Sunday, October 30, 2011

Twentieth after Pentecost

October 30, 2011 Twentieth after Pentecost, Proper 26A2
Micah 3: 5-12; First Thessalonians 2: 9-13; Matthew 23: 1-12

Good morning and grace and peace, as we move on into this fall weekend. Or is it winter already?

In any event, today just wanting to pause in our life together to think about who we are and where we are. Last Sunday morning our guests and friends Mary Beth Campbell and Colleen Dybble from our Mission Partners at Five Talents were visiting with us, and with thanks to Marty Federowicz and all the members of the Five Talents Prayer Circle for hosting the wonderful Harvest Brunch, as we were able to enjoy great food and conversation together and at the same time to raise over $1200 for the work of the Five Talents ministry in Lima, Peru, and of our missionary friends John and Susan Park, who serve at the Cathedral in Lima. A wonderful outpouring of generosity, as I know we’ll see again as we respond this morning to Bishop Price’s request, that we would share in a meaningful way in the work of rebuilding the Cathedral in Port au Prince, Haiti. So the baskets in the transept and on the Welcome Table in Brooks Hall, with copies of Bishop Price’s letter.

As you might imagine, one thing that Mary Beth and Colleen commented on with great enthusiasm last Sunday was the ministry of music here at St. Andrew’s, as they had the opportunity to be a part of a service led by our exceptional Choristers—who sang so beautifully. And they talked about the friendly and fun spirit of the time at lunch with all of us afterwards. And that of course reminds me of this week ahead, on our way toward All Saints Sunday a week from today. Beginning this coming Tuesday evening with a choral service of Lessons and Carols for All Saints, then Evensong on Thursday evening at 8 p.m. led by our Choristers, a Candlelight recital on Friday evening again at 8 p.m., and then next Sunday for All Saints, the Holy Communion, with orchestra, and the Schubert Mass in G Major. There’s a wonderful text by the 19th century Baptist hymn composer Robert Lowery– The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart, a fountain ever springing; all things are mine since I am his--how can I keep from singing? “How can I keep from singing.” Indeed, very much our motto around here. A lot to sing about.

It takes my breath away—so many gifts, in abundance, in this place, shared with one another in the name of and for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. As we come together to worship and to share our lives and our service. In the next few days we’ll all of us be receiving a letter from Heather Eng, our Senior Warden, to kick off the Annual Campaign for support of St. Andrew’s in 2012, and it seems to me to be so appropriate to have as the theme of the campaign this year “Deo Gratias, In All Things Giving Thanks to the Lord.” Certainly so much always to be thankful for in our life together, in all the complexities of our lives individually and as families--and as that campaign moves on now over the next few weeks I would as I did in a pastoral letter last week say again, how thankful truly I am for you—and the good gift that you have been in my life and for this community and for the life and work of the wider church. It is indeed a great place—St. Andrew’s. And I thank you for being a part in the great things God is doing here through you, and through all of us together.

So having said all that, I would just say a word to notice that there is a lot in the readings appointed for this morning that will be a little unsettling for the rectors of cardinal parishes. The priests and prophets on the other end of Micah’s oracular diatribe this morning are all pretty comfortably situated in the secure embrace of the establishment. Of high office in the court of the king, with prestige and power and wealth in all kinds of ways flowing from that. And they know who signs their paychecks – and Micah of course really calls them on the carpet for that here. As they cut and tweak and massage the message, to make it all more palatable. Someone once said that it is the role of the Church, or should be, to comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable. But of course so very often we’re the comfortable ones ourselves, and it is just easy to say the popular thing, the expected thing. To make it all just one big, friendly, mutual admiration society. To skip over the harder truths, the more convicting demands. To make sure the spotlight only catches us on our good days. Comforting the comfortable. Always making sure that if there’s any “afflicting” to be done, it’s being done to someone else. Over there. One of them.

