Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day

John Christopherson, my grandmother's older brother, died in the Great War and is buried in England. His photograph in uniform, taken at the drug store in Stanley, Wisconsin, shortly before he departed, always had a place of honor on my grandmother's bedroom bureau. On this Memorial Day weekend, with deepest thanksgiving.

Almighty God, our heavenly Father, in whose hands are the living and the dead; We give thee thanks for all those 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, that the good work which thou has begun in them may be perfected; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, May 27, 2012


Grace and peace and abundant blessings on this great festival day, on our new Church Calendar very appropriately the Last Sunday of Easter season, 50th Day of what we are calling now the Great 50 Days, and in some meaningful ways I suppose we might think of it as the Feast of the Inauguration of the Kingdom of God.

 The Crucified and Risen Lord Jesus has ascended to the Right Hand of the Father and is seated now on the Great Throne to Rule Heaven and Earth, the Judge of Nations and Peoples, and as the Holy Spirit, Comforter and Advocate, overflows in eternal glory from the Father and the Son and fills the whole of creation.

The Feast of the Inauguration of the Kingdom of God, above space and beyond time, promised and hoped for from ancient days, eternally future and eternally present.  And the Birthday of the Church, as we’ve seen that sudden almost volcanic eruption in the reading from Acts this morning; suddenly the Church on the move, inspired, energized, proclaiming the Gospel and living the Gospel, the Members Incorporate in the Mystical Body of God’s Son.  The Heirs through hope of God’s Everlasting Kingdom.  Your birthday and my birthday. 

In the ancient Church a baptismal day second only to Easter itself, and the English name “Whitsunday” from “White Sunday,” the color of the robes and vestments of baptismal celebration.  And in more recent color schemes a day for Red paraments, to signify the flame of the Holy Spirit, burning brightly in the life of the Church from that first Pentecost Day onward.  And also the color we use in Church for Holy Days associated with the lives of the Holy Martyrs.  Those whose very lives from St. Stephen in Jerusalem and our own Patron St. Andrew on his X-shaped cross, to this very day in Syria and Egypt and parts of Africa and Asia are given up as a witness and an offering.  The church on the move, inspired and energized.  Your birthday and my birthday, Holy Spirit, and King Jesus on the Throne of Heaven.

The Jewish holiday fifty days after Passover is Shauvot, the Covenant of the Giving of the Law at Sinai, remembering this great moment when God in his generosity claimed a people for his own, called them into relationship.  Before Shauvot  as Moses led them out of Egypt and through the Parted Waters of the Red Sea they were a ragtag and random assembly of Hebrew clans and tribes.  But at the Holy Mountain they stop for the new Word that God will have for them there about who they are, about where they are going.  And only then, as God gives and as they receive that transforming Word, the Torah, the very Word of God, they become his Chosen People, God’s Israel.  

And if the in sacred story of God’s plan the Paschal Mystery of Easter is a new expression of the ancient Passover, so now this Whitsunday and Pentecost of the Holy Spirit is a new Shauvot, the birth in Christian witness of the New Israel.  The Holy Nation through whom God in Christ acts to call the Creation back to himself, to make the wounded whole.

St. Luke wants to tell this story at the beginning of Acts in a way that will stir us up, that will quicken our heartbeat, fill us with excitement ourselves, open us generation by generation and wherever we are so that no matter how tightly locked may be the doors and windows around us, we will expect and we will receive that same gift, that same Holy Spirit, the Tongues of Fire above us and around us and inspiring us, uniting us in Christ one with another and motivating us to obedience and holiness and inspiring us to go out into the world rejoicing and proclaiming the Good News of our Savior.

The Bread and Wine at this Holy Table, signs of his own best and perfect gift to us, the gift of himself, his living presence, his one eternal offering of faithful love for us, Holy Spirit alive in us to be the pattern and purpose of our lives.  Blessings indeed on this Day of Pentecost, Whitsunday, and Happy Birthday!

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

Saturday, May 26, 2012 Holy Matrimony

Bethany Anne Wenger and Travis Michael Moore

Bethany and Travis, what a wonderful day, a beautiful and warm afternoon.  I know perhaps you thought by coming north you might miss some of that Nashville heat and humidity, but here we are, and I do pray that we would all know this a blessing of early summer for your wedding day.  A new season of the year spreading out before us, and here today we celebrate truly this new season,  his new chapter of your lives.  I would say for myself and I know for all of us here this afternoon that it is a privilege and an honor and a gift and a blessing to share this day with you, to be present as you exchange your vows and mark the formal beginning of this new adventure.  Thank you for including us, and thank you most of all for all that you are together, and all that you share with us.

