Sunday, June 30, 2013

Sixth after Pentecost

(Proper 8C2)  Gal. 5: 1, 13-25

Good morning, and grace and peace on this summer Sunday morning here in the Hicks Chapel.  Last Sunday of June and midpoint of 2013, as time flies along.

I want to shine a bit of a spotlight this morning on “love, joy, peace, patience, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”  That sounds all good!  Continuing to reflect on this in-course reading through Galatians.  St. Paul has some of these lovely passages, over and over, here in Galatians 5, in the third chapter of Colossians he urges that group of new Christians, “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.”  Similar passages in Romans 12, and of course, famously, in First Corinthians 13.  Rosters of virtues.  Recipes for Christian life.  So often we hear these kinds of readings at weddings and funerals, and they would I think also be especially appropriate at parish meetings and diocesan conventions, whenever and wherever Christians get together, as an encouragement and reminder.  “Love, joy, peace, patience, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” 

That would be a very nice eight-Sunday sermon series, a list of ingredients for each of us one by one, and in our families, and in community.   The life of the Church, the Christian family—though I’m not sure those are the qualities that people in the wide world most often think of first when they would talk about the Church.  Sometimes that’s because the media distorts things.  But I think just as often it’s because we do indeed so very often stray from that path.   “Love, joy, peace, patience, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”  Wondering what the last decade even here in our own diocese would have been like, what things would be like now for that matter in our continuing brokenness in so many ways, with that recipe prepared and set on the table.  What St. Paul here in this morning’s reading from the 22nd and 23rd verses of the fifth chapter of Galatians calls “the fruit of the Spirit.”   That is certainly, or certainly would be, a cool breeze on a hot day.  “Those who belong to Christ Jesus.”

And Paul gives us the contrast as well.  On one hand, and on the other hand.  “Fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing.”  And this great phrase, “biting and devouring one another.”   I suspect a sermon series built on that outline would be especially popular.  So long as we don’t name any names . . . .  Or maybe more popular if we did!

If we live by the Spirit, Paul says.  And that’s what we say we do, as Christian people, what we would hope to do, try to do, the goal of our lives, walking in the footsteps of Christ in the mystery of our baptism, our dying to the fallen world and our rising to new life by coming into relationship with him.  “If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.”  As the Spirit reveals that guidance to us certainly in the Holy Scriptures, and as Word and Sacrament generation after generation will shape us as individuals and beyond, the life of the community. 

At our first summer book discussion group cottage meeting the other night at Jim and Heather Eng’s house Conrad Seamen reminded us at one point of the slogan that was adopted by our St. Andrew’s Outreach Committee a few years ago: “Putting the Love of God into Action.” We might say, talking the talk and walking the walk.  Which is exactly what Paul is getting at.  If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.  The message in this morning's lessons that I’d write on a 3x5 card and tape to the mirror, for early-morning reference.  If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.  Walk the walk.

St. Paul didn’t know anything about Twitter or Facebook, social networking, strategic marketing, any part of the world of Madison Avenue.  But what he knew was that the messenger is key to the communication of the message.   For most the messenger is the message.  “Listen to what I’m saying, but pay no attention to who I am, how I live my life.”  That doesn’t go very far these days.  Never has, though perhaps with pervasive media  and almost 100% transparency we are going to know much more about the messengers that folks in earlier times ever did.  Thinking about Nelson Mandela this week.  How the whole world paid attention to what he was saying, because of who he was.  Humility, charity, after decades of solitary imprisonment.  “This guy is the real deal.”

There was a saying back in the first century, and true over and over in every century since, that it was the blood of the martyrs that became the seed of the church.  It might seem counter-intuitive.  Holding hands, singing hymns, as they were being led to the executioner.  Who wants to join that parade?  But it turns out: those who witnessed all that went home in the evening to think: maybe I’m missing something.