But Micah says, no matter how much you massage the message, the chickens are coming home to roost. God is going to make his truth known and felt with power and authority, and no amount of pleasant verbiage or psychological anaesthetic will protect us from the consequences. A message for every establishment. Ancient and modern. Conservative and liberal. Protestant and Catholic, progressive and evangelical. If the message lets us stay comfortably where we are, if it confirms our presuppositions and tells us what we already knew to be the case, if it leaves us comfortably right where we are. Well, be careful.

There’s a funny old story in ecumenical circles about clergy vesting rooms. They say, you know, that in all clergy vesting areas in Roman Catholic Churches there will be prominently displayed a devotional painting of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. On the other hand, in many Protestant clergy vesting areas there will be a print of the wonderful 19th century Holman Hunt painting called “The Light of the World,” of Jesus standing by the home of the Christian, with the line from the Third Chapter of the Revelation to St. John, “Behold I stand at the door and knock.” Of course, in our Episcopalian vesting rooms, as the saying goes, there will always be a full-length mirror.

In the reading from Matthew Jesus certainly goes at the Pharisees and Temple leaders with some of the same energy that we heard in Micah. They may read the right prayers and sing the right songs. But pay attention to what happens when the liturgy is over and the scripts and costumes are put aside—and do all those fine and holy words make a difference? A question of authenticity, and integrity. What do you see in their lives when the play comes to an end? When Sunday is over, and Monday has come? And Paul brings the same scrutiny to the situation among these new Christians in Thessalonika. To notice when there are folks out there who seem to be using the church to advance their own personal situation, with ulterior motives and agendas. “You know that I wasn’t like that when I was first with you,” Paul says. It wasn’t about me. Remember that, as it was on my heart for you. It was always and only to be about Jesus. It was my job not to take the front and center stage. My job was to preach the word, and then to get out of the way. So that it would be always and only about Jesus. When it’s time to talk about leaders and leadership, let that be front and center for you.

Well. Good stuff for rectors to read and think about, take seriously. Good stuff for a diocese to think about when it’s time to nominate and elect a new bishop. Good stuff for members of a congregation to think about as the inevitable annual campaign letters begin to arrive In the mailbox. For all of us. It is all about our integrity. Our authenticity and integrity in Christ. About more than talking a good game. Walking the walk. About being open to one another, and about being vulnerable. Taking risks. Moving out of our comfort zone. Wherever that comfort zone may be--and we do all have them. But about following him, as faithfully as we are able to do that, day by day.

It is for us all a work in progress, (we are all works in progress)--sometimes three steps forward, two back—sometimes two steps forward and three back. But making our way the best we can. Pehaps even at these moments being willing to take a deep breath and to hear a hard word and a challenging word. Thinking about what Jesus told Peter during their Easter season breakfast together by the Sea of Galillee. “Peter, do you love me?” He asked. “Then know this. Because of me, you are one day going to be picked up and carried to a place that you didn’t choose.” There are lots of people out there who will be glad to tell you only what you want to hear.

But here the Bread of Life, the Cup of our Salvation, the promise of Christ and his real presence—in our Holy Communion and in all our lives. It is a stretch. It is a blessing. And as the Stewardship Campaign says for us, as we make our way along this road together, following Jesus, even so: Deo Gratias. Thanks be to God.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Eighteenth after Pentecost

Sermon preached on Sunday, October 16, 2011, by the Rev. Dr. Philip Wainwright, Priest Associate.

Giving to God

(RCL Proper 24A2 Matthew 22.15–22)

This morning’s gospel reading contains a phrase that almost everyone, Christian or not, recognises: the phrase is, in the older translation, which I can’t help using, Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. It’s so well known, that we might be tempted to think we’ve learned all there is to learn from it. But as I read it through, I realised that I’ve really only thought it through about half-way, and perhaps I’m being presumptuous in even thinking that, so let me share my thinking with you in case any of you are in the same position.

