Sunday, April 28, 2013

Fifth Easter, and Annual Meeting

Acts 11: 1-18
Day of the 176th Annual Parish Meeting 
of St. Andrew’s Church
Highland Park, Pittsburgh

Grace and peace friends, good morning on this spring Sunday, the Fifth Sunday of Easter season and certainly very much in my mind and on my heart today as the occasion of the 176th Annual Parish Meeting of St. Andrew’s Church. 

My friend Pam Foster, who was for many years Associate Rector of our neighbor, Calvary Church in East Liberty, was asked once about her interest in developing a specialization in “interim ministry,” and her reply included a comment I’ll always remember, and that it’s important I think for all of us to remember.  Very simply, she said, “all ministry is interim ministry.” 

Susy and I had a wonderful friend out in California, Beth Renning.  In her 90’s.  And one day, when a group of friends were engaging in what I remember used to be a very common Episcopalian activity, though I don’t think it happens around here--complaining about something the Rector had done--she commented, with remarkable equanimity, “Rectors come, and Rectors go.”   Which is a good concept to hold on to as we will refer today to this Annual Meeting as our “176th.”  My 19th Annual Meeting of St. Andrew’s Church. 

Perhaps some are visiting St. Andrew’s this morning for the first time.  And welcome, and it would be fun if you have some time today to have you come next door to join in the Annual Meeting festivities.  Always fun, and good food.  Some of you have been here years and decades.  I always joke with Al Mann, to ask if he can tell us what that first meeting was like, back in 1837.  But the reality, “all ministry is interim ministry.”  We all come. We stay for a while.  Perhaps some longer than others.  But then we all go.  Only Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

Men and women, boys and girls over decades and generations.  Some we remember by name—a few.  Baptized here at this font; formed in faith.  A long line of folks presented to the bishops of this diocese for Confirmation.  Weddings.  Gatherings of family, friends and neighbors, for prayer and Christian burial.  Rectors and Wardens, Sunday School teachers, Choir members, Acolytes and Ushers, Missionaries and those who minister in every corner of life.  Retreats and Coffee hours.  Church picnics, workdays.  Friends in prayer.  And all along the way a richness of Christian life.  Potluck dinners, discussion groups.  Reaching out and reaching in. 

The proclamation of the gospel, in word and in action.   Witnessing the good news of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in our homes and in our neighborhood and across the wide world.  Being formed as disciples.  Joining ourselves, in worship, to God’s holy liturgy; participating with our time, talent, and treasure as we join in his mission. 

Always here at St. Andrew’s, for 107 years now, under this great banner, of our Rood Beam, John 12: “And I if I be lifted up from the earth will draw all men unto me.”  From this corner of a quiet city neighborhood, like a stone dropped into a still pond, sending ripples out to the farthest edge.  Nothing quiet about it, truly.  A proclamation to the ends of the earth.    “Christ for the World, we sing.  The world to Christ we bring.”  With loving zeal, with fervent prayer, with one accord, with joyful song . . . .

The old joke is that when people call to ask for directions to St. Andrew’s, the natural thing is to say “just follow the signs to the zoo.”  Something profound about that somehow.  Every breed of cat on display.  Lions, tigers, bears.  Perhaps a few odd ducks.  Not a particularly big place, nor especially wealthy in financial resources.  But as someone said once, “rich in eccentricity.”  Such an amazing assembly of thoughtful, creative, interesting people.  Energetic.  Passionate.   Incredibly generous.  

You’ll forgive me for singling out one among so many, but I can’t tell you how often I have thought to myself what a breathtaking privilege it is that God in his goodness would allow me to belong to Jinny Fiske’s church.  Again, one among so many.  Just look around.  Saints and heroes.  Who know how to ask questions.  And how to give comfort.  Laughing together, singing together, weeping together, praying together. 

It is wonderful that our Year C lectionary appoints the eleventh chapter of Acts for us this morning, as we move forward toward our meeting and as we would reflect about the character of our mission and ministry in this place and from this place.   The vision of the great Prophets of the Old Testament coming to life in the midst of Easter and Pentecost.   Isaiah 2:  And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the LORD'S house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.   All nations.  Isaiah 56:  My house will be called a house of prayer for all peoples.   Daniel 7: And behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him.  And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.  

Echoing around us then this morning the great song of Simeon, in the second chapter of St. Luke, as the infant Jesus is Presented in the Temple.  “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou has prepared in the presence of all peoples—all peoples: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel.”