My good friend Jerry Smith, the Rector of St. Bartholomew’s Church in Nashville, has shared with me how much he enjoyed getting to know you during your meetings with him for marriage preparation—and he has assured me of something I already knew from my visits with you—that you are two exceptional young people, and well-prepared for the new life you are beginning today.  A hint in this first moment of who you will be together as husband and wife and family in the years to come.  You are two thoughtful people.  Both of you mature, sensitive, insightful.  With a warm sense of humor.  And Jerry and I both very much have appreciated the tenderness that you share with one another, and the sense of your friendship.  Those are all such important parts of the foundation of the life you will be building now in a new way.  And I know they are gifts that you will share with each other, and also with your families and friends in all the years ahead. 

Underneath and surrounding all of this of course the Christian family, the Church, has two words to describe what this is all about today as we celebrate your marriage: sacrament and vocation.  In our Prayer Book service we have just heard the words, “the Covenant of Marriage was established by God in creation.”  And that is a reminder for us that as we share this afternoon with you we are invited to see not only two people in love who are agreeing to share their lives together, and then signing a legal contract outlining mutual responsibilities--but that we might see you as well sacramentally as outward and visible signs of something deeper.  “He made them in his own image.  Male and female he created them.” Echoing perhaps the familiar words of the First Letter of St. John.  “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God.”  This is a moment when you in your marriage and we with you come closer to God and are drawn deeper into a knowledge and understanding and experience of who he is, and what the real meaning of life and of all creation really is.

And we’ve said as well that God has established marriage with a purpose in mind.  A purpose for all the human family, but also with a specific purpose for both of you.  In the Third Chapter of the Old Testament Book of Exodus there is one of my favorite stories, about a moment of life-changing experience, a “vocational” 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

We don’t actually have to take off our shoes here today.  But I want to say that we might do so at least in our imaginations for a moment.  Because the great reality here is that just as Moses at the Burning Bush came into the presence of God and discovered what the call on his life was that God had in mind for him, so here, for you.  It was the beginning of a new chapter for Moses.  A chapter in which he would play a key role in fulfilling the great plan that God had for his people.  And so here, for you.  “Take off your shoes.  For the ground on which you are standing is holy ground.”  God calls you into this relationship of marriage this day, Bethany and Travis, because he has work for you to do.  We only see hints of what that will be in these beginning moments, but we do know that he has a great plan for your life together from this day forward.  May you know and experience that reality today, in this place, on this holy ground--and in all the days you will share together in the years to come.

Now as Travis and Bethany come forward to exchange the vows that will make them husband and wife, to receive Holy Communion together, and to have pronounced over them the Nuptial Blessing,  I would invite all of us to bow our heads in a moment of silent prayer for them, that God will care for them, bless them, and protect them today and always.

The Rev. Dr. Bruce M. Robison

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Seventh Easter: After The Ascension

  Acts 1: 15-17, 21-26; John 17: 6-19

Good morning, and grace and peace to you on this Seventh Easter Sunday, the Sunday after The Ascension, and very much as we hear in the propers for today--the Collect of the Day and the Readings from scripture appointed for us--very much the Sunday before Whitsunday, the Sunday before Pentecost—as we seem to be leaning forward now to that great conclusion and emphatic exclamation point for Easter.  

And not actually a conclusion at all but the fullness of the beginning, the doors swinging wide open.  The Empty Tomb, the Risen Lord lifted up and taking his place on the Great Throne of the Kingdom. 

An anticipation of Trinity Sunday then also.  The fullness of the Father in the Son, the fullness of the Son in the Father, the fullness of the Father and the Son in the fresh presence of the Holy Spirit now sweeping through and in and over his glorified Body the Church.  In this wonderful language of St. John, as Jesus prays “all mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.”  And the famous prayer, ut unim sint in the Latin, “protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

This is not about a group of relics and remnants, the lost, the left-behind.  Closed in on themselves, separated from the world and waiting in fear, hope against hope, for some pie-in-the-sky future, for cosmic rescue.  Instead a band of witnesses who know deep down and through and through that the prayer  has now been answered.  The prayer, “thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.” 

