Monday, July 16, 2012

The Praise of His Glory

Sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Philip Wainwright, Priest Associate of St. Andrew's Church, on Sunday, July 15, 2012.

Today we begin a series of readings in Paul's letter to the Ephesians that
will actually take us all the way through August. I'm glad about that,
because Ephesians is my personal favorite among Paul's letters, but I'll try
not to go on too long about it this morning!

I'll talk a bit about it in
general terms today, so that as you hear the whole letter, or most of it,
week by week, you have a context to put the extracts in, but I also want to
think about what God might want to say to us through the particular verses
we read this morning.

It's called the letter to the Ephesians, but the words 'in Ephesus' aren’t
in all the early mss, and so not in all Bibles, and one 2nd century writer
calls it the epistle to the Laodiceans--the inhabitants of a city a couple
of hundred miles away. This makes it all the easier to listen to it for what
it might be saying to us. Most of Paul's letters were written to deal with a
particular problem faced by a particular group of Christians, and if we
don't feel we're facing the same problem, we might miss some of Paul's
points; this letter, more than any other, is simply Paul rejoicing in the
gospel, praising God for what He has done for sinful human beings, and has
obvious application to any Christian no matter what's going on in his life.
Whether Paul is talking about what Christ has done, or how Christians should
live, it’s all expressed in words of praise and delight, and it may have
been sent to more than one church. The first three chapters are one long
hymn of praise to God for salvation in Christ; the second three chapters are
about the way of life that glorifies God; and it ends with a reminder about
how we can make sure that Satan can never take the joy of Christ and
Christian living away from us. It contains much that we will want to apply
to ourselves as individuals, but also much that we will want to apply to the
Christian community--it’s in this letter that we find the source of the idea
of the church as the bride of Christ, and Paul’s words about living together
apply to the parish as well as to the family. But let’s take a closer look
at the words from it that we heard this morning.

We skipped vv 1 and 2, which basically just say ‘hello everyone, hope this
finds you well’, and began at v 3, Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord
Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in
the heavenly places. Blessed, blessed, blessing. Three times in a single
verse. God is blessed, we are blessed, and not only do we have every
blessing but our blessings are not earthly but spiritual, so much so that we
who have faith in Christ are in a sense already in the heavenly places. You’ve
heard about people who are so sick or frail that they already have one foot
in the grave; Paul says Christians are so showered with blessing they
already have one foot in heaven. There are two words the New Testament uses
for ‘blessed’; one is makarios, which means blessed in the sense ‘he lives a
blessed life’, and it means almost the same as lucky, or happy; it just
describes the results of being blessed, and says nothing about how the
blessing came about. The other is eulogetos, which means blessed as the
opposite of cursed--it means having had great things said about you or
promised to you. This is the kind of blessing Jacob gave his sons in Genesis
49: Judah, your brothers shall praise you; Asher, your food shall be rich;
Joseph, you will be a branch heavy with fruit and a branch so big people
outside the orchard’s walls will be able to eat of it. And when he has
blessed all his children, Jacob says The blessings of your father are
stronger than the blessings of the eternal mountains, the bounties of the
everlasting hills. This kind of blessing doesn’t just mean you’re lucky or
happy, it means that someone loves you, someone is wishing for you or giving
you things that will help make your life good. Paul is using the word that
means this kind of blessing; we are blessed because of what God has done for
us in Jesus Christ, because God loves us and wants good things for us,
because of what God says to us in His word.

Praise of God because of His love for us fills the whole passage, and indeed
the whole letter, but it’s especially important to remember that praise is
the context as we look at the next few verses, because they bring up the
dreaded subject of ‘predestination’. God chose us in Christ before the
foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He
destined us--'predestinated us', the KJV translates it--for adoption as his
children through Jesus Christ. Some people get very excited when the subject
of predestination comes up, I've noticed. I think it must be because they
like to think they're in charge of their own lives, that no one controls
their lives but them. Good luck with that, is all I can say; my own
experience is that practically everyone except me determines what I do. And
I'm talking about people who are not God, and probably don't love me as much
as God loves me. So I find Paul's words at the end of this verse, according
to the good pleasure of his will, very comforting and reassuring. He
destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ according to
the good pleasure of his will. God's will is our good pleasure; that's why
Paul is so full of praise of God for the blessings God has given us.