Peter’s dream here proclaimed to the Church in Acts 11, word that God has accomplished now his great plan for the reconciliation and renewal of all creation at the Cross, and that we are ourselves through our baptism and as we place our trust in him, as we place our lives in his hands, as we fall into his embrace, participating as members of his Risen Body already in his new Kingdom.  Those who were far off are now brought near, and a New Israel is born.

A little glimpse of that here.  Just look around to see what he is doing here.  This little zoo of a parish.  Amazing, really.  A miracle.  Just look around.  And join us for the meeting.

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


Sunday, April 21, 2013

Fourth Easter, Good Shepherd

Our Seminarian, Wally LaLonde, will be preaching this morning at St. Andrew's.  I thought I would re-post a sermon I preached on this Sunday in 2009.  Since that "Good Shepherd Sunday" was here in Pittsburgh also "St. Marathon Sunday," it's possible that a few St. Andreans may have missed it first time around . . . .

Saturday, May 2, 2009, 5 p.m. Pittsburgh "Marathon Eve" Service
Sunday, May 3, 2009
IV Easter (RCL/B) John 10: 11-18

In the Great 40 Days between Easter and Ascension this Fourth Sunday of Easter takes the traditional title, and perhaps having heard the lessons this is no surprise to you--“Good Shepherd Sunday.”

This morning the 23rd Psalm, so familiar it almost seems to be imprinted in the deepest level of our subconscious, and then this reading from John 10.

As a historical note, in the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549 Good Shepherd Sunday followed the old Roman Catholic calendar and was the Sunday after Easter—the day we in our modern lectionaries now have the Upper Room and Doubting Thomas stories. In 1552 the day was "bumped forward" a week, to the Second Sunday after Easter, where it remained until it was moved forward again with the introduction of the three-year Eucharistic Lectionary in the Proposed Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church in 1976, which became our current 1979 Prayer Book, and which continues in the pattern of our new Revised Common Lectionary.

But whatever the Sunday, the imagery is intrinsic to Easter. As we say in our Creeds, “And the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures: and ascended into heaven, And sitteth on the right hand of the Father.” All one package.

The imagery explores who it is, who now rules heaven and earth; who it is, who will judge both the quick and the dead; who it is, whose kingdom shall have no end. How are we to understand our relationship to him now, and his to us? What language, what imagery, conceptual framework, what metaphor will allow us to grasp this deepest mystery of Easter. That he died, but now is risen from the dead, now with us, above us, around us, within us.

And now, whether on the second Sunday or third or fourth, the Easter brass still lingering behind us in the distant air, we hear not of a vengeful tyrant out to even the score, to give back some of what he got, nor of a far distant and remote clockmaker, who did what he needed to do and now has moved on to other things, not to be bothered anymore with us.

But instead, well: “Savior like a shepherd lead us, much we need thy tender care. In thy pleasant pastures feed us; for our use thy folds prepare. Blessed Jesus! Blessed Jesus! Thou hast bought us, thine we are.” What a gift, what a blessing of Easter. His love, his care, his tears for our sorrows, his word to heal us, his arms to embrace, to protect and keep us safe. Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death . . . .

Good Shepherd Sunday: a tenderness at the living heart of Easter. In what is so often a hard and harsh world, the blessing of his gentleness. May you and may all of us experience that, live fully with that. To say, “my cup runneth over” with the abundance of blessing and comfort, in him. O Sons and Daughters, let us sing, the King of heaven, the glorious King, from death and hell rose triumphing. Alleluia.

In the midst of this, I want to pause for just a moment of interest over a word from this second part of John, Chapter 10, one point in particular in this rich passage, when Jesus says, in the 16th verse, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also.”

This a very frequently discussed saying. Sometimes presented in the context of ecumenical conversations.

The New Testament scholar Raymond Brown thought that this was heard in the early community around St. John as a reference to what we might call the Petrine community—or perhaps of the churches founded by St. Paul.

In very modern times some have wondered whether the saying might not even be a clue of how to think about the pluralism of religious faiths, how the risen Jesus might be present even in places where his name is not known, working silently and secretly to share the reconciliation that comes from the Cross with the whole world.

I suppose we will never know for sure just exactly what Jesus had in mind. But what I think it does in any event, this word about “other sheep,” is that however we think it might be interpreted, it is at least, at most, reminder that while we are his, he is not ours.

To say that again: while we are his, he is not ours. Not in the sense that we own him, that we control and define the extent of his embrace. We are his, but he is not ours.

Remembering in this context the song by the Texas musical comedy group the Austin Lounge Lizards (first introduced to me by Barbara Lewis a number of years ago), in their famous song, “Jesus loves me, but he can’t stand you.”

