Sunday, March 25, 2012

Fifth in Lent: Passion Sunday

John 12: 20-33

Grace and peace this morning. We passed the vernal equinox this past week and now are officially in spring, though perhaps it’s not all that significant for us to notice, with such a mild winter and these warm and sunny weeks. I mowed the lawn at our house, and more significantly, as some of you know when you’ve driven in the evening down North Euclid, I finally took down our Christmas lights. So summer will be here before we know it, and no turning back.

On the traditional calendar of the Church Year, and as this is as you know a continuing hobby-horse of mine, we spent some time talking about this at the Wednesday Bible Study this week, this Fifth Sunday in Lent was the beginning of the last part of the Lenten Season, a kind of “season within a season,” called Passiontide. Lost in the simplification of the calendar in the 1979 Prayer Book. But in the Prayer Book tradition for the first 4 centuries anyway a regular reminder that we’re on the doorstep now and once again, to anticipate—once again about to enter all the high drama and powerful focus of Holy Week beginning next Sunday, Palm Sunday. And with all that an invitation to begin to prepare for that high and serious and rich encounter right now.

In the old Prayer Book lectionary the reading appointed for Passion Sunday was from Hebrews 9 to provide a framework and drawing on imagery from the traditions of Temple Sacrifice in Jerusalem for our understanding of the story we are about to hear and tell again.

“But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.”

The calendar of our new Prayer Book doesn’t call this season Passiontide anymore, although next Sunday, Palm Sunday, is also called the Sunday of the Passion, with the appointed reading of one of the long Passion narratives from the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, or Luke, depending on the year. Since we’re in Year B, Mark next Sunday. And then with the great climax of the reading of the Passion from St. John on Good Friday.

But I think the reading we have this morning from John 12 does all the work that we need for a week of preparation, even without the official title of Passion Sunday. I anticipated it a bit last week when talking about the image of Moses and the Sign of the Serpent out in the wilderness, and here again. Providing for us what we might think of as preparation for Holy Week, giving us a vocabulary, words and images and a conceptual framework, for the story we are about to hear.

To begin the process once again of appropriate, making sense of it all. Not that we need all of us to be teachers of doctrine and systematic theologians. But to come to the heart of the story. What we of St. Andrew’s would know essentially by heart as we read it every Sunday overhead in the inscription on our rood beam. “And I if I be lifted up from the earth will draw all men unto me.”

It is a sad, tragic, moving story that we are about to hear. A good man is betrayed by evil enemies and suffers painful torture and public execution for crimes he didn’t commit. It is a kind of tragedy, a miscarriage, and we would of course be inspired by the dignity and calm and grace and courage as he faces this unjust fate. How even at the point of death he reaches out to show concern for others, and with so much generosity of heart even has a word of forgiveness for those who are putting him to death.

If the story ended there it would be a great and powerful story. Something for Shakespeare or Tolstoy or perhaps with the contemporary edge of a Thomas Pynchon. Dark shadows. Tragic vision. And a remnant and vestige of humanity shining through even the most inhumane experience. But what we are to know is that this doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface.

Because what we are approaching here is the story not of things gone wrong, but of things being put right again. Reminding ourselves again. All the way back to the First Chapter of St. John, and as we read together in the midnight of Christmas Eve: In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness overcame it not . . . . And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us (and we behld his glory, the glory of the only begotten of the Father), full of grace and truth.

Not defeat, but victory. Glory. “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” Glory. Healing. Mercy. Forgiveness. New life. A new world. The door swinging open. Immanuel: God with us. This is what it means. God with us.

And we stand there now. In the gravitational field of the center of the universe, the beating heart of the creation, the Father’s own self-giving, from before time and forever. Read it again, always before our eyes. “I when I am lifted up from the earth will draw all men unto me.” It’s not just another skirmish against the Ancient Enemy. The whole war is fought here and won, decisively, once for all. His one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.

It’s actually all just so much deeper and farther out there than any words can convey. We stand here in silence at the foot of the Cross. Eyes open, ears open. Mind open. Heart open. Accepting the gift even before we can begin to comprehend what it is he is offering us. Like the Bread and Wine at the table. What is it? Manna from heaven. His own self. Take and eat. Lord Jesus, remember me, hold me in your heart, draw me into your presence. Again from Hebrews:

How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.

