her when her children were small and whose early life was marked by poverty and suffering. With 30 soles (or $10.68) in working capital she received a loan through Five Talents and launched a business selling vegetables. She actually launched her business as a response to community need. Olga said “During a very difficult time, I realized that many people in my neighborhood lacked basic necessities and I saw the difficulties that they were facing in getting vegetables and groceries in our community. We had to travel for 30 minutes in a small bus to Huancavelica city to get basic products.” Now her buisness is florurishing and she has even hired someone to work with her, creating a job for another.

Nicolasa received her first microloan in March of this year and runs a little shop that sells everything from sodas to crackers and oranges. It is like a little 7-11. On weekends, Nicolasa also sells vegetables at a market in Huancavelica. And she has a dream: to purchase her own transportation—a motorcycle—so she can move her product to market more quickly.

The passages we heard today are for them as well.

They deserve to have suffering in their life not because of circumstance, but as all children of God, the sacrifice and suffering that they accept as part of their Christian life, should be as a result of whatever their own vocation may be, whatever gifts God has given them to develop, and however they choose to be of service.
Their suffering, like ours, should be worthy of the ministry God has called each of us to live out as a vocation. Entrepreneurs, like Olga and Nicolasa, should not be the poster people for poverty, carrying it dutifully as their cross, with the rest of us donating and feeling good that we helped. Until poverty is alleviated, it will be for the poor, a cross of circumstance not vocation; but the rest of us, must find ways to carry the cross as well, so that together we all can have a chance to be the people God is calling us to be.

To grow in discipleship is to suffer the sacrifice and consequences of our call and also the radical, unreasonable unconditional love of God. My prayer for us all is that we hear God calling us and have the grace to follow Christ as a disciple. Like Peter, we will need to hear the lessons about sacrifice and suffering over and over as they sink in. And in Jeremiah, we have a dramatic example of what to do with our joys, works, sacrifices and sufferings. Take them to God. And don’t worry about making them pretty and polite. God knows what we are thinking.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Eleventh after Pentecost

(Proper 17A) Matthew 16: 21-28

Good morning, and grace and peace to you on this late summer morning. Last Sunday of August. Although you can’t tell it from the service leaflet, which we managed to get reprinted yesterday afternoon, I am this morning something of a pinch hitter as a preacher—and in that sense we are today among those affected by Hurricane Irene. For some weeks now Mary Beth Campbell, who is a senior program administrator and Director of Major Gifts with our mission partner, Five Talents International, has been on the calendar to be our Guest Preacher today—and then to be a guest for a gathering of our Five Talents Prayer Circle later on this afternoon, and then to meet with representatives of our diocesan Social Justice Task Force I believe tomorrow morning. But her Saturday flight was cancelled, and so she made a reservation for the Greyhound, and then that was cancelled. As of course I think we all understand, as so many of our friends and family members are among the 65 million people who live in the path of the storm this weekend. I believe she was rescheduled for a flight later today, which may get her here in time for the Prayer Circle gathering or at least for her scheduled meetings tomorrow, but I don’t know actually just how certain that is anyway—and we can hold her but then continue to hold in prayer all those whose lives have been affected, whether in terms of travel and business and vacation plans, or more seriously in terms of threats to life and property.

I’m also not sure of course what Mary Beth would have included in her sermon for us. In addition to her work with Five Talents she is also very active in her parish, St. Columba’s in Washington, D.C., working within healing and outreach ministries, and in the Diocese of Washington, where she chairs the committee that works on Millennium Development Goals, and she is a part-time student at the Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington—so I’m sure she would have had a lot to share, and I know we’re talking already about rescheduling, and I will look forward to that when it works with all our various calendars. In the meantime I do know for sure that she would have included in her sermon a time to express appreciation for the ministry of our Five Talents Prayer Circle in our support for the work of Five Talents in Lima, Peru, and for our support for our missionaries in Lima, John and Susan Park. Five Talents has been really a beautiful mission partnership for us of St. Andrew’s, for a number of years now, involving not just our adults but also our children in raising awareness and in opening the door to participation in Christian ministry in another part of the world. If she had been here, she would thanked us, and we in turn would have thanked her and all the folks at Five Talents for the opportunity for prayer and service and outreach that they have provided for us.