If we know the grace and peace and healing and new life of his resurrection, what we cannot do ever is to assume that this is ours because we have earned it, because we deserve it—which is what inevitably follows from the thought that this blessing is for me, but somehow not for you.

There is eventually a kind of spiritual arrogance that can emerge from that, a sense of superiority, entitlement--a sense of pride, which is of course so powerfully unlike the one who came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for the many. Not the few, but the many.

To give his life, that the holy generosity that flows from the cross would lift us up and fill our lives. That as we are blessed, we might know that blessing not as something to cling to, but as something that falls as rain and snow fall from the heavens, his free gift.

Bruce Robison

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Third Easter

Year C, John 21: 1-9
Baptism of Luke Field, Helen Hutchings,
Kingston Smith, and Issac Smith

The Third Easter Sunday now, and a word of welcome: grace and peace.  Last weekend here at St. Andrew’s we had four baptisms—three on Saturday and one at the 9 a.m. service, and now this morning four more—wow!--Luke, Helen, Kingston, Issac!  Which is so wonderful, and truly an Easter of celebration for us, as we have the opportunity to affirm again and again to renew our commitment as well to the new life of our risen Lord and Savior.  All Easter, all the time . . . .  The Head that once was crowned with thorns is crowned with glory now.  Christos anesti!  Alithos anesti.

So here:  the novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Last Tycoon said, “there are no second acts in American lives.”  By which I think he meant that our history is our destiny.  Who you were is who you are is who you will be--and no matter how hard you try, no matter how far you run, no matter how you hide, your past will always track you down.  Your history is your destiny, and there is no escape.   

Our national pastime may seem to be some kind of strange concoction of codependency and denial.   But sooner or later, the bills come due, the lights come on, the doors swing open—and what we were running from is no longer behind us, but right in front of us.  Our history is our destiny.   Every bill comes due and gets paid, one way or another.

Who gets a second chance?  A clean slate?  A fresh start?  Where could that come from?  How could it really happen?

And so, this story from the 21st Chapter of St. John, in the heart of the Easter season and the Easter moment in our lives and in the lives of the friends of Jesus.  Some days have passed.  They've left Jerusalem and returned home to the Galilee.  All the confusing events of Holy Week and Easter morning still swirling in their minds.  A jumble of thoughts, memories, emotions.  The Last Supper, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Arrest and Trail.  Good Friday.  And then of course the visions and experiences of Easter morning, of the evening of Easter Day, of the Sunday after that, with Thomas.  The stories of other disciples, like those who met the Stranger on the Road to Emmaus.  All a jumble.

For Peter this must have all been especially hard, especially confusing.  He had been the leader, in some ways the closest to Jesus.   And in the hours before the arrest it was Peter who was the boldest, pledging that he would defend Jesus whatever the cost, seizing a sword, and even in the Garden unsheathing the sword and striking the servant of the High Priest on the head, causing him to lose an ear.

Confusing and humiliating.  Because as they all knew, and as Peter knew even more acutely than they all did, when the situation then got really dangerous, he was the one who gave into his fear.  Betraying Jesus not just once, but three times.  Three times, in the dark courtyard of the High Priest, as the rooster was crowing the dawn of that horrible Good Friday morning. 

What Peter must have been feeling and thinking of himself as they hiked the back roads home.   Humiliated.  A fool.  All talk, no action.  A big talker—but when the going got tough, he was the first to get going.  None of the others said anything.  None of them had to.  And if Judas went out and hanged himself when he realized the enormity of his crime, I wonder what Peter was thinking.  

And so this scene by the lake.  And as had happened so many times before, the disciples have gone fishing, and then as they put in, ready to give up, Jesus is there.   Peter seems almost crazy.  Grabs his clothes and then leaps into the water to swim to shore.  He can’t believe that it’s true.  Can’t believe it really is Jesus.  But he needs it to be true.  He needs it to be Jesus. 

And Jesus prepares a meal for them all, and they sit and eat in stunned silence.  Awe and wonder, fear and love. 

And then Jesus turns to Peter.  Their eyes meet.  And echoing in Peter’s mind must be the sudden horrible replay of that night.  “I do not know the man, I am not one of his disciples, I’ve never heard of him.”  That moment of his cowardice, his greatest shame.  An indelible mark on his life forever. 