Context is always crucial, so let me remind you that the incident in which Jesus says this is an encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees, who hated Him and wanted to get Him into trouble. They thought they could do it with a question about whether it was right to pay this particular tax. The question wasn’t about whether the economy will do better if we raise taxes or lower them, but whether it should be paid at all, regardless of what the government said. Jesus’s answer was likely to get Him into trouble, first because devout Jews hated this tax worse than other taxes, and we know that there was a crowd of Jews watching, and second because the Pharisees had made sure there were also some government types present, the ‘Herodians’ of v 16. One of these two groups was almost certain to resent Jesus’s answer.

The Jews hated this tax because it didn’t just demand a certain amount of money; it demanded it in the form of a Roman coin called a denarius. And Roman money had the Emperor’s face on it, and for Jews the second commandment didn’t just prohibit images for use in worship, it prohibited images for any purpose whatever. So having to pay the tax with this coin added spiritual insult to financial injury.

Jesus’s answer to the question goes right to the heart of the matter, and as far as we know doesn’t get Him in trouble with either the devout Jews or the government. Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. Look at the coin, he says, it’s got the Emperor’s name and picture on it; that means it’s his. If he wants it back, you must give it back. End of story: when they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

The Pharisees paid no more attention because they failed to get Jesus in trouble. But we should pay more attention, because Jesus’s answer is not a way of not getting into trouble, but like all Jesus’s words, profound spiritual truth.

So first we note that while Caesar’s name is no longer on anyone’s money, unless you’re an investor in rare coins, the name of the owner still is: Federal Reserve of the United States of America, it says on all the bills in my wallet. It belongs to the Federal Reserve, any time they ask for any of it back, Jesus says, the only right thing to do is to give it to them. So Christians pay their taxes. We pay all our debts, even if there is no debt collector on our heels. It’s the obvious lesson, and I don’t think I need to dwell on it.

What I want to say more about is the next bit, render to God the things that are God’s. It’s easy to assume that it’s just a nice thought, a rhetorical flourish that makes the statement memorable, but without the same practical application. But as I thought about that more, it seemed to me that I hadn’t thought it through very clearly. Partly it’s because of the context: Jesus has just talked about money and whose name is on it, and most of us don’t think of anything as having God’s name on it, or as belonging to God in that simple a way. But the Bible says a lot about what belongs to God, and what He asks us to do with it, and what it says has practical consequences for those of us who want to obey God that are perhaps even more important than the consequences of the duty to pay our debts.

The Bible even tells us that God’s nature, His image in one sense if not quite the same sense as the Emperor’s image on the coin, is on what He owns. In the letter to the Romans in the New Testament, the Bible tells us that Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. God’s signature is on what He creates, you could say, like an artist’s is. When we look at the world around us we see God’s power at work, and that’s His signature, His inscription, His image on His creation. All the wonderful things that make this such a great world to live in, that make living such fun for those who have access to them, grain to make food and clothing and wood and stone to build warm houses, people to play with and to talk to and to love, interesting things to learn, beautiful things to look at, all these are God’s, and Jesus is telling us to give those things back to God when He asks for them, just as we give the state back its money when it tells us to.

Money is just a means of setting a value on things, a measurement of value. It enables us to measure out amounts of value, whether for paying taxes or paying for college or going to the movies. But money itself is not the thing of value, it just stands temporarily for the value things have. Sooner or later we turn it in for the things that really do have value, like food and clothing and shelter and books and music and art and a week at the beach.

The money, the measuring tool, belongs to the government. The things of value, the wealth, the food and clothing and shelter and books and music and art and so on, those things belong not to the government but God. ‘Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool… all these things my hand has made, and so all these things are mine,’ says the Lord in Isaiah 66. ‘Every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the air, and all that moves in the field is mine… the world and all that is in it is mine,’ says the Lord in Psalm 50. When He tells us, as He does in Scripture, to use some of that wealth to preach the good news of salvation in Christ to those who don’t know Him, or to feed the poor, to heal the sick, to shelter the homeless, to comfort the sorrowful, the man or woman of integrity tries not to argue, tries not to say ‘after I’ve finished with it’, or ‘here’s some of it, that’ll have to be enough’. We try to say ‘Here You are Lord, thanks for letting me use it.’