That the message of Gabriel to Mary and of the Angelic Choir to the Shepherds on the hills outside the little town of Bethlehem has come to pass, “for unto you is born this day in the City of David a savior, who is Christ the Lord.”  

All in: Good Friday and Easter, every day they walked with him among the villages of the Galilee, and then in the Upper Room, where he showed himself to them, and on the Road to Emmaus, and on the Mountain Top, as he was lifted from their sight into the heavens, and on the morning of Pentecost, as the Spirit rested over them with a living flame, and as they poured out into the streets to announce the good news. 

The Sunday after the Ascension, and King Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father, and the great chorus even now of apostles and prophets and martyrs in multitudes beyond number stand and sing, “Heaven and earth are full of the majesty of thy glory.  Glory be to thee O Lord most high.”

The Sunday after the Ascension.

I was struck in reading the first lesson this morning from the first chapter of Acts.  As we have referenced this passage quite frequently over the past year or so and sometimes with a smile as a part of the Biblical context for the process that we have just concluded with the election of our new bishop.

Now I want to say first that I have nothing but the highest degree of respect and affection for my friends on the Standing Committee of our diocese, as we almost two years ago heard from Bishop Price that he would be retiring after the General Convention in 2012—and as we from that time forward took the Canons of our Episcopal Church and of our Diocese and began to develop the plans we would need to make for the season ahead.  Appointing committees, developing timelines and budgets, gathering the wisdom of those who had been through this experience before, consulting with leadership both within and beyond the diocese, creating ground rules, processes, frameworks, hiring consultants.  All of which winding its way toward the conclusion of the creation of a ballot, and then the organization of a special diocesan convention, as we completed that task just a month ago.  And then even following the election, the work of the transition, in all its complexity.

Again, my highest affirmation and appreciation for the work of all those involved, and noting especially the work of our own Mary Roehrich, whom I served with on Standing Committee as this all was designed, and of Joan Morris and Phil Wainwright, who served on the Nominations Committee, and Jill West and George Knight and Mary Roehrich now also, on the Transition Committee, and many others who have been involved or who will be involved.

And with all this, hovering in the background, of course, this very different process of the discernment and selection of Matthias to take the place of Judas among the 12 apostles.  “One of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us,” one of those whom we know and trust, who has known Jesus personally and well and deeply, “one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.”  Which is the job description of the apostle there.  To give testimony as a witness, to proclaim the good news not just as reported, but from personal conviction and knowledge and life experience.  And they see two before them who fit the profile well, “and they cast lots for them.”  Flip a coin.  Pull a name out of a hat.

Not because they don’t care who is chosen.  Not necessarily because they know that either would be fine in the ministry.  But because they know and feel with absolute assurance that God is in charge,  that the Spirit is in the room and in the world with power and authority and real force.  It may look like random chance, but they knew different.  They knew that God had already chosen, and that all they needed to do was to open their eyes, and that he would reveal that choice to them.

I had the opportunity this past week to preach over at Calvary Church at Evensong, as our choir was invited to join Calvary’s choir and with the choir from the Church of the Redeemer also.  And such a beautiful service.  And in the sermon I told the story as I have shared before here at St. Andrew’s also of how one day back in the 1970’s I saw someone reading the magazine called “Acts 29.”  And how I wondered what that referred to, and went home and checked my Bible, and was for a brief moment confused to see that there were only 28 chapters in Acts.  And then the lightbulb.  Acts 29 is what comes after.  Acts 29 is us.  An invitation to see ourselves and our lives in continuity with the lives of those first Easter and Pentecost Christians.  Certainly this is a way to think about Jesus and his prayer in John,  that we would all be one not only with our fellow Christians today.  But one across all the miles and generations, from the Galilee to Jerusalem, with St. Paul across Turkey and Greece and all the way to Rome, and year after year, to this time and to this place.  Peter and James and John, Mary Magdalen, Paul and Barnabas, Lydia, Mark, John the Divine.  You and I, all of us.

In 2012 the canons of the Episcopal Church didn’t let us pick our bishop’s  name out of a hat, though that would certainly have been a kindness to the diocesan budget!--and on Pentecost Sunday the friends of Jesus weren’t worried about how to put an elevator in the parish house or to order the next season’s Sunday School curriculum.  Things change, outwardly.  

