Wednesday, December 31, 2014

First Sunday after Christmas Day

Sermon by the Rev'd Dr. Philip Wainwright, Priest Associate of St. Andrew's Church
Luke 2: 22-40

Simeon and Anna are not usually thought of as part of the Christmas story, but I think when you look at Luke’s gospel, you’d have to say that Luke thinks they are, and I’m going to take the author’s word for it! Let’s look and see how Luke uses them to complete his explanation of the significance of the Christmas story.

In Luke 2 v 20, the Shepherds go back from Bethlehem to their flocks praising God, but Luke goes on to describe how Mary and Joseph did all the things that any Jewish parents would have done for any Jewish first-born boy. In v 21 he tells us that Jesus was circumcised when He was 8 days old, and this would have been done in Bethlehem. If the traditional dating is correct, the wise men did not arrive in Bethlehem till 12 days after Jesus was born, so Mary and Joseph were still in Bethlehem then, and in fact they had to stay there, because the law required a forty day quarantine before Mary could go out in public. According to Leviticus 12, which is the ‘Law of Moses’ referred to in the first verse of our reading from Luke this morning, a new mother was considered unclean, because of the blood involved in child-birth, for forty days after giving birth. This was not because childbirth was considered a sin, but because blood was so sacred, so connected with life itself, that any shedding of it, even in a natural and God-given event like childbirth, was a consequence of sin that needed to be atoned for. That childbirth would be attended by pain and suffering instead of being a gentle and easy thing was the first thing God said to Eve after her disobedience. So Mary’s first public appearance after the birth of Jesus would be for the ceremony of purification that ended that forty day period. Incidentally, all this was to the people of the time quite well-known and normal, so the unknown Bethlehem innkeeper deserves some appreciation; when he realised he had a woman about to give birth on his hands, he knew first that it was going to be a mess and second that it meant she was stuck on his property for forty days, 74 days if she had a girl, so even the offer of the stable at the back of the inn was very generous!

But eventually the new family set out for Jerusalem, which was on their way back to their home in Nazareth, for the formal end of the quarantine, which meant a sacrifice. The prescribed sacrifice was that of a lamb and a turtle-dove, although if the family was too poor to afford a lamb, the Old Testament said they could sacrifice two doves instead, and in v 24 Luke (without mentioning that it’s the option for the poor) tells us that that’s what Mary and Joseph did. So we know that Mary was not exaggerating when she said, after the angel had told her that the baby she was going to bear would be the Messiah, that God had blessed her despite her ‘humble estate’.

You’ll notice that Luke talks about the time coming for their purification, rather than her purification. This is puzzling, because the Old Testament doesn’t say that the husband or the baby needed the purifying sacrifice. It was only the mother’s blood that was shed. I think Luke is reminding the reader of the broader meaning of sacrifice, in which all human beings are sinners in need of the reconciliation with God that the sacrifices symbolised. Mary needed purification because of the blood of childbirth, but both she and Joseph needed purification in a deeper sense because they were sinful human beings, and it’s as well to remember that this is Jesus’s first contact with the rôle of sacrifice in restoring mankind to God, for which He was eventually to give His own blood.

The purification was not the only ceremony that was required in the case of Jesus. When Luke says in v 22 they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord he is talking about the fact that for the first-born male, the Old Testament had a special provision, described in Exodus 13, just after the Jews had escaped from slavery in Egypt. The quote in v 23 is from that passage in Exodus. You’ll remember that their escape was made possible by the death of the first-born of every family in Egypt that didn’t have the blood of the lamb painted on the doorpost; the Jews had painted that blood, and so the angel of death ‘passed over’ them. But, God said as He led them towards the Red Sea and freedom, your first-born are also Mine: all first-born male animals you will sacrifice to me, and your first-born sons you must either give me or redeem by substituting something else in their place. The first-born was significant because it made possible the continuation of the family, and was given to God at least partly to express their faith that the family was in God’s hands, and was part of the plan God had made for the salvation of the human race. The first-born was chosen for the sake of the whole family, just as the people of Israel were God’s chosen people for the sake of the whole of humanity. All Israel is holy to the Lord, the first fruits of his harvest, says the prophet Jeremiah. Five shekels of silver was the amount to be given to redeem a first-born son. Luke doesn’t mention the payment, perhaps because he thinks it wasn’t really necessary in Jesus’s case, since He was the Lord’s in such a unique way. Luke didn’t want anything to obscure the importance of the moment when the one destined to shed His own blood for the sins of the whole world was first brought into the sacrificial system. But Mary and Joseph did not yet have this understanding, and doubtless paid the silver to redeem their first-born. A symbol of what is to come, and an amazing moment in itself: the Redeemer of the world, Himself redeemed according to the law!

Christ’s redeeming work is also fore-shadowed by the words of Simeon and Anna at these ceremonies, and Luke tells us about each of them in turn. In v 25 he tells us that Simeon was looking for ‘the consolation of Israel.’ This was a standard phrase for the coming of the Messiah, and it’s clear that the promised Messiah was much on Simeon’s heart. Even two thousand years ago there were many Jews who had grown tired of waiting for the Messiah; he had been prophesied 800 years earlier, but had still not come. Simeon was one of those who still eagerly expected God’s promise to be kept, and v 26 says that God had promised him that he would see the Messiah with his own eyes before he died. So Simeon, guided by the spirit, went into the Temple, and was sitting there when Mary and Joseph came in carrying the baby.

At that point, v 28 tells us, Simeon immediately recognized Who this baby was. He took the baby in his arms and began to thank God that he, Simeon, had indeed seen the promised Messiah. His words are recorded in v 29: Lord, now I can go in peace, as you promised. I’ve seen with my own eyes the salvation which you have prepared. This is often taken as a reference to Simeon’s death: now I can die content. But that’s only because of v 26, It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. The language is also that of a duty done; Lord, you’re setting me free. I’ve been on watch all this time, now I’m free to go. It could as easily mean that Simeon was free to live in peace as to die in peace, and what’s important to Simeon is that peace has arrived, peace with God, peace with man, peace with life.

Simeon has more to say. Verse 34, This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed. The word translated ‘rising’ is the word usually translated as ‘resurrection’—it occurs 42 times in the New Testament, and refers to resurrection from the dead in all but one of the other passages. There seems nothing else that it can mean here than this child is set for the fall and resurrection of many; ‘fall’ in that He will call all mankind to repent for the forgiveness of sin, and ‘resurrection’ in that He will bring about victory over death, the consequences of sin, for all those who believe in Him. Simeon is seeing in the distance the results of the Messiah’s coming in these words. He sees also the hatred of Jesus that will be the reaction of some of those who hear about Him: He is a sign that will be opposed. Prophetic words, that are fulfilled on the morning of Good Friday when the crowds are chanting ‘crucify Him, crucify Him,’ and which continue to be fulfilled to this day whenever people dismiss the gospel as impossible or irrelevant.