The first century in the Eastern Mediterranean world was a time, a culture, very different from ours, of course.  The dominant Greco-Roman society was intensely materialist, all about money, accumulating wealth, creature comforts, status symbols, getting ahead.  The poor were oppressed, ignored, left by the side of the road without dignity or value.   The world torn apart by wars of conquest and convenience. The political elites hypocritical and corrupt—designated leaders out for themselves and with no care for the common good.  Read about those ancient Romans, and Silvio Berlusconi seems like a Boy Scout.  This is the world Paul is living in too—the world all around these new Galatian Christians.  Immorality of every kind imaginable. And hundreds of little cults and religious movements celebrating a privatized, self-indulgent, amoral  “spirituality,” establishment religious officials obsessed with the pursuit of power, prestige, and personal wealth, a fascination with the supernatural, witchcraft, divination.  Ah—the first century.  A time very different from ours, but perhaps if we use our imagination we can just barely manage an approximation.

In a world like this, what does the Gospel of Jesus Christ look like?  What does it look like what it’s put into action?  Why would anybody be interested?

Paul’s pastoral word for his little flock.  .  Who had sat with them and opened for them the great and holy story of the Scriptures.  Who told them about Jesus, about the Cross, about the Empty Tomb.  About dying with Christ in baptism, and then about living in his resurrection, right here and now in this broken and dying world, as a sign of his promise.  When Jesus isn’t at the center, it all begins to fall apart, Paul says.  Remembering again that Stephen Covey line, “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”  The banner over this epistle.   To pray for the strength and courage and discipline, for the grace and for the stirring of the heart, that he would live in us, to shape our lives in such a way that when the world would see us, it might catch a glimpse of him.  “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” 

 “If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.” 

Friday, June 28, 2013

End of Week #5

The new nave floor of St. Andrew's Church will be hardwood, with quarry tile at the crossing and in the aisles.  The wood flooring is now all in place and ready to be finished.  I believe the tile work is set to begin next week.

Work continues as well on the wheelchair-accessible passage from the Church to the Parish Hall entry:

This phase of the project seems to be running on schedule, and we continue to anticipate our return to Sunday morning worship at St. Andrew's sometime in August.

In the meantime, of course, under the leadership of Dr. George Knight, our "Opening Doors" Campaign Committee is working diligently to gather the financial resources needed to continue to the next phase of construction.  The good news is that we'll all be hearing from them very soon!

And in the meantime, we'll look forward to our Sunday morning, 9:30 a.m. service "on the road" at the Hicks Family Memorial Chapel of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, 616 N. Highland Avenue.  

See you there!

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Monday, June 24, 2013

Burial Office
Dell St. Clair Miller, II


Jesus speaks to his disciples in the 14th chapter of St. John:  “Wither I go, ye know, and the way ye know.”  This is the night of the Last Supper, with the whole story of Good Friday and the Cross about to play out for Jesus and for his friends.  You know where I’m going, and you know how to get there too.

It is very much for me an honor and a privilege to share this evening in this service for Dell Miller.  To reflect on his life.  To share in the sorrow of loss with Debbie, with Audri and young Dell, with all of you, family and friends.  As we offer together the prayers of the church, not just as we say the words but as we gather the faith and life and witness of the whole Christian family and offer the deepest knowledge and desire of our hearts to almighty God.  As we hear the words of scripture, the psalms, the lessons, the Good News of Jesus Christ.

“Wither I go, ye know, and the way ye know.” You know where I’m going, and you know how to get there too.

Dell St. Clair Miller, II, son of the late Donald William and Anna Mae Heiber Miller.  Brother of Cynthia, Cindy, and of the late Donald William Jr.  Named after his grandfather Dell St. Clair Miller.  Born on June 15, 1972.  A rich Catholic faith and heritage.  He was baptized into Christian life at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Burgettstown, where he received his First Communion and the sacrament of Confirmation.  He and Debbie were married on June 16, in the year 2000.  Making a home and family together—with these wonderful kids Audri and Dell.  A strong circle of family and friends.  A hard worker.  A man of strong feelings and strong opinions.  But also with a tender heart, especially for his family.  And of course these many years struggling with diabetes, and then with the complications recently.  Passing from this life to the Greater Life of God this past Thursday night, June 20, so very young.  Just days after his 41st birthday and 13th wedding anniversary.  And so much for everyone who loved him a sense of sudden loss.  So unexpected.  Hard to believe and hard to digest the reality of it.