Where she would have gone with the reading from Matthew this morning, I’m less sure about. But I’m confident she would have had something to say about the call we have heard and that we share together, the invitation to conform our lives to Christ, to walk with him and in his footsteps, even as that walk can and will sometimes be costly and painful, even as faithfulness to him may within the experience and values of our life in this world lead us not to comfort and success but to hardship and suffering. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

This passage really has to do with a fundamental reorientation in terms of values. And even more, a reorientation of identity, and purpose. Our parish Outreach Committee had on its brochure for many years the motto, “Putting the love of God into action,” and I think that’s a helpful phrase. And if that sounds like any easy thing to do—putting the love of God into action in our lives,” then we’re probably not thinking it through all the way. There is this tendency in our culture to organize different aspects of our lives into categories. A dynamic filing system. I have family, friends, work, career, hobbies—and in there somewhere a folder for “church” or “religion” or “spirituality.” But what Jesus is talking about here is something very different. A commitment and a way of living that goes beyond the compartmentalized pattern of our lives. A commitment and a way of living that crosses between the dividers in the notebook, that takes hold of us and lifts us into a new frame of reference altogether. All of us. Not just the Sunday morning part. Not just the places where we’ve written “Church” in our dayplanner. Where it’s not just about us, about who we are, about how he fits into our busy lives and schedules—but where instead we offer ourselves to him. Where he is no longer a part of our agenda, but where we allow ourselves to be a part of us.

It is all about dying, which gives us the vocabulary of the cross in this lesson. Sometimes literally, as we read and hear of the stories of saints and heroes and martyrs of every generation, including very much our own. And sometimes about a dying to self, or to one version of ourselves, one set of priorities, so that through that death we can be raised in Christ to become someone new.

There’s a wonderful line in the third chapter of St. John, when John the Baptist says in reference to the life and ministry of Jesus, “I must decrease, so that he may increase.” In some ways it has to do with an emptying, with letting go. When we clear out the space filled with so much of the clutter of our lives, our goals and ambitions, our obsessions even, there can be this openness, this space, for him to grow up in us. If our hands are already full, then there’s nothing more we can do. No gift that we can receive.

An invitation this morning. All of us on a journey in faith, in relationship to Christ, drawn to him but trying to find just how that relationship can be perfected in us. And it will look different and be different for each of us. But an invitation to let go of our fear—which is what Jesus is talking to Peter about at the beginning of the passage this morning. To let go of our fear, as best we can, our need to control. And that’s a process. Step by step. Three forward and two back. Hearing his voice, responding, walking in his way. An invitation as we reach out our hands to receive his presence and to share in his life in the Bread and Wine of this Holy Communion, that we would ask him to put his love into action in our lives, to make us the instruments of his peace. That as we would share in his journey all the way to the cross, so we would even now begin to share in his eternal life.

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

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Tenth after Pentecost

(Proper 16A) Matthew 16: 13-20

Grace and peace this morning, and wonderful to see you today as we continue through this summer season. I do pray that it continues to be a good season for you, with an abundance of rest and refreshment along the way.

As you may know, Susy and I were in California last weekend, partly to visit family, especially my mom and my sister and her family, as I try to do every year or so, but timed this year to coincide with the 40th Year reunion of my high school class—which was a very rich experience in many ways: not just for the event itself, although it was very fun and enjoyable to be in that group, some friends I’ve known and to some degree or another have stayed in touch with over all these years, and then actually quite a few whom I haven’t seen since grad night 1971 (although we’ve lately been chatting on our new Facebook page!). But a rich experience because it really triggered for me a time of reflection about my own life story, thinking about my childhood and teenager years, reconnecting with those years in some ways, reflecting on how in good ways and sometimes in challenging ways those years really continue to shape and inform who I am, the direction and trajectory of my life—and helping me to reflect on the lives of some of my friends as well. Learning and re-learning the stories of our lives. So a lot to think about.