So Passiontide. Next Sunday Palm Sunday, we remember that. Seems like 20 minutes ago and the angels were singing to the shepherds and Holy Mary was carefully placing her sleeping newborn son in the straw of the manger. And now the whole story will unfold before our eyes once again. A new covenant. May we this year and in this moment of our lives be ready to receive the gift that he has come to give.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Fourth in Lent

(B) Numbers 21: 4-9; Ephesians 2: 1-10; John 3: 14-21

Grace and peace on this Midlent Sunday, half-way through the season, traditionally named “Laetare,” from what was the choral introit for this Sunday in the old Tridentine Mass ordinary, “Laetare Ierusalem,” the text from Isaiah 66: Rejoice O Jerusalem, and come together all you that love her: rejoice with joy you that have been in sorrow: that you may exult, and be filled . . .

Traditionally a day where some of the austerities of our Lenten disciplines would be relaxed. In some places the Lenten array on the altar replaced with Rose paraments.

Not anything like the full-blown celebration of Easter, of course, but something of a pause for refreshment, as we gather ourselves for the final distance in the weeks ahead. “Refreshment Sunday” another traditional name for the day, with the theme picked up and echoed in the collect that reflects the wonderful saying in John 6, I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. In England an early spring Sunday when servants in Downtown Abbey great homes would be given the afternoon off to visit their families. "Mothering Sunday," the ancestor of our Mother's Day.

And so, a day we might say to enjoy that Girl Scout cookie at coffee hour with a smile!

A moment to come up for air in the midst of a long underwater swim, if we might think of Lent that way. To take a deep breath. To catch a glimpse of the far shore, the destination. A long swim still ahead, Passion and Holy Week, Good Friday and the Cross and the dark tomb. But a glimpse of Sunday morning and Easter. Already coming into view.

Jesus and Nicodemus, and the heart of their conversation. The old Jewish official sneaks out under the cover of night to meet the rabbi from the Galilee that everyone is talking about. And we remember the story. Nicodemus asks Jesus what he’s about, what his special teaching is. And Jesus says, “verily, verily I say unto thee, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus is confused and says “I don’t know how to do that. How to be born again.” And Jesus says, “That’s right. You don’t know how. You can’t do it. This is only something that God can do. Something only God can make happen. And most surprisingly, that God is doing right here and right now. Something happening before your very eyes.” And then as near as we can get to the whole gospel in one sentence.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

A few years ago in the Lenten Preaching Series I had the opportunity to preach on this text from Numbers on a Tuesday evening over at Redeemer Church. I picked up a few rubber/plastic snakes at the toy store for fun, and I remember I made a joke at the beginning about a movie that had just been released then. Samuel L. Jackson, I think. “Snakes on a Plane.” As I said then, you don’t need any more explanation. A plot summary is unnecessary. All you need to know. You’re on this plane. And there are snakes.

There is this primeval shiver. All the way back through our ancestral data base, deep in our DNA. The ancient curse in the Garden, Genesis chapter 2. The sickness in us from the beginning. Turns out that Snakes on a Plane is the story of our lives. Our darkness, our brokenness. The poison that infects us, that overpowers us, cripples us, kills us.

Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

This is a deep refreshment, that we are invited to share this morning. Light dispelling the darkness. Healing. Forgiveness. A fresh start. A new birth. From the Spirit of God, from above. The Bread of Heaven, the Cup of Salvation. True refreshment.

Which is the goal of our Lent. The long swim underwater. Fasting, self-denial, prayer, reading his Word. That in all this we would draw closer to him. Discovering and renewing our commitment to him. To hear him. To trust him. To receive the gift of love that he gives us at the Cross. To live with him and for him now and always.

So Paul in Ephesians opens this for us: “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”

Who Jesus is, and the mystery of the Cross: the riches of his grace; his kindness toward us. Let us be refreshed in this, in him, this morning, as we come to the table and as we go out into the world. Rejoice O Jerusalem, and come together all you that love her: rejoice with joy you that have been in sorrow: that you may exult, and be filled . . . .

Saturday, March 17: Dorothy Welsh

Burial Office: Dorothy Elizabeth Walker Welsh
January 29, 1932 – February 27, 2012

Grace and peace again this morning, and a word of welcome. It is for me and I know for all of us a great gift and privilege to share this hour, with many memories. Sharing with one another, expressing affection for you, Dick, for your three sons, Larry, Scott, and Brett and their families, and daughters-in-law and their families, and I think I count six grandchildren. Dottie’s sister Rose Mary, whom we’ll see later today at the burial up in Saegertown. Nearly 60 years of marriage, all the family stories, the big and memorable moments and the many routines of day to day life together. We would all pray especially for you that these days which are so sad may also be a time of reflection and blessing and encouragement.