Leaving us all I think with a lot of questions.   

“Whither I go, ye know, and the way ye know.”  You know where I’m going, and you know how to get there.  Jesus is talking to his disciples about something more than what we might call our religious opinions and theories, our interpretations, our theological positions or understandings of various issues and concerns of the day.  What Jesus is talking about is a deeper kind of knowing than that.  The kind of knowing that we talk about when we say that a child knows his mother.  It’s about relationship, connection.  About the word we use in the Church with real meaning and sincerity: about faith.  About being in relationship with God deeply and securely.  “You know where I am going, and how to get there, because you and I are going to the same place, returning to the same home, to that mansion that the Father has prepared for us.”  To hear again, “I go to prepare a place for you, that where I am, there ye may be also.”

And St. Thomas—who later gets called Doubting Thomas.  But he’s the one who has questions.  Lord, no, we don't know where, we don't know how.  And I think we all are left with so many questions too, here this evening.  How this could happen, why, how to make any sense of it at all.  And Dell, Audri, Deb: how all those questions come together in our hearts with love for you.  Wanting to know what to say, how to help, how to be there for you.  Not to make sense of things, because I don’t think it really does make sense. 

It was such a sad time on Thursday evening, as everybody came together over at the hospital.  Family and friends, his sister, his goddaughter driving all the way up from Morgantown,  just to be there.

The Funeral Sentences from the ancient prayers of the Church, “In the midst of life we are in death.”  I remember as it got later in those hours watching Maryellen sitting on the floor holding Ricky in her lap as he tried to sleep.  Grandma and grandson.  Thinking how very fragile we are in this short life.  How precious every day is.  There is a line in the Psalms, “Lord, let me know my end, and the number of my days.”  But of course we never can know. Every day is a gift, but a gift that comes with no guarantee.  Even when we say, “see you tomorrow,” we don’t really know.

And Jesus says to Thomas, I'm not just going to tell you where and how.  I'm going to show you.  I'll be the way, for you.  I am the way, the truth, the life.  No man cometh unto the Father, but by me.

We had the traditional prayers Thursday night, by Dell's bedside in the ICU.  The prayers appointed when a person is near death, unction, the anointing with holy oil, which is a reminder of baptism.  At the beginning, the prayer and assurance of pardon.  Forgiveness.  In his earthly body Dell may not have been able to hear these words, but in the fullness of the life of the world to come, these words were spoken and heard in the reality of his mind and heart and soul.  “God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Through the holy mysteries of our redemption, may almighty God release you from all punishments in this life and in the life to come.  May he open to you the gates of paradise and welcome you to everlasting joy.”

Especially when someone dies suddenly and unexpectedly, it catches us off balance.  Immediately we think of things we wished we had said or done, while we still could.  Regrets.  Missed opportunities.  Things that needed to be resolved perhaps.  Things done and left undone.  But I would just say this morning that the word forgiveness means letting go, giving release.  Not holding on. 

In the sure and certain hope of life in Christ Jesus, what we all have to be about this evening, with all the sadness that there is—what we all have to be about is to learn to live every day of this short and precious life in the love of God and of one another.

Jesus said, in my Father’s house are many mansions.  If it were not so, I would have told you.  I go to prepare a place for you.  And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again, and bring you to myself, that where I am, you may be also.  You know where I’m going, and you know how to get there too.  By staying with me, staying close.  I'll get you there.  “I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord.  He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.  And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.”

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Fifth after Pentecost

Our Pastoral Associate, the Rev. Dean Byrom, is preaching this morning at St. Andrew's.  