And the Lord of all Tenderness then turns to him, and allows him to turn the Three Denials all around.  Rewind.  Reset.  The charcoal fire crackles in the background.  The light of the morning. Does Peter even manage to say the words?  “I’m sorry, Lord.”  Sorry I let you down.  A miserable offender.  No health in me at all.  I’m sorry.

 Peter, Peter, Peter: Do you love me?  Do you love me?  Do you love me? 

Yes, I love you; Yes, I love you; Lord, you know everything.  The depths of my heart.  You are the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end of everything.  You know.   Yes, I love you.

And then the promise.  In the victory of love.  Peter, your life from here, every day, and every hour, from this time forward, and even at the end of your life, every moment, will be from here and now, to glorify God.  Not a failure, but the greatest of great victories.  Not shame.  The humiliation, the one who betrayed, the one who denied.  But glory.  All glory.

This is what it is all about when we stand as a family and as Christian friends around the font.  What it means when we look up over our heads to see the towering Cross, to remember his words to us from John 12, “and I if I be lifted up from the earth will draw all men unto me.”

Our history isn't our destiny.  Not if we live in him.  Peter knew that, which I suppose is why he jumped into the water—what a baptism that was!!-- probably weeping with joy all the way in as he swam toward shore.  He knew Jesus well enough to know this.  That in the presence of Jesus this aching of his heart and soul, this shame and humiliation, the guilt of his sin, his betrayal—in the presence of Jesus, the mark of the Cross still scarred on the palm of his hands, and with one word, with a touch, a blessing, that would all be gone.   My Cross was for you.  My resurrection is for you.

And it turned out all to be true.  We read on into the Acts of the Apostles of a Peter who strides into the future from this morning by the lake with the radiance of a spiritual power and authority, a conviction, a sense of mission and purpose, and without even the faintest hint of that shadow.  Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven.   It was all wiped clean, all paid for.  Accomplished.  And even at his death, so the tradition goes, crucified himself on the road outside Rome, witnessing the power and the love of his Savior, filled not with shame but with glory.

In the water of baptism we died with him, and Luke and Helen and Kingston and Issac.  That we all may join with him in his resurrection, and that we all may be unified with him in this holy life of blessing and forgiveness.   That our life and our death may be all grace and all glory. 

A “second act.”  A fresh start.  To place the burden of our brokenness on his shoulders, in the embrace of his arms stretched out there, for us.  And then to rise with him, in all Easter blessing.  Christos anesti!  Alithos anesti!

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Second Easter

John 20: 19-31

Good morning all, and to begin as we began last Sunday with the Easter greeting: Christos anesti; alithos anesti!   “Good Christians all rejoice and sing!  Now is the triumph of our King!  To all the world glad news we bring: Alleluia!”

We so much enjoy the freshness of spring.  Warmer temperatures, and a bit of early green in the garden.  Pirates back in the game.  All of it.  But whatever the season, there would be a spring in our step and a spring flowing and overflowing in our heart at the news of Easter, communicated across continents and centuries but absolutely fresh and absolutely new and immediate for us here and now: Christ is risen.  He is risen indeed.  We sing the Song of Life, and we keep singing.

The Second Easter Sunday in a lectionary tradition is associated with the story connecting the first two Easter Sunday evenings in this 20th chapter of St. John.  The first, the evening of that first Easter Day.  We align the gospel accounts the best we can.  This little group of the friends of Jesus still trying to digest the news about the stone rolled away and the empty tomb and the angels and the experience of Mary Magdalen in the Garden and the account we’ve heard about in St. Luke’s gospel of the two disciples who had left Jerusalem to walk to their home in the suburban village of Emmaus, and how they had met this stranger on the way--and how when that stranger had come into their home and joined them at the table and said the blessing over the meal, they suddenly realized that he was Jesus.

In all the tumult, the breathless jumble of confusing stories, suddenly Jesus is himself in the room with them.  Speaking in the same voice they knew all so well, with the wounds of his crucifixion still visible, but with an indescribable presence that seems to resonate with his greeting, Shalom, peace be with you, and with a word of promise about their future: that he had work for them now to do, that they are sent out now by him personally into the world, just as he had been sent into the world, and that his mission would now be their mission.  “My death was for you, my rising to life again is for you, and now we will continue together.”  Telling his story.  Calling the whole world to turn away from sin and toward him, to come into new relationship with him.  Forgiveness, reconciliation, overcoming evil and casting it out.  Mercy and peace, and confidence in God’s provision, in the glorious present and the glorious future that is God’s everlasting Kingdom and New Creation.

A powerful moment of Holy Spirit as he literally breathes that Spirit out on them—really this in John’s gospel a reflection both of Easter and Pentecost.  All Holy Spirit.

