Monday, December 30, 2013

First Christmas Sunday

I was out of town for a bit of vacation this past Sunday, December 29, and our Priest-Associate, the Rev.  Dr. Philip Wainwright, was in place to preside and preach at both services. With my thanks.  His sermon, on John 1, follows here.
                                                                                                   --Bruce R.

This morning’s gospel reading is what used to be called the ‘Christmas Gospel’, because from 1552 to 1979 it was the only gospel Anglicans used at Christmas Communion services. Now we have two choices, Luke and John, but if we had to go back to one, John’s would be the one, because without the truth contained in John’s words, the Christmas story would not be complete. It would be what most people in the world think it is—a heart-warming story, enjoyable and even something to celebrate but of no eternal significance.

Each Gospel writer, as he set down the facts about Jesus under the power of the Holy Spirit, chose a different place to begin. Mark begins as Jesus was beginning His ministry, Luke begins about a year before Jesus was born, Matthew begins all the way back in Abraham’s day, but John begins as far back as it is possible to go when thinking about Jesus: before the world was created, before time, before all things. V 1, In the beginning was the Word… v 2, He was in the beginning with God. That by ‘the Word’ he means Jesus is made explicit towards the end of the passage: v 14, The Word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth… v 17, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. Through these verses, John identifies the baby in the manger at Bethlehem as the Creator of all things visible and invisible that we confess in the Creed.

This is the significance of Christmas, the aspect of Christmas which the world increasingly chooses to find offensive. This is why city councils that used to erect a Nativity scene are no longer allowed to do so in many parts of America, and why children in public schools can no longer sing Christmas Carols in class. This is why last week a VA hospital in Texas refused to accept Christmas cards made by local children for veteran patients. Because the story of the baby born to the homeless couple in a stable isn’t just a heartwarming story, it is the assertion that this baby is the only God, the God of the whole universe, the God who created those who believe in Him and those who don’t. This baby is God become Man, the Word become flesh. It is an assertion that those who believe in other Gods, and those who believe that all religions are the same, do not want to hear, and don’t want anyone else to hear either.

One of the questions that is always asked by unbelievers, whenever the truth about Jesus is proclaimed, is ‘Why? What difference does it make, even if it’s true that God became Man?’ It’s a good question, and it is one that the Church seems in no hurry to answer. The church has spent most of its energy over the centuries answering the question ‘How? How could it be true that God become Man?’ We have come up with all the various theories about the persons of the Trinity and the Union of the Two Natures in Jesus Christ and so on, and Christians have been excommunicating each other for centuries simply for answering those questions in different ways. The world outside the church has for the most part looked on in amazement or today amusement at this, because except for a handful of philosophers it isn’t asking the question and doesn’t understand why the church is concerned about it. How? What’s the problem with ‘how’—if there really is a God, He can surely do anything He wants, including becoming man; if He can’t do that, it can’t mean much to be God, after all! The majority of the world isn’t asking ‘how’. 

The world wants to know first whether it’s true, and if it is true it wants to know what difference it makes. The world can only find it irrational that Christians spent so much energy on answering a question whose answer is only of interest to a minority and still spend so much on protecting the faithful from other possible answers. The only reason for anyone to celebrate Christmas is because it has some purpose that we can rejoice in, that there’s something in it for us that is worth having. These verses in John’s gospel tell us what that is.

This is why John begins with creation, in the beginning. The world was created through the Word, even before the Word became flesh, John reminds us in verse 3, and we remember from Genesis that human beings were created in His image, which means, among other things, that He created them holy. God was pleased with His creation; God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good, but He especially loved the new creatures to which He had given His image. If one way mankind bore the image of God was in their holiness, another was in having free will; God has free will, and those He created in His image have free will too. As long as man freely chose to align His will with God’s, Man lived a holy life, in harmony with God and the rest of God’s creation. 

The problem came when Man decided to use his freedom at the expense of God and the rest of creation. Of his own free will and choice Man sinned against God, disobeying His commandment. The result of this was that Man was no longer holy, and therefore was separated from God, no longer able to enjoy God’s presence, and sin began to dominate him—dominate us—in all the ways which we know so well. But because God loved human beings, He chose not to abandon us to that; He chose to provide us a way back to holiness, and back to harmony with Him and with all creation.

It was because He loves us that He did not do what we so often say we wish He would do. We often say that we wish God would not allow human beings to sin, to hurt each other, that he would not permit diseases to ravage us or floods to destroy us or any of the other things that the Bible tells us came into creation as a consequence of our disobedience. 

We say we wish that, but we’re not really thinking about what we mean when we say it, for what we are really saying is that we wish God would take away our free will, make it impossible for us to choose our own actions. That option would be to cripple His creation by taking away even what is left of His image in us. And because He loves us, He would no more do that than we would. All parents have rebellious children, and they all wish their children would live the way they are trying to teach them to, but because they love them, prefrontal lobotomy is not an option, no matter how much some of us parents occasionally wish it was! And it wasn’t an option for God, either, for the same reason: He loves us, and wants us whole, not maimed and diminished. He wants us to choose life with Him for ourselves.

What John tells us at the beginning of his Gospel is that God chose another way, and John describes that way with a symbol. Later in his gospel he will describe it in plainer terms, but here at the beginning it is expressed only as a symbol: the symbol of becoming light in the darkness. What has come into being in Him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. God chose to give us a way back, and to show us that way back, and then leave us to take it or not, as we choose. We can’t undo our past disobedience by any act of our will, and most of us are honest enough with ourselves to admit that we can’t avoid disobeying in the future by our free will either; we know that we will disobey God again. 

We can’t conquer sin by an act of the will—Scripture makes that clear. But we can accept, freely and without compulsion, God’s plan to redeem us from sin and give us salvation, new life. In this way creation is neither destroyed nor crippled, but those who receive the Word, who believe in His name, can once again become children of God.

Using the image of light to describe God coming into the world helps us understand how to receive this gift in several ways. First, even the faintest light acts as a beacon. When we are in total darkness, even the faintest glimmer, away in the distance, orients us, gives us a direction, a path to follow. We are attracted to it simply because it is light; we immediately want to get closer to it. And that symbol expresses a literal truth about Jesus, the word become flesh; He attracts human beings, no matter how far we are from Him, no matter how little we know about Him. 

Even those of other religions usually claim Jesus as one of their own: Moslems call Him a great prophet, Buddhists call Him one of the enlightened ones, and so on. Even those who have nothing but contempt for Christianity usually speak well of Jesus, saying that Christians misunderstand Him, or ignore Him. (And they’re often right about that, let’s admit it.) When anyone learns about the kind of person Jesus was, they are attracted to Him in ways that they might not even be able to explain.

But the force of the comparison does not stop there. When we yield to its attraction and get closer to light, we find it helpful in other ways. When it is far off, it tells us of its presence and existence, but when we get close, we find ourselves and our world illuminated. Light is shed on us, and we are able to see and understand things we could not understand in the darkness. This also expresses something about Jesus that is literally true. We can learn true things about ourselves by looking at ourselves in His light. You only have to try it to see that it is true. It is the shining of His light into the dark corners of our souls that shows us our need for salvation, that enables us to call upon Him.

In modern times we have learned that light has healing power, and thus have discovered a new way in which this symbol expresses something true about Jesus. Fifty years ago, when babies were born jaundiced, no one really knew what to do for them. Then someone noticed that babies sleeping in cots near windows recovered from their jaundice faster than the others did, and they began to put jaundiced babies in strong sunlight. And so the problem of infant jaundice began to be conquered, through the healing power of that light. And what is true of physical light is even more true of the light of Christ: simply to draw close to Jesus is to begin to be healed from the consequences of our disobedience. And when we draw close to Him with a conscious desire to live by His teachings, we find that our lives are being changed. 