Finally, Anna: she comes into the picture in v 36, where she is described as an elderly prophetess. We need to put that description in perspective: the Jews of that day believed that prophecy had ceased with Malachi, the last of the Old Testament prophets. They didn’t believe that God had sent any more prophets since. So it is either Luke himself, or more probably the earliest Christians, who recognised Anna as a prophet. A Christian prophet is one who speaks publicly the truth in God’s word about Jesus Christ. Mary and Zechariah and Simeon had all spoken the truth about Jesus in words drawn almost verbatim from the Old Testament, but Anna is the first to do so publicly. Verse 38 tells us that she came into the Temple at the very moment that Simeon was speaking, and she too gave thanks to God, as Simeon had; but she did more: she  began to… speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. Anna was the first Christian preacher, the first evangelist, and one of the great heroes of the Christian faith.

Luke was a careful writer. It is no accident that in beginning his book about Jesus and His followers with the story of Jesus’s birth, he includes all the major themes that will recur throughout the book: not only Who Jesus is, but how men and women are to take the truth about Who He is into the world. It is the completion of the Christmas story, because it makes clear why Christmas is worth celebrating: it is truly the saviour of the world who was born in that stable. Let those with faith in Him not only worship Him, but make sure the whole world knows He came to offer eternal life and peace to the whole world.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas Eve

Hark! the Glad sound, the Savior comes, the Savior promised long; let every heart prepare a throne, and every voice a song.

Good evening, and grace and peace, all of us with his song in our hearts, all the hymns and carols and joyful anthems, with choirs of angels,  in the Name of our Newborn King Jesus, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and  ever.   Amen.

A word of welcome in this holy night.  Old friends and new friends always, travelers, visitors, kids home from school for the winter break.  I know as I stand at the back of the church and listen to the musical prelude each year at this service how I am struck again and again by the sense of what a high privilege and a gift it is, truly, that in all the places on God’s earth that we could be tonight, he has seen fit to bring us here.  Good old St. Andrew’s.  Just to take that in. 

That’s what Rick says when he sees Ilsa at the Café Americaine in Casablanca.  “All the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, and she walks into mine.”  Of course we know that there are no accidents, no coincidences. 

It is destiny, that we would be here tonight. I really do belief that: the Baby in the Manger, God from God, light from light, very God from Very God-- his intention for us from the beginning of time.  For some reason, for his own reasons, and they are hard to figure out sometimes, he wants us here.  Perhaps because there’s something he knows we need, a word he knows we need to hear or to speak or to pray or to sing that could happen in that particular and necessary way in no other place but tonight at St. Andrew’s.  Wondering what it might be tonight.  What unexpected gift he has hidden under the tree, with our name written on it. 

Perhaps something that will be shared with us.  Perhaps something we’ve been called here to share with someone else.  A word, a smile, a kindness of some sort, a Christmas greeting.  Who knows what difference that might make?  Or perhaps the reason will remain a mystery, as there is so much mystery in this night.

In the wide world things seeming out of sorts, off-kilter.  Headlines elbowing each other off the front page and messing with the Christmas shopping circulars—from Pakistan to North Korea to the streets of our own cities and neighborhoods.  Sometimes just needing to put the newspaper down, to change the channel on the radio. 

But to say again, in the midst of all this, and in the midst of everything that is going on in our own lives.  Not newspaper headlines, but for us, on the front page.  Family, those we love.  What’s going on in our own thoughts, in our hearts.  The up’s and down’s, victories and defeats. 

This particular year, he wanted us here tonight.   

We would come tonight not simply to acknowledge and celebrate his birth, long ago and far away.  Baby Jesus, the son of Mary, born in the days of Herod the king.  But as St. John reminds us, behind the Christmas Card scene there is a lot more going on.   This baby’s cry, ringing in the dark streets of Bethlehem, marks the pivot of cosmic history.  Our lives and our world.

The victory of God in Christ, the Dayspring from on high, a new heaven and a new earth. 

May seem a little hard to get our head around that, late at night, by candle light.  But this is the real story.  Not a sentimental fairy tale, long ago and far away.  But something real, happening.   God intervening.  Word made flesh, to dwell with us.  His birth, and our salvation.  Forgiveness, healing, mercy, and blessing.  Full of grace and truth.  

We walk past the crèche, and under the great Rood Beam, that massive cross, and the inscription, “And I if I be lifted up from the earth will draw all men unto me.”   The old world passes away. 

So simply to say that the take-away about Christmas isn’t Christmas, but what happens after Christmas.  The story that unfolds along the road from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, and the story that continues to unfold across the centuries, to this night in Highland Park.  Incorporating all our lives.  The generous, costly giving of God’s free and precious gift of himself.  To us and for us. 

 If we watch as bystanders, the day will pass and the New Year will come and life will go back to being what it was before.  But if we allow him to meet us here and to make us a part of his story, nothing will ever be the same again. 

It is his grace and love that can make a difference, here in this world, for us.

May there be for all of us in this Christmas the compassionate heart of Jesus himself, his love, and a tenderness of our hearts, a gentle spirit, kindness, peace.  We would trust in him.  Open our eyes and ears and minds and hearts as he approaches, as he is born.  Christmas beginning this night, one Christian at a time, until in Christ it will be all Christmas, all the time.  Blessings to you, and with much love.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Fourth Advent

It is a simple but I think also poetically and symbolically suggestive observation that the word Bethlehem, the little town of our Savior’s birth, is drawn from two Hebrew words, for “house” and “bread."

I’m not sure if that’s because in some deep background of antiquity this was a village of bakers. I guess names and titles don’t always come about in such obvious and literal ways. But the echoing is nonetheless interesting and meaningful I think, in a devotional way.  A holy resonance.

We never have one thing at a time.  Words, images, meanings jumble together.  And the journey of Mary and Joseph through these early winter days and nights from Nazareth to Joseph’s ancestral home connects us even now on the Fourth Sunday of Advent to that gathering as the Promised Child of Bethlehem would one day take the loaf in his hands and say,  “this is my Body, given for you.”

Picture for a moment, the manger itself a kind of Holy Table, where, in our hearts and minds, the wood of the Cross becomes real for us, where he has given himself for us and for many for the forgiveness of sins.  The Lord’s Supper.

