Sunday, September 25, 2011

Fifteenth after Pentecost

Proper 21A2 Ezekiel 18: 1-4, 25-32, Matthew 21: 23-32

Good morning and again all good wishes as we this morning gather on the first Sunday of the Fall season—fall having begun at 5:05 this past Friday morning. Certainly the weather is becoming more and more autumnal, the Steelers are playing, there’s pre-season hockey, and the Pens are off to a great start--and this afternoon Susy and I will head over to the North Shore for the last home game for our Pirates in the 2011 season. Another year, and no October baseball in Pittsburgh.

But in the midst of our lives in every season, there is a word for us: I love this really rich passage appointed for this Sunday from the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel. He is carrying out his prophetic ministry and speaking on behalf of God at this absolutely critical historical moment in the life of the Jewish people. It’s a moment of transition, but really we might say a moment of birth, or re-birth.

Ezekiel is speaking to the people in exile. A generation, two generations before, the armies of the Babylonian east swept across the desert and laid siege to the Royal City. And it was a situation of the horror of the worst of war, a whole generation of Judean youth wasted in battle, so that the city seemed ringed by a vast field of bones. Behind the walls of Jerusalem there was hunger, terror, desperation, and the king and the priestly leaders seemed so wrapped up in their own petty worlds of intrigue and self-interest that they were unable to rally the people with any vision, any sense of purpose. There was almost this loss of identity, and except for a few there seemed to be no real connection with the heritage of God’s Covenant, no real sense of discipline or obedience to God’s Word and Law. And then collapse and ruin and destruction, palace and temple plundered, the whole city leveled and put the torch.

The elites marched off in chains to Babylon, and everyone else scattered to the four corners of the world—Egypt and Syria and Persia, or just heading for the hills. The survivors living as refugees, resident aliens. Making their lives as best they can, but haunted by what had happened, anxious about what the future might hold. And in that era we might say the ancient faith of Israel experienced a kind of death and rebirth—some calling this the era when Israelite religion began to become what we have known since that time as Judaism. The foundation of the institution of the synagogue, and with the centrality of the monarchy and Temple sacrifice replaced with a sacrifice of the heart in the prayerful study of God’s Law, and a new spirit of personal discipline and pious obedience.

And now there is scarcely living memory of the ruin of Jerusalem, decades pass, 70 years, and shifts in the geopolitical universe have moved the center of power from Iraq to Iran—from Babylon to Persia. And the Shah of Iran, Cyrus the Great, has announced a new policy about refugees—that they are now free to return to their ancestral homelands.

And in this moment of transition, birth, rebirth, the remnant of God’s people begin to contemplate their homeward journey, and what that will mean. And, we might say, “how this time they won’t get things so terribly wrong, as their ancestors did.” And Ezekiel, and the call we read this morning for a new start, a new beginning, built on the foundation of a new and renewed Covenant relationship with the God of their fathers.

At the beginning of this passage, the rhetorical set up. The parents ate sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge. They lived the high life, all those years ago, and then they sent their American Express bills to their grandchildren. Are we doomed forever to suffer the consequences of their unfaithfulness? Is there any hope for us now? “Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves anew heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live.” Life and hope and new beginning.

The story that Jesus tells, the Parable of the Two Sons in Matthew 21, has I think something of the same message. To say that no matter where we begin, no matter what we have said, what we have done, there is now before us the opportunity to choose a new way. God doesn’t condemn us for the sins of our fathers. But neither does he allow us to take on any of their credits. “Turn, then, and live,” as Ezekiel said. It’s up to us. The brothers answer their father’s first call in opposite ways. One says, yes, the other no.

But that’s not the end of their stories. Because even though the first brother had the right words, he fails, falls short, chooses not to put those words into action. While the second brother begins in defiance, rebellion, and rejects his father’s invitation, in the end he turns around, and makes it right.

The application in the moment, in Matthew 21, has to do with Jesus speaking to all these Doctors of Theology and Philosophy, noted church leaders, the heirs of generations of religious practice and devotion, who could not, who would not, who refused to see and recognize and respond when God was speaking a new word through John the Baptist.