But the message of this Sunday as we have our hearts filled by Easter and lean forward to Pentecost in the Kingdom of our Lord and Savior is that in Christ there is one.  One Church now and ever, one Body, one Spirit.  One hope in God’s call to us.  Holy Spirit active, alive, with us.  The risen Christ ruling heaven and earth.  That the meal we share in obedience to our Lord’s command and in love for him and for one another is a sign of our incorporation.  A prayer for forgiveness as we have willfully separated ourselves from the Body, and in our repentance a word of sacramental absolution in his Body and Blood, heavenly food and drink.  That he might live in us, and we in him.

An amusing exchange on Facebook this week between those few of us who express affection for the old Church Calendar and the greater majority who have grown to love the new calendar.  When does “Easter” end?  On the 40th Day, and we extinguish the Paschal Candle after the gospel lesson at Holy Communion on Ascension Thursday?  Or on the 50th Day, Whitsunday, Pentecost?  A silly conversation and probably an indication that some people have too much time on their hands.  But the word that we would carry with us to the Table and then out into the wide world of our lives is that it’s all Easter now, and in him always will be. 

His is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty.  For all that is in the heaven and in the earth is his.  His is the kingdom, and he is exalted as head before all.  

Friday, May 18, 2012

Sermon: Day of The Ascension

May 17, 2012  Ascension Thursday  
Daniel 7: 9-14; Matthew 28: 16-20
Choral Evensong, Calvary Episcopal Church, East Liberty

Good evening, and may there be grace and peace to you indeed, from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ, whom we celebrate in this feast as he is enthroned on high, ruling in majesty, and even in a world of brokenness and sin all around us the fulfillment of our prayer, “thy kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven.”

I am absolutely convinced that when the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God, it will be the combined choirs of Calvary Church, the Church of the Redeemer,  and St. Andrew’s Church that will be engaged to sing that liturgy, and I very much want to thank Alan Lewis and Nathan Carterette and Pete Luley and our three choirs for sharing with us an anticipation and foretaste of that this evening.  A  gift.  And to thank my neighbor and colleague and friend, the Rector of Calvary Church, for inviting me to participate as well this evening.  It is always truly an honor to preach in this place, and in this pulpit.  One of the great pulpits of our Church.  And I would just take this opportunity to say, Harold, as I know this week you have announced plans for your retirement from this ministry later this year, that it has been very much a privilege to serve over these years with you, and sharing the life of our wider East End neighborhood and our diocese.  There will be time I’m sure for some reminiscences and testimonials in the fall, but as this announcement has gone out, a word of friendship and great respect, and of all best wishes as you and Claudette begin to chart the next stage of the journey.

Now, whenever I come to this final scene in St. Matthew I am drawn back in memory to a Sunday School class in my childhood, I think maybe in the third or fourth grade.  One of those singular moments that stands out and has always remained with me.  Our teacher, I believe her name was Mrs. Johnson,  told us a story about a missionary in China back before the war who during the day was in a school as a teacher of English and who in the evening led Bible studies and evangelistic services.  The story was about one man who participated in those classes for some time, involved both during the day and in the evening, who came to the missionary one day with tears in his eyes, obviously moved in some very deep way, to say that he had been reading his English Bible, and that in what he was reading Jesus had spoken to him personally--personally!--and touched his heart.  And the missionary of course wanted to know more about this, and so the man told him it was right here, at the end of Matthew, as he was learning to read in English the words of assurance that Jesus shares with his friends with the Great Commission: “Lo, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  “That is wonderful, Mr.  Lo,” said the missionary.  “That is wonderful.” 

Well, it sounds kind of silly.  But our Sunday School teacher had us each take our Bibles—the ones we had received as a gift from the congregation at the end of the Second Grade—and turn to Matthew 28, and with our pencils carefully draw a line through the word “Lo,” and next to it, in the margin, to write our own name.  And so, every time I come to Matthew 28, I recall that somewhere, perhaps in a box of books in my sister’s garage out in California, there is an old red Bible in which Jesus says, “Bruce, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  Jesus speaking to us personally.  Me and Mr. Lo.  And we could all do that in our imagination.  Jesus looking over the circle of the disciples, across miles and centuries, and seeing you, each one of us.  “I am with you, with you, always.”  Insert your name here.