When we trust Him, we begin to heal. I have come as light into the world, Jesus says later in John’s gospel, that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness. This is the light that achieves the world’s great healing. As creation fell when we fell, creation heals when we heal. That’s why we sing, ‘No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground; He comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found.’

The angel told the shepherds that the baby in the manger was a sign. John tells us about the reality to which this sign points us. That’s what we celebrate at Christmas: to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And when we have decided to follow the light of Christ no matter where it leads, no matter what it costs us, it is Christmas for us every day of the year.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas Morning, 2013

The homily at the 10 a.m. service on Christmas Morning was presented by our Seminarian, C. Garrett Yates.  Garrett is a Middler at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and in the process of Parish Nomination as a Postulant for Holy Orders in the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh.

Sadly enough, there was no Merry Christmas, no Happy Holidays and Happy New Year greeting offered on the first Christmas morning; just a gentle and matter of fact word from the angel not to be afraid. I've spent the last few days thinking about this, about why this command shows up here but is also so prominent in our nativity story - it's the angel of the Lord's favorite intro. It's an interesting word, right?  Do not be afraid. And it seems like an apt one for the angels to tell these shepherds. I mean it's not everyday that God's angelic entourage shows up at the office, and I suspect that if something marvelous like this did happen all of us would be sufficiently spooked. But I wonder if there is something else going on with their command. I wonder if they realize that the shepherds, just like all of us, need their fears allayed before they are ready to hear the news of God showing up.

After all, in our day there is no shortage of fear that enshrouds this notion of God and religion. We live in a society that is fraught with fear, is nervous about the influence of religion in the world, in the public sphere: Conservatives are nervous about Christ being taken out of Christmas, and the Liberals are nervous about their right to define God however they so choose. But I suppose the nervousness about God is even more fundamental: for if God does show up, (and I mean much more than making a casual appearance on a Christmas bumper sticker) and if religion gains any more footing, will it continue to occasion one groups power play over and against another? Will it continue to factionalize and irritate communal differences to the point of violence? Will it downplay and possibly even obliterate the history of one people at the expense of another? Is God's favor partial to one nationality, or race, or culture? Is God a liberal, or is he conservative? Understandable questions, I presume. And questions that I take to presuppose no small amount of fear. And yet I don't think these questions are merely the concern of us enlightened 21st century folk. I can't help but wonder if those shepherds - those philosophizing shepherds - had similar questions that first Christmas morning.

Do not fear, the angel tells them, tells us.

God is showing up we are told, but God is not coming in the way we might think. He is not coming as a hostile force, or as an some kind of apocalyptically enraged rule keeper. God is not showing up partial to one group over and against another. The angels tell us today that God is far more creative, and far more creatively compassionate than that. Indeed, if you want to know what God showing up looks like you are going to have to go look at a baby, THE baby: "this will be a sign for you, (the angel says) you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger." And thus, God's power is more like the tenderness of that child than anything else we can imagine. As one poem captures it: "his battering shots are babish cries, his arrows looks of weeping eyes."

Do not fear, we are being told, for God is being born in our midst, working in us and among us to bring joy and freedom and love to our histories, not at the expense of others, but in fraternity and fellowship with them. Not coming from without in power, but from within in weakness; not coming from without to affirm one group's story over and against all those other "moral failures" "or sexually confused" or "mentally unstable" or fill in the blank, but instead he is being born in our midst to redeem and recreate all of our stories, infusing them with a surplus of meaning and love. Do not fear, instead: Rejoice! Today is a wonderful day indeed. God is showing up, God is being born as a child, that we all might recognize, with the shepherds, that we are being called to live into the joy and freedom of knowing ourselves as children of the Most High. "Glory to God in Highest" and peace to you all this day. Amen.

Christmas Poem

One of my favorites, by Jude Simpson:

Christmas Eve, 2013

It came upon the midnight clear, that glorious song of old, from angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold . . . .  In the name of the One whose birth we remember so richly this night, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns now and forever.  Amen.

Friends, grace and peace, and always, always to wish you a Merry Christmas.  May this Holy Night, as we remember the birth of the Savior, be a sign for you of all joy, healing, renewal of life: turning a corner, a new page, fresh beginning.  To strengthen you in all goodness.

In our reading from the Old Testament, Isaiah the Prophet.  Standing in a moment of crisis and conflict, looking forward to a certain future of defeat, devastation, exile.  Enemies from beyond the borders pressing down with relentless ferocity.  And  a corruption eating away from within.  The ancient heritage of God’s chosen people, the memories and values and loyalties of the Patriarchs, of Moses and Joshua, of Samuel and David, passing away.   Greed, deceit, false-dealing, in the highest places, and in the hearts and minds of men and women of every station of life.  Every false god.  Moral failure.  Loss of faith.  Sin is a condition, but it is also a choice, and with consequences, and those consequences now about to cascade upon them.  A massive implosion.  The falling of the House of David not simply a political disaster, though it is that, a national catastrophe, defeat, slavery and exile.   But a catastrophe for thousands upon thousands, home by home, family by family.  The end of every hope and plan and dream.  The Holy City in flames.  All in ruins.

And yet even as the darkness gathers, for Isaiah, looking far ahead with confidence in God’s goodness and God’s faithfulness, there is hope.  Hope.  So the vision of the prophet.  Beyond the catastrophe.  How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation.  Even as the darkness gathers, he can see them.  The early Sentinels, the dawn of the new day and the Dayspring from on High, the return of the Lord to Zion.  Who would have dared to hope such a thing?  God himself entering his throne room.  Ascending in glory. Restoring the ruins of Jerusalem, raising them to a new magnificence.  And not just that Holy City.  All creation.  Time and space.  Eternity itself.

And this is where it happened.  This holy night.  In the city of David.  Mary and Joseph.  An improvisational innkeeper.  Shepherds abiding in the fields.  Angels singing.  A Savior who is Christ the Lord.  The King shall come when morning dawns and light triumphant breaks; when beauty gilds the eastern hills and life to joy awakes.

And here he is. As Isaiah said, foretelling.  Tonight.  In majesty.  Ruling heaven and earth from his manger throne.   His royal court, the rustic shepherds.  His palace a stable.  Turning upside down and inside out all our expectations.   Power in weakness.  To win victory by forgiveness.  To rule by blessing.  To govern in love.

The Law and the Prophets in grand procession all shown this night to be true and reliable and given for us, for our encouragement and our benefit.  The word to Eve in the Garden.  The promise to Abraham.  That through his seed all nations would be blessed.  In fact, every word of Scripture pointing us to this hour.  In all truth.  To guide our lives and to fill our vision.  When darkness gathers, hope.   Fulfilled on this bed of straw.  Wrapped in swaddling cloth.    The ancient story not distant anymore, but now perfectly relevant.  Not about people long ago and far away, but about us, about the world we live in.  Who came for us, to die on the Cross, taking in himself our brokenness, our sin, and then to rise from death.   In the mystery of this midnight hour: the fullness of Easter.  For us, for our salvation, he came down from heaven.

St. John: He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not.  He came to his own home, and his own people received him not.  But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to come children of God . . . .