Predestination is biblical teaching, and it's not just Paul's teaching, it's
Jesus's teaching too: You did not choose me, but I chose you, He tells His
followers. But free will is also biblical teaching; the Bible calls us so
often to make a choice, make a decision. Choose this day whom you will
serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River,
or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell; but as for me and my
house, we will serve the Lord. We have free will, no doubt about it. To our
limited minds free will seems incompatible with the idea that God destined
us to be His children, but God sees no contradiction. And the presence of
the idea of predestination in this letter that is so filled with praise of
God for His love for us is, I think, the key to bringing the two ideas into
harmony with one another. In the words in v 4, he chose us in Christ before
the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love, the
phrase 'in love' is crucial to keep in mind, because it applies to the whole
clause--he chose us in love, to be holy before Him in love. He chose us in
love. Perhaps the best illustration is the young man wooing his bride,
asking her to choose him and not the others she could have, and trying to
get her to make the right choice by saying 'I'm your destiny, we were made
to be together'. His love is so strong he can't imagine life without her, he
is convinced that it is their destiny to be together. But that doesn't mean
that he didn't freely choose this woman--he freely accepts his destiny and
wants her to freely accept it too. God's love for us is so strong He can't
imagine life without us, He is our destiny, He says, so we might as well
admit it, and choose life with Him in eternity, and say Thy will be done.
It's when we finally say that, that our lives are run by the right person,
and they begin to go well! And because it is love calling us to our destiny,
it is not a doctrine to be accepted whether we understand it or not, but one
more thing to praise God for, it's all to the praise of his glorious grace.

The praise of God's glory is the theme of the first three chapters of this
letter, but Paul really hammers away at it in these eleven verses--he's not
addressing our minds here, but hoping to awaken an echo in our hearts. In v
12 he says that God's choice is so that we, who were the first to set our
hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. He means 'we Jews,
who were the first to hope in Christ', as of course they were, and then goes
on in the last verse of our passage, to point out that the rest of mankind
has also been chosen by God, so that you also, when you believed in him,
received redemption as God's own people, to the praise of his glory. 'You
also' is us gentiles, but the main thing here is not to teach what God has
done--he does that in other letters--but that what God has done is reason to
praise Him for His glory. Three times he repeats it in this passage, to the
praise of His glory, to the praise of His glorious grace, to the praise of
His glory.

Paul's purpose in the first three chapters of this letter is simply to
praise God. He is singing and writing at the same time; the praise just
pours out of him. Praise because God loves us and blesses us, praise because
God chose us and invites us to choose Him, praise for God's free grace to
repentant sinners, praise because God is sovereign over the entire universe
and in the end His will is done on earth as it is in heaven, praise because
all the peoples of the earth, people of every race and nation, every tribe
and tongue, are offered a place in His heart if they will only let Him into
their hearts. It is not doctrine, it is poetry, it's not theology, it's a
hymn in prose, it is the heart of someone who loves God in Jesus Christ
overflowing with that love. In the Greek this entire passage is a single
sentence; he doesn't want to stop praising God even to take a breath. And
what I think God wants to say to us through these verses this morning,
because it's everything Paul goes on to say in the rest of the letter, is
that we who have put our faith in Jesus Christ have the same reason to
praise Him that Paul had; He has blessed us, He is our destiny, our
redemption, He has chosen us to live for Him, He has sealed us with the
promise of the Holy Spirit, and all to the praise of His glory, the praise
of His glorious grace.

As we hear Paul's words Sunday by Sunday this summer, may we know the truth
of those things, and may our hearts be filled with the same praise.

-- - the email service for alumni of the University of Kent

Friday, July 13, 2012

Shore Leave

The first part of July Ye Olde Rector of St. Andrew's Church was locked into the 77th General Convention of the Episcopal Church as Clerical Alternate Deputy #1 in the Deputation of the Diocese of Pittsburgh.  Summer in Indianapolis . . . .

We prayed, sang, worked hard, with late nights and early mornings and a good deal of fun along the way.  I'll be writing some a little later about my take on what it was all about, and Mary Roehrich, Steve Stagnitta, and I (the St. Andreans in the deputation) will plan on a presentation for the parish once we're all back in town.

The second part of July, and Bruce and Susy head up to Scituate, Massachusetts, where Susy's family has lived more or less continuously since 1650, for a little shore leave.