But it is tempting to say something else. If the government didn’t set a date like April 15th and say ‘pay by then or we’re coming to git yer’, our army would still be fighting with muskets and there still wouldn’t be a paved highway from here to New York. Not because we’d refuse to give, but because we’d say ‘not now, too many other bills, we’ll send something after we’ve made our next mortgage payment, really.’

We get into trouble pretty quickly when we do that with Caesar, but we find it easier to do where God’s commandments are concerned. Because God doesn’t set a date and say ‘OK, my work is not getting done, give a tithe to the church by the first Sunday of Advent or I’m coming to git yer.’ He leaves it up to our sense of honor as men and women of integrity to give Him what is His when He asks for it. But unfortunately what He hears too often is ‘not now, too many other bills, we’ll send something after we’ve made our next mortgage payment, really.’ And so the gospel isn’t proclaimed with power, the poor go without, the homeless go without.

The Bible says that God asks us to use ten per cent of His stuff for His work rather than our own needs. Opportunities to give to God what belongs to God are all around us. Every week we read about something in the paper, or something arrives in our mailbox, reminding us of some need in God’s work, whether it’s help for hurricane victims or for missionary work overseas or for the work of this church. That’s God saying, render what’s Mine to Me for this. It’s not a begging letter, it’s the owner of the wealth reminding us of the conditions under which He lets us use the rest of it. Render to God the things that are God’s. Every good thing we have is His, we are simply His trustees. And we’re the best paid trustees that ever were: 90% of the Trust is ours to do what we want with, He asks for only a mere 10% to go to His other beneficiaries. If we want to follow the way of God in accordance with the truth, we’ll give God His cheerfully and thankfully. Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Seventeenth after Pentecost

(Proper 23A2) Isaiah 25: 1-9, Ps. 23, Matthew 22: 1-14

Good morning. We begin with readings from the Old Testament that are familiar to many of us in part because they are so frequently appointed for use in the Burial Office.

The 23rd Psalm of course. After the Lord’s Prayer and perhaps John 3:16 perhaps the most memorized passage in all of the scriptures. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

And from Isaiah 25. Not as often known by heart, but nonetheless deeply familiar. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

So these to rest before us. Whatever the length of journey that brought us here this morning—wherever we began the day, and with all that we have carried in with us, to this place.

We never really check our luggage at the door. Old thoughts. Memories. Things we have lost. That have slipped away from us. Good intentions. The daily “to do” list. Ambitions. Hopes and dreams. Relationships. The things we wish we had said. The missing: words of confession, of reconciliation, of forgiveness. Questions we might have asked, but now the opportunity is past.

Sometimes thinking about what it would be like if we could hit the rewind button and go back a decade or two or three, and, knowing what we know now, giving it another try. Things done and left undone. Whatever the journey, it is to something I think quite deep in us that these words speak. Calling us scattered, isolated, hurting. Inviting us to his table, calling us to be gathered into the shepherd’s embrace.

I look at the figures on our Rood Beam, as they hover over us Sunday by Sunday—you see them there: the Beloved Disciple John and Mary the Mother of our Lord, as they stand wordless at the foot of the Cross. The jeering crowds and Roman guards and religious officials all fade into the background, and we see only these two. Looking for a moment, catching a glimpse in that Friday afternoon into the silent heart and center of meaning and purpose, the deepest reality of all the universe, in the very presence of God’s perfect offering of himself. And perhaps as well looking around and down and catching a glimpse of us here below.

Thou settest a table before me in the face of my enemies . . . .

Some time ago there was a visitor here I talked to who arrived about a half an hour early for a morning service. He said he lived in Friendship and had walked over. I asked him how long it took him. He paused, and he said: “honestly, about 25 years.” Which led to a very rich conversation, as I’m sure you might imagine. A life story.