Friday, June 21, 2013

End of Week #4

Things really moving along this week!

We begin with a view from the Parish House Entry, which will now be directly wheelchair-accessible from the North Transept.

From that doorway, looking back into the Transept:

And then, stepping into the Church to see that some of the new (as yet unfinished) hardwood flooring has been installed in the Nave, in the area that will be under the pews:

Great to see that everything is moving along on schedule!  Many thanks to George Knight and Murray Rust, who are keeping an eye on the day-to-day progress!

And a reminder that "St. Andrew's on the Road" will continue on Sunday June 23rd with our Summer Service in the Hicks Family Memorial Chapel of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, 9:30 a.m.  See you there!

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Fourth after Pentecost

(Proper 6C) Galatians 2: 15-21; Luke 7: 36 – 8:3

Good morning, and grace and peace, Father’s Day, last Sunday of the Spring, as we slide at the end of the week ahead into the first days of summer.  1:04 a.m. Friday in the Northern Hemisphere.  

I want to begin this morning by sharing a prayer from a book of prayers that I have used in my daily devotions for many years, by a wonderful Scottish Presbyterian scholar and pastor, John Baillie, in a little book called “A Diary of Private Prayer.”  There are two prayers in the book for each day of the month, morning and evening. This is the last part of the prayer set for the evening of the 26th day, and I've asked Michelle to print the text here in the service leaflet on page 15.

Dear Lord, if at this evening hour I think only of myself and my own condition and my own day’s doings and my day’s record of service, then I can find no peace before I go to sleep, but only bitterness of spirit and miserable despair.  Therefore, O Father, let me think rather of Thee and rejoice that Thy love is great enough to blot out all my sins.  And O Christ, Thou Lamb of God, let me think of Thee, and lean upon Thy heavenly righteousness, taking no pleasure in what I am before Thee but only in what Thou art for me and in my stead.  And, O Holy Spirit, do Thou think within me, and so move within my mind and will that as the days go by I may be more and more conformed to the righteousness of Jesus Christ my Lord; to whom be glory for ever.  Amen.

Just very simple, acknowledge the reality of sin, brokenness, falling short.  I've heard some people say that this is what people of our time have lost.  Though I think every generation and every human being engages with the same battle with denial.  A vivid sense of sin as something personal.  Not as some kind of abstract and hypothetical state of being.  But sharp enough to keep us awake at night.  The knot in the stomach, sometimes accompanied by the grinding of teeth.  Things done and left undone.  An experience only those of us who are sinners will have known, in any event.   We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.  Martin Luther used a Lain phrase incurvatus in se to describe our natural condition.  Turned in on ourselves.  Stuck in sin.  A kind of quicksand.  The more we flail around, the more we sink in.  This congenital and insistent self-centeredness.   And when we aren't in the deepest waters of denial, this awareness as a kind of sorrow almost, or sometimes frustration, or sometimes exploding in anger and mean-spirited violence.  Miserable offenders.   “If at this evening hour I think only of myself . . . then I can find no peace.”

And so Baillie's simple prayer to turn instead in loving attention to our loving God, opening heart and mind to his presence. Eyes and ears.  To see Jesus, the merciful generosity of his life, the Cross, the Empty Tomb, and to allow the richness of his New Life, his Holy Spirit, to fill our lives, Lord of all—so that it no longer is about us, but about him.  So that who we are is no longer distorted by our brokenness, but instead beginning to be transformed into something of beauty and goodness, because we have drawn closer to him.  That I may be more and more conformed to the righteousness of Jesus Christ my Lord.  The way a boy with a new girlfriend starts to dress a little more carefully.  The way a New Englander who moves to Texas gradually picks up a new accent.  Starts wearing cowboy boots.  What begins to happen when we have drawn closer to Jesus.