Thanks as always to Church Secretary extraordinaire, Joan Soulliere, and to Deacon Jean Chess, Priest Associate Phil Wainwright, Supply Priest Tim Hushion, and Pastoral Assistant Dean Byrom for holding things together while I'm gone.

We'll be at St. Luke's, Scituate, on Sunday mornings at 10--and at the beach or napping the rest of the time.  See all back home in the 'Burgh at the end of the month!


Sunday, July 1, 2012

Balm in Gilead

Fifth after Pentecost (Proper8B2)  Mark 5: 21-43

Two miraculous healings folded in together in the gospel reading this morning. 

The President of the local synagogue comes to Jesus in deep distress.  His beloved daughter!  Whatever ordinary medical or healing practices they had available to them have failed, and now there’s nothing left to do but this.  Must seem like the longest of long-shots.  To seek out the famous rabbi who is rumored to have these extraordinary powers.  These healings, exorcisms—could any of it possibly be true?

“Please come, Jesus.  Do something.  Anything.  If you can.  Touch her, so that she may live.” 

They all rush off at once to the place where the girl is.  And then, along the way, as they are rushing with a sense of medical crisis, a life-or-death situation, this second story, a story within a story.  The hemorrhaging  woman.  With this illness that renders her ritually unclean according to the Law.  For years and years.  A chronic condition.  A perpetual estrangement.  A cloud of judgment.  A devastating curse.   Unable to interact with her husband or her children or her parents, or her neighbors and old friends.  Isolated.  Taboo.  Just to think of that—the emotional, psychological, spiritual isolation. 

She sees Jesus coming down the street, and she’s heard the stories too--and as he passes by she steps into the crowd.  And here she crosses a line that could be fatal.  We hear about these things and we’ve seen them in the honor killings in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  If caught, to be beaten, perhaps stoned to death.  Just to say, this is a last ditch effort.  All or nothing.  And she reaches out, touches his garments.  And immediately she healed. 

So: Jesus stops, as we see, not to accuse and condemn, but  to speak with her,  gently, and even to bless her, to send her on her way.  Remarkable.  And then, as they get moving again, messengers come to report that the effort is too late, the little girl has died.  That it is time now for the family to gather and to prepare her for burial, to begin the customary time of mourning.  Despite this news, Jesus continues to the home, goes up into the room, as we’ve just heard--says these words, “Talitha cumi,” little girl, get up.  And from her deathbed the little girl is healed also, revived, restored to life.  And this nice detail here: the family and others are lost in amazement.  An echo of the same kindness we’ve just seen with the woman on the road, Jesus says, “Get her something to eat.”

Interesting here, a detail not lost on anybody, and it shouldn’t be, not really a detail at all but a highlight, we notice that both of those who receive the gracious gift of healing in these stories are women,  and women who would not ordinarily be the concern of a rabbi like Jesus.  One was unclean through her hemorrhage.   The other, the little girl, as she has died , is now also unclean--as to touch a dead body was also a violation of the rules of ritual purity.  Those around Jesus are concerned about these things in both parts of the story.  The woman herself trembles in fear when she is found out, afraid that she will be punished for having put the famous teacher in such an awkward and even scandalous situation.  Now he will need to go through the rituals of ceremonial cleansing before he can continue his ministry.  Although we don’t see him doing that, as a matter of fact.  And the family and friends of the little girl, even that grieving father,  try to talk Jesus out of going into the house and up to the room after the word of the girl’s death comes to them.

There is something unexpected, dramatic, bold and overwhelmingly powerful about Jesus here.  But not in the drama of his crossing these lines, as though he were making  some big point.  He doesn’t lecture his disciples or the crowds.  There are no trumpets.  No loud political challenges to the system of the purity laws.  But what is so unexpected, dramatic, powerful is somehow simply that  there is this effortless quality of his action.  Such a big deal, and he seems not to notice at all.  His generosity, his gracious presence, his tenderness, his kindness,  all that we see.  It just flows freely, genuinely, personally, and in abundance.

We would be invited to step into that abundant love this morning.  That’s the take-away.  The invitation.  The challenge.  The breaking-in of God’s Kingdom.  That with Jesus there is a foretaste of heaven-on-earth.  Emmanuel.  God with us.