It is in any event something of the paradox of Ascension Thursday that the imagery of departure is surrounded and given shape and meaning by the assurance that Jesus isn’t going anywhere.  On the contrary, the message is if anything that now in the great conclusion of Good Friday and Easter Morning he is here more than ever.  Lifted high upon the throne, ruling in heaven and earth.  The great narrative arc of God’s action to redeem and restore a fallen world begun in the word to Abraham in the ancient desert of Mesopotamia, the thread of promise in the life of Israel, the hope of the prophets.  The sacramental anticipation of Israel, God’s holy people, set apart, and the Tent in the Wilderness, and the Temple in Jerusalem, now perfected in the New Israel of Christ, in the Temple of his glorified Body.  And in the Temple of his glorified Body, that is his Church.  Insert your name here.  A light to lighten the gentiles.  The glory of thy people. 

And so this evening we might hear appropriately in the background the 21st Chapter of St. John’s Revelation:  “And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.”  And of course the wonderful vision of Daniel in the reading appointed for this evening, “And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away.”

Ascension Thursday, again.  And Jesus hasn’t gone anywhere, isn’t going anywhere. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

The story of Matthew 28, like the Ascension  story of Luke 24, is not about a departure, but about an arrival, about his installation, his institution, his enthronement, his authority, his new kingdom.  It’s about who we are now, what we become, as we see him for the first time for who he truly is.  King of kings, Lord of lords.  He shall reign for ever and ever.  And the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.  Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with justice and with righteousness from henceforth even forever.

Not about the departure of Jesus, but about who we are now with him, in him.  Standing at the new doorway of Pentecost, Holy Spirit, and this Great Commission.

Earlier this spring here at Calvary Church in our Lenten Preaching Series our good friend Moni McIntyre shared this really exciting sermon with us, as perhaps many of you will remember.  Always of course with her great energy and directness of expression and good humor.  Honestly, I don’t remember the text she was preaching on that evening.  But I do remember that we were with all our Lenten Preachers reflecting together this spring on who we are now particularly as a diocesan family and expression of Christ’s Church, about the future we are being called to, and on the spirit of life and leadership that would be required of us, as we had before us the occasion of the election of our next bishop.  About being Salt, about sharing and reflecting the Light of the World, now shining above us and among us.

We are of course mindful of all kinds of challenges.  Diminished numbers, precarious resources, a certain tenderness in the body, perhaps more than a few bruises and sore places,  remnants of old divisions not quite healed.  In moments like that it is perhaps understandable that any of us might be drawn in the direction of stepping out of the fray, to a turning inward.  But that’s not what Moni was going to say for us in her sermon, but instead with all her energy and enthusiasm and great commitment to say, “Let’s get going!”  No time like the present, this day, this hour.  It’s all about Holy Spirit and Pentecost now.  And we can remember that mid-Lent sermon as we go out this Ascension evening.  What is there to wait for?  I remember when I was in college back in the early 1970’s I saw someone reading a magazine called “Acts 29.”  And I was curious, so I went home and picked up my Bible to turn to Acts 29, only to discover that the Book of the Acts of the Apostles ends with Chapter 28.  And then, of course, the lightbulb flashed on, and my understanding was illumined.  That’s our chapter.  The substance of let’s say the 29th Chapter of St. Matthew too.  Go forth,  go forth today, into all nations, among all peoples.  Let that be our story.  To begin right here in Southwestern Pennsylvania, and not to be bashful about it--to share the good news, to be ministers of the great sacrament of renewal and rebirth, to teach and lead and inspire both in our words and by our striving to live an obedient and holy life every graceful word and commandment that he has shared with us. 

Ascension Thursday, but he isn’t going anywhere.  He is seated here and now at the right hand of the Father.  Over us, over our Church and our world.  His is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty.  For all that is in the heaven and in the earth is his.  His is the kingdom, and he is exalted as head before all.  