While I was in L.A., Phil Wainwright was here last Sunday, and as I read his sermon and the story of the Canaanite Woman and her encounter with Jesus, I found his reflections on that text really helpful. Jesus saying to her, in Matthew 15:28, “O woman, great is your faith.” That standing in contrast to the readings of the weeks before, in Matthew 14, also having to do with faith, and really problems with faith for the disciples.

If the woman from Lebanon had “great faith,” what to say about the disciples as they saw the gathering hungry crowds and wondered what could be done. Jesus says to them basically, “don’t you trust me to take care of this?” And then the miraculous feeding. And then later in chapter 14, Peter excitedly jumping over the side of the boat to rush to Jesus, and then looking down, losing his focus, and slipping into the waves. “O man of little faith,” Jesus says, “why did you doubt?” What to say about the faith of the disciples—and what to say about my faith?

But then today, Matthew 16, and this critical moment outside of Caesarea Philippi, the Confession of Peter. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus, “Blessed are you.” Peter, the solid rock, whose faith will be the bulwark against all the powers of the enemy, in whom for the whole church will be vested the keys of the kingdom of heaven.

And so once again this question about faith. What it looks like. Where it comes from. We know it’s not natural to Peter, anyway. The story of his “Walking on Water” here, of course, and then, a few chapters later, in the Courtyard of the High Priest, and he’s all about fear, denial, betrayal. The epitome not of hope but of hopelessness. What does that have to say about what it means to have faith? Not the solid Rock, but quicksand. And Jesus then is clear about that too, as he responds to Peter’s remarkable affirmation. “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”

It’s a gift. That’s the point of what Jesus has to say here. Not something Peter has particularly earned or shown himself worthy of. Actually quite the contrary. He is the least likely in some ways.

I know when I in various aspects of my work and ministry find myself in the process of identifying and even appointing people to positions of leadership, there are some particular characteristics I look for. Committees, commissions, vestries, boards, and even now as in the diocese we are in the process that will lead to the election of our next bishop. And one of the things I look for is what I sometimes call “steadiness,” or even “calmness.” People who know how to measure twice and cut once. Who can enter into a process with some sense of deliberation, weighing different sides of a question without leaping to conclusions. People who aren’t about knee-jerk reactions. People with emotions and passions and loyalties and convictions, yes, but also and maybe first of all with minds, and sympathetic imaginations, with the ability to see things from the other guy’s perspective. My friend George Werner once spoke about how so many church leaders have the motto, “Ready, Fire, Aim.” Which always has made me nervous, and should make us all nervous. Especially when the rules of engagement are “shoot first, ask questions later.”

And Peter makes me nervous. I mean I love him for his strengths, his passions, his loyalties. But as the “Rock,” maybe not so much. I doubt if I’d appoint him senior warden. And even if he was the first Bishop of Rome, I’m not sure I’d feel all that comfortable with somebody like him as the 8th Bishop of Pittsburgh.

So it’s a supernatural discernment. Must be. Would need to be, for me.”For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”

It’s interesting how so many religious and philosophical traditions really have to do with what I guess we might call the “formation of spiritual character.” The formational practice of meditation, perhaps, leading over years and decades to a state of enlightenment. Or the formational practice of obedience to a set of external practices, inwardly directed and outwardly directed. Wear this kind of clothing, not that kind. Eat this, not that. Perform these good works. Tithe. Serve the downtrodden. Lots of heavy lifting. Often mistranslated as: earn points, avoid demerits, come out on the plus side on the day of judgment.

For Peter, though, it’s just a gift. Not because he gets anything particularly right, and not because of his spiritual or moral preparation. He would fail on every count. But because Jesus has loved him, and in that love a door has been opened and a new life has begun.

The point here not to say that there is no value to prayer and contemplation and spiritual practice and growth, nor that we might not desire for all kinds of reasons to give our lives in some way or other to the accomplish of good works, making a difference for others and the world around us. As Christian people those spiritual and moral and social actions are things that we are as it were almost naturally drawn to.

But it is gift. Who we are, what happens in us in our relationship with Christ Jesus. That’s the thing about love. All gift. The Canaanite woman is a marginal character, an outsider. Peter probably the one person among the 12, of course not counting Judas Iscariot, whom you wouldn’t want to have as Senior Warden. But God seems to see things differently.