One by one, person by person.  No matter what brokenness may be within us, as certainly there is plenty of that.  No matter the uncleanness and impurity of our lives.  No matter how great the healing is that we may require.  It is here for us.  And free.  As he is here for us.  The woman could hardly believe it, that after all her years of suffering it would be enough just to touch the hem of his robe.  The little girl was all the way gone, over the edge, beyond hope, beyond calling-back, and nothing could be done.  But in his presence, In the presence of Jesus, there was life.  And in the presence of Jesus, as we turn our lives toward him, there is life.  All goodness, all gentleness, all blessing, all grace, all mercy.  An ocean of his compassion rolls over the desert of human life, and for the Woman on the Road and for the little girl and for us nothing is the same again.

A free gift.   The mystery and miracle of the Cross made present and real, the free gift of unexpected and unearned love.  Jesus present.  For us.  A taste of bread and wine.  Wherever he was, wherever he is, wherever he will be.  Jesus with us.  Jesus in us.  Jesus among us, and working through us, making our lives his life.  A word of blessing.   And we are healed.  It can be so in Christ.  And our lives are made new.

Bruce Robison

Holy Matrimony

Christopher Michael Katz and Marie Helen Federowicz
June 30, 2012

Chris and Marie, what a great day indeed!  The date has been circled on the calendar since way last year, and we’ve seen autumn leaves and then winter snows and then springtime, and now here we are rolling on into summer at last.  Certainly a warm welcome—though I thank you for this experiment also with a little air conditioned cooling, which is a first for summer weddings at St. Andrew’s and a very welcome innovation!

And actually I would just say—and I know I’m speaking very much on behalf of all the friends and family gathered here this afternoon, thank you for including us as a part of the day, as it is such a great joy and so much fun and truly a privilege to be here as witnesses and to celebrate with you as you exchange the vows and promises, as you make these solemn pledges and as you assume the great and wonderful responsibility that will make you husband and wife.  Thank you!

Chris, I’ve known your Marie since she was a grasshopper of a girl on roller skates, and I and all of us here at St. Andrew’s have watched with much joy over the years as she has grown in accomplishments and maturity in so many ways, a remarkable and lovely young woman.  And it has been really a great experience for me to meet you and to get to know you both together.  Just right for each other!  I know you meet well intellectually and in terms of your shared interests and career direction.  Your sense of humor together will serve you well.  Romance, of course.  And most of all I think that fact that you are deep down such good friends.  You are a great couple, and it is going to be a blessing for all of us to know you as you grow now into your lives as husband and wife, as your two families are brought together in a new way, and as you will make a home and life as a family together.

The readings you selected for today and the music and the great prayers and promises of the Marriage Service all speak to the deeper foundations that you begin with here this afternoon.  In the reading from St. Matthew Jesus contrasts the man who built his house without a secure foundation with the man who built his on the solid rock.  The storms come, the winds blow, the waters rise in a flood.  And when all that happens, you know which house you want to be in.  It’s a parable about life, about values, commitments, identity, and with a sense of seriousness that is very much an appropriate image for you and for all of us to have before us today.  Do we build our lives, our homes, our marriages, our families, our careers, all of that, to last?  Are we on a sure foundation?  Important questions.  Back in the 1950’s the National Council of Churches began an advertising campaign that continues today, with the catchphrase, “the family that prays together stays together.”  And while we don’t want to oversimplify all the complexities of life, I do want to invite you today and all of us to consider how we build our foundation.

Sometimes we talk about people having a job, or maybe a career, and then we may even talk about a calling, a vocation.  The feeling, the idea, that this work, this activity, this interest, relationship, project, is something about the way God has made us, gifted us.  And marriage is a vocation, and perhaps the highest and most serious that we’ll know.

Within the life of the Christian family we say that this day is for you a day of sacrament and vocation.  A day when God begins to make something new out of you which is and will become an outward and visible sign of his grace and his love.  And to be that, for each other, and for those who will be a part of your lives in the days and years to come, is a very high calling indeed.

In 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 this afternoon.  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.  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.  His life work, his destiny.  And so here, for you.  “Take off your shoes.  For the ground on which you are standing is holy ground.”  May you know and experience that reality this afternoon, in this place, and in all the days you will share together in the years to come.

Friends, as Marie and Chris now come forward to the altar to exchange the vows that will make them husband and wife, I would ask that we would all take a moment to bow our heads and in our thoughts and prayers ask God to bless and keep them always in his love.

Bruce Robison