The Manger his Throne. King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  His Mercy Seat. The royal platform of his abundant generosity and healing and blessing.

It is my hope and prayer that through this Advent and as we fly along into Christmas this week, each of you, all of us, may know and experience his mercy, his abundant generosity, his healing,  his blessing.  As the carol says, “Good Christian men rejoice, with heart and soul and voice: Christ was born for this.  Christ was born for this.”

The reading from Second Samuel builds a long line of connection from the story of King David to the story of his son King Solomon. As we hear this passage this morning we of course know already that Solomon built a great Temple on the holy hill of Zion. But we know as well that the true home of the Lord of heaven and earth is in the hearts of his people, where he is and will be enthroned forever. 

And in the womb of Mary is the Word made flesh.  The Lord, in his holy Temple.   Let all the earth fall quiet before him.  As we notice with the beautiful Annunciation panel in the Clara Miller Burd Nativity Window, in the South Transept.  Just to pause with her in our minds and hearts on this Fourth Advent Sunday.  Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with you.  Blessed among women.  Blessed the fruit of thy womb.

Many streams, flowing together this morning, contributing to a deeper river of meaning.  The beginning of the story, and it’s end.  Last Sunday the whole story unfolded right up the center aisle of St. Andrew’s Church. With thanks once again to the kids, who know this story by heart.  The Angel Gabriel. Mary and Joseph, angels and shepherds, the Baby in the Manger. The Star. The Wise Men from the East, at the end of their long journey. 

It’s hard to think of a story that we’ve heard more often. A child is born in Bethlehem. The town that is called “House of Bread.”  The house we enter each time we come forward to Holy Communion with him.  The story long ago and far away. And yet it is certainly true as well that every time we hear it, when we tell it to our kids and when they tell it back to us, it is fresh and new. And it is like hearing it all again for the first time.  Happy Advent.  Merry Christmas.

May he indeed be born again into our lives, may he find his home in our hearts.   To know the Bread of Heaven born for us: and may we be fed and nourished and sustained by him and in him today and always.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Third Advent, Children's Pageant of Christmas

Third Advent is Pageant Sunday around St. Andrew's, and the kids "preach."

If I were preaching I think I'd choose for a text a verse from Psalm 126: Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Second Advent

Isaiah 40

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.  

(I would sing more of Handel’s wonderful tenor line here, but I don’t want to spoil it for you!)  Speak ye tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned; for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.  The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together; for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken.

The Sunday schedule of readings for Advent and then on into Christmas is full and almost overflowing with the poetry of the second part of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, which is a wonderful gift for us in the coming weeks.  And building from these beautiful turning-point verses from Chapter 40.  

We might say that it is something like the background music for the season, touching us and shaping our impressions and perceptions and experience of the solemn and powerful message we meet here in Advent and Christmas again and again.   

Ancient Holy Jerusalem in ruins.  A remnant and broken people scattered in exile.  In the hour of deepest defeat, darkness, despair, when all hope seems to have melted away, and beyond all deserving, God acts, redeems, forgives, restores, renews.   Comfort.

That as we lean forward with longing and anticipation as the windows in the Advent calendar chart the way  in the journey to Bethlehem and the Manger, so we lean forward as well here and now in the midst of our day to day lives to the completion of his story and to what it will mean for us to be lifted up into his final victory.  Advent.   Give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness; and put upon us the armor of light, now in time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal.

A season all about hope.  Not as a hypothesis, a theoretical proposition, but suddenly to appear as a concrete effective reality in the midst of our lives.  Dayspring from on high.  The shimmering of a perfect dawn on the horizon of the world’s dark night.  Even when we are surrounded and even as we are  infected by such profound brokenness.  Personal loss.  Regret.  Mistakes.  Hurtful and self-centered words and actions.  Turned in on ourselves, is the classic description of this human condition.  Incurvatus in se.  Turning away from God and from one another.  The inclination of sin.  Social dislocation, all of humanity.  Even when the whole wide world we live in from the Middle East to East Asia to Missouri and New York and to our neighborhood and city.
The opening of Isaiah’s  40th chapter, and God the Holy Spirit speaks though the Prophet:  Comfort my people.  And then this wonderful phrase. An imperative, a command.    Daber al-leb.  The Hebrew, translated in King James’s English as “speak ye tenderly,” but that’s only part of it.  It’s 30 years since my last Hebrew class, but always fun and meaningful to turn back to the first language of the text.  More literally, “Comfort my people, speak to the heart of Jerusalem.”   Daber al-leb.

And a reminder that in Hebrew poetic imagery the heart is not simply as it mostly is in English about emotions.  Feelings.  We say “mind and heart” to talk about two different kinds of perception, but that wasn’t a division in the Hebrew way of thought.  The heart is also where all cognition and reason and feeling are said to reside. One place rather than two.  Some academic translators that I’ve read concerning this passage from Isaiah prefer something more like, “Comfort my people, persuade them completely.”    What we mean when we talk about “winning hearts and minds.”   The Prophet’s call not simply to be soft and affectionate, but a comforting word that is most of all,  thorough and transformative--that that communicates entirely, from the whole person, to the whole person,  to the whole people, God’s chosen, that overcomes every reservation and doubt, every hesitation and objection,  every hidden point of resistance--that searches out and cleanses and refreshes every dark corner of life.  Speak to them so that the message fills every part of them.

Speak in this full way to Israel.  Let her know through and through that her warfare is over, the crushing and shattering consequences of her unfaithfulness and sin, now come to an end.  That a new day is dawning.  An Advent, Easter hymn:  The strife is o’er, the battle done, the victory of life is won.

A complete conversion of life.  Scattered across the lands of exile, in ghettos and refugee camps from Iran and Iraq to Egypt and Yemen, the surviving remnant to stand and sing with full voice, I once was lost, but now am found . . . .  A long, long time before John Newton would compose the text of that hymn.  But all there in Isaiah 40: Amazing Grace. 

And at the heart of this season, this New Year:   What are we looking for?  What’s on our Christmas list?  What to add to our New Year Resolutions this year?  The hopes and fears of all the years.  What you and I are bringing to the table this morning, this season.  Just to pause over that. Really and truly, in the deepest secret places of our “minds and hearts.” 

The penetrating word, to enter us and to fill us completely.  Advent not a few weeks of superficial holiday cheer, but an invitation to a thoroughgoing conversion, a new life.  A fresh start.  To know the gracious and generous gift of his forgiveness, his love.  Beyond our deserving.  To experience a renewal.  To become a new people, and each of us a new person.  Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven.