Dottie was what we call here at St. Andrew’s a “9 o’clocker,” for the most part, worshiping with the smaller congregation of 30 or so on Sunday mornings over in the Chapel, sitting most often in the same section on the side, sometimes when she could also attending the midweek Wednesday morning services also in the Chapel. Certainly well known and much loved in the wider parish family.

Her friends in the Altar Guild, involvements in our Adult Education activities, book groups and so on—as she was such a great reader—and most of all I think in being such an inspiration in our ministries of outreach into the wider neighborhood and community. When my predecessor Ralph Brooks retired in 1993, after 33 years of service as Rector of St. Andrew’s, Dottie was asked to serve on the Committee that would be involved in finding the next Rector of the parish, and in the time to come that committee chose her to serve as Chair. That says something of the respect the people of this congregation had for her.

And I can tell you that as chair she was one of the very first people of St. Andrew’s that I met as I was introduced to St. Andrew’s in the spring of 1994, eighteen years ago now. And for the parish. that was putting the best foot forward. Such warm hospitality, graciousness, good humor. What a great experience. And I recall that when Susy and the kids and I actually arrived that summer Dottie and Dick invited all the members of the Search Committee and the Vestry and spouses to a picnic out in the backyard of their home. A chance to get to know each other a little and just to relax and have fun. A beautiful, sunny summer afternoon. And through that time, always so thoughtful and caring.

And I remember in the summer of 2004 when we had a little coffee hour reception after services on Sunday morning to mark the 10th anniversary of our arrival Dottie made a very nice and affectionate presentation, and telling some funny stories that had us all laughing. Such a great smile, as you can see on the photograph on the table at the back of the church.

Some years ago the parish Outreach Committee went through one of its periodic reorganizations, and the group decided they wanted to work on a brochure and a mission statement and a catch phrase to communicate their sense of ministry and purpose. And I think it was Conrad Seamen who came up with the simple phrase, “putting the love of God into action.” Simple, but just getting it all there.

And that spirit, that sense of focus, reflected so much of what Dottie was about here at St. Andrew’s and throughout her life, in so many different ways. To think about her career as a teacher. And what a great gift and blessing it would have been to have been a student of hers! And to reference the wonderful work though so many years with the East End Cooperative Ministry, as Myrna and Sister Michele have shared, and with Contact Pittsburgh, and as Joan has shared about those early years with M.J. McCarty and that small group with a vision for Off the Floor Pittsburgh. “Putting the love of God into action” was what she was about, who she was. Dick was telling me this week about “Matt’s Place,” a shelter for youth, that she was I guess really the founder of.

We can’t even begin to count the lives that she touched and encouraged, so many who experienced indeed the love of God through the care that Dottie shared with them. And so many who have over these years been inspired to join in that as well, by her witness.

The traditional reading from St. Paul to the Romans has a special resonance and meaning this morning, as we remember Dottie. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors, through him that loved us.”

Dottie was not a person who put herself in the limelight, it was never “about her.” Always about the work, the ministry, the service. The children and youth, the frail elderly, the homeless, those in need. About them. And in that, reflecting the deepest and strongest of Christian values and virtues and character, this is a celebration today of a life story that has been a triumphant story, a life of accomplishment and a great victory of character and spirit, and the use of the gifts God has so generously given. A great victory that we celebrate today. A Christian life lived wonderfully and faithfully.

Jesus said, let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God. Believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions. If it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.

It just strikes me that through her life Dottie prepared a home for so many, for her husband and her children and family, and then beyond in wider and wider cirlces: places of safety in times of danger, nourishment in times of distress, healing in times of brokenness. And that is for us this morning a glimpse and a foretaste of the hope that we would share in Christ Jesus. “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.” In sure and certain hope we would lift our prayers today with and for Dottie, and commend her to the loving care of her Lord and Savior.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Third in Lent

John 2: 13-22

Grace to you and peace. Spring is rolling in all around us. April showers this week, in early March, and perhaps we’ll be in midsummer by Mother’s Day. Days getting longer in any event, Daylight Saving Time today, which caught me by surprise, baseball in Bradenton, kids home for spring break.

But inside the globe of the Church Year the sky is turning dark and dead serious.