The last two weeks we've paused during the sermon over the opening section of St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians.  His pastoral response, and as we've noticed a fierce pastoral response, to the word that the churches he had founded with the Good News about Jesus are now being influenced by teachers who want to complicate the Christian message with an emphasis on adherence to the teachings and customs of Jewish Law: circumcision, Kosher kitchens, Sabbath observance.  And Paul says, Christian people of Galatia, there is no need any longer to look to those ancient traditions to bring ourselves into a good relationship with God.  The only righteousness we need now and forever more is his righteousness.  The righteousness of Jesus, in his life, as he overcame the power of sin, and in his death on the Cross, in which he overcame the power of death.   Don’t make yourselves all anxious about which prayer to offer on which day, which food to eat, which candle to light.  That all dissolves into nothing, as we put our lives in his hands, and as we ask not how should we order and organize our lives, but how he will take up residence in our lives.  That we might be more and more, more and more, conformed to his righteousness. 

And we know it when we see it.  The last two weeks in these readings from Luke 7.  The dying servant of the Roman Centurion.  The dead son of the Widow of Nain, wrapped in his shroud and being carried to the cemetery. The righteousness of Jesus is a righteousness that is life-giving.  Figuratively, metaphorically, spiritually, and in literal fact.  Really and truly.  The blind see, the spirit-possessed are freed, the dead are brought back to life.  A goodness that falls like a fresh rain over a dry field.  Bringing forth life, and giving growth.  The righteousness of Jesus is a righteousness that is all about healing.

And then as Jean has read for us this morning, this wonderful story at the end of Luke 7 and into the beginning of Chapter 8.  The woman who anoints the feet of her Lord with the precious oil, with her tears, and in this tender, tender, and loving act of worship, to dry his feet with her hair.  Making herself entirely vulnerable.  Opening herself to him, so that the deepest love of the Father fills her heart.

She was full of sin, broken, on the wrong path, in rebellion against God and man.  But this is what repentance is all about.  The Greek word, metanoia.  A new mind.  A new self.  The point isn't that she wasn't a sinner.  Broken.  In rebellion against God and the good of her community. Nor that her sins aren't really all that important.  In fact, in reality, her sin is her death sentence.  To be clear about that.  But her life is turned around, reformed, renewed, restored, purified, set on the right path, not because she has sought the righteousness of the Law, but because she has placed her mind and her heart and her life into the hands of the one who is the perfect Word of the Father.  Thinking about the intimacy of the prayer we pray on most Sunday mornings, Prayer of Humble Access, that he may dwell in us, and we in him.

A husband and wife sit with a marriage counselor.  She says:  our relationship has gone stale, dried up.  He says, just tell me what to do, and I’ll do it.  Give me a list of what you want me to do.  And she gives a sad sigh. Remember when Jesus spoke about forgiveness to his disciples, and their question, “how many times do we forgive?”  Missing the whole point.  If we’re counting, we’re paying attention to the wrong thing.  Making lists.  Scorecards.  We will have lives radiant with God’s love, pure and holy, all about healing, all about forgiveness, not because of how hard we work.  Because that never works.  Not because of what we have done, but because of what he has done.  And so because of who we become as we are drawn to his presence, as we hear his Word, as we sing our songs, as we share Holy Communion, as we pray, and as we discover in our lives this deep longing to be his.   Ezekiel 36:  “I will give you a new heart.”  Again,  John Baillie.  A prayer to pray before going to sleep:

Therefore, O Father, let me think rather of Thee and rejoice that Thy love is great enough to blot out all my sins.  And O Christ, Thou Lamb of God, let me think of Thee, and lean upon Thy heavenly righteousness, taking no pleasure in what I am before Thee but only in what Thou art for me and in my stead.  And, O Holy Spirit, do Thou think within me, and so move within my mind and will that as the days go by I may be more and more conformed to the righteousness of Jesus Christ my Lord; to whom be glory for ever.  Amen.

Friday, June 14, 2013

End of Week #3

The old joke is the real estate agent showing a young couple from Arkansas a new listing.

"I think you'll find this a house without any flaws," she says.

And the reply:

"Then what do y'all walk on?"