And then to think of all the people of the street, the rif-raf and dregs of society, the notorious, the least and the last, the ones who had made all the wrong life decisions, the scandalous and the sinners—but who when they heard John opened their hearts to him, and heard him, and responded to his call to a radical conversion of life, turning away from sin and to a new life in relationship to god.

It’s not about the diplomas on your wall or who you were yesterday, Jesus says to the priests and elders, not about your ceremonial words and formal pieties. “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

And so Ezekiel: “Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live.”

I love the hymns this morning, the words of the anthems, our collects and creed and prayers. The opening of the Word in the reading of scripture. And as we share the bread and the cup together. The tragedy of the ancient story of Israel was that the people had in their very midst the source of all light and life, strength and health and goodness, and they took it for granted, and forgot about it, and so finally drifted on to their own destruction. The political leaders and religious officials didn’t just miss John the Baptist. They crushed him, swept him out of the way. Thinking that if they killed the messenger, the message would go away.

And we would be reminded this morning and always as Christian people, and we would want to be reminded, shaken up, called to attention—with the word that these aren’t just old stories about people long ago and far away. But for us this morning, every morning. It’s not just ancient Israelites who can live in denial. Not just priests and elders of Jerusalem who will practice selective devotion, obedience-when-convenient, and refuse to take personally the one personal word that God speaks to them. We hear the word, we sing the hymns, receive the bread and wine. And we would know that he is all the while whispering in our ear, this morning and every morning: Why will you die? Get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. Turn, and live . . . .

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

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Fourteenth after Pentecost: Jonah and the Bush

Proper 20A2, Jonah 3:10-4:11; Matthew 20:1-16

Good morning, and grace and peace to you this morning, which is on the calendar the last Sunday of the summer—the autumnal equinox arriving for us this year at 5:05 a.m. next Friday morning, September 23rd. It sure felt like Fall already a few mornings last week! I know for us in our family it has been an eventful summer in many ways, some of it challenging, but also a time of enjoyment and even with a little bit of break for rest and relaxation--and it does feel good now to be moving into the more active season of the fall. So may it be a new season of good things and many blessings for you also.

The short Book of Jonah falls into two parts. The first part of the story is more familiar, even kind of fun, and often good for Sunday School lessons and sermons. God comes to Jonah and tells him he is to leave his home in Israel and to cross the border into hostile territory and make his way as a hated foreigner to the city of Ninevah in ancient Babylon. Modern Iraq. And actually I think our former St. Andrean and good friend Scott Kleinschnitz was briefly stationed near Ninevah when he was deployed in Operation Iraqi Freedom a few years ago. And when Jonah arrives, if they don’t arrest him on site or stone him to death in the streets right away, he is to go to the City Center and address the Great Men and leaders of the people and instruct them to abandon their evil ways and repent of their sins and turn to the Lord.

And of course we know the story. Jonah is terrified, and for good reason, and he immediately gets up and flees as far as he can as fast as he can in exactly the opposite direction. Thinking he can somehow escape the claim that God has made on his life. But we discover that while Jonah can run, he can’t hide. Fleeing in the opposite direction, even as he gets on a ship and sails out into the sea, but the call of God pursues him, and his inner turmoil, guilt, and distress is matched by a roaring wind and storm, great waves, rolling seas. The others on board the sinking ship are terrified, and finally Jonah says, “this is all about me, because I haven’t responded to God’s direction for my life. Save yourselves now by throwing me overboard, and all will be well.” Which of course they do. And the storm suddenly ends. And then the story goes on, and this is the part the Sunday School kids like the most, how at the point of death in a watery grave Jonah is miraculously swallowed whole by a great fish, in which he rests for a wonderfully symbolic three days, and then miraculously he is disgorged and finds himself back on dry land.