We see him coming in his manger bed, the Child of Bethlehem.   We watch for him in the East, our triumphant King returning in his glorious majesty.   And the reading somehow flows off the page and into our lives.  A word for us.   Comfort ye my people.

 Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together; for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Advent Sunday

Our sermon at St. Andrew's on Advent Sunday, November 30, was offered by our Parish Deacon, the Ven. Jean D. Chess.

Advent 1 Year B
Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37

November 30, 2014

May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer.  Amen

I love chances to make a fresh start.  As a student and as a teacher - I always looked forward to the start of the new school term.  I love the process of starting a new job or a new project or a new spiritual discipline.  I'm filled with hope that this time I can really get everything in order.  I'll finish my daily to-do list.  I'll eat at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables every day... I'll keep up with all those emails.... I'll see and respect the image of God in everyone I encounter.

I especially love Advent - the start of a new church year, a liturgical season filled with beautiful, peaceful, and hopeful images of light emerging in the darkness culminating with the very tender, and non-threatening presence of the baby Jesus.  A chance to try - for only 4 weeks - some new spiritual discipline of keeping a better watch out for Jesus at work in my life and in the wider world.
So when I was asked to preach this first Sunday of Advent - I thought great, no stress, I know what to say about Advent.  Upon my first read through of the lessons several weeks ago, I was caught by the familiar phrase - keep alert - and I even had an idea about how to work learning to use my GPS into this sermon..
But then, I spent time dwelling more deeply in our readings for today.  I was drawn to the cries of lament from God's people in Exile as captured in the book of Isaiah - God's people crying out and saying - God, I need you, where are you, why have you left us, why don't you answer me.... and I was especially drawn to the very end of Isaiah 64 which was not included in our lectionary reading. 
(From the New International Version translation..)

"Oh, look on us, we pray - for we are all your people....
Your sacred cities have become a wasteland; even Zion is a wasteland, Jerusalem a desolation.  Our holy and glorious temple, where our ancestors praised you has been burned with fire, and all that we treasured lies in ruins.  After all this, Lord, will you hold yourself back?  Will you keep silent and punish us beyond measure?"

There is great comfort in the image of the light of Christ emerging in the darkness - and we know that we, as Christians, walk always as children of the Light....but to focus only on the light can diminish the reality of our very human experience of darkness. 
What have you treasured that now lies in ruins going into this season of Advent?  Have you lost the presence of a beloved companion in this earthly life?  Are you grieving the loss of physical or mental health of yourself of someone you love? Are you full of regret about the past - or fearful about the future? 

Acknowledging the reality of darkness invites us into those places where we are less than perfect, where we are broken, where we are most human, and where we most need - and often find - God.

Canadian singer-songwriter-poet Leonard Cohen puts it this way in his song,  Anthem - "There is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in"

Listen to the whole refrain...
"Ring the bells you still can ring.  Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack, there is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in".

Where are the cracks, the broken places, in our lives as individuals and in our collective lives as communities of human beings where we long for the light to get in?

Where might we be so focused on presenting a 'perfect' offering that we're holding back from taking any step at all?   

Open the newspaper, turn on the TV, browse to, walk down the street - what makes you want to shout out loud to God and beg "Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down so that the mountains would quake at your presence...." 
From where do you long most deeply for the light of God this Advent?  From where do you cry - O come, O come Emmanuel?


Monday, December 1, 2014

St. Andrew the Apostle

While the "St. Andrew's, Highland Park" congregational observance of our patronal festival is customarily scheduled for the Sunday before the Thanksgiving Holiday, Andrew's "Day" on the calendar is November 30--transferred to December 1 in years when that day falls on a Sunday (as it does in 2014).

Patron of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, Highland Park, Pittsburgh

(Greek: Ανδρέας, Andreas), called in the Orthodox tradition Protocletos, or the First-called, is a Christian Apostle and the elder brother of Saint Peter. The name "Andrew" (from Greek : ανδρεία, manhood, or valour), like other Greek names, appears to have been common among the Jews from the second or third century B.C. No Hebrew or Aramaic name is recorded for him.

The Bible records that St Andrew was a son of Jonah, or John, (Matthew 16:17; John 1:42). He was born in Bethsaida on the Sea of Galilee (John 1:44). Both he and his brother Peter were fishermen by trade, hence the tradition that Jesus called them to be his disciples by saying that He will make them "fishers of men" (Greek: ἁλιείς ἀνθρώπων, halieis anthropon). At the beginning of Jesus' public life they occupied the same house at Capernaum (Mark 1:21, 29).

From the Gospel of John we learn that Andrew was a disciple of John the Baptist, whose testimony first led him and John the Evangelist to follow Jesus (John 1:35-40). Andrew at once recognized Jesus as the Messiah, and hastened to introduce Him to his brother(John 1:41). Thenceforth the two brothers were disciples of Christ. On a subsequent occasion, prior to the final call to the apostolate, they were called to a closer companionship, and then they left all things to follow Jesus (Luke 5:11; Matthew 4:19-20; Mark 1:17-18).

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ALMIGHTY God, who didst give such grace unto thy holy Apostle Saint Andrew, that he readily obeyed the calling of thy Son Jesus Christ, and followed him without delay; Grant unto us all, that we, being called by thy holy Word, may forthwith give up ourselves obediently to fulfill thy holy commandments; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

When the Apostles went forth to preach to the Nations, Andrew seems to have taken an important part, but unfortunately we have no certainty as to the extent or place of his labours. Eusebius (Church History III.1), relying, apparently, upon Origen, assigns Scythia as his mission field: Andras de [eilechenten Skythian; while St. Gregory of Nazianzus (Oration 33) mentions Epirus; St. Jerome (Ep. ad Marcell.) Achaia; and Theodoret (on Ps. cxvi) Hellas. Probably these various accounts are correct, for Nicephorus (H.E. II:39), relying upon early writers, states that Andrew preached in Cappadocia, Galatia, and Bithynia, then in the land of the anthropophagi and the Scythian deserts, afterwards in Byzantium itself, where he appointed St. Stachys as its first bishop, and finally in Thrace, Macedonia, Thessaly, and Achaia. It is generally agreed that he was crucified by order of the Roman Governor, Aegeas or Aegeates, at Patrae in Achaia, and that he was bound, not nailed, to the cross, in order to prolong his sufferings. The cross on which he suffered is commonly held to have been the decussate cross, now known as St. Andrew's, though the evidence for this view seems to be no older than the fourteenth century. His martyrdom took place during the reign of Nero, on 30 November, A.D. 60); and both the Latin and Greek Churches keep 30 November as his feast.