Even the unlovable, even people like us. The Glendale High School Class of 1971. The people of St. Andrew’s Church. Even us. With generosity and grace and affection and an abundance of divine tenderness and mercy, vast as every ocean, beyond our imagining, the gift is for us. Falling like summer rain on a hillside. All free. To begin to understand that, even to catch a glimpse of it, is to begin to unfold the deepest meaning of the Manger on Christmas Eve, and of the Cross on that Friday afternoon. God acting to heal and restore, to forgive and make new. As we open our brokenness to him, and as we turn to him, it is all gift. All blessing.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Ninth after Pentecost, August 14, 2011

Proper 15A Matthew 15: 10-28
The Rev. Dr. Philip Wainwright
Priest Associate, St. Andrew's Church

In today’s gospel, Jesus praises a woman for her faith: ‘Woman, great is your faith!’ I’m not sure He says the same about my faith. Perhaps some of you aren’t sure about that either. If so, we might do well to think about this passage, and what it is telling us about faith. ‘Faith’ is one of those words that people use in many different ways; this gospel is an opportunity to see what Jesus means when He uses the word. So let’s think about that.

Jesus calls the woman’s faith ‘great faith’. He uses the same phrase in another passage, and on several other occasions He describes someone’s faith as ‘little faith’. In order to understand what Jesus means by faith, it’s helpful to compare His notion of great faith with His notion of little faith.

Jesus uses the phrase little faith in the Sermon the Mount, when He is describing people who are afraid of not having enough to eat or to wear. Why do you worry about clothing? He asks. Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? The phrase is repeated in Matthew 16:8, after the feeding of the 5000, to refer to the disciples’ fear of going hungry. To worry about those things is to have little faith.

Jesus also uses the phrase in Matthew 8:26, when the disciples are afraid of dying in a storm that blows up as they sailing on Lake Galilee, and in 14:31, which we heard just last week, when Peter is suddenly afraid when He was walking on the water in obedience to Jesus’s call. That’s also little faith. So little faith is being afraid of living by God’s word. Afraid because you don’t have what you need, afraid because the boat is being rocked, afraid because the water is rising all around you.

Then there’s great faith. There’s the passage we heard this morning, of course, the Canaanite woman who asks for healing of her daughter. Jesus says ‘not likely, I’m only sent to the Jews.’ She begs, but He insists: ‘it isn’t fair to give the children’s bread to the dogs.’ She says, ‘even the dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall from the table.’ Then Jesus: Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted. And her daughter was healed instantly. Now no doubt she was afraid that her daughter was going to die. But she was not afraid to bring her need to Jesus, and was not afraid to keep it on Jesus’s agenda until He dealt with it. The other occasion where Jesus calls someone’s faith great is Matt 8:10, where a centurion, a Roman soldier, asks Jesus to heal his sick servant. On that occasion Jesus says all right, I’ll come and heal him. The Centurion says You don’t have to come, I know how authority works, You can just say the word here and now and I know it’ll happen! Don’t wait even to go to my house, do it now! Jesus: I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.

So that’s great faith: not letting what you’re afraid of stop you calling on God, being sure that God will take care of you and can do it with no trouble at all, and being determined to keep asking for His help until you receive it or until you understand why He is not giving you what you’re asking for. Great faith is acting on faith, not just believing something but doing something because of what you believe.

The commonest statement I hear when discussions come up on faith is, ‘I wish I had greater faith’. The assumption is that we don’t have faith unless someone or something intervenes and gives it to us.‘I wish God would give me faith like that’—it’s God’s fault that I don’t have it!

But Jesus seems to have a different assumption. When Peter is beginning to sink beneath the water and cries out, Jesus holds out His hand to Him and says, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ Jesus assumes that God has given it, the faith is there, unless we turn away from it. Peter was doing OK until he began to doubt, and then the miracle vanished. When the disciples say, ‘Increase our faith’ (Luke 17:5), Jesus says, ‘If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,” and it will obey you.’ You don’t need more, even the little you have is enough to move mountains if you would only act on it.