Monday, May 14, 2012

Sixth Easter Sunday at St. Andrew's

Sermon by our Priest Associate, the Rev. Dr. Philip Wainwright

John 15:9–17   

Over the last year now I’ve noticed that St Andrew’s is a fairly typical parish church, at least in one respect: the relationship between its members. There are members who are very close because they are in the same family; others who are pretty close because they went to the same school when they were kids; some who have known each other for twenty years, and so on, all the way to those who have never met each other, don’t know each other’s names, and don’t think about each other unless one of them is in the pew the other usually sits in. And we seldom think about the implications of this. Those who think of St Andrew’s as their family church are aware that there are others in the church who think of it in other ways, just as there are people here who have hardly met anyone yet, but realise there are others that have known each other all their lives, but neither group finds anything significant in that. 

But in this morning’s gospel we hear Jesus talking about the importance of the relationship between Christians, and He talks about it in terms very different from the way most of us usually do. In the passage we read from John 15, Jesus says in v 12, This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. He’s actually repeating it, hammering the point home; back in chapter 13, John describes Jesus saying v 34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.

Jesus is saying these things on the last night He will be with His disciples in His earthly ministry. It’s His last opportunity to form them into the body that He says will be His Church. At such a time—and it’s clear He knew this was His last opportunity—we can be sure what He says is important, something He really wants His followers to remember and take seriously.

And it’s not just advice. It is a commandment. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. It’s not a suggestion, but a direct order. When Episcopalians are baptized, we promise to “obey Jesus as our Lord”— you can refresh your memory at p 303 in the Prayer Book. We at least can’t argue about this or ignore it: when Jesus gives us a commandment, we are to carry it out. We have taken a sacred vow to do so, and we no longer have any choice in the matter.

But it’s not just love; if you look back at chapter 13 again, you’ll see that He said it was love (v 34) just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. People use the word ‘love’ very casually these days, but Jesus is not using it casually. He is not talking about concern for people, a feeling of good will towards others but something that doesn’t cost more than a passing thought and perhaps a few moments in our prayers. Jesus tells us exactly what He means when he says love one another in today’s chapter, v 13: No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 

It’s not theoretical love He is urging us to have for one another, but love as real, as costly as it ever gets. The kind of love we celebrate on mothers’ day, self-sacrificing love, that is the kind of love that Jesus says His followers are to have for other followers of Jesus. All of them—not just the ones who are family and close friends, but all of them, even the ones whose theology we disapprove or whose personality rubs us the wrong way, or that we have simply never met.

It’s a tall order. But fortunately He doesn’t just give the order and walk away, leaving us to wonder how we can ever accomplish something so difficult, so apparently impossible. Look at v 17: I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. Now these commands are not the repeated commandments to love one another; Jesus is referring to the other things He has asked of His followers. I want you to love one another, He says, and all the other things I’ve given you to do I’ve given so that you may love one another. When He tells us to go beyond the letter of the Ten Commandments to their spirit, to turn the other cheek, to avoid the lust of the eyes, to forgive our enemies over and over, to make disciples and teach them all He has taught us, He is telling us those things not only because they are important in themselves, but because they prepare us to love one another. When we are taking seriously all those other things that Jesus has told us to do, we will find that we are able to take just as seriously the idea that we are to love one another as Jesus loved us.

It works this way because if we obey the commandments Jesus gave His followers, we become very different from those who don’t, different enough that we will inevitably draw closer together. Many of us can think of times in our lives that illustrate how this works. When we’ve been part of a group that was different, that lived in a different way, or shared a task or an enemy that others didn’t, we found relationships with the other members of that group deeper than with members of other groups we have been part of. If you were at a particularly unusual school with someone, or were in the Army or in prison together, or were under fire together in the same battle, you’ll know what I mean.

If you look around you this morning, and see people whom you would not lay down your lives for, or for whom you would but because they are family or old friends rather than fellow-Christians—and most of us are in that position—it’s not only because we are not taking seriously the commandment to love one another, but because we are not taking seriously enough the other commands that Jesus gave us. If we never actually have lived by the spirit of the law as well as the letter, turned the other cheek, or told another person how faith in Christ can give you new life, the bond of love between us and others who have struggled to do the same cannot be deep. And for all of us in that position, let this reading this morning be a call to take all Christ’s commandments seriously, so that we can begin to develop the bond of love for one another to which Christ calls us.