An invitation, then.  Not a children’s story, though it is the story of a child.   Encountering and mastering every hard reality of our lives and of our world.  Bending back the darkness, overcoming the force of evil that rides so high in the world around us and in the secret corners of our hearts.  Forgiving sin, bringing peace and reconciliation. 

Come: bow down and bend the knee and kneel before the Lord our Maker.  For we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand.  Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. Let the whole earth stand in awe of him.

The question before us, in the midst of holiday parties, in restaurants and shopping malls, clearing snow from the sidewalks, wrapping the last few gifts by flickering candlelight.  Who is our king?  To whom do we owe our allegiance?  Whose story is our story?  To know who we are by knowing first whose we are.  To live in the ruined city of our own making, or to open our hearts and our minds and our lives to his rule. 

An invitation.  If we've never heard it before, we would hear it now.  For each one of us.  For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called “Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David, and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and for evermore.”

Blessings this night.  Peace in Bethlehem and in all the world.  From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast.  Peace, in the Bleak midwinter.  Let this invitation be fresh and new for each of us this evening.  He comes to us so that we might come to him.  Come let us adore him, Lord and Savior.  Christ the Lord, the Newborn King.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Fourth Advent Sunday and Holy Baptism

Year A,  Romans 1: 1-7
Baptism of Amelia Pearl and Emma Rose Blackmon

What a great morning indeed.  Excitement building for Christmas ahead, just a few days now.  The rich texture of this season in all its beauty and meaning.  Leaning forward from Advent to Christmas, Fourth Candle on the Advent Wreath, approaching Bethlehem City Limits.  And of course as we anticipate the birth of the Christ Child there is also something tender in us stirred up about all the ways God comes to visit us in the midst of our lives, in the midst of this strange and challenging world.

That sense that in the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation every atom and molecule in the vast expanse of all the created order is infused with a spiritual blessing.  And perhaps every child is in some way for us an icon of this.  Pure gift.  Remembering God’s word to the Prophet Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.”  And the echo almost exactly from Psalm 139, “For thou didst form my inward parts, thou didst knit me together in my mother’s womb.”

So dear Brian and Megan, Pat, Vikki, Brendan, family and friends.  I just need to get personal for a little bit.    It seems to me in some ways like fifteen minutes ago that we were here for that great wedding day.  Five years.  May 17, 2008.   So much joy.  Beauty.  If you don’t mind me quoting from my sermon for the service that afternoon, in reference to the reading you selected from the 8th Chapter of the Song of Solomon, the 7th verse: Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot wash it away.   I said to you then, to quote:  

It’s a beautiful phrase, in the midst of what I think is one of the loveliest of all the readings appointed for the celebration of Holy Matrimony. This gorgeous love song, the lover to her beloved. And so richly . . . filled with the certainty of a commitment that you intend to be deep and lasting, strong enough to survive and flourish no matter what storms may come. For better, for worse. For richer, for poorer. In sickness and in health.  And of course that is for all of us what we stand for . . .,  as we stand with you.   There are for every family, in every life, so many twists and turns of the path, so many mountains to climb. Days of great joy, to be sure, but also days of challenge, days of sadness and loss. And we stand today with you in the confidence of your love and commitment, your patience and tenderness, as you hang in together, as you grow through all the changes of life, committed to growing more deeply together day by day.”   

Close quote.  Five years, or fifteen minutes ago.

And it seems also just like fifteen minutes ago when we sat and prayed together down in Baltimore in that trauma care unit after the horror of your automobile accident.  A moment when life was hanging by a thread in so many ways.  And I so vividly remember thinking all through that time, Meghan, of the light of your wedding day, and wondering, placing all of that in God’s loving arms, as you know the whole of this congregational family had you wrapped in prayer and with so many tears and so much love.  Wondering what this was all about.  How to make sense of it.  Those first days.  And then the long months and years of work ahead, therapy and rehab.  Learning to live in a new way.

But to know in each of those moments, in each of those moments, a mystery to us, but in God’s heart this moment too.  Amelia Pearl, Emma Rose.  “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.”

So here this morning.  A season when we celebrate the birth of the Child who is our Savior, so also to pause again and again, at the birth of these two precious little girls, also a miracle in so many ways, signs of generosity and God’s abundant grace and mercy.   A loving intention far beyond our understanding.  

hope you heard those words in the introductory sentence of Paul’s Letter to the Romans.  Grace to you and peace.  In Jesus.  Healing, forgiveness, transformation, new life.  Certainly I can’t think of any more beautiful affirmation and confirmation than this.  As we splash around in the font of old St. Andrew’s Church.  (This same font by the way where Mommy Meghan, six years old, was baptized on November 11, 1984, and Godfather, Uncle Brendan, you were here first on June 15, 1975.  Pat and Vikki, I’m sure both those days probably seem like 15 minutes ago too.)  New birth, new life in Christ Jesus.

In Romans Paul is writing to introduce himself to the Christians in the Capital City of the World.  And in these introductory words of the first chapter Paul says something about himself and about the Roman Christians that I want to pause over and highlight.  First of all, he tells them how he understands his own vocation and ministry, from the day he was knocked off his horse on the Road to Damascus.  “Through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the gentiles for the sake of his name.”  And then this word about the Romans, reminding them about what is the most important thing they can know about themselves: “including yourselves, who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.”

“Called to belong to Christ Jesus.”  We talk all the time about vocation.  A lot of vocational language in the baptismal service.   A great reminder about who we are, each and every one of us, in Christ Jesus.    Wonder what these girls are going to be like as they grow up?  What interests, gifts, activities will be important to them?  What God has in mind for them.  Perhaps one will be the doctor who finds the cure for cancer.  Perhaps the other will be the first woman to play third base on a Major League team.   (And for the Pirates, not the Nationals!)   Perhaps most importantly of all one or the other of them will someday follow in her Grandfather Patrick’s footsteps and serve as Junior Warden of St. Andrew’s Church!  

But Paul reminds us here of the first vocation of baptism, the vocation we all share, everyone here this morning, and the one calling that is above every calling, prior to every work and activity and profession and choice of life.  The foundation really for them.  To be “called to belong to Jesus.”  We can only begin truly to know who we are, when we first know whose we are.

The Baby is born in this world not so that he can be ours, but because through his work on the Cross we are his.  He knows us, calls us, makes us his own.   His possession, his treasure, each one of us—Amelia and Emma—precious in his sight.  The sheep of his pasture. These girls today are splashed with water and blessed and marked as Christ’s own forever.  Received into his arms.  No great triumph and accomplishment in their lives will ever top that.  And no hard fall, no challenge, no life disaster, will ever be able to take away this gift.  Which is not about something they have, but about who they are, whose they are.

What a day to celebrate.  Christmas Eve is practically here.  Stars shining bright in the Bethlehem sky.  Angels and blessings in abundance, as we each know again this morning that we are called, we are called, from before time and forever, to belong to Christ Jesus our Lord.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Sermon for Third Advent: Gaudete

Third Advent, 2013, is our always-wonderful Children's Pageant of Christmas.  Looking forward to the gifts the children bring us in that re-telling of the ancient Holy Story, I'm glad also to re-present here my sermon for Third Advent, 2010--the previous "Year A" in our Sunday lectionary cycle.  Blessings and joy.

Year A Isaiah 35: 1-10, Matthew 11: 2-11

Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness. And put upon us the armor of light.

The opening words of Archbishop Cranmer’s great Advent Sunday collect certainly echoing down the centuries to us, and echoing in us as year by year they are repeated through this season as the year turns toward winter, nights growing longer and longer--and the ancient and almost primordial yearning for light and warmth and vitality now the lens through which we see the birth, the life, the death, and the resurrection of our Lord Jesus.