In any event, during the early part of the week our great crew had jackhammers in to remove the old and deteriorated terrazzo floor from the Bride's Room entry.



And by this Friday morning the subfloor was in place:

Meanwhile, this Friday morning as well a van arrived with the new hardwood flooring for the nave:

As the crew continued preparations in the church:

And as we all continue through this amazing summer of 2013 . . . .  

See you in Church Sunday morning, June 16! 

 St. Andrew's "On the Road," Hicks Family Memorial Chapel of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, 

616 N. Highland Avenue, 15206.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Third after Pentecost

(Proper 5C) Galatians 1: 11-24; Luke 7: 11-17

A second Sunday in our summer Sundays “home away from home” here at the Hicks Memorial Chapel of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.   It is good to be here, to continue to enjoy the neighborly hospitality of our PTS friends, and to have this sacramental opportunity to read scripture and sing and pray together.  Checking the latest photos of our church renovations out in the entry, and with the prayer that as wonderful old St. Andrew’s is being renewed this summer, beginning with the new floor in the nave and the accessible passageway from the North Transept to the Parish House, so we also might with open eyes and ears and minds and hearts also find this a season of personal and corporate renewal and transformation.   

And to say again this week, thank you for coming to this service in this new place, and as we move on into the days of summer, may this be a season of blessings and refreshment.

Last week we listened to St. Paul in the opening sentences of his letter to the Galatian churches.  And you’ll remember I wanted to post up as a guiding thematic lead the quotation attributed to Steven Covey, who wrote “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” This great line, certainly memorable: The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.  In this context Paul concerned that the message he had proclaimed to these new Christians about Jesus was being diluted and even undermined by people who were promoting the view that in addition to having faith in and loyalty to Christ these gentile Christians of Asia Minor also needed to observe the ceremonies and rituals of Judaism.  Circumcision.  Kosher dietary laws, the Sabbath, and so on.  With the idea I guess that the better you got at these observances, the more deserving you would be of God’s grace.  What you need in order to be “first class” Christians.

This idea Paul absolutely opposes.  He calls it an effort to “pervert the gospel of Christ,” turning to a “different gospel.”    And in the following section this morning we can see that he uses his own life story as an example.  Describing himself as “advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age,” and “zealous for the tradition of my ancestors.”   And then giving an account of how all of that had made him not a friend of God, but an enemy, “violently persecuting the church of God.”  Until that great moment that we call the “Road to Damascus” moment.  Paul had no desire to know Christ.  He wasn't seeking him in the scriptures, praying for illumination.  Quite the opposite.   And yet out there on that highway while he was burning with fury as God’s enemy, Jesus came to meet him, to address him by name.  To "knock him off his horse" and set him in a new direction.  To reveal to him the reality of God’s presence and power and the purpose of his own life, his vocation.  “Through his grace” he “was pleased to reveal his Son to me.”

I like the J.B. Phillips translation of Paul from the third chapter of the Letter to the Philippians, written to another church on a similar topic of concern:Yet every advantage that I had gained I considered lost for Christ’s sake. Yes, and I look upon everything as loss compared with the overwhelming gain of knowing Jesus Christ my Lord. For his sake I did in actual fact suffer the loss of everything, but I considered it useless rubbish compared with being able to win Christ. For now my place is in him, and I am not dependent upon any of the self-achieved righteousness of the Law. God has given me that genuine righteousness which comes from faith in Christ.”

The richness of this contrast.  “The overwhelming gain of knowing Jesus Christ my Lord.”  And every other claim to holiness, righteousness, spiritual authority, religious prestige.  All his theological education, his zeal for good works.   “Useless rubbish.”   And for these brand new Christians of the Galatian churches, vulnerable, easy to be diverted.  Led astray.  To be led not deeper into a life-giving relationship with Christ, but instead into these complicated rites and ceremonies that give the illusion of spirituality and holiness and righteousness while in reality leading away from the one thing the Spirit has truly to give.  The life of Jesus, his death, his one oblation of himself, once offered.  The Cross.  The empty tomb.  The Spirit’s invitation to the New Creation.