That’s why Jesus tells us that we can never enter the Kingdom of Heaven unless we become like little children (Matthew 18:3). Children are believers by nature, until someone sows doubt in their mind. Tell a four year old that you’re the strongest man in the world, and he’ll believe you—till some wise-guy ten-year old says ‘you don’t believe that, do you?’

When we are first told all that God wants to give us and do for us, our hearts rise up to believe it and act on it. Then we suddenly hear the wise-guy, we hear him in our mind because we have so often heard him in real life: ‘You don’t believe that, do you? You’re not going to actually live by that, are you’ And all of a sudden we’re not sure… what would the guys at the office say if I said I really believe what the Bible says? What would the kids at school think? What would my wife, my husband, my parents, think? And we begin to sink beneath the waves, as Jesus asks, ‘Why did you doubt?’

God cannot give us the overflowing blessing that He longs to give us unless we believe that He can and will do it, and are eager for Him to do it. Romans 3:25 says that the greatest blessing of all, salvation, is ‘received by faith’. That’s how the universe works. We can’t explain why that is, any more than we can explain why there’s gravity, why things fall down when you let go of them, but we can recognise that it’s true, and use the knowledge for our advantage.

Faith is given to us already. Would God would withhold the means of blessing from us when we know He wants us to be blessed? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all— how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? God has already given us the faith we want, it’s the only way we ever knew God in the first place. The only question is, are we willing to act on it? A little? Enough to hope that God will accept us when we die, but not enough that we will rely on Him for our earthly needs while we are here? Or a lot? Great faith, enough to trust him totally for all our needs, so that we can seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and leave our kingdom to His care?

Let me end by pointing out one interesting difference between those who demonstrate the two levels of faith. Those of little faith are the disciples, the insiders, the children of the master of the house, the heirs. Those of great faith are foreigners, outsiders, the dogs that sit under the table, a Roman, a Canaanite—but outsiders who recognise the truth about Jesus, that He really wants to provide what people need, and are going to ask for it boldly: the soldier with his comment about not needing to come, the woman with her refusal to take no for an answer. I don’t quite know what to make of that difference in terms of doctrine, but I do know that I feel more like an insider, a privileged one, and maybe that means that means I should look at my own faith a bit more closely. I may think I have great faith, when in fact I rarely act on what faith I do have. Perhaps there are others here this morning in that same spiritual condition. This story is a reminder to all of us not never to be afraid, but when we are afraid to call on God with all our heart no matter who’s looking and never to stop. God is trustworthy, He is with us when those we love are sick, when the waters are rising around us, and He will not abandon us. Let us not only profess that faith, but live by it.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Eighth after Pentecost

(Proper 14A) Matthew 14: 22-33

Good morning, on this summer morning, and grace and peace. First Sunday of August, and somehow turning the calendar page from seems to mark a milestone in the course of the summer—the long season beginning to roll on downhill toward September and the fall. Still time for warm evenings on the front porch, certainly. But the newspapers are beginning to run the back-to-school advertisements, and certainly around the Church Office we find ourselves more and more thinking about Round Up Sunday and the season of life that begins with renewed energy after the Labor Day weekend. In all that, I hope that this season continues to be an enjoyable one for you.

We have a couple of friends up in Massachusetts with sailboats, but Susy and I didn’t get out on the water while we were up there last month. Nonetheless, the gospel reading from Matthew 14 does connect for me to the experience of being out on the water. How often what seems to be a pretty quiet day on the shore turns out to be something more challenging out on the water. I’ve never been on the open water in any kind of serious weather, but even just having had a taste of it can be helpful in catching what’s going on for the disciples and Peter. Dark skies. Waves rolling one after the other. Roaring wind.

Of course, you don’t need to be a sailor to get the scene. Norway and the debt ceiling, stock market pyrotechnics, wars and rumors of war, terrorism, global economic dislocation, political turmoil. And all our personal lives. Highs and lows. Triumphs and failures. Marriage and family, parents, kids, medical issues, career. Sometimes feeling like one of those circus jugglers, with balls and bowling pins and flaming torches all in the air at the same time.