A prayer that in Christ and through Christ and with Christ we will ourselves in this season of incarnation be reborn and renewed, given new life, new identity. To borrow a phrase, as we set out into a new year we pray that we would “dress for success.” We pray, dress us now “with Christ.” Let us put him on, our “armor of light,” so that when the world would look at us, he would be the one seen and made known. In a season, maybe even a culture and a world that keeps trying to seduce us with the idea that everything should be about us, this turns us in a different direction. It turns out, it isn’t all about us. Which when you get right down to it really is good news.

The lighting of the Rose Advent Candle on the Wreath this morning reminds us of the name of this Sunday, Gaudete Sunday. Latin, “Rejoice.” In the traditional mass order the Introit for this Sunday the text from Philippians 4 that our Choir will sing at the offertory. Gaudete in domino semper.Rejoice in the Lord always. That not meant as a kind of encouragement to go to Church on Sunday, but even more as a statement about Christian life, ethics, morality. How we live. Metaphorically, what we wear. Put upon us the armor of light, so that we are ourselves in the process of becoming windows. That he may be seen in us.

I mentioned to Bill Ghrist this week in our Wednesday morning Bible Study that this passage from St. Matthew, the dialogue between Jesus and the disciples of John the Baptist, reminds me right away of the famous saying attributed often to St. Francis. “Preach always; when necessary use words.” If those John had sent were expecting a theological discourse from Jesus, they were at least somewhat disappointed. “Just look around for a while, and then go back and tell John what you have seen with your own eyes.”

Not exactly to say that talk is cheap. But when you get right down to it, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. If you’re going to talk the talk, it’s important to walk the walk. A basket full of clich├ęs, but they become familiar because deep down we know just how true they are.

Jesus obviously knows his Bible, and Isaiah 35: “The eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; the lame shall leap like a deer, the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” But the reality here comes first. Jesus doesn’t come to tell us about the kingdom.

Instead, where he is, the Kingdom happens. Comes to life. And there is healing, and renewal, and life. An abundance of goodness, peace and good will, kindness, generosity, forgiveness. Because he is there. Because God is there acting, as never before, or at least as never since the first day of Creation, when he said “Let there be light,” and there was light.

“God himself is with us. Let us now adore him, and with awe appear before him.” An old German hymn from the 18th century, and of course right at the heart of our Advent and the season ahead. What are we waiting for? Who are we waiting for?

These Christians, how they love one another! Certainly the challenge before us on this morning and in this Advent and Christmas. For our lives as individuals and in our families and in the life of our congregation and as God’s people, his Church. Where he is, the Kingdom happens. Healing, renewal. Generosity, forgiveness.

Give us grace, that we may cast away the works of darkness; and put upon us the armor of light.To dress for success. Not that he would serve our purposes, but that we would be drawn up into his, and into him.

I am always struck in our services of Holy Communion with the invitation at the time of the Confession: “Ye who do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbors, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways: Draw near with faith . . ..”

Not about charting up a list of misbehaviors from the last week to apologize for. Instead, to intend to lead a new life. And amazing that we say that again and again, from childhood to old age, in every season. Wherever we are. However we are living. Not something we can accomplish in ourselves or for ourselves. But to say that we know and believe, that where Jesus is, the Kingdom happens, and that we ask him to be here with us.

And so Advent blessings on this Gaudete Sunday. Rejoice in the Lord always. Life in abundance and life eternal. Grace and peace. Forgiveness, healing. New life. Our King and Savior draweth nigh. O come, let us adore him.

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

Friday, December 13, 2013

Sermon for Second Advent, December 8, 2013

Our Guest Preacher this past Sunday morning was the Very Rev'd John Park, recently retired Dean of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, Lima, Peru, and with his wife Susan a long-time mission partner with St. Andrew's and our Five Talents Prayer Circle.  It was a pleasure to welcome them again to St. Andrew's, and it is a pleasure to have them now living nearby in their retirement . . . .


In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Good morning. It’s good to be back here with you all at St Andrew’s today. It’s been several years since Susan and I were last here. Since then, I have retired as Dean of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd in Lima, Peru, and am now back living in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, where I came from. And I want to thank Bruce for inviting me to preach to you today.

Today is the Sunday that the Baptists cry. Well, the Recessional Hymn that we will sing at the end of the service starts out, “On Jordan’s banks the Baptists cry…” Of course, when we continue with the second line of the hymn, we realize that it is not that the Baptists are crying, but that John the Baptists is announcing (or crying out) the coming of the Messiah.

You see, today is the Sunday that we hear about St John the Baptist, and especially his preaching to the “brood of vipers.” And I have a sneaking suspicion that the real reason that Bruce invited me for today was so that he would not have to preach on that text, which is every preacher’s favourite text. NOT!

St Luke tells us in his version of the Gospel that John was Jesus’ cousin. John was the last of the prophets of Israel. He was Jesus’ immediate forerunner. Throughout the history of Israel, there had been many prophets who had prophesied the coming of the Messiah, but John was the last, because Jesus the Messiah came in his day. John himself was the subject of prophecy because, as St Matthew tells us in today’s Gospel, “[T]his is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” John was that voice who preached to the people to get ready for the Messiah. He said to them, “[D]o not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”

You see, the Jews, to whom John was preaching, were a chosen race. They thought that just because they were Jews, that is descendants of Abraham, that they would be saved. But that’s not the way it is. Time and again the prophets told them the same thing that John the Baptist was saying, that it wasn’t enough just to be a descendent of Abraham, they also had to obey the law, and not just a formal obedience of the law, just with their actions, but from the heart as well. The Law was not just a system of rules, but an attitude of the heart.

John the Baptist prophesied the same thing, and he added that God had the ability to change even the stones into descendants of Abraham to take the place of those who were Jews by birth. And this prophecy was fulfilled after Jesus’ death and resurrection, when St Paul and others took the Gospel message to the Gentiles, to those who were not Jews. I daresay most of us are not Jews by birth. But when we believe in Jesus and are baptized, we become Abraham’s heirs, and thus we are Jews by naturalization or adoption.

But John the Baptist’s message to the Jews of his day applies to us as well. They thought that they were saved simply because they were Jews. Many times we think that we are saved simply because we are baptized. But that’s not how it works. Yes, we received salvation when we were baptized, but if it was nothing more than pouring water on our heads, if there was no change of heart, it does us no good. Yes, we are saved in baptism, but in order for that salvation to be of any use for us, we have to accept it. It’s like something that happened in Utah quite a few years ago. A murderer, by the name of Gary Collins, was convicted and given the death penalty, but the Governor of the state pardoned him. Thus Gary Collins was saved. But what happened? Gary Collins refused to accept the pardon. The judges of the appellate court said that if he did not accept it, he would have to die, and so he was killed by a firing squad.

It’s the same with baptism. I don’t mean to say that if we don’t accept our baptism that we will be sent before a firing squad, no. But there will be consequences. In Baptism we receive the forgiveness of our sins, that is to say we are pardoned. But in order for that to be any good for us, we have to accept it. And if we are going to accept it, that means a change of life, to live as Jesus commanded us to live, to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind, and with all our strength, and our neighbours as ourselves. If we don’t change our lives in this way, we are like Gary Collins and like the Jews to whom John was preaching.

If St John the Baptist were here on the Earth today, preaching to the people, he would say, “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We are baptized’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up people who are baptized.”