Thematically of course this all about what it means to be faithful, and about renewal and restoration, about rebirth, about death and new life, and in Matthew 16 we hear Jesus himself talking about “the sign of Jonah” in a way that seems to reference and anticipate his own coming death and resurrection. But in this beginning of new life, Jonah steps forward a new and reformed man, this time in faithful obedience to God’s call, and sets out for the mission to Ninevah. And all this a wonderful framework for talking about how we would each of us in a way think about our vocation, about our relationship with God in Christ, and the kinds of storms that come to us when we run away from that relationship, and how there is a new birth for us when we seek to hear and respond in a spirit of obedience.

Then the second part of the story, including the very end, which we have in our lesson this morning. Not quite so familiar as the story of the Big Fish. Jonah indeed travels into enemy territory and gets to the City Square Ninevah and issues his announcement of God’s judgment and his call for the whole nation to repent of its evil ways. A moment that would seem sweet I suppose to an Israelite audience for the story, as they and it seems as Jonah as well are almost leaning forward in anticipation to see the first fiery bolts of God’s lightning to crash down on the city as the people receive the consequences of all their wickedness—and most especially including the crimes of war and hostility which they had committed against the Israelite people. It’s going to be a sweet moment of perfect justice.

But then of course this odd and incredibly surprising thing happens. The leaders hear Jonah. And they say, “My goodness, you’re right. We have been horrible and truly wicked. We are now so very sorry, and we repent profoundly for all the evil we have done in the past, ruin and destruction, rape and pillage, and we promise to do our very best never to do anything like that again.” Jonah doesn’t know quite what to make of this, but as we read this morning, he apparently doesn’t think these words are going to count for much, and he goes up to a nearby hillside hoping for a good view of the fireballs falling on the city from heaven. And then when that doesn’t happen, when he finally realizes that as a result of his preaching and the people’s repentance, God is no longer going to bring about the city’s destruction, Jonah is disappointed. More than disappointed. Angry. Generations of horrible conflict, war, oppression, destruction, war crimes of every imaginable variety, in a world where there of course was no such thing as the Geneva Convention. And now they say that they’re sorry and that they won’t do it again, and God wipes the slate clean? No retribution; no punishment fitting the crime? What’s the good of being a fire-and-brimstone prophet, if God is going to go all touchy-feely and Kumbaya at the last minute? Where’s the divine justice in that?

That’s the heart of the story. And then we get as a brief postlude the story of Jonah and the Bush, so that God can explain the moral of the story to Jonah. Jonah sitting out there on that desert hill, watching and waiting, and suddenly the bush grows up over him and gives him a delightful day of shade. Then, just as suddenly, the next day the bush is attacked by a worm, and so it withers and dies away, leaving Jonah once again baking in the sun. Jonah is once again swept up in anger. And God says, “you didn’t do anything to earn the comfort that the bush gave you yesterday, and I didn’t hear any comments from you about fairness or what you deserved or anything else then. And so what right have you to complain when I decide to take away the bush that I made in the first place? The fact is, your perspective is once again just way too limited, your understanding of my perfect righteousness always far too distorted by your own personal interest. When your idea of what I should do, when your idea of what is good, and fair, and right, is different from mine, Jonah, then you will just need to take a deep breath and let all that go. My ways are not your ways, saith the Lord, nor are my thoughts your thoughts, for as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.

And the moral of this story of course falls into line with the moral of the parable of the Vineyard Laborers in Matthew 20. We understand perfectly the outrage of the workers who have toiled all day long in the hot sun, only to see those who arrived at the very end of the day rewarded equally with them. We’ve been there ourselves time and again. To see the world rolling on in ways that seem just beyond our comprehension. Lost in our grievances, and sometimes confused by what seem to be gifts that fall into our lives entirely unearned. How is that possible? What sense are we to make of a “peace of God that passeth all human understanding?”

The “sovereignty of God” a doctrinal thread that is of course woven tightly through just about every page of the Biblical story, and a concern of emphasis especially of the great Reformers of the Protestant era in the 16th century, as they attempted to counter a view of God that was becoming a bit too mechanistic. When I do this, God rewards, and when I do that, God punishes. A tempting view, even though it obviously runs against all the evidence, and as we struggle with Rabbi Kushner about “why bad things happen to good people,” and with the experience all too often of wondering why so often such good things seem to happen to bad people.