But it has been for many of us, for all of us, quite a journey, to get here. How long did it take you? We could write a number of fascinating novels, I’m sure. Full of twists and turns, wild plots, adventures and misadventures, with all kinds of social and psychological and spiritual layers and levels unfolding along the way.

Until we arrive. Like John and Mary. An old stone church in a quiet neighborhood of the East End of Pittsburgh. We sing a few hymns, say a few prayers. And the Word is opened for us. It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation. It sounds like poetry, and it is. A song echoing generation after generation.

In any event, as he opens himself to us and for us, we would open ourselves to this all for a moment and take it seriously ourselves. Which we do, deep down. Finding our way here.

Perhaps it wasn’t the case that we were on the original guest list for this wedding banquet. And yet, unexpectedly, here we are. Gathered in from the highways and byways. As St. Matthew says, “both good and bad.” That in seeking him we might find him, and be found by him. Then the Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces. For all the distractions of the morning, and the jumble of kids and family and the usual busyness of chores and activities, conversations. Where we’ve been, where we’re going, where we are right now at this moment. That we wouldn’t be like the one who refused the invitation, who declined to don the wedding garment and become a part of the celebration.

The King is giving a wedding banquet for his Son.

It is by his mercy, which is so precious, his grace, and in his love, that we are here, that we draw breath. He knows our hopes, our frustrations, our steps and missteps, and every tear. And all that is such a gift. His love for us.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. That would be a word for us this morning, an invitation, heart and mind, body, soul, spirit, all that we are and all that God is in Christ Jesus. And a word of thanksgiving and assurance.

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

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Sixteenth after Pentecost

(Proper 22A2) Isaiah 5: 1-7, Philippians 3: 4-14, Matthew 21: 33-46

Grace and peace, as we sail on into that time of year that is in some parts of the country called “the post-season.” Though of course here in Pittsburgh, not so much: football and hockey, college basketball, and an early winter. Still some great baseball on television, but always that seems for us to be on a different planet, or in a different universe. But, forward.

The context for these two Parables of the Vineyard are of course very different, for Isaiah and for Jesus. Isaiah is offering a theological frame of reference for the disaster about to befall God’s Chosen People. Calling the Royal and Priestly leaders to account for their decision to pursue self-interest and to ignore the higher calling of God’s righteousness.

Jesus is continuing in his confrontational discussion with the religious authorities of his day. Challenging them about their complicit silence in the death of John the Baptist and by implication about their willful decision to oppose him and his message.

In both cases Isaiah and Jesus we might say “throwing down the gauntlet.” Breaking through the behavior and culture of denial and self-delusion. Getting down to brass tacks with clarity about what is really going on.

Many years ago I was a student in a course at the Church Divinity School very much like one I now help to teach at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. A classroom and discussion group for students involved as Field Education parish ministry interns. It was and is a whole new world for students in this situation, of course, and I remember we used to come to the group with some pretty interesting and challenging stories. Very much like the ones I hear today from my students. Some very complicated discussions trying to solve problems with youth groups and altar guilds and vestries.

I remember one time in the midst of one of those lively discussions one of our faculty conveners, Donn Morgan, who was also our Old Testament Professor, asking us to step back for a moment and consider whatever the issue of the day was from a different perspective. “I wonder,” he said, after we had talked around in circles for half an hour or so, “how someone might approach this problem if he believed in God.”

Which of course kind of took us back. Wait a minute. What are you saying? A little bit like Isaiah, or like Jesus with the Chief Priests and Scribes. “I’ve heard all your great insights and brilliant plans. None of which seems to have gotten you very far so far. I wonder what all this might look like from God’s point of view.”

Recognizing I guess deep down how so often even the most faithful Christian people, and maybe all of us as we look into the mirror—how we will so often talk the talk about God, when we’re in church or in a prayer group or Bible study. But how when the rubber really hits the road—at work, or in the community, or in our families, there really isn’t much evidence that we take our own talk all that seriously. Sometimes this is called "functional atheism." How we seem to imagine that what we know is more or less what we need to know. That if a problem is going to be addressed and solved, we’re the ones who are going to need to do it.