This year in the lectionary cycle this Third Sunday in Lent we’re in John’s second chapter and near Passover in Jerusalem. The other gospels set this story on Palm Sunday and in the crisis of Holy Week. John seems to have a different timing. But the connection is clearly there anyway. Passover. Destroy this temple, and in three days. The temple of his body. And after he was raised from the dead his disciples remembered. Good Friday, Easter all don’t seem too far away. It may not literally be Holy Week in the second chapter, but close enough.

In any event, it’s the image of the moment that catches our attention. Stunning really. Even breathtaking. Jesus in righteous zeal striding across the stage, swinging his whip of cords, driving the sacrificial animals from their place in line. Almost larger than life. Overturning the tables where for a small fee religious visitors could exchange their Roman money for Temple Coins. That inscription “Caesar is god” making the Roman coins unfit for holy offerings. The shouting. The commotion. The controversy.

Who in the world are you, Jesus? What in the world do you think you’re doing? That’s what the Temple authorities and everybody else are asking. Us too. Just a jumble of emotions in reaction.

The 72nd Chapter of the Rule of St. Benedict begins, “As there is a harsh and evil zeal which separates from God and leads to hell, so there is a virtuous zeal which separates from vice and leads to God and to life everlasting.”

But we’re all Episcopalians here, guided by restraint. Stiff upper lift. Never let’em see you sweat. Zeal? We’d rather say we’re “interested.” That we have a concern. Form a committee. Write a position paper. Whips? Turning over tables? Not so much.

Roman Catholic New Testament scholar John Meier wrote a very interesting book maybe 25 years ago called Jesus: A Marginal Jew. He’s very interested in this story of the Cleansing of the Temple. He places the story in the context of a controversy in First Century Judaism about the status of this Temple as it was being rebuilt and restored by the Herodian monarchy and funded by the Roman occupiers. The religious establishment seems pretty much have been glad to go along with this aspect of the Capital Campaign, I guess we would say, but for some of the more devout and fervent and zealous Jews of the day the involvement of these unclean sponsors contaminated the whole enterprise.

“Tear this Temple down,” they said, “and by God’s grace the pure and perfect Temple of the LORD will come down from heaven to take its place. Tear this temple down, and God will himself renew the deep communion he intended with his Chosen People. Tear this Temple down, and The Holy One of Israel will bring to completion the ancient promise. A house of prayer for all peoples. Nations will stream to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawning.”

It was just a month or so ago, at the beginning of February, when Mary and Joseph had come to this place with the Poor Man’s offering of two turtledoves, and old Simeon had sung his Nunc Dimittis. Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou has prepared before the face of all people. A light to lighten the gentiles. The glory of thy people Israel. And how long since that teenager Jesus had scooted away from his parents and come to these Temple precincts, to slip into one of the seminar rooms and interrupt the learned scholars with his precocious questions? Used to be our lesson for the First Sunday after the Epiphany, in the old Prayer Book lectionary. “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?”

But now here we are again within the precincts of the Temple. And now this. Our zealous Lord. A zeal not to destroy but to create, to renew, to restore, to refresh. Not to break down but to build up. Not to harm but to heal. Not to curse but to bless.

They couldn’t see it then or be sure just what it all meant. But once they had seen the Resurrection it all came together and makes sense and is true. The old stones on Mt. Zion swept away. A new cornerstone set into the earth. A new foundation. A new House of God’s sacred presence come down from heaven, to be in communion with us. Tear this Temple down, and in three days I will build it new. “He was speaking of the Temple of his body.”

So come and be a part of that. The invitation of Lent, calling for a response. Come and be a part of that. From all of us corporately as his Church from generation to generation. From each of us individually in the quiet of our own heart. It begins with a decision. About loyalty. Connection. Identity. Purpose. About where we belong. St. Paul in First Corinthians 6: “Do you not know that your body is the Temple of the Holy Spirit?” As we pray before coming to the Table. “That we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.”

That’s the invitation of Lent for us. What it’s all about. Who it’s all about. All about Jesus. Not about our busyness or deprivation, missing that chocolate or the glass of wine after dinner, about becoming more spiritually advanced or saving the world with the energy of our good works, but about coming to life in Jesus. Entering the Temple, coming to the holy of holies.