El Greco, St. Andrew, 1606

St. Andrew's relics were translated from Patrae to Constantinople, and deposited in the church of the Apostles there, about A.D. 357. When Constantinople was taken by the French, in the beginning of the thirteenth century, Cardinal Peter of Capua brought the relics to Italy and placed them in the cathedral of Amalfi, where most of them still remain. St. Andrew is honoured as their chief patron by Russia and Scotland.

Click here to read it all in The Catholic Encyclopedia

Friday, November 28, 2014

For Advent and Christmastide, 2014

One of my favorites, by Jude Simpson:

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Eve of Thanksgiving Day, 2014

Good evening to all, as we are here on this Eve of Thanksgiving Day and gathering not only for ourselves in this moment but on behalf of all our wider parish family first of all—those travelling in the holiday weekend, especially in the context of some less-than-friendly weather, and all those coming together with family and friends—and lifting up in prayer our Church and the larger Christian family, our neighborhood and this wider community and our nation and all the wide world. The whole of creation, as fall slides toward winter, resting in the arms of our Creator and Redeemer.

Interesting that in the liturgical directions for Thanksgiving Day the Proper Preface of the Eucharistic Prayer, the sentence at the beginning of the prayer that indicates the theme or season, the Proper Eucharistic Preface is the one prescribed for Trinity Sunday. “For with your co-eternal Son and Holy Spirit, you are one God, one Lord, in Trinity of Persons and in Unity of Being; and we celebrate the one and equal glory of you, O Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”   The message for us seems to be the one so often repeated, I believe first used generally in the Twelve Step movement:  Remember to keep the main thing the main thing.  The old song: “He’s got the whole world in his hand.”  We get caught up in the daily ups and downs of life, but to step back, to see ourselves and our world in the big picture.

All these competing strands of our life coming together in this holiday. Food, football, family. More food. And then apparently for many there will be a just few hours of sleep, and then long drives up to Grove City for the 3 a.m. outlet store openings.  Some places opening even earlier, in the middle of Thursday afternoon.  The first wave in the coming storm of hyper-consumerism, I guess, even in this still somewhat  fragile economy. All that, and as we take care of our last minute holiday preparations this evening and tomorrow morning, this word from Jesus in our gospel reading.  Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?

It happens that this Thanksgiving service is the last service at St. Andrew’s in this Church Year, as we will be all ready to go for the new year and Advent Sunday this coming Sunday morning. And the message for us is about how we would see our priorities, our concerns—how we would organize ourselves day by day in the New Year ahead.

We hear this evening and would be called to represent with our lives something countercultural. Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’  . .  .  Indeed, your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.  But strive first for the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

A moment of Thanksgiving not simply for the blessings that we have received, but even more for the one who is all blessing, from before time and forever.   And what does that mean? What does it look like? His kingdom?  His righteousness.  We sort that out along the way, of course. No easy answers. And understanding that “our” kingdom and “our” righteousness may be what we need to set aside in some sense, to come into relationship with him.  In the light of his resurrection, conforming our lives to the cruciform shape of his. Seeking not to find our own way, but to follow in his footsteps. 

Paul has this wonderful moment in the  passage from First Timothy appointed for this evening. A clue for us, perhaps.  “That we might lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” 

I’m not sure we’ve always—or even ever—done a good job of this.  Turmoil and distress from one end of the world to the other.  Ferguson, Missouri.  The terrorism of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.  Failures of trust, betrayal, loss of hope.  Arguments, mean-spiritedness, mutual disregard, self-centeredness, even violence, so much a part of our Christian past and our Christian present. Even in the life of the church. 

No question about it. But we would at the end of this year just pause. In thanksgiving at Thanksgiving.  That this might be our prayer.  To lift up in the feast of this world that it might be for us a pathway forward, from the food of this life to  the food that endures for eternal life. To make his way our way.  Advent Sunday just ahead, and as we get up from the table this week, to say in our hearts and to be ready for this reality:  The Lord is near.

Bishop McConnell at Evensong, November 16

Peace is Our Profession: A Sermon for the Mission of the Church

Preached by the Right Reverend Dorsey McConnell
The Bishop of Pittsburgh
In Saint Andrews Church, Highland Park
At Evensong
November 16, 2014

At that time you were separated from Christ having no hope and without God in the world.  But now in Christ Jesus you who were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.  For he himself is our peace. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.
                                    —Ephesians 2: 12-14,19

Then Jesus appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to come. And he said to them,… ‘Whatever house you enter, first say, Peace be to this house!  And if a son of peace is there, your peace will rest upon him. If not, it will return to you.

                                    —Luke 10:1-2, 5-6

As many of you know, I am a son of the military, the Air Force, to be exact.  I was born during the Cold War on a B-52 base in the middle of the Great Plains, and one of my earliest memories is of lying in my crib listening to those huge aircraft in a scramble drill.  Their flightpath was practically over our house and as they roared into the air in quick succession, I watched the windows of my bedroom tremble in their frames.  I wasnt afraid. It was a comforting sound, really, the way some children might think of the tea kettle boiling in the kitchen.  My mother had told me that those planes were protecting us, and I believed her.  One of the first sentences I learned to read, emblazoned in a painted banner on the side of every bomber, under a mailed fist that clutched both a lightning bolt and an olive branch, was the motto of the Strategic Air Command: Peace is our profession

It took me years to grasp both the true sense and the inherent contradiction of those words.  On the one hand, it was frankly absurd: how can you think of a flying machine carrying several megatons of mass destruction as an instrument of peace? I dont think that is what the author of the prayer of Saint Francis has in mind when he asks God to make us instruments of his peace.  On the other hand, it made sense, when I first dove into Saint Augustines great work The City of God.  Augustine says that all human activity, every effort of human society, even war, is in pursuit of peace.  Of course, we never get there, because the peace we are in fact yearning for is far greater than the cessation of earthly conflict, greater than the fragile equilibrium that can be established by human treaties or human concord.  What we are yearning for is the peace of God, and that can only come from God Himself.  But what is this peace of God?

The author of Ephesians is pretty clear that this peace of Godis a complete reversal of our natural state. He points out with stunning force that by birth and nature we are separated from Christ, having no hope and without God in the world.”  That would cause most people on the street to raise their eyebrows a bit dont you think? When I first heard it, as a young man considering Christ, I certainly thought it went too far.  I mean, I had my flaws, but surely I was still basically a good person, wasnt I?  Yet, the more I showed up in church, the more I started realizing how untrue this assumption was.  Something began happening to me. My sin became more visible to me.  Habits that I had indulged in without a moments thought now began to give me pause; my own malice and anger, my utter self-centeredness, my pride and gossip, actually began to grieve me a little. I began to see the enormous distance between the person I was and the person I might become, that God wanted me to become.  I began to intuit that the peace I had always wanted lay in my giving up my own will to His will, accepting His judgment of my sin, and receiving His mercy by acknowledging His rule over me; I came dangerously close to realizing that this alone would lead me toward becoming the person I inwardly yearned to be. 