Because this bond is not just a nice thing in itself. It is a crucial plank in Jesus’s strategy for the salvation of the world. Jesus sends us to bring the message of salvation, but also says that the people to whom He sends us will know that we are His messengers when they see us obeying this commandment. Back in chapter 13.35 He says v 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. They’ll see us loving one another, and then they’ll be sure we really represent the saviour of the world and are not blowing hot air. Like an ambassador presenting credentials from the government that sent him, our love for one another is what will convince people that we do, in fact, speak in Jesus’s name, and have something to say that is worth listening to. In other words, it’s what will make the church’s task of evangelism possible: evangelism is telling people the good news from Jesus, but people aren’t likely to listen unless they think we really are from Jesus, that we are actually His messengers. This is how they’ll know. Evangelism won’t work if we’re not loving one another as Christ loved us. Love one another.

When we think about all this, it’s easy get tempted to throw up our hands and say “I’ll never be able to love like that, it’s not even worth me trying. I couldn’t do it.” And it’s true, without help, we can’t do it. But Jesus knew that when He said this, and He has provided help. In this same long passage in which He repeats His commandment to us to love one another so many times, He also repeats over and over His promise to send us the Holy Spirit to help us do it. Chapter 14:15f—If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Counselor to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth… he will be in you. We’ll hear more about this in a couple of weeks, when we read the passages that tell us about the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Let me close by thinking about the significance of Jesus saying that this is how everyone will know that we are His disciples. The only time that everyone looks at us to see how we treat one another is when we attract their attention for some reason that usually has nothing to do with love. You know the sort of thing: the rumor runs around town—“there’s trouble over at St Agatha’s, have you heard, the organist has run off with the rector’s 14 year old daughter.” Then, it’s a different story: you’d be amazed at the number of people who suddenly take an interest! Or we hit the headlines nationally, with bishops excommunicating each other and planting churches in each others’ diocese and claiming each other’s property and all the rest we’ve experienced ourselves in recent years. All of a sudden, everyone is looking at us to see what we’re really like— “you’re an Episcopalian, aren’t you, tell me about all these goings on in your church.”

These are the times when the eyes of everyone are on us, and they are our opportunity to make good on our promise to obey Him and to show love for one another. It doesn’t always happen that way, though. Too often, when someone who isn’t a Christian has a friend who’s an Episcopalian and asks that friend “what are these things I’m reading about in the Episcopal Church?” he gets an answer like “it’s disgraceful what those others are doing, they’re not real Christians at all, etc etc.” Now the one who isn’t a Christian might think any of a number of things at that point, he might even agree with you, but the one thing he or she won’t think is “gosh, what a loving lot these Christians are!” It’s time we gave them the opportunity to think that we really might love each other, even those Christians who in worldly terms seem to be our enemies. There really is a lot hanging on it.

My command is this, says Jesus: Love each other as I have loved you. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Fifth Easter: St. Marathon Sunday

I John 4: 7-21, John 15: 1-8

Good morning on this “St. Marathon” weekend.  What I guess we would call a day of local observance on the calendar of the Church Year.  On Marathon Sunday I’m always reminded of the wonderful collect appointed as Proper 26 at the beginning of November, “Almighty and merciful God, of whose only gift it cometh that thy faithful people do unto thee true and laudable service: Grant, we beseech thee, that we may run without stumbling to obtain thy heavenly promises.”  And perhaps it would be fitting also to read as the Epistle reading for the day, St. Paul in First Corinthians 9, Don’t you know that all the runners in the stadium run, but only one gets the prize? So run to win!”  That would be a great Bible verse for a t-shirt:  “Run to win!

This year the St. Marathon weekend is also just right to hear the deeper themes from these readings actually appointed for us today, the Fifth Sunday of Easter of Year B in the lectionary, as we would reflect on what it means to go the whole distance in our Christian life and discipleship.  The difference between a 100-meter sprint, let’s say, and 26.2 miles.  Two different categories of experience altogether.  And on Marathon Sunday in particular, to reflect on what it means to be in this relationship with Christ for the long run. 

And I would mention just as a side illustration, as I hear that phrase “for the long run,”  that 30 years ago now as I was preparing to go off to seminary a priest I liked and respected very much who was at that time a member of our Northern California Bishop’s Advisory Committee on Ministry, Barry Miller, then rector of Trinity Church, Nevada City, California, gave me a book by the Presbyterian Eugene Peterson that was a series of reflections on Christian life and ministry in conversation with what are called the “Psalms of Ascent,” a series of Psalms that seem to mark out different stages of a pilgrimage that Jews from more distant towns and villages would make up to Jerusalem for holy festivals.  The book was called “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.”  And while I haven’t looked back at that book for many years, that title is something, so evocative, that I think about frequently.  “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.”