The disciples set out on their own across the lake, leaving Jesus alone in his prayers. But as the wind and waves become more turbulent they catch a glimpse of him out on the water. And we know the story. Peter, who is always the impetuous one, swings over the side of the boat and begins to walk toward Jesus. Then all of a sudden he realizes just where he is. He takes his eye off Jesus. In his fear he begins to sink. But then at the last minute remembers, he cries out. “Lord, save me!” And Jesus approaches, reaches out, lifts him up, brings him into the boat. “O ye of little faith—why did you doubt?” And there is awe-filled worship, the disciples in the boat anticipating the words of the Centurion at the Cross on Good Friday, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Like the scene just before of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, as we read that story last week, the "sermon" is preached by Jesus not with words, but in action. About how when we look down, in doubt, in fear, in self-centeredness, when it is all about us, the storms will overwhelm us, and we will begin to sink beneath the waves. But to see here so vividly that when we keep our eyes on Jesus and place our faith in him, we will begin to participate here and now in the triumphant life of the Kingdom of Heaven.

A powerful, eye-opening, heart-opening moment in the lives of those on the boat that night, and for us and for Christians telling this story and living this story, living this story, again and again, over two thousand years. The dark night, the storm, and Jesus.

August 6, 2011

Holy Matrimony
Pamela Virginia Bieranoski and Matthew John Derby

Matt and Pam: what a great day! There was snow on the ground when we began planning. And now the warm days of midsummer have arrived. And I do want to say for myself personally and I know for all those who are participating today and sharing the day as witnesses, a congregation of family and friends—thank you. Thank you for what is the honor, truly, to be a part of this. And thank you also and even more for being the people that you are. Two gifted young people of intelligence and good humor and wonderful friendship, sharing a kind and gentle spirit, gracious and engaging. Thank you for being the people that you are—and for finding each other! Which is certainly a great pleasure and a blessing for all of us. It is great to know you each as individuals, and even more wonderful to know you together.

It is fun, very enjoyable, as two people get married, to celebrate who you are and what you are for each other—and that is of course very appropriate. To be thankful for the joy that you bring to one another, for love and romance, for the sense of happiness which touches your lives now and which I and we all pray will continue all the days to come.

But I do want to say in the midst of that celebration, simply to point out, that we hear in the language of this service of Holy Matrimony, in the prayers we pray together, in the solemn vows you will exchange, in the words of Holy Scripture, in this great offering of sacred music which you and Peter and Alastair and the Schola have prepared for us, a high seriousness--and it is important just for this moment to take a breath and to recognize that in this moment you two are undertaking what can only be described as an awesome responsibility.

Sometimes at weddings I like to tell the story of Moses in the Wilderness, as he comes to the Burning Bush, and as the great voice booms out, “Take off your shoes, Moses, take off your shoes: for the ground on which you stand is holy ground.” And I say, we should all take off our shoes. B
ecause this is just like that moment for Moses: a turning point, a new beginning. Moses is called to a new vocation, to assume responsibility as God’s Agent, to be the one through whom God will work to accomplish his purposes. And that’s what this moment is for you, and for all of us here today. A moment of new vocation, Matt and Pam, to assume responsibility, to be a new person, husband and wife, through whom God will work. Which is why we call marriage a sacrament. Beginning now, and then continuing this evening and tomorrow and in all the years to come. In ways we can’t even begin to imagine.

In the story of Creation in the first chapter of Genesis we read, “Then God said, “let us make man in our image, after our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sear, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward, spiritual grace. The image of God. Which is what now you are for us. The active present-time manifestation of Christ in the world. And as husband and wife, you become sacrament. You become a visible sign of God’s presence.

He is doing now and is going to do great and wonderful things in your life together and through your life together, to bless others, to forgive, to heal, to renew. It will be a great adventure, as he works in you and through you. Fun sometimes, sometimes challenging. But in it all, a calling, a high and serious vocation: and one I truly believe you have already begun, and that you will continue in a wonderful spirit all the days of your life.

And now friends, as Matt and Pam come forward to exchange the vows that will make them husband and wife, may we all pause in a moment of prayer for them, and may be open our own lives at this moment that we also may share in this time of God’s richest blessing.