And yet, simultaneously, far from wholeheartedly wanting to become that fulfilled, benign, and loving creature filled with the peace of God, I discovered there were huge parts of me that wanted to destroy that vision utterly, to drown it out, to get rid of the God who offered it, and enthrone themselves in His place. And that scared me.  It didnt scare me enough to make me a Christian, but it did get my attention, for a while; so I did what any normal person would doI stopped turning to Him, stopped going to church, stopped reading Christian books. Instead I filled my life with adventure and kept on the move.  I moved every three to six months for two years across three continents and (with a few nearly catastrophic exceptions) I avoided churches like the plague.  I had made a fortress of my egotism and for a time I thought I was safe.

What I had not counted on is that this God of peace chases us, through his human instruments.  Then Jesus appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to come.”   If you read the passage in Luke carefully, you will see how clever a strategy it is, because if those disciples take what Jesus is saying seriously, if they actually do what He says they should do, theyre going to wind up looking an awful lot like the one who sent them: they will be lambs in the midst of wolves, as He the Lamb of God is content to be; they will trust the Father for their provision, not despising any house or table, just as He does, who eats with anyone who asks, from Pharisees to prostitutes; strangely, as they do this, they will begin to resemble the one who sent them, and they will come with a blessing of peace, from the one who is peace. And if a child of peace is there, that peace will find its resting place, the way an arrow finds its mark, the way Jesus finds those to whom he comes and says, Follow me.”  Do you see how brilliant this is?  His disciples, as bearers of His peace, in spite of all their flaws, will in the main mysteriously show forth the character of their Master so that others will be drawn not to them but to Him. 

This peace they are carrying with them is nothing less than this complete reconciliation between human beings and God won through the blood of Christ; it is the peace that Ephesians is talking about, a reconciliation that spills over into human relationships, our relationships, changing them forever; it may not turn our enemies into friendsthats their choicebut it does turn them into the beloved, and it does mean that our whole life is now about putting others at the center of our world, not ourselves, because that is where Christ iswith them, weeping with them, laughing with them, begging to wash their feet.  And a child of peace, I think, is someone who, in spite of all reason, in spite of all the parts of herself screaming, Run away! Run away!, in spite of his limitless capacity for relapse which he will continue to provea child of peace is someone who, for reasons know only to God, yearns for that peace; that yearning is God-given, born of grace, and, I believe, in the end irresistible.   So even someone who doesnt look like a child of peace at allwho is restless, or contrarian, even vengeful and violentmay indeed be one, having underneath all their conflicts the deep-seated unconscious knowledge that in the end all that will matter is their repentance, that they will only come to the peace they yearn for by giving up and saying Yes to the God who alone is peace. 

This yearning for peace is so deeply woven into the mystery of human identity as to be indelible; it is like an innate characteristic in someone, the way we say a person has her fathers eyes or his mothers laugh. It emanates from some strange ember burning deep within the ashes of the human soul, but it needs something to call it into life, to set it on fire.  That happens by nothing other than the word of the one who is our peace, the word of Jesus, through His willing disciples, who are on assignment to chase down the reluctant children of peace and throw their entire lives into merciful chaos just by offering the Peace of Christ.

Sounds like fun, doesnt it?  Apparently it is!  Jesus had a great time doing itconsider what he does with Simon Peter for example: taking a hardened and skeptical fisherman, and in a matter of hours swamping his boat, dragging his partners into the mess, making him beg to be left alone, and then extending the completely nonsensical offer that Simon might consider fishing for men, because he doesnt seem to be doing very well with tilapia: seems like a lot to go through for one disciple, but some cases are tougher than others.  Some need a quieter approach, as with Levi the tax collector, the Lord just showing up where he works and looking at him with all the force of an irresistible love, until he says Uncle.  Or coming to the grief-stricken Mary Magdalene on a peculiar Sunday morning and showing her that there is a love stronger than death. To each of these, in a way appropriate to each, He says, Peace be with you; stop struggling, come to me and you will find rest for your souls, and once they have done that, after his resurrection, He gives to them essentially the same commission as He gave the seventy:  He says, now take the word of this peace into the worldseek out my reluctant children, that they may come into their inheritance, the peace prepared for them from the foundation of the world.  And, as unlikely candidates for the job as they are, nonetheless that is exactly what they doPeter and James and John and Andrew and Mary and Martha and Mary Magdalene and the rest, children of peace bringing the word of peace to others who are called to be such children, but do not yet know it.  

That is certainly what happened to me. Try as I might to avoid them, I kept running into Christians.  Some of them were scary, and some of them were boring, and some of them were clearly insane, but some of them had a quality that was so compelling I can barely describe it. If I had to put it into a few words I would say they had their Fathers eyes. They looked at me with understanding and compassion; they showed me in the way they talked and listened, the way they acted and prayed not out of a small part of themselves, but out of their whole being, and they helped me see that the meaning of my life didnt lie in my resolving my frustrations with my job or my girlfriend or in overcoming the various other obstacles of ordinary existence; rather it lay in that bright ember burning at the core of my soul, which they knew because it was theirs as wellthis yearning for mercy, for peace, that had been answered by Jesus, who has made peace by the blood of his Cross.  When they spoke of it, they seemed a bit sad that such a cost should be necessary, and a bit wise as if they knew this need were everywhere, and overall joyful because they knew they were finally home, no longer strangers and sojourners, but fellow citizens with the saints, members of the household of God; and soon I wanted to live where they lived, so I said Yes, and found the same mercy creeping into every part of who I was.  Its been nearly forty years, now since that moment; Im not sure Ive made all that much progress as a child of peace, but as I frequently tell my wife to console her for choosing me, just think of what Id be like without Him! 