But the story goes on and we hear that one of the disciples, Thomas, hadn't arrived yet when this great experience and encounter of Easter happened, and when he does arrive later and hears the stories that everybody else is telling, he has perhaps some understandable reservations.  Still in confusion.  He wants to believe, but what he truly wants is to have that first-hand encounter for himself.  To see this risen Jesus now with his own eyes, to know the miracle of his resurrection not simply by the report of others, but by his own experience. 

And so the evening of the Second Sunday of Easter, a week later, and the disciples again together, and Thomas there also.  And then this new moment, Jesus with them again.  And speaking directly to Thomas in answer to his prayer: put your hands here.  Touch me.  Know me for yourself.  And the act of praise that follows, in a confession of faith in his Risen and Exalted Savior.  “My Lord and my God.”  Christos anesti.  Alithos anesti.

The popular custom is to emphasize Thomas as the one who doubts.  But certainly the point here isn't that he doubts, but that from the deepest part of his being, his mind and his heart, he asks and prays and even challenges, with a sense of yearning, that Jesus would show himself, would be revealed, would become present in such a way that his faith too, his knowledge, his hope, could be like what the others have experienced.  “Show yourself to me, Jesus.  More than anything else, I want to see you for myself.” Who hasn't prayed that prayer?  Longing to know him.  In moments of grief, confusion, trial, suffering.  In an early-morning hour, staring at the ceiling, wondering what it’s all about.   “Show yourself to me, Jesus.”

Perhaps the prayer on all of our lips this morning as we enter old St. Andrew’s here, with the last echoes of all that wonderful Easter brass still hanging in the air.  The prayer of Richard of Chichester, back in the early part of the 13th century, but still the prayer of our heart.  Most merciful Redeemer, Friend and Brother, may we know you more clearly, love you more dearly, follow you more nearly, day by day.

Thomas doesn't shout “you’re all crazy” and run out of the room on that first Easter Sunday.  Which actually takes a lot of courage.  If what they’re saying isn't true, then you’re spending your life with crazy people.  If what they’re saying is true, and if you come to know it to be true yourself, then there are a lot of other people out there in the wide world who are going to be saying that you’re crazy too.  A lot of courage simply to wait.

I met a guy once who told me that he didn't come to church with his wife because he was afraid that if he did something might happen.  I guess, he might be converted.  He might have what he called “a religious experience.”  Maybe he was worried that something like that might have a negative impact on his ability to get tenure in his university department.  He didn't want his friends to think he was that kind of person, if you know what I mean. 

But courageously, courageously,  he remains with the others, Thomas does--in their prayers and conversations, as they break bread together, as Jesus had taught them, listening to their stories, calling to mind the promises of scripture.  Through that whole long week.  

Deep down, Thomas, hoping against hope that the risen Lord will come to be present with him.  Such great courage in that.  Hanging in there.   Hour after hour, day after day.  And when it does happen, next Sunday evening: when Jesus answers that prayer, as he always does and always will answer that prayer, there is at once the overflowing of gratitude and love and prayer and worship.  Christos anesti.  Alithos anesti.

There’s a little back-and-forth about how long Easter season is.  In the old calendar we had a Great 40 Days of Easter, something like a bookend to the earlier 40 Days of Lent.  Then Ascension Thursday and the Season of Ascension, then Whitsunday and its Octave, then Trinity and the long season of Trinity that followed.  On the new calendar Ascension Thursday is a Feast Day, but not a season, and Easter is 50 Days, then followed by Pentecost and the Season after Pentecost.  

As you probably would guess, I like the old way better than the new way.

But actually the reality that stands before us on this Second Easter Sunday is that all of that fades before the simple fact of the Risen Lord who is now eternally present with us.  

Easter not simply as a day on the calendar of the spring, or a liturgical season, but as the fulfillment and completion of his promise--that as he answered the prayer of Thomas and revealed himself to Thomas as Thomas needed to see him and know him, so he answers and will answer that prayer as we would pray it here this morning and any day and every day of our lives.  

Whenever we can muster up the courage to pray it.  Not courage because of what might happen to us if he doesn't answer it, but courage because of the certainty that he will answer it, as he did for Thomas on the Second Sunday of Easter all those centuries ago and far away.  He will answer it as we pray, and when he does, we will be changed, and nothing will ever be the same for us again. 

Merciful Redeemer, Friend and Brother, may we see you with our own eyes, touch you, alive and with us.  May we know you more clearly, love you more dearly, follow you more nearly, day by day.