Last week at the beginning of Luke 7 we saw the slave of the Roman centurion restored to health so far as we can tell even before he ever had heard of Jesus.  This morning, the mother of that dead young man is marching with her tears in the sad parade of mourners to the cemetery, when a stranger steps out of the crowd and says “weep no more,” and brings her son to life again.  She didn't even ask.  His love comes first.

There is just something very seductive for us about the image of the spiritual quest.   Climbing toward the mountaintop.  Working our way into God’s presence.  Perhaps it gives us a sense of control.

But again, Paul in Romans, in the very familiar passage.  “While we were yet lost in our sin, Christ died for us”  Pure gift.  To keep that fresh, in our minds, our hearts.  Emphasize that for us on this summer Sunday.  Again, if we love him, as we do if we're here this morning.  Which is why we are here this morning.  We love him because he first loved us.

The words of the Psalm: You have turned my wailing into dancing; you have put off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy.  Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing; O Lord my God, I will give you thanks for ever.

The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.  Christian life not about the one whom we find in our imagined journey up to some mountaintop, but about the one who finds us as we are wandering lost in the dark of night.  This is his nature.  The angel said, you shall call his name Emmanuel, which means God with us.”  Remember what we read together way last Christmas Eve with those flickering midnight candles all around: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”  About that great moment of amazement, gratitude, relief.  All those things I used to think were so important fade into nothing.   I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.

Speaking of Christmas Eve and Emmanuel, and just as a parting note as we prepare for communion, perhaps you've noticed that during December our friends down Hampton Street at St. Raphael’s in Morningside have a big sign out in front of their church right next to the nativity scene that says, “Jesus is the reason for the season.”  Always a good reminder in December, with the deluge of seasonal customs and festivities, holiday parties and reindeer and all the rest.  But we might think about how great it would be to leave that sign up all year round.  Never not a good reminder.  The reason for the season, Jesus, the main thing, summer and fall, winter and spring.  Why we’re here on this summer Sunday morning. 

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Second after Pentecost

 (Proper 4C) Galatians 1: 1-12; Luke 7: 1-10

Good morning all, as we move now into a season “on the road”--here in the Hicks Memorial Chapel of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.  I’ve had the opportunity to preach and preside at services here for the seminary community on a couple of occasions, so for me it’s not an unfamiliar space, though not since these recent renovations—and of course for several of our parishioners—Scott, Shana, Garrett, and others—it is something of a home away from home.   It was suggested that perhaps during these weeks we might draw our readings from the Book of Exodus, when the Chosen People were themselves “on the road” during their 40 year ramble in the wilderness of Sinai—or perhaps from those books where the focus is on the long years of Babylonian exile.  With thanks to everybody who has been working to make this sojourn as easy as it can be—and to Bill Ghrist, George Knight, Michelle Young, and others who have been taking photos, so that we can keep our imaginations full with the rich images of that Jerusalem to which we shall someday in the far, far distant future have a joyful homecoming.   Which I think all Jews say at the Passover: next year in Jerusalem!  Or in early August, back on Hampton Street  . . . .

In looking ahead to this season in the lectionary and as we have begun to live for a while out of a suitcase I’ve been thinking about St. Paul’s letter to the Galatian Churches—as I said, these congregations scattered through the Roman Province of Asia, modern Turkey.   \And perhaps a word especially relevant for us, with all the great things going on around life in the St. Andrew’s community.  Capital campaign, construction and renovation, new outreach initiatives, chorister camp, children’s programs—all this amazing and exciting busyness of our life and ministry. 

I want to begin by giving at least my take on the “take-away” message that Paul has for these new Christians.  Paul as the founding evangelist and pastor, along perhaps his first and second missionary journeys, sharing with them in what was apparently a very effective way the heart of the gospel.