The Prophet Jonah and all the workers of the vineyard—those who came to work at dawn, and those who arrived in the middle and at the end of the day—each simply had the opportunity, the challenge, to live faithfully with the call that was placed on their lives by God, whose vineyard this all is. To enter into a relationship of trust that will move beyond our own limited perspectives of what we deserve, of what the other guy deserves, of how this particular chapter of the story ought to end. Thinking of all those readings about forgiveness that we had appointed for the last few Sundays from Matthew 18. We receive the bread and the cup into our hands at the Holy Table, and in doing so we place our lives in his hands. Even in the midst of things so often that we can’t understand, or even that seem just plain wrong, of course we have our opinions, our sense of what’s fair, what’s right, what’s good, and as we push back, which seems to be something at the heart of our human nature, that we would remember this morning that this is his vineyard, not ours. And that he has better things in mind for us than we can ever ask for or imagine.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Thirteenth after Pentecost

Proper 19A, Genesis 50: 15-21; Matthew 18: 21-35

Grace and peace to you on this second Sunday now in September, and in the informal but ancient and venerable tradition here at St. Andrew’s, “Round Up Sunday,” a wonderful day of gathering the family, old friends and new, not quite fall really, but for us the beginning of the fall season, with all the energy and interest of new beginnings.

And all that complicated today very much in our awareness as well and as we have acknowledged in our prayers--this day the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks at the World Trade Center in New York City and at the Pentagon, and we here in Western Pennsylvania always have a special acknowledgment for the place where United Flight 93 came down out near Shanksville and Ligonier. A part of the story that comes especially close to home.

I remember where I was, a little bit before 9 a.m. on that morning. Probably you remember where you were. I was out on the front porch of the Old Rectory. I’d been for a long run and had breakfast and was getting ready to go upstairs for a shower before going to the office, when the first news bulletin came over the radio. I know I sat there listening for quite a long time—and then I finally did shower and go over to the office, though I think actually the radio wasn’t turned off for much of the day.

At one point along in there somewhere Pete Luley and I talked and made the decision to open the doors of the church that evening, and he started getting in touch with members of the choir, and I began to put together an order of service. And perhaps some of you were here that evening, I know quite a few of you were, as we did have a good crowd from the parish and also from the neighborhood. Music. Prayers. The quiet of silent reflection. Don’t know at that point if any of us really knew what to make of what had happened. Some kind of terroristic act, we knew that-- but what it was connected to, and of course what it would mean for the next days and months and years of this decade we had no idea.

The other related memory I associate with this day is of the afternoon I spent several months on, in the later fall of 2001, when I was with the board of the National Network of Episcopal Clergy Associations at a meeting in New York, and through the offices of a colleague we were given credentials to serve with the chaplains at St. Paul’s Chapel, which is right next to Ground Zero, and which had been converted as a place for rest and refreshment for workers at the site. I spoke during that afternoon to a couple of construction workers who were with crews clearing debris, and with a New York firefighter who was a part of a team of firefighters and police that remained there all through this period to provide escort whenever human remains would be found and removed.

I spent a lot of time chatting with other volunteers who were serving coffee or sandwiches, and with one of the priests from Trinity Wall Street, who was serving on the regular chaplaincy team. And at each hour there was a very brief time of prayer up at the altar in the Chapel, and we were able to participate in that. The altar and space around it all decorated with drawings and cards of encouragement and expressions of sympathy and affection from all over the country and all around the world. Just very sad and beautiful, and powerful, and it’s hard for me to think now that it was ten years ago. Seems like last month, in some ways, and in other ways it seems like a hundred years ago.

I know we all have our reflections and memories, and we offer them up in prayer today, as we come together for worship and as we celebrate the richness of the life God has blessed us with here at St. Andrew’s.