As I assume you are well aware, this is the season preparation for Christmas. Christmas is celebrated quiet differently in different countries. I well remember our first Christmas in Honduras, 28 years ago. We were in a rural village of just 230 people. I celebrated midnight mass at 11:00 pm. But it was anything but a “Silent Night.” All through the service the children were setting off firecrackers outside. Susan tried to hush them up, but as soon as she went back inside the church, they would start all over again. You see, that is one of the ways that Latins celebrate Christmas: with fireworks. They’ve been outlawed in many places, but that doesn’t stop people from using them. One of the churches I had 10 years later was situated at the top of a hill overlooking the valley where most of them parishioners lived. When I started midnight mass at 11:00, there were sporadic fireworks going off, and the intensity steadily increased until by midnight, when I would be elevating the Host, it was an enormous din. When we would come out of the church after the service, the smoke would be so thick that you couldn’t see anything in the valley.

In Honduras, the traditional Christmas food was tamales, usually made of pork, wrapped in banana leaves. And they have become a part of our own Christmas traditions. As far as most Hondurans are concerned, Christmas is the 24th. That’s when they celebrate. The 25th is nothing to them. I remember an article in the local newspaper one year telling of the birth of a baby just after midnight on the 24th: “at about the same time as Jesus was born,” as the article stated. I kid you not. Christmas trees are beginning to be used in Honduras, especially in the cities, but the major decoration is the Nacimiento, or manger scene. These can be quite elaborate, even representing an entire village. Often a section of it would depict some event of the previous year. In 1998, the year of Hurricane Mitch, a number of them had an area of total destruction to commemorate the hurricane. In the villages, they will include whatever characters or toy figures they may have, including such as Wonder Woman or GI Joe.

Peruvians celebrate differently. They know that Christmas is the 25th, and they celebrate on the 25th, beginning at midnight. At least in the city of Lima, which is where some 10,000,000 people live, a third of the country’s population, the tradition is to open presents and eat a huge turkey dinner in the wee hours of the 25th, right after midnight. They also eat panetones, a fruit bread that originated in Italy, and drink hot chocolate, which is a tradition that must have come from Mexico via Spain, because hot chocolate is not something you normally want to drink in the middle of summer. But celebrating the 25th is a fairly recent innovation. Traditionally in Peru, as it still is in Spain, the big celebration was the 6th of January, Epiphany, which they call the “Bajada de Reyes,” the coming of the kings. The Wise Men would bring presents for the children. The principal decoration in the home was the “Nacimiento,” the manger scene. Now, especially in the cities, Christmas trees have taken over, and the 25th has become the only celebration. And it has become quite commercialized, just as it has become here. Santa Claus is called Papa Noel, and he brings the presents to the children. And just as in the culture here, they do not know the difference between Advent and Christmas.

In Lima, more and more people are decorating the outside of their houses with Christmas lights, just as is the custom here. There is one area of the city that has become quite famous for all the lighted displays on the homes. And they also celebrate Christmas (and New Years as well) with fireworks. Once our boys moved to the States, we would call them at midnight to which them a Merry Christmas and then hold the phone out so that they could at least hear the fireworks, which they missed very much, and which Susan and I are going to miss this year. It’s got to the point where it’s just not the same without them. We’ve already located a place in the Strip District where we can get our tamales to eat, so we can maintain that tradition.

At our Cathedral, we were very careful about emphasizing Advent as a time of preparation and not of celebration. We would put up the greenery and even the tree, but without decorations or lights on the tree until Christmas Eve. But this is very definitely an extremely busy season around the Cathedral. The annual Advent/Christmas Bazaar was held last Saturday. The women of the Cathedral had spent time making mince meat and Christmas puddings, and these were sold along with homemade jams, chutneys, cookies, and cakes: English foods that are hard to come by elsewhere in Lima. There were also a number of outside vendors selling items that could be used as Christmas decorations or presents. A tent was set up in the garden, where there were tables, and food and refreshments were sold. It was a time of great conviviality.

This weekend was the pantomime, put on in the Cathedral Hall by the Good Companions, an English-language amateur theatre troupe. Now, be aware that this is English pantomime. It is not Marcel Marceau. It is not silent, not by any means. It is a theatre genre that is traditional for December in England, where almost every village has its own panto performance. It is typical very broad English humour with a great deal of audience participation. It is usually very loosely based on a nursery rhyme or a fairy tale with music and dancing. There is always a very good character (who always enters and leaves stage right), a very bad character (who always enters and leaves stage left), the hero, called the principal boy, who is always portrayed by a young woman, at least one dame, who is always portrayed by a man in drag, at least one fool. It’s designed for children, but there are enough double entendres to keep the parents happy as well.

This Tuesday evening is the Advent Carol Service, which is attended by many in the English-speaking community who are not members of the Cathedral. We have a pick-up choir for that service (which sings also for Easter), but it is very good, even remaining on key while singing a cappella! The service is followed by a mulled wine and mince pie reception in the Deanery garden. Now remember that Lima is in the southern hemisphere, so it is now late spring going into summer, and it is quite possible to have an outdoor evening reception in December.

On Christmas Eve there is a service in Spanish at 7:00 pm. The English service is on Christmas Day at 10:00. There is no Midnight Mass for a number of reasons. 1) It is not nearly as common in England as it is here in the States, so the Brit members of the community are not used to it. 2) The vast majority of the members do not live within walking distance, and many of them do not have cars, and there is no late night transportation on Christmas Eve. And 3) it can be quite dangerous to be on the streets on Christmas Eve because for the vast majority of Peruvians who are not particularly religious, Christmas is not a time to celebrate our Lord’s birth, rather it’s just an excuse to get drunk, which makes driving very dangerous.

The Christmas season ends at the Cathedral with a Christmas Carol Service on Twelfth Night, January 5th. This time it is just Christmas carols that are sung, not Advent music, and without a choir, so it is all congregational singing. And it is followed by a reception with hot chocolate and rosca de reyes, a fruit bread ring that is traditional for Epiphany.

So those are some of the customs that we have observed in Honduras and Peru, some of which we have adopted ourselves. We don’t set off fireworks or have a big turkey dinner right after midnight on the 25th, but we do celebrate our Lord’s birth with tamales, panetones, and hot chocolate. And we put up a nacimiento. Actually we have manger scenes all over the house, but one of them is set up Honduran style.

And now we are in the process of using Advent to get ready for Christmas. St John the Baptist tells us in today’s Gospel that we need to make ourselves ready for our Lord’s coming by changing our lives also. Let us use this season of Advent to make ourselves ready for our Lord’s coming. Let us make ourselves ready by changing our life, if it is not already changed. And if we have had a change of life, let us prepare ourselves through loving God and our neighbour even more that we have in the past. Amen.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Holy Matrimony: Maribeth Ann Hamel and Bradley James Balach

Genesis 1: 26-28; Colossians 3: 12-17

Wow.  Good afternoon everyone!  Family and friends . . . .  It is so great to be here today, as we are witnesses and participants in this wonderful celebration of Christian marriage.  Maribeth and Brad, I would simply personally and I know speaking for everyone here today, and with truly a full heart, express my and our deepest thanks for including us, for inviting us to be with you as this new page is turned, a new chapter begun.   When we began planning for this day in earnest last July the story was all summer sunshine, and it seemed kind of distant to think about a snowy December afternoon.  But here we are, soon to be a new year, and a new beginning.  The Church in the season of Advent, which is a season that looks in two directions.  To remember the great things God has done for us, and most especially of course as Christmas is coming in the first Advent, the birth and life and death and resurrection of Jesus.  And to look ahead to the great things that God has in mind for us.  For each one of us in the future days of our lives.  For you in your marriage.  And to the Second Advent, the great New Creation and new beginning, when Jesus comes again.