It’s sort of counter-intuitive, at least in our culture.  Anything long.  Anything having to do with discipline.  Obedience.  We value speed.  Efficiency of effort.  Ever smaller and faster computer processors.  Video on demand.  Two minutes in the microwave.  And certainly those things are often good things.  Remembering when I might need to get in the car and drive to the library to check an obscure reference.  What might have taken half a morning now can take half a minute.  But of course there is the downside.  Turns out there isn’t a microwave technology when it comes to marriage, or to raising kids.  Not that plenty of people don’t try to make it so.  Themes of instant gratification that I think lie under the strange conditions of economic distress we’ve lived in for the last few years.  Thin loyalties.  Transient affections.  Awash in a sea of debt, as individuals and families and as nations.  Marriages that seem unable to hang on through the first stormy afternoon.  Eleven year olds going on nineteen.  A pharmaceutical industry that sells an instant fix for every malady, with the side effects left in the small print at the bottom of the page.  A kind of pervasive attention deficit disorder.  

My dad went to work in a downtown Los Angeles office building in 1949, a freshly-minted post-war college grad.  And when he retired 45 years later the joke was that while he had worked at a dozen or so different desks over all those years, he’d kept the same parking space.  Seems like another world.

Jesus says in John 15, “Abide in me, as I abide in you . . . .  Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”  The imperative, Meneite.  The Greek, “remain.”  “Stay put.”  And the same verb in First John 4 this morning: “God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God.”  God stays put in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they stay put in God.”

Here in the Fifth Week of Easter, our study of the nature of Christian life may become longitudinal.  There is the flash of Easter morning, the encounter on the road.  He shows us his hands and his side.  The richness of his living presence.  Something like the bright vision of the Transfiguration mountaintop.

Yet even if we were there, we can become deadwood, if we don’t remain with him, if we don’t stay put in him.  We in him.  He in us.  All together in this organic unity of the love of the Father.  Living vine, living branches.  Remaining with him.  Abiding.   

Some folks put a lot of emphasis on the moment of conversion, telling over and over again the story of that decision and experience of new faith, loyalty, trust, commitment, understanding in Christ.  But if that experience and decision is essential, is it sufficient?  As every dead branch was once a fresh shoot.  What is that sustains, nurtures?  So, Jesus in St. John this morning.  Calling us to this long obedience in the same direction.  For the duration.  To go the distance, hanging in there with him for the long run.

In the first chapter of his Rule St. Benedict talks about the kind of monks who are always on the move from monastery to monastery.  He has a word for them.  Gyrovagues.  Like spinning tops.  Glad to be there at first, energy and enthusiasm, but then soon frustrated or dissatisfied, bored, offended by some slight-- and always packing bags and moving on.  Never settled.  The grass always greener a little ways down the road.  Without stability.  That’s the critical word for Benedict.  Stability.  Never putting down roots.  Never making commitments.  And when the going gets tough, they get going.  

Perhaps we’ve known folks like that at school or work, neighbors, friends, church.  Perhaps we’ve been spinning tops ourselves from time to time.  And without the gift of and commitment to stability, there is never a sufficient foundation for mature Christian life.  The vine withers and dies.  Because love takes time, and effort.  And patience.  Patience.  The story is that in the monasteries of the Middle Ages, and perhaps it is still the case, when a postulant moved from the guest house into the monastic residence and was clothed for his first vows, he was shown his place at the table in the refectory, his cell in the dormitory, his stall in the choir, and the space set aside for his grave in the cemetery.  “You’re about to begin a great adventure, the most exciting journey a human being can ever experience.  And it’s all going to happen right here.”

Most of us won’t live within the enclosure of a religious community, of course.  But we are reminded in our readings for this Sunday that for us to be truly living branches  wherever we are, we are called to our stability in Christ and with one another.  Not a hobby, a passing interest and entertainment, not a stop on a buffet table, a brief visit on a package tour, a snack on the run.  But that as we abide in him, as we remain in him, as we stay put with him and with one another as we are called together by him for the whole way, then he will abide in us, just as he abides in the Father, and the Father in him.  And there will be much fruit.