The readings appointed for this morning in our lectionary continue to explore the themes of forgiveness and reconciliation that we began to talk about last week with the parable of the shepherd who leaves the 99 to go in search of the one who is lost and then with the instructions Jesus gives about how to deal with grievances and disputes and divisions in the church. This week all three of the lessons stay on the theme. In Genesis Joseph’s brothers worry that perhaps his apparent kindness for them has been for the sake of their father. And the anxiety-producing question: now that their father has died, will Joseph continue to maintain that good relationship?

In Romans, the lesson we didn’t read this morning at Morning Prayer but which you can find printed in the earlier part of our service leaflet from the 9 a.m. service, Paul talks about the kinds of divisions that have arisen between Christians who maintain many of the traditional Jewish practices and beliefs and those who come from the Gentile world and who don’t follow those practices. Paul really almost pleading with these Christians not by taking one side or the other but by calling them to a deeper sense of their unity in Christ. Again, pulling the flock back together, restoring it to a wholesome unity.

And then the gospel reading from St. Matthew, beginning with St. Peter’s question about how often to forgive, with the reply from Jesus: not seven times, but seventy times seven. And this parable about the servant who receives such a gift of forgiveness, but who is unwilling to pass that along to another. And clear and straightforward word from Jesus about the consequences of unforgiveness, in this life and in the life to come.

So forgiveness. Letting go of grievances, seeking reconciliation, really this sense of the urgency and priority of reconciliation, overcoming brokenness, restoring relationships and community, renewal, grace, generosity, new life. Something for us here perhaps especially on September 11. Jesus along this road to Jerusalem, planting seeds. A vision of the quality and character of the new life to begin in him, a word for his followers and friends. That what they and we come to know in him, the world would come to know in us.

I’m always struck by this wonderful phrase in Genesis 50, as Joseph speaks these words of care with his brothers. Looking back over the horrors of what they had done to him. Fuelled by jealousy and hatred, they plot his murder, then sell him into a life of slavery—a life that will in time include long years of imprisonment in a harsh Egyptian prison. Certainly we can understand what he has every right to feel about them. Why they are afraid. But Joseph steps back. “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.” And to remember how Joseph had to be thrown in the pit and left for dead, sold into slavery, languishing long years in prison, before he could meet another prisoner who would one day bring word about his spiritual gift of dream interpretation to the attention of the Pharaoh—and how as a result a much greater good was accomplished, and the nation was saved from mass starvation and famine. God is in charge. Joseph’s interpretation of the story.

The story is God’s story, not yours or mine. When we are faithful, and when we seek to know and to do his will in whatever circumstance we find ourselves, he will show a way in the wilderness. Perhaps sometimes in ways that will be obvious to all, and perhaps other times in ways that will be deeply hidden and known to him alone.

It’s not to be a Pollyanna. Not to diminish the horrors of the Trade Center and the Pentagon and United 93, and always to acknowledge all the hard work and pain and suffering that have followed in the decade since in so many ways. All that just one chapter in the long history of our lives and our world. So much a story of brokenness, hurt, loss. In small private corners of life, and on the great stage. But to say even in this, we need to see not simply how we would want to respond, but to listen carefully for him. To keep the main thing the main thing. So that we can break bread and enjoy chicken and chili and fun together this morning at the picnic, even on September 11, and to give thanks even in times of ruin and destruction, and to seek to know as perhaps we will all of us find ways to learn from one another what new thing God intends for each one of us, for our church, and for the nation and the world.

Blessings and peace, in the midst of so much messiness around us in our lives and in our world. That we would hear in every situation a call to respond faithfully, and to reflect in our words and our actions, with a spirit of hopeful confidence, the good news of our Savior.

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

Saturday, September 10, 2011

September 11 Prayers

St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church
Highland Park, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
September 11, 2011

Congregational Prayers on the Anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon, and United Flight 93. [Adapted from a litany composed by the Rev. Joseph Howard, St. Joseph of Arimathea Episcopal Church, Hendersonville, Tennessee.]