 And then, as we read here right at the beginning of the letter, hearing news that in the years since his departure issues have arisen in those communities that he views as detrimental to that gospel, as a distortion of Christian life and teaching.  Diluting of the message.  Adding dangerous distractions. 

Always important to be thinking about the difference between those things that enrich our lives as Christians and equip us for our ministry and those things that may even in very attractive and seductive ways undermine our priorities and distract us.  And to summarize Paul’s message in a sentence, you really couldn’t do better than repeat the memorable line that is attributed to Steven Covey (Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) and repeated often in so many other contexts:  The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.

The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.  And the main thing for Paul is Jesus. The core message for us to hear of a relationship of trust in Jesus, in his death and resurrection, the Cross and the Empty Tomb, as God’s action of forgiveness of sin and release and healing.  Where he makes it possible for us to get right with God and with one another.

What had happened in the Galatian congregations in historical context is that some Christians of  a Jewish heritage had arrived on the scene and had begun to spread the  word that while trust in Jesus was important, love of Jesus, acceptance of his freely offered gift of forgiveness and grace, made possible at the Cross--somehow this acceptance and trust was in itself not enough.  They were saying instead that something more was required.  Ritual practices and ceremonial observances, traditions, good works.  In the historical moment these were Jewish Christians who wanted to emphasize the continuity of Jewish custom and ritual. Circumcision.  Kosher kitchens.  Temple prayers.  Sabbath observance.  The traditional holidays and festivals.  

And Paul’s concern is that when the church begins to get fuzzy about its message and turns its attention from Jesus to all these additional concerns it begins to slide down a slippery slope and to eventual catastrophe.  Christianity, for Paul, is not just another religion, at least with a careful definition of that word—not an organized system of philosophical and moral and spiritual ideas or ritual practices.  It is instead a relationship—a relationship of trust in Christ, built on the reality of what Christ has done for us. That God was, in Jesus Christ, in his life, death, and resurrection, reconciling the world to himself.  Remember the news I shared with you about Jesus, Paul writes.  It’s not about what we do, but about what he did.  Not about who we are, but about who he is.  Remember that the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.

The first verses of the first chapter of Galatians actually present in a compressed form the whole of the message.  Paul  summarizes the message in one key sentence, the message of the gospel, the Christian news.  In verse 4, “The Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age . . . .”    And he’s not talking about the First Century.  The present age that dawned when our First Parents shared that Apple in the Garden.  That’s the news I told you about, says Paul.  The Gospel.   “The Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins, to set us free.”

We talk sometimes about a “spiritual journey,” the “journey of faith,” and so on, but when we do I think we often get it backwards.  We’re not the ones who travel.  He did all the travelling.  We don’t find him.  He finds us.  I once was lost, but now am found, in the old hymn. 

The message Paul certainly doesn’t want his Galatian congregations to lose sight of –as in chapter one verse six: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel.”  Which is all we will go on to read a gospel that tries to be about us, about who we are, about what we do, rather than to be about him. 

Think about the slave of the Roman soldier, in Luke 7.  What did he do to earn his healing?  Nothing at all.  He wasn’t Jewish, wasn’t circumcised, didn’t go to church services, didn’t tithe, wasn’t on any committees.  He didn't even go to ask Jesus personally.   It was a gift, all love, before he even knew who Jesus was.  Paul says in Romans, “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”  Nothing left to say, but “thank you.”  And then to follow him.

So I’ve been thinking that maybe it’s a good thing to have all these familiar patterns of church life and worship and activity disrupted even for a few weeks this summer.  To remind myself and ourselves that no matter how much I and we love lovely old St. Andrew’s, and our familiar worship, and all the activities of our congregational life, and great as all that is in so many ways, it’s not the main thing.  He is the main thing.  Jesus.  To have that in our minds and hearts this morning and this summer.  What our concern might be as we gather our prayers and as we receive Holy Communion and as we go out from this place into the wide world of our lives.  To let it all be thanksgiving, for what he has done for us.  The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.