So today, for you.  Lots of memories, and hopes and dreams and plans for the future.  Before the service today we lit the candle in the chancel here  as a memorial to Maribeth’s brother-in-law Dell.  It says “the Buck Stops Here,” and on the illustration you can see that it’s appropriate to the antlered deer season!  Made me smile. That memory is a very tender one I know for all this family—Debbie, Audrey, Dell.  All the family.  It reminds me today most of all of how important family is.  How the circle for both of your families today is expanded, how your lives now are richer and deeper.

I’ve known you both for quite some time.  Maribeth of course since you were just a kid.  And Brad, for quite a while too.  Two very kind, thoughtful, compassionate people.  Nice sense of humor.  And strong in so many ways.  Not that anybody has asked me this question in so many words, but I just want to let you know that I approve!  You guys are great for each other, great with each other.  So it has seemed to me as we have had some of our conversations about the issues and challenges and possibilities of married life.  The two lives come together, and you can’t help but think, “this is going to be something special.”  In the deep mysteries of his Providence, God is doing a great thing here.  He has a great plan for your lives, only just now beginning to unfold. 

You both spent some time and gave careful thought to the selection of the readings from Scripture to be read and shared at this service, and it was a gift for all of us to hear them.   I want to pause just a moment over this brief passage from St. Paul’s letter to the new Christians of a small congregation in the town of Colossae, which was located in a part of Asia Minor that would now be a part of Turkey.  It’s a congregation that Paul was instrumental in founding and clearly a group of people who were dear to him, much loved.  We don’t know too much about the context of this particular letter, but apparently word had come to him that there were some theological disputes that had begun to cause conflict and division in the congregation.   Paul addresses the issues at hand, but then in the third chapter of Colossians he goes on to talk about Christian life and conduct in community, to describe what it means to live together as Christian people, even when there are serious differences.  As there are always differences, whether in a large community, or even in a community of two.

Paul lifts up what perhaps we could call a recipe, a model, a roadmap, the deeper themes of what we are and what we can be at our very best in Christian relationship.  We have a non-profit here in Pittsburgh that assists people as they get ready to join the workforce called, “Dress for Success.” 
And so that’s what this is about.  A lot of attention always paid to wedding gown and bridesmaids dresses.  This about “dressing for success” in all the years to come after this day:  Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience; bear with one another; forgive one another.  Clothe yourselves with love; let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts; be thankful; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs to God.  Doing everything in the name of the Lord Jesus.

Thank you especially for selecting this reading for us—truly a gift.  A great recipe for all of us to keep close, and meaningful that you have shared it with us today.  We might almost say that sharing this reading with your family and friends is the first step, the first example, of the work you are being called to do in your marriage from here on out.  We say this is a “sacrament” because in marriage you two become outward signs of God’s grace and love.  He is going to be using you to communicate his love to others, and that is the work you are called to do and that we acknowledge and celebrate today.

You know, in the Old Testament Book of Exodus, chapter 3, there is one of my favorite stories, about a moment of life-changing experience, a “vocational” moment, a moment of transformation, about a calling to a new way of life-- in a way kind of like this moment here today.  In that story 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.  That’s my point.

This is the moment when God tells Moses about his plan for his life, how from the day of his birth he has been shaped and prepared for the mission to lead God’s people out of slavery in Egypt and across the Wilderness and into the Promised Land.  God speaks into this world, into our lives, and what was an ordinary place is now made sacred by that holy word.  And Brad and Maribeth: in the vows and promises you make today, in God’s sight and in the presence of these friends and family members, the ground under our feet is made holy.  Not because of what you are saying, but because we believe, and certainly why in our tradition of the Christian family we call marriage a sacrament, that God’s word is being spoken to you now.  We can imagine that burning bush, right here, right now.  That God’s holy presence is with you, surrounding you, above you, and beneath your feet, with richness and blessing and purpose.  The prayers and blessings of this day don’t just happen in this one moment of your wedding, but they go out with you into your marriage and life together, from this day forward, and will be around you and under you and with you all the days of your life.   He has great plans for you, for each of you, and for you together as husband and wife and family.  That’s the great and wonderful thing we celebrate.  I don’t know what they are.  None of us do.  But he is beginning to reveal them to you now, in this moment this afternoon.  And it’s a privilege for us to be here with you.

And now as Maribeth and Brad come forward to exchange the vows that will make them husband and wife, Karen and Peter are going to play a lovely piece of music, the hymn tune “Slane.” I associate with the words of the prayer:  “Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart; all else be nought to me, save that thou art—thou my best thought, by day or by night, waking or sleeping, thy presence my light.”   Let us pause for a moment and bow our heads and in the quiet of our own hearts offer a prayer of love and blessing for them—that they will be surrounded and embraced by love and blessing all the days of their lives.


Friday, December 6, 2013

Sermon for the Eve of St. Nicholas, at the Ceremony of the Child Bishop

On December 5, 2013, the Eve of St. Nicholas Day, the service of Choral Evensong included for the first time at St. Andrew's Church the ancient ceremony of the inauguration and investiture of a Child Bishop.  At the opening of the service our bishop, the Right Rev. Dorsey W.M. McConnell, offered the prayer of institution and presented his Pastoral Staff to the Head Chorister of St. Andrew's Church, Maighread Southard Wray.  Following the lesson from First Samuel and at the Magnificat, with the words, "He hast put down the mighty from their seat* and exalted the humble and meek," Child Bishop Maighread was escorted to Bishop McConnell, blessed the congregation and community, and was seated in the Sedelia--Bishop McConnell then removing his cope and miter and taking a seat in the Choir. 

At the conclusion of the Office Child Bishop Maighread offered this sermon. 

It was all blessing and joy.


“He hath put down the mighty from their seat”

The time had come, the Choristers were singing “he hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble and meek.” The Bishop stepped down from his throne, and the Boy Bishop stood up. The two traded places, and as the Bishop tried to find his place in the music, the Boy Bishop tried to get comfortable in his robes and immense hat.  This boy is one of hundreds who have done the same thing and felt the same way.

 The tradition of the Boy Bishop stretches back over many hundred years. “Earliest reference to a boy bishop at Hereford is circa 1250,” the Bishop of Hereford says.  Henry VIII abolished it in England in 1542.  He didn’t feel the need to have the throne taken away from him.  Ten years later, in 1552, Mary I restored the tradition to England, only to have her successor, Elizabeth I, abolish it again.  Ordinarily, English monarchs were tightfisted about the throne.  However, the tradition couldn’t be suppressed forever.  It was revived, once, in 1973 during a special service for children at Hereford Cathedral.  Four hundred some odd years later, in 1982, the Boy Bishop became an annual tradition again.

On Saint Nicholas day, a boy (traditionally the Head Chorister) is chosen to be the Boy Bishop. The boy is completely in charge. He leads the services, the prayers, and gives communion.  Until December Twenty-eighth, his are the sermons the congregation will hear.  The reason for this reversal is to teach humility to the powerful.   Humility is a lesson that powerful people don’t often learn, because they don’t want to give up their position, their authority, their title.  However, Jesus often says things like, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” This suggests that if, like St Nicholas, we put our time and effort into helping others, there will be a reward.  The rule of Heaven is the reward we should seek.  Jesus says, “A child shall lead them.” 