Go your way into his gates with thanksgiving, into his courts with praise. Not quite half way through Lent yet but leaning forward to Easter. Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. With Good Zeal.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Second in Lent

Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-16; Romans 4: 13-25; Mark 8: 31-38

Good morning and grace and peace to you as we travel along at the beginning of the Second Week of Lent. Over us the invitation from Ash Wednesday continuing, to the observance of a holy Lent “by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”

Certainly we would pray that we will cultivate in ourselves an openness, a sense of availability, and that in whatever practice and discipline we have committed ourselves to in this Lent of 2012 God will accomplish in each of us the work that needs to be done in us, that we will arrive this year at Holy Week and Good Friday and Easter morning renewed and refreshed in our life in Christ.

Certainly as we continue to focus on this personally, we would as well pray for one another, for the life and ministry of this congregation, asking God’s guidance and discipline, and blessing and care.

Yesterday afternoon we celebrated a baptism here with a newer family in the parish. Declan McMurtrie, his mom Natalie and his dad Chris and a great gathering of family and friends. And in the anointing and chrismation I was reminded again of the Old Testament story in First Samuel of how the Prophet Samuel came out by God’s direction to Jesse’s home in Bethlehem in order to anoint the one who was chosen and who would be the King of Israel. The parade of Jesse’s sons—and none of them the one. Until the youngest is called in from the fields. And when David walks into the room, Samuel sees him and knows, right away. And then he pours on the young man the sacred oil. “Young man, God has a great plan for your life.” A turning point in the Biblical story. Something true for Declan and for each of us in our baptism too and our life in Christ.

This past week as well thinking as we’ve noted in our biddings this morning about the life of Dottie Welsh, long-time member of St. Andrew’s and friend, who died on Monday night. Thinking about how though her last years have been marked by increasing weakness and disability, the true story for her was the story of strength and triumph. A life of compassion, tenderness, service to others, good humor, patience, and deep faith. Jesus very much a close companion, day by day. I know an inspiration, to her friends, family, those who loved her and worked with her over so many years.

Beginnings, endings, new beginnings. Birth and rebirth. Through it all: God has a great plan for your life.

There’s a fun German word I learned when I began a more academic study of the Bible, either in college or in seminary. Heilsgeschichte. Literally, “the holy story.” Sometimes, “salvation history.”

The idea that for all the books and all the stories and characters in their particularity of time and place, for all the forms of expression and concerns of context, history and poetry, letters and devotions, in all the inspired pages of God’s holy Word, there was and is to be found one great story, one overarching plot, one theme, one intention, one author, one hope, one promise, one meaning, one golden thread.

Abram was ninety-nine years old. Which I would think would be a moment mostly about reflection of the past. How you’ve lived your life. What you’ve accomplished. Things left undone. Maybe time for a little fishing. Rocking in the rocking chair. But God turns that over, pulls it inside-out. “Abram, this is just the beginning. We’re just getting started. You’ve got a new name now, Abraham, and a new life just beginning. Put your hand in mine and step out in faith, and generations yet unborn will be blessed through you. Multitudes and nations. Don’t look back. Look forward. I have a great plan for your life.

And Paul in this pivotal passage of Romans about Abraham. “No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.”

“For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham . . . in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”

And so, Lent. It’s not about working harder and harder and becoming a better person. Fixing ourselves or fixing the world. It is about coming into relationship with him, and becoming a new person. It’s about putting the old name down, and taking the name he gives.

Ask Abraham. Ask Moses. Ask the young boy David. Ask the young girl Mary in her Nazareth Garden, when the angel came to her.

Jesus opens it all to his disciples in the eighth chapter of Mark, as we heard this morning. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

To lose life is to find life. The end and the beginning. The whole heilsgeschichte. A wandering Aramaean patriarch out there in the desert of the ancient Near East. A shepherd boy. A young girl from Nazareth in the Galilee. The disciples. The crowds. Paul on the Road to Damascus. Declan Thomas McMurtrie. Dottie Welsh.

The water poured over the font. The bread and wine on the Holy Table. You and me. All connected by this golden thread to the one story of God’s love in Jesus, the Cross, Good Friday, and Easter morning.

All to be stirred up for us in this Lent. By self-examination and repentance, by prayer, fasting, self-denial, by reading and meditating upon God’s holy Word. Perhaps like Abraham to hear the word for the first time, breaking in on our lives just when we thought our story had pretty much been told. Giving us a new name. A new identity. A new hope. Life and life eternal in him.

The story that all the stories tell. God knows who you are. He loves you, in Jesus Christ our Lord. And he has a great plan for your life.