This is of course just right at the center for Isaiah and for Jesus. The moral of the story: if you don’t think God is going to act to set things right, you’ve got another “think” coming.

If we think we can just skate along taking the world on our own terms and without reference to his reality—well, the day will come when we will find out just how costly that assumption is really going to be.

Matthew tells us at the end of the reading this morning that as Jesus was speaking, in this Parable all about these unruly tenants who with just unbelievable blindness caused by their self-centeredness and greed bring down upon themselves the catastrophic judgment of the vineyard owner, in the midst of all of that, all of a sudden “they realized that he was speaking about them.”

And with irony, seeing themselves in the story, they continue to play their part. The realization not leading to a turning-around, a repentance, but instead to ride the story out to the conclusion themselves. Wanting to arrest him. Kill the messenger. So clearly they heard the story, but deep down they missed the point.

We don’t see the same dramatic moment in the Isaiah passage, though we can see the end as it played out as well. Because those who heard Isaiah didn’t pay attention, didn’t respond, and so the Lord’s vineyard, his pleasant planting, was indeed destined to become a dry and barren wilderness, and the glorious City of David a heap of smoldering ruins.

At least initially it comes as something a relief to read that these parables are all about the Kings and Priests of Ancient Jerusalem, all about the Temple Authorities of Jesus’s day, because it is always very interesting and sometimes even quite satisfying to read strong and compelling words of judgment, as they are addressed to others, long ago and/or far away.

So long as they have nothing to do with us, so long as they have nothing to do with me. So long as they set no costly or challenging claim against my sense of who I am. So long as they contradict none of my cherished opinions and values. My habits, my prejudices. So long as they have nothing too particular to say about the way I organize my work or my family or my finances or my relationship with my neighbors.

Let ‘em have it, Isaiah. You tell ‘em, Jesus. You tell ‘em.

But nonetheless, First Sunday in October, this just might roll up on our doorstep this morning to give us at least a little shake. If we can manage that. If the Kings and Priests of Isaiah’s day had their minds closed to the call of righteousness and obedience expressed in the Word and Covenant, how am I in that department myself? I wonder. And it’s good and important for me to wonder that. If the Scribes and Pharisees keep their eyes and ears closed and will surround themselves only with people who see things their way, who value the things they value, who refuse to consider the possibility that God might be speaking to them in the voices of persons who think differently, who value things differently, who are not open to the possibility that they themselves might be some ways down the wrong track—well, how am I in that department myself?

What if there is a God, and what if he has acted? What if he has spoken? What difference would that knowledge make to me? To my openness to hear something different, something new. To my willingness to step back and ask what the right thing to do is, what God is doing, rather than to focus only on what I think and what I want? We use those words anyway in our Creeds and Catechism, as we speak about the Holy Scriptures. As we speak about Jesus and the Cross.

It may be, says St. Paul, in this wonderful passage from Philippians, the one thing worth knowing. The single transforming moment of our lives. That, yes, there is a God, and that God has spoken, God has acted. That he speaks. That he continues to act in our lives and in our world. And so to have our confidence not in ourselves, in what we know and what we might do and accomplish, but to have our hope and our confidence in him. In Christ alone. To regard all as loss, as rubbish—such an extreme word—for his sake. To say not that it’s all about be, about winning, about my being right, about things turning out the way I want them to turn out. But to say, simply, in the midst of so much complexity of the world, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.”

To have that phrase as background as we observe once again these Parables of the Vineyard, and as we would see ourselves reflected in them. And as we would reach out ourselves this morning to be made one with him in the sacrament of the bread and cup. We know what it is to be off track and down the wrong track. Deep down that’s no mystery to us, although we so often pretend otherwise. But there is a choice. God sends Isaiah, and John the Baptist, and he comes to us himself as his only Son walks this long journey to the Cross. And the invitation this morning not that he would see things our way, and come with us, but that we would turn and follow him. “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.”