The terrors of this world are always around us; our demons bite and maim and leave countless lives wounded and neglected by the side of the road.  We stare helplessly at the results of the wrongs we have done, which we would not do, and at the good we might have done which we never did. But none of this is too much for God.  He knows all our  wreckage, and He has chosen us anyway.  So if youre here praying tonight, you can assume you are among those he now sends out to preach peace to his reluctant children, to those who are far off and to those who are near.  In a few moments, the Cross will lead us out; as it does see if you can read the motto written through it in all but words: Peace is our profession.  And if as you lie in bed tonight you doubt you could be the one He has chosen and sent, then end the day with this prayer or something like it: have mercy on me Lord Jesus, have mercy; by the power of your Cross, join me to the household of your saints; let others see in me your Fathers eyes, and help me help them receive the blessing of your peace.  I assure you: if the chorus of the angels were audible after such a prayer, you would hear the riot of their glory as they passed over you in quick succession, and the windows of your bedroom would tremble in their frames. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

St. Andrew, 2014

It is the custom here in recent decades to observe the Patronal Festival of the Parish of St. Andrew the Apostle, Highland Park, Pittsburgh, on the Sunday before the Thanksgiving Day holiday.

 Matthew 4

Good morning and grace and peace fellow St. Androids, friends, neighbors, extended family, visitors.  Always a fun day in the life of the congregation—and the wider neighborhood, as folks up the block and around the corner put down the Sunday paper and come out on the porch to see what all the fuss is.  Bagpipes and drums and smiles and greetings.  

A special welcome and word of thanks again as for so many years our friends of the Syria Highlanders have blessed us by joining in the celebration.  And as we are reminded by your presence to include in our thoughts and prayers the important work of the Shriners’ Hospitals for Children, which you all continue to serve as your fundraising mission.  It’s an honor for us to have the opportunity to share in that work with you.

Our St. Andrew’s ancestors were sent out on a missionary endeavor in the winter and spring of 1837, to lay the foundations of a second Episcopal Church to serve Pittsburgh’s growing population.  Must have been an exciting time for them.  Energized with a vision for Christian witness, the proclamation of the gospel in a new place and in new ways.  For them in a fresh and new way the echoing invitation and commission of our Lord to our St. Andrew and his brother Peter, from St. Matthew’s Gospel this morning: Come follow me, and fish for people!   The Parish of St. Andrew the Apostle.  St. Andrew: Called by Jesus.  Sent by Jesus.

As most of you will have noticed in multiple mailings, our stewardship campaign for 2015 has the title “A Year of Renaissance.”  Partly this refers to the fact that after over two years of dedicated work and commitment though the Opening Doors Capital Campaign we are now just beginning to explore the new opportunities for life and ministry, discipleship, stewardship, proclamation, and outreach that our renewed and expanded church facilities make possible.  Figuring out how to operate the elevator, how to program the thermostats, how to make available all this new and renovated space to do the good work God calls us to do in the congregation and the neighborhood.

We’re just at the beginning of that “renaissance,” and I think as we continue over the next months and years we will find that we have a lot in common with our ancestors.  One chapter beginning 1837.  Then another, 1906, with the move of St.  Andrew’s from the original location out here to this new neighborhood.   And then why not 2015?  A fresh start.  A new page.

But the idea of “renaissance” runs deeper.  We would notice in that sentence, the word Jesus has for Andrew and Peter—that it has two parts.  The first, “come, follow me,” and then, “and I will make you fish for people.”  Discipleship first.  Following him.  Opening eyes and ears, minds and hearts.  Delving deep into the Word is how we might apply that first of all.  Not simply as academic study, though some of that is always important.  But with a prayer that God will use his Word to bring us into relationship with the Word made flesh, to give new shape to our lives.  To refresh us in thought and word and deed.  To reorder our priorities.  To give us new minds, new hearts. 

At our diocesan convention a few weeks ago Bishop McConnell issued a deep and I thought actually very moving invitation to all of us in our diocese to a season, perhaps a year, perhaps more, of reflection and discernment.  Inviting us to consider centering our Christian lives individually and as congregations not on projects and proposals and the busyness of one activity after another, no matter how wonderful and well-intended each of those projects and activities might seem in themselves--but instead to center our lives in a renewed commitment to a Christian fellowship of Scripture and prayer.  To let God’s Word fill our hearts and then flow in an outward direction to heal and refresh and to perfect our relationship with God and with one another.   Bishops are in my experience so often interested in promoting projects and programs and activities.  But this reminded me of the saying which I think sometimes can be so important: “don’t just do something.  Stand there.”  Turning the expected phrase upside-down.  Don’t just do something.  Stand there.  We might add: stand there, close to Jesus.

And then, Jesus says:  “I will make you fish for people.”  Noticing how these verbs work.  Not something of our initiative.   “I’m going to make that happen,” Jesus says.  Not something that will come out of us.  Not according to our timetable.  Not the result of our best thinking, our endless committee meetings, our exhausting busyness.  Not something we can do for ourselves or by ourselves, but something that he promises to make happen, in us and through us.  Again, as we have been immersed in him, our prayers are what he is praying through us.  Our actions will what he is working through us.  When he is ready. 

In the older pre-1979  calendar for us Episcopalians and Anglicans the Sunday before Advent had the informal title, “Stir up Sunday.”  The name came from the first words of the traditional collect: “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  And with a smile “Stir up Sunday” marked the time to begin preparation in the kitchen of holiday fruit cakes!  But again a reminder of what is called “prevenient grace.”  That it is God that comes to us.  He does the stirring!

Andrew is only mentioned a few times in the New Testament, and it is often remarked that when he does appear in the story he seems to have had a particular role or ministry of bringing people to Jesus.  And I think it’s important to see just how this happens.  When the little boy with the five loaves and two fishes comes forward at the time of the Feeding of the Multitudes, he comes to Andrew, and then Andrew brings him to Jesus.  When the Greeks come out searching to find the famous rabbi they’ve heard so much about, they come to Andrew, and then he brings them to Jesus.  Andrew doesn’t go scrambling around the countryside looking for them.  They come to him.  When people come looking for Jesus, they are led by God to Andrew, and because Andrew knows where Jesus is, he can take them by the hand and say, “of course, let me bring you to him now.”

Perhaps a way to frame that for us this Sunday morning, to say, “that when people come looking for Jesus, they sometimes show up at  St. Andrew’s.”   And you never can tell who is going to come through those doors next.  Happens all the time, and not always the people we expected.  Not always the people we thought we needed.   We like to plan ahead, to strategize, but the reality is that this really isn’t something that we can control.  Somebody else is figuring this out, no matter how much we sometimes like to think we are in charge of things.  How often it is that we get up in the morning with one agenda, one “to-do” list.  And it turns out that God has another idea.  The question always  just whether we’re paying attention enough to get with his program . . . .