 Adults often have supreme power. They are older and perhaps wiser.  However, it is often the case that children notice something adults do not. The power that the Boy or Child Bishop has is making adults realize the other side of the story: sometimes children aren’t the ones who need to learn something.  Unlike adults, children may not have unwavering ideas or beliefs to be stuck in, and from time to time adults overlook the important part of something.  Nobody is forced to agree with anything the Child Bishop says, but listening could teach something that has never been noticed.  Jesus says, “No man shall enter the kingdom of heaven if he shall not do it as a child shall.”

As the Child Bishop processes into Hereford Cathedral during the ceremony, the Choristers sing: “They are seated in heavenly majesty:  they humbly adore thee and cry out: Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts, all things are full of thy glory.”  This teaches that the reign of the powerful on earth will end.  But God’s reign will not.  Originally, the Boy Bishop would have fellow boys dressed up as priests and deacons.  Together they would make their way around the village, blessing people.  

Here at St Andrew’s we are not going to do that.  Pittsburgh is far too large.  But somehow it seems that the congregation will still be blessed.  They are blessed with new ideas and a different personality, another opinion, an eye opener.  The lesson that the Child Bishop teaches is that everyone can, and sometimes needs, to have a new way of looking and listening.  

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Advent Sunday, 2013

Romans 13: 11-14

Good morning to all this Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend, as we've finally had our first real taste of the winter.  And especially after that football game on Thursday night.   Ice melter in a tub on the front porch and snow shovel retrieved from the garage, and here we go.  A long winter ahead, though perhaps still something to look forward to in the direction of the Stanley Cup, and with tickets on sale this week for the home opener against the Chicago Cubs on Monday, March 31.  

And with all that, radio and t.v. and newspaper filled with Christmas shopping ads, and it is time once again to say “Happy New Year!”  Still a few weeks until we hear Guy Lombardo playing Auld Lang Syne at that When Harry Met Sally holiday party, but this is the Sunday morning, now, today, when the Church Calendar resets.  Back again at the beginning.   Echoes of T.S. Eliot—from the fifth section of his poem “Little Gidding,” in the Four Quartets.  Some of my favorite 20th century poetry.  “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” 

Advent Sunday, the beginning of the journey,  the old familiar road, from every corner of our world and of our lives to run on in these weeks through the Bethlehem Hills, in the dark night, with the choirs of angels singing to the shepherds, and on then from there week after week.  All the way to Jerusalem and the Cross.  Good Friday, April 18.  Through all the snows of winter.  It will be here before we know it.

There’s a Facebook Group called “the Advent Conspiracy.”  I’m not always totally in synch with their postings, but the basic idea is to be a reminder that for Christians these Advent weeks are more than just a season for shopping and holiday parties and excitement about festive gatherings.  Not that we don’t do those things.  I hope you’re all planning to drop in at our Open House next Sunday afternoon!  But subversive. Countercultural.   Their catchphrase is, "Slow down.  Quiet. It's Advent."   

In and with it all, a time for bigger thoughts, deeper thoughts, longer thoughts.  As we hear when our families light the candles on the Advent Wreath each week, as Joan and Maeve and Ian did for us this morning.  There are various themes associated with each Advent Candle.  Prophets and Shepherds, Mary and the Angels, and so on.  But when you drill down into the history of the season you find that the four weeks were associated in the classical preaching tradition with the Four Last Things: Death and Judgment, Heaven and Hell.  Serious business, and I guess not always perfectly aligned with visions of sugarplums and holiday cheer or being the life of the party.  Slow down.  Quiet.

For the last five hundred years Anglicans and Episcopalians have prayed this Collect for Advent Sunday, composed back in the middle of the 16th century by Archbishop Cranmer.  To my mind, and I've said this before, the highest and most beautiful literary prayer of our tradition, perhaps of any Christian tradition, weaving these Biblical phrases into a tapestry.  Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light.  What we might call the foundation of all New Year Resolutions.  As to follow the old hymn, “Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to thee.”    Repentance.  Renewal.  Transformation.  Standing at the foot of the Cross.  Joining our hearts and minds to know and to receive this gift: his victory over death and the grave.  That in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal.  

I’m only preaching two Sundays of Advent this year.  Next week my and our good friend, the Very Rev. John Park will be our preacher.  He has just this past summer retired from the mission field and his ministry as Dean of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, in Lima, Peru, and he and Susan settling in now with life here in Pittsburgh, where Susan is continuing mission work as a stateside coordinator of short term mission trips.  The Sunday after that, December 15, we’ll have that great moment of this season and the Children’s Pageant of Christmas.  But this morning and again on the Fourth and last Sunday of Advent I want to pause over two readings from Paul’s Letter to the Romans.  Because Advent is at its heart a season about lifestyle.  About how we live as Christian people "in the meantime."  In a season of waiting.  This long season between the night in Bethlehem and the bright morning of his return in his glorious majesty, as the collect says.  How we live in the meantime.  Allowing his gift to become incarnate in our lives.  Allowing our lives to be signs in the world of the goodness of new life in him.

This morning, Romans chapter 13, verses 13 and 14, just after the line in verse 12 that Archbishop Cranmer uses in the Collect, “works of darkness, armor of light.”  Paul goes on, “Let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy.  Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”

And so to talk about an “Advent Conspiracy.”   This whole section of Romans beginning at the start of Chapter 12 with Paul, “I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”  And then, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

At the beginning of Chapter 49 of the Rule for Monasteries St. Benedict says that "the life of the monk ought to have about it the character of a Lenten observance."  There is something true in that I think for all of us as Christian people, not just monks.  But to see this morning something true about that in terms of Advent.  Not just four weeks as we roll into winter and shop for the holidays, but as a reminder of what life is really all about.  How we all should live, 24/7/365, all the time.

This isn't about imposing on ourselves, or judging others by, some metric of puritanical austerity.  It’s not about calling the morality police.  But it is about sobering up.  You should pardon the expression.   Waking up.   A hard thing to do in a culture of distraction and denial.  About unplugging from the anesthesia.  If you recall the film a few years ago, “The Matrix,” a sense of this there.  As though if we just consumed more things we would be satisfied.  Living in this unreal daydream of a narcotic existence.  More money will solve my problems.  The next shiny toy.  The next new relationship.   If my side wins the next election.  Always just needing a little bit more.  Pretending that we can live as if there will be no tomorrow.  No accounting, no bottom line.  To get “Adventy” about it: no death and judgment.  No heaven and hell. 

 Instead.  Opening our eyes and ears and our minds and our hearts.  Our whole selves.  Not pouring more fuel onto the fire.  We know when we’re doing that.  Bonfire of the vanities.   Whether it makes a big splash in the wide world or is something that only we know in the secret of our heart.  But waiting for him.  Awake.  Trusting in him.  Living in a wholesome present moment.  Awake.  In a spirit of peace and generosity, honesty, restraint, and forgiveness.  Quietly, and in moderation.  Awake.

Advent Sunday.  The door opens.  The road extends before us again all the way from Bethlehem to Jerusalem.  A fresh start.  A new beginning.  Here it is this morning: the stable, the creche.  If we've ever thought that what we wanted and needed was a chance to start again.  “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”   Again, Advent blessings, and with encouragement for us all in the New Year ahead.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Celebrating St. Andrew's Day, 2013

Dt 30, Romans 10, Matthew 4

Grace and peace to you, a word of welcome on this always-fun Sunday, as we observe the festival of our patron saint, Andrew the Apostle.  A little like a birthday party for us always, or a homecoming weekend, an anniversary, and certainly a time to pause for a moment to think about how the spirit of this great place, St. Andrew’s--176 years old this year—about how the spirit of this great place is and has become a part of who we are.  