O God the Father, Creator of heaven and earth; O God the Son, Redeemer of the world; O God the Holy Ghost, Sanctifier of the faithful: have mercy and hear the prayers and supplications of thy people.

For all who died in the attacks of September 11, 2001; and for all victims everywhere of terror and war in the years that followed:

Remember thy servants, O Lord, according to the favor which thou bearest unto thy people; and grant that, increasing in knowledge and love of thee, they may go from strength to strength in the life of perfect service in thy heavenly kingdom.

For the families and loved ones of those who have died, and for all who mourn:

Almighty God, Father of mercies and giver of all comfort: Deal graciously, we pray thee, with all those who mourn, that casting every care on thee, they may know the consolation of thy love.

For all who have given their lives since that day. For all those who answered the call of their country, venturing much for the cause of freedom and defense, giving of themselves for the benefit of their neighbors:

Almighty God, our heavenly Father, in whose hands are the living and the dead: We give thee thanks for all thy servants who have laid down their lives in the service of our country. Grant to them thy mercy and the light of thy presence; and give us such a lively sense of thy righteous will, that the work which thou has begun in them may be perfected; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord.

For those who on September 11th were injured, in body, mind, and spirit; for firefighters, police officers, first responders, and for all those who were injured, or who gave their lives, that others might be rescued; for those who since September 11th have served as peacemakers, diplomats, and governmental leaders, for scholars, journalists, and teachers, for religious leaders, and for all who have sought to overcome hatreds and prejudice and to contribute to deeper understanding and healthful relationships, for peace and justice among the nations and peoples of the world.

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Great Bell of St. Andrew’s Church is to be tolled for five minutes on the morning of September 11, 2011, beginning at 8:46 a.m., the time when the first plane struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

Friday, September 9, 2011

September 10, 2011

Holy Matrimony
Todd Edward Glass and Susan Theresa Frankiewicz
Colossians 3: 12-17

Susan and Todd, 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 moment with you, to be with you as you exchange the vows and promises, the words, and the commitments of the heart, that will make you one, before God and in the face of this company, as husband and wife.

It’s a great day! I know you have been thinking about it and planning for a long time now. And now here we are. And so, congratulations to you, and with so many blessings upon you as you now step forward into this new chapter of your life.

As you know, the distinctive geographical feature of Pittsburgh is how the great Allegheny River, flowing down from the north from New York and Lake Erie, and the great Monongahela, rolling westward from the mountains of West Virginia, come together down at Point State Park to form the headwaters of the Ohio, as it begins its 1,000 mile course down to Illinois and the confluence with the Mississippi. One of the great rivers of the world. So we are here the place of Three Rivers. And so to me Pittsburgh seems very much like the perfect place for you two to get married.

You bring to this marriage of course your individuality and personality, character and values. Two accomplished and mature and thoughtful people, with your own rich life stories—and the accomplishments and experiences, the high moments and the low, all together, that make you the people that you are. Two great streams, flowing together in the creation of something new. Built on the foundation of love, of shared interests and goals--and so importantly of strong friendship.

In all this, the lesson that you selected, from the New Testament, St. Paul’s Letter to the Christians in the city of Colossae-- is indeed a wonderful and very appropriate reading for this day.

It is first of all a love song, written first of all about the life of the Church itself, but by extension it is about truly any Christian relationship—and just right to lift up as we celebrate the beginning of a marriage. A song about truly the greatest gift that God gives us, and in some ways a recipe book, a set of how-to instructions, in the context of a reminder of both the care God has for us, and of our call to live always with one another in that same spirit of humility and tenderness. How to “dress for success.” Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience . . .. Bear with one another . . . . Be thankful . . . .And let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.

And to know that especially in our marriages and in our family life, with our husband or wife, our children, our parents, to reflect God’s love in that way. Patience and kindness. A spirit of deep mutual respect. --A recipe for a successful marriage, and in those moments of our lives, as we would understand through that we are in this world catching a glimpse of the deep love, the passion and the compassion, that is at the heart of God’s life, and that we are all ultimately destined for.