For us, on St. Andrew’s Day at St. Andrew’s Highland Park--on the Sunday before Advent, the Sunday before the beginning of the new year on the Christian calendar.  As we come forward for communion, following in the footsteps of men and women and boys and girls of this place over the last 177 years.  And then going out as they did too into the wide world.  Home, work, school, neighborhood.  And perhaps on this St. Andrew’s Day we would think about forming in our hearts and minds as individuals and as a congregation, an intention of discernment in this New Year, which is really the critical word: discernment.  That through our fellowship with one another,  through a renewed dedication to the scriptures, through a commitment to an ever-deepening practice of prayer, we will know Jesus ourselves.  Who he is.  Where he is.  And that the ministry that Jesus called his friend Andrew to on the Galilean shore all those centuries ago, might be our ministry as well.  To meet those he sends our way, and to make the introduction.

As the song from All Saints, for St. Andreans on St. Andrew’s Day:  They lived not only in ages past: there are hundreds of thousands still.  The world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus will.  You can meet them in school, or in lanes or at sea, in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea, for the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.

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

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Twenty-Third after Pentecost

Proper 28A  Matthew 25: 14-30

Good morning and grace and peace.  A chilly November weekend, and with the holiday decorations in full bloom around the shopping mall we continue to notice in the cycle of our church year and lectionary an unofficial but distinct season of “Pre-Advent.”  Archbishop Cranmer’s magnificent prayer on Holy Scripture which we have prayed this morning he originally placed as the Collect for the Second Sunday of Advent, drawing close together in our minds and heart God’s self-expression and Incarnation in the Bethlehem Child and in his Word written.  The compelling image of the Bible in the Manger, the gift that comes to us of God’s presence and promise.  Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life which thou hast given us in thy Son our Savior Jesus Christ.

The gospel reading this morning is again a part of the series we’ve been reading over these last weeks: Palm Sunday in Jerusalem, at the Temple.  Because we’ll be all bagpipes and St. Andrew next Sunday, this is our last hour in this Holy Week scene.   Jesus and his followers in the midst of the bustling crowds of the pilgrims who have come to the Holy City for the Passover. 

The confrontation first with the priests and scribes and then continuing with the Pharisees.  The parable of the Five Talents this morning flows directly out of the parable of the Five Wise Maidens and the Five Foolish Maidens that we heard last week.  The previous story ends with the unprepared Maidens running out to try to find a place to buy lamp oil in the middle of the night, then to return only to find themselves locked outside the door of the Groom’s family home, unable to come inside and join the banquet.   And then immediately following, as we’ve just heard: “for it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them.”   The preposition “for” an explicit connector.    The story here grows directly out of the preceding one, to explain it or expand it in a different way.   From wise and foolish maidens to faithful and unfaithful servants.   

In this sermon or series of sermons and responses, we have had two kinds of sons, two kinds of tenants of the vineyard, two kinds of wedding guests, two ways of approaching the payment of taxes, two kinds of bridesmaids, now two kinds of servants.  Here one kind of servant who understands the responsibility that has been given to him, and who accepts that responsibility and who acts as a good steward, even when to do so means that he must take a risk, perhaps even put his life on the line-- and another kind, who doesn’t get it.  Who doesn’t understand the responsibility that has been placed in his hands.  Who steps back from his moment of opportunity, who shirks his responsibility.  He accepts the Treasure from the Master, reminding us perhaps of the Son a few weeks ago who told the Father that he would absolutely and without question do what he asked.  But like that Son, this servant doesn’t follow through.  He perhaps in fear, is unwilling to risk, unwilling to put himself into this with his whole heart, just buries in the ground what the Master has given him.

And of course the dramatic conclusion.  The faithful servants are welcomed to the fullness of life when the Master returns—but like the Bridesmaids, like the Unruly Tenants, like those who ignored the King’s invitation to the wedding, the unfaithful servant is condemned and cast into outer darkness.  With an eternity of consequences: weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Again.  Offered I guess we might say here as we roll on toward the end of the year.  A framework to think about as we assess our own lives.  Think about just how we’re doing.  Two kinds of people.  Two ways forward.  A decision to make, with real consequences.

One way of approaching this story as a kind of free-standing unit is to say that the moral of the story is how important it is to be good stewards of the gifts God gives us.  Which is a great moral.  If God has given you a beautiful voice, sing his praises in the choir.  If he has given you the eye and the hand of the artist, create paintings that enrich and inspire.  If your work and life situation have provided an abundance of financial resources, put them to work to build up the Body of Christ and support its mission.  Care for the sick.  Feed the hungry.  Certainly an echo here of what Jesus says to his disciples in the twelfth chapter of St. Luke: “From those to whom much has been given, much will be expected.”  Don’t hide it under a bushel.  Let your light shine!

But the context adds more for us.  Something to say to us about what the stakes are in this.  Not simply an encouragement to overcome any fear of failure and to do what it takes to be all we can be, but let’s say also, a serious word of warning.  High stakes.  With that weeping and gnashing of teeth, with doors to the wedding banquet that are locked and that stay locked. 

Because what we come to understand is that what that parable of the Two Sons is about is not simply that we should obey our parents or keep our promises.  The moral of the parable of the tenants is not that we should remember to pay our rent on time, or that as landlords remember to do background checks before signing lease agreements.  The moral of the Parable of the Wedding Banquet not simply that we should plan to attend the next royal wedding we’re invited to.  The moral of Parable of the Coin not simply that we should pay our taxes.  The moral of the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Maidens not simply that we shouldn’t put things off to the last minute.  Though those are pretty much all good points to keep in mind.

He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not.

Standing here at the crossroads of cosmic history.   That’s the breathtaking reality.  Here in Matthew 25, Holy Week.  At the door of his holy temple.  Before us.  The creator and sustainer of the universe, word made flesh, only son of the father, God from God, light from light, very God from very God.  In our midst.  He has come to us and for us. 

The Advent Calendars are flying off the shelves.  That time of year.  The four candles on the table.  The map of our journey week by week, on our way to Bethlehem.  In the distance and not very far away we can hear the Angel Choir rehearsing their Gloria.  And of course that time of year is actually the eternal present of our lives.  The one born that night in the City of David is born into our world and into our lives as a present reality.  Meeting us in Word and Sacrament and in the way we walk in our day to day lives.  In the quiet of our own thoughts, the secret corners of our hearts.

And what we do with all that is the question.  The question for Advent and Christmas and for Palm Sunday and Holy Week and Good Friday and for every day.   As we leave our pews and approach the Holy Table.  As we get back into our cars and head home.   Two kinds of people, in all these stories.  Two kinds of people who make choices and then who must live with the consequences of those choices. 

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 become children of God . . . .  And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.