I’ve seen a number of constructions.  St. Andreans is what I prefer, since the name in Greek is “Andreas”-- though there were a few around here for a while who preferred “St. Andrewsians.”  For some reason Ruth Cover always preferred that one.  And I have occasionally heard from the direction of the Star Trek section of the Choir, “St. Androids.”  But in any event, a particular and distinctive and peculiar species, DNA passed down in some mystical invisible way generation by generation, despite all kinds of differences of background, perspective, life experience.  “Every breed of cat,” as I like to say every year about the parish by the zoo.  

Democrats and Republicans, vegetarians and omnivores, wine-bibbers and tea-totallers, city dwellers and folks from near and far suburbs and towns, people who love baseball and, hard as this is to believe after the wonderful year our Pirates have had, people who don’t.  Even at this point in this challenging season I’m sure even a few loyal-to-the-end Steeler fans.  (Maybe things will continue to look better this afternoon in Cleveland.)  Chamber music and country, Handel and Hendrix.  People who will describe their lives and families and communities and interests and their Christian faith in a multitude of vocabularies.  A big enough map to locate just about everybody.  But in the midst of those differences and diversities, something shared.  

An inclination to be here, to be together, prompted by our Better Angels, I think.  Holy Spirit, and I absolutely believe that.  Whispers of encouragement.  Stirrings of the heart that take place in such quiet ways that we don’t even notice them at first.  Every one of us meant to be here.  Here for a purpose.

Grace and peace then, St. Andreans, St. Andrewsians, St. Androids.  And visitors and friends.  The old story was that someone once asked how you joined this bunch, and the answer was that all you need to do was to stroll past the front door slowly once or twice out on Hampton Street and you’d be eligible to serve on Vestry.  

Obviously things a little different this year on this chilly morning, with all the construction, so that our usually extravagant St. Andrew’s Day Reception becomes more simply a classic Pittsburgh Cookie Table in the bit of Brooks Hall that we have to work with while all the renovations are in process.  Nonetheless: as Dickens’s Tiny Tim will solemnly pronounce again as the season rolls along, “God bless us, every one.”  And with a special greeting and appreciation again this year to our friends of the Syria Highlanders.  Thank you for the gift you bring us in stirring up these ancestral memories on this St. Andrew’s Day, echoing brightly in the new acoustic of our renovations, and thank you for the opportunity you share with us in support of the wonderful work of the Shriners’ Hospitals for Children.  A great cause.   

Certainly the pioneers of this place back in 1837 were aware of St. Andrew’s role as patron saint of Scotland.  Perhaps they were recognizing and honoring in those days the large Scotch-Irish population that had been such a large part of the first European settlement in this region.  And so to hear the pipes again across the neighborhood and ringing through the church—it is for us an old and familiar song.

Andrew in addition to Scotland,  the patron saint of Barbados, the Ukraine, Russia, Romania, Patras in Greece, Amalfi in Italy, Luqa in Malta, Esgueira in Portugal.  Patron of Prussia, and of the Order of the Golden Fleece (I looked that up a couple of years ago in Wikipedia—an order dating from the 15th century comprising members of the royal families and high nobility of old Europe). And the emblematic St. Andrew’s Cross appears on the flags of Scotland, Australia, New Zealand, Nova Scotia, Tenerife, Galicia, and the state flags of Florida and Alabama, among others.  Andrew is also, to note a couple of weeks after our observance of Veterans Day, the patron saint of the U.S. Army Rangers.

In any event, he got around.  This St. Andrew of ours.  “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”—as St. Paul writes for us and for all time in Romans 10—the epistle reading for this day, which you can see in the order for the 9 a.m. Holy Communion this morning.  And Psalm 19: “Their sound has gone out into all lands, and their message to the ends of the world.”

The Brotherhood of St. Andrew: a missionary society in the Episcopal Church since the later years of the 19th century—trained and supported lay leaders who would go out into frontier areas to establish the foundation of church growth.  The parish I served many years ago, St. Andrew’s in State College, Pennsylvania, founded by two layreaders of the Brotherhood of St. Andrew from St. John’s Church in Bellefonte.  A story repeated many times across the Midwest and West across the expanding American frontier.

We've heard one story about the calling of Andrew and Peter here in St. Matthew this morning.  Leave your nets and come with me: fish for people . . . .  The story in St. John has Andrew as a disciple of John the Baptist, who with another John the Baptist follower hears John speak about Jesus and follows after him to see what he’s all about, and who then goes and finds his brother Peter to say, “come and meet the person we've been waiting for all our lives.”  Then again in St. John, when Jesus the multitudes have followed Jesus into the countryside to hear his teaching, and when evening has come and the people are beginning to get hungry, and nobody seems quite sure what to do, Andrew brings to Jesus a little boy who has brought his lunch from home, five loaves of bread, and two fish.  And later still, at a moment of crisis on the journey toward the cross, some Greeks come, seeking Jesus, and it is Andrew to whom they speak first, and he brings them to him.

All the stories about what happened for Andrew after Pentecost Sunday are pious traditions, but they would certainly follow along the same New Testament pattern. Meeting people where they are, and leading them to Jesus.  A ministry of introduction and evangelism.  Commending Jesus.  Inviting others who haven’t met him yet to come into his presence, to experience for themselves his tender mercy, his forgiveness, and the healing and new life and real and substantial hope that flow from the knowledge of his resurrection.  Andrew, always ready to say a good word about Jesus.  How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!

For 176 years under his banner as this community of Christian people.  Pilgrims.  Men and women, boys and girls.  All sorts and conditions.  And somehow here good Andrew keeps doing his work, fishing for people, taking them by the hand and bringing them to meet his friend.  We’re building the equipment and infrastructure in our Opening Doors project next door.  Capacity for outreach.  Capacity for welcome.  Let me introduce you to someone you've been waiting all your life to meet.  The Hope of the Nations.  Inspiring us, at this Font and at this Table, sustaining us, equipping us, as the Word is proclaimed and studied, as we meet Jesus here, and as we continue to meet him and to walk with him then from this great place to all corners of the neighborhood and city and region around.   For all of us who would walk under the Banner of St. Andrew the Apostle.

“The word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart.”   “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”  

Blessings on this St. Andrew’s Day, friends, for those of us who are here today, and for those whose first Sunday in this great place will be next Sunday, or the Sunday after that.  Perhaps the neighbor who slips in by the side door a few weeks from now to watch and listen as our children tell in their pageant the story of the Savior’s birth.  Perhaps the friend who accepts our invitation to attend the beautiful offering of Lessons and Carols.  Perhaps the one who decides after years of frustration and resistance and sadness and hurt to give the Christian message and that Bethlehem Baby another hearing at midnight on Christmas Eve.  Perhaps a neighbor in Lima Peru, introduced to Jesus by her Five Talents Solidarity Circle.  Perhaps a neighbor right around the corner, whose hard road to recovery is made a little easier by the friendship and helping hand of one of our Off the Floor Pittsburgh Saturday mornings.

How beautiful indeed are the feet of those who bring good news—and the news that Andrew had to share, the news that we have to share, the best news ever.  Come and meet Jesus.  He is the one we have been waiting for.   

Next Sunday is Advent Sunday and the beginning of a new year on the calendar of the Church.  May the next year and may the next 176 years of our life together continue the story and announce the good news in great and new ways, always to bring honor, glory, and praise, through Christ our Lord.

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