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

In the midst of this I’m reminded that in the Old Testament Book of Exodus there is one of my favorite Bible stories, about a moment of life-changing experience, a “vocational” moment, a transformational moment-- in a way kind of like a wedding. Young Moses is working for his Father in Law, tending his sheep out in the wilderness, and one day he sees something off in the distance that looks strange to him. He moves closer and finally comes to this great big tree or bush that is on fire, fully engulfed in flames, burning and burning—but no matter how long it burns, it doesn’t burn out. He watches for a while, amazed at the sight, and then all at once a great, deep voice comes from the flame. (I like to think it was the voice of James Earl Jones.) “Take off your shoes, Moses, for the ground on which you are standing is holy ground.” Holy Ground.

Now, Todd and Susan, 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 and our feet is consecrated, and made holy. That God’s holy presence is with you, surrounding you, with richness and blessing. All 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. Wherever your life takes you, that will be 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. As you already are. So many adventures, from this day forward.

Now as Todd and Susan come to the altar to exchange the vows that will make them husband and wife, I would ask all of us to bow our heads for a moment to offer a prayer and all our good thoughts and blessings, for them, for their protection and their encouragement, their joy, in all that God has in store for them in the days and years ahead.

Bruce Robison

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Twelfth after Pentecost

Proper 18A Matthew 18:15-20

Good morning, and blessings on this Sunday of the Labor Day weekend. I know school is already back in session, and has been for several weeks now for some. And although the weather this weekend so far has been pretty much like summertime, we already last weeks had a few cool evenings. Not crisp, exactly—but enough to send the message that fall is out there and moving in our direction. I understand that tomorrow the high is to be only in the low ‘70’s, and I find myself looking forward to the cooler days of early fall . . . . This always seems to me to be a “transitional” weekend: the end of one season coming near the beginning of the next. Perhaps a moment to pause, for a last moment or two, before pressing on to all the action ahead of us in the weeks and months to come.

There’s a bit of a transition going on in Matthew’s gospel now, too. Jesus and his friends having left the Galilee and now are headed on toward Jerusalem—on their way directly now toward Palm Sunday and Holy Week and Good Friday. And along this road and journey Matthew has us listen in as Jesus tells stories and parables and gives words of instruction with a sense it seems almost of urgency. As we step back and know the whole story now we might understand at least from his conversation with the disciples and Peter especially at Caesarea Philippi, as we heard it read in our gospel lesson appointed for last Sunday, that Jesus sees his road now to its end. The Cross in a sense already appearing on the horizon. And so he’s giving the disciples something of a review course. It seems he knows that it’s going to take them a long time to sort out the meaning of everything that has happened and everything that will soon happen.

Jesus wants to plant in their minds and hearts and imaginations and memories the kinds of seeds that will in time begin to grow and shape them, to make them ready to do the work and to be the people he is calling them to be. He touches on all kinds of foundational themes: faith in God, humility, costly and sacrificial obedience. He talks about marriage and family, about stewardship. And right at the center, at the very heart of this review section, and repeated several times, he talks about forgiveness—again and again, forgiveness, reconciliation, restoration. It seems to be something he thinks they and we need to hear a lot about.

Actually the passage that we have this morning from chapter 18 has right before it a story or parable that sets the stage for our section. In verses 12-14 Jesus says, “What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So, it is not the will of my Father who is in heave that one of these little ones should perish.”

I’ve said many times that if I were this shepherd’s insurance agent or business manager, I’d want to have a serious word with him. This extravagant and risky enterprise just doesn’t make much sense from any common-sense, worldly point of view. To put the whole flock in danger, the livelihood and wealth of the family, and perhaps of several families, all for one? In most enterprises 99% is a fine result, but here is what God has to say about the one who is lost, separated, estranged, cut off. No risk too great, it seems, no cost too high. And so the great joy when the wanderer is restored, and the flock is made whole again.

Jesus has told them this story before. The parable of the Lost Coin, and of the Treasure in the Field. The passage that we have just heard translates it in a less poetical way into the practicalities of our lives. Jesus tells his followers then, when there is brokenness and separation, when you have a grievance, when there is division, brokenness, you don’t just sit back and accept the situation, perhaps tapping your foot and saying, “well, if he wants to return, he’ll have to make the first move.” No, like the shepherd, you go to the one who is separated. You make the first move. And you make every effort. And if after trying your absolute best to work things out, you find that you can’t bring about a restoration of relationship, you don’t even then give up. You go and find other members of the community, and you bring them with you. Because this isn’t just about two people. Not just about the sheep and the shepherd. It’s about the health and well-being and wholeness of the flock. It may be Jane and Sally who are estranged, but their separation affects and diminishes and damages each and every one in the community. No such thing as a private dispute.

And even then, there is this saying which I have always found odd. If the subject of the grievance refuses even after all this to be reconciled, let him be to you, Jesus says, as “a tax collector and a Gentile.” I know what that sounds like Jesus is saying, and certainly we know how the orthodox Jew of First Century Palestine would have heard it. But then I think, I wonder if as they remembered these words later, the friends of Jesus would ask themselves, “how did Jesus relate to tax collectors and Gentiles?”

Isn’t that actually a pretty significant part of what got him in trouble in the first place? That even when these are folks who by their very nature are seemingly incapable of being included in the community, he doesn’t pass them by. Dinner at the home of Zacchaeus the tax collector, an absolute scandal. The healing of the Canaanite woman’s daughter, of the Roman Centurion’s servant. When it comes to putting relationships back together, Jesus just keeps pushing the margin. If every effort of reconciliation fails, then let that person be to you as a tax collector and a sinner. Which for Jesus seems to mean, never never never take “no” for an answer.

In the passage immediately following this story we’ve heard this morning Peter asks Jesus, “so how long do you keep at this?” What are the limits? Again and again and again, and again and again and again and again, seven times? And of course, Jesus: “Seventy times seven.” This kind of mystical number. Zillions of times. Zillions and zillions. The shepherd wouldn’t sleep until the flock was once again whole, and so our heavenly Father will never be satisfied, until every last wandering one is brought home.

And there is this commission in the reading today. Jesus says, “Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” This is what he had said to Peter just a short while ago at Caesarea Philippi. “The keys of the Kingdom.” And exactly what Jesus would say to his friends once again a few weeks later, on the evening of Easter Day, as they were huddled together in fear in that upper room. In the 20th Chapter of John, beginning at the 19th verse, sometimes called John’s Pentecost. This is the story when Jesus appears to the disciples when Thomas was away. He is there with them suddenly, despite the fact that the windows are shut and the doors locked. Suddenly. And he speaks. “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you. And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

It is just one of those things that he’s always talking about. From the beginning to the end. Calling us to him. Sending us out.

No question a challenge for us. Personally, as we wrestle internally with hurts and grievances, injuries, loss. In our marriages, our families. The neighbor who plays his stereo too loud. The colleague who took an idea I had and presented it to the boss as his own. Even in the Church, in our congregation, in our diocese, among all the groups and factions and denominations. I’ve been thinking about Pittsburgh Episcopalians and Pittsburgh Anglicans this week. A lot of history, a lot of bad blood sometimes. Difficult memories and fresh wounds. And then Politics. Democrats and Republicans. Labor and management. And nation and nation. Just how much can we risk? What amount loss are we willing to suffer? How patient, how persistent can we be, really? How much of an effort, deep down, do we really even want to make? Doesn’t it seem o.k. just to move on?

Of course, he’s put it out there for us, and we keep working on it. Which we’ll keep doing this morning as we come together to the Holy Table and then go out into all the messiness of our lives. It is the meaning in some way of both the Manger and the Cross. The heart of what calls us here this morning, however we would articulate it. Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saves a wretch like me. I once was lost, now am found. Was blind, and now I see. How he comes for us. And even here in all the messiness of our lives, how he keeps coming for us, and how he would go any distance to bring us home.