Sunday, February 23, 2014

VII Epiphany, Sexagesima

Leviticus 19: 1-18; Matthew 5: 38-48

Good morning again on another winter Sunday.  Anything other than blizzard conditions and it begins to feel like spring!  The Seventh Sunday in ordinary time after the Feast of the Epiphany and on the traditional calendar for “pre-Lent” counting down on our way to Ash Wednesday, Lent, Holy Week, and Easter, ”Sexagesima,”  more-or-less 60 days now before us on the journey to the great climax of the story in Jerusalem, the Cross and then Sunday morning and the Empty Tomb.

This season in the meantime, in between time, all about preparation.  Bill Minkler reminded me this week of a wonderful little hymn in our old hymnal, Hymnal 1940, in the section of songs for children, about the seasons of the year.  #235 (if you still have a 1940 around).  The first stanza is, “Advent tells us Christ is near; Christmas tells us Christ is here.  In Epiphany we trace all the glory of his grace.”  Then the second stanza, “Then three Sundays will prepare for the time of fast and prayer, that with hearts made penitent, we may keep a faithful Lent.”  I probably won’t forward this to the Director of Choristers anytime soon!  But in any event, in the Liturgy for Ash Wednesday there is the traditional invitation to a holy Lent, which we are to observe “by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”  We might say that if this is the menu of Lent, on these three pre-Lenten Sundays we set the table.  Get things ready.

This morning I want to frame a message by looking at two Biblical words, the one found in the first part of our Old Testament reading from Leviticus 19, the Hebrew word “qadash,” which is translated “holy,” and the other, from the end of our reading of Matthew 5, the Greek word “telios,”  which is translated as “perfect.”   My seminary work in the Biblical languages pretty far in the rear-view mirror as the decades roll along, but word by word there is still something very rich to think about the work of the translator. Leviticus 19, really the heart of the Mosaic covenant, the Word of God given to Moses at Mt. Sinai, for the people God has chosen, “You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy.”  And then as the other bookend, this dramatic and central word from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, for his disciples, the Church, the New Israel of God:  “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” 

The Hebrew  “qadash” is a word that is naturally at home in the ancient Israelite world and vocabulary of what we might call sacramental worship.  It’s a “Temple” word.  What is taken from flock and field and placed in sacrifice on the altar, dedicated and consecrated, set apart, offered up, received, transformed.  The Holy Gifts.  As the smoke from the burnt offering rises above the altar, what was of this world is taken up into the very presence of God.   Partaking of his holiness. To be breathed in by him in transcendental mystery. 

What was of this world is transformed.  What was of this world, now purified, sanctified.  Set apart by the prayers of the priest at the altar, but only in truth is the offering complete when God in his generosity and love and mercy leans down with open hand and open heart to receive the gift.  The commingling of things earthly and things heavenly.  Lifted up with human hands, but made holy in the presence of the Lord of Hosts.

Hard to know what word of common Aramaic Jesus used here in the Great Sermon recorded in Matthew 5.     Any rabbi or even any Sunday School student at the local synagogue might have heard the echo from Leviticus 19.  As God is “qadash,” in Leviticus, so you must be holy.  And in Matthew’s Greek, you must be “telioi,” even as God is.  The Greek word, given in English, “perfect.”  The sense is that of an arrow that has struck its target.  Telios.  A journey that has reached its intended destination.  A goal accomplished.  A rough draft that has been edited and revised and now is “perfected.”  No further work necessary.  Complete.  Finished.  It is the same word that John tells us Jesus used when he gave himself over to death on the Cross.  “It is finished.”   The words that come in the moment before the Easter hymn: The strife is o’er, the labor done, the victory of life is won.  Alleluia.”  “It is finished.”  Perfect.  No further work necessary.  As God, so you.  Holy.  Perfect.

When one of his con-men companions dresses up like a parson Huckleberry Finn says he “looked like Old Leviticus himself.”  In any event--the Book of Leviticus gets its title from the Levites, the priests of the Temple.  The whole point of the book, we might say, and again the very central message of the Word of God to Moses is lifted up.  As Moses that pivotal day on Mt. Sinai confirms and establishes the Covenant spoken first to Abraham long ago.  I will be your God, and you will be mine, my people.  That through you all the world will be blessed.   A priestly book to guide a priestly people.  That as the offering on the altar is set apart to be holy and acceptable to God, to be lifted into God’s presence and to partake of his glory, so it is for Israel, for the people he has chosen for himself.  They don’t simply present an offering of grain or turtledoves or sacrificial lambs.  From henceforth they are themselves called and chosen as well to be the offering, to come before God’s presence, to partake of his divine essence.  To be the instrument by which the broken and sinful world is brought into his holy presence, restored to union with him.  God’s Israel.

As Moses opened the mysteries of the Covenant for Israel on the Holy Mountain, so Jesus goes up on the mountain—in this Sermon on the Mount—to renew and refresh and extend the Covenant in his Body the Church.  To call and inspire and make it possible.    All these examples and commands, from Moses in Leviticus, from Jesus in the Sermon, just the tip of the iceberg.  Not simply to be about a long list of do’s and don’ts, but those lists to be signposts, hints, about the kind of people we are called to become, from the inside, out.  Changed through and through.

Not about lives where what we do is, as the old saying goes, “good enough for government work.”  Not to be just good enough, but to partake of God’s goodness, God’s holiness.  That is the challenge, the invitation, the promise.  St. Paul in Romans 12:  I beseech ye, brethren by the mercies of God to present your bodies, your very selves, a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.

That’s what all this is about in Leviticus, what all this is about in the Sermon on the Mount.  The food we eat, the clothes we wear, the way we interact with our friends, with our husbands and wives, in our families, with our children and our parents, with our neighbors, in our society and world. 

There is a great word in the Rule of St. Benedict, actually one of the most famous of Benedict’s many sayings, when in Chapter 31 he outlines the character and responsibility of the officer of the monastery called the “Cellarer.”  We might say, the Supervisor of Materials and Supplies.  And when talking about the shed where the farming tools and craft implements are stored, Benedict says, “the Cellarer will regard all utensils and good of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar.”  Every hammer and wrench, every shovel and plow.  As jeweled chalices of the eucharist.  Sacred vessels.

An environmental ethic that would inform us when we think about what we pour into our rivers and landfills.  Most especially an image that would inform us as we interact with one another.  Within the Christian family and in the wide world.  To talk about an enthusiasm for justice and compassion.  For charity, acts of kindness.   As we sort through potluck dinners and coffee hours and meetings and conventions.   As we banter back and forth on Facebook.  The basis of every word of Moses on Sinai, of Jesus on the Mount.  Perhaps what we aim at in the baptismal service when we pledge ourselves to “respect the dignity of every human being.”  The giving of our very selves, our souls and bodies, as an offering, to be taken in by God, transformed in him.  To take on and to reflect and to become of his divine essence and perfection and holiness.

It is all beyond what anyone could reasonably expect.  But that’s what it is.  Let your love be unreasonably generous. Let your honesty be unreasonably pure.  Let your faithfulness be without limitation. Let your obedience be without a hint of grumbling.  Keep your promises even when you are being betrayed.  That’s how God loves you.  Let your desires and appetites be conformed perfectly to the direction of his heart, without distortion, washed clean of selfishness. 

There it is.  An intimidating set of expectations, no question about it.  And this isn't some state of life we get to simply by trying hard and rolling up our sleeves.   It can only happen as he works in us, as we open ourselves to hear his word, to come close, to be drawn in, to be breathed in, to become as incense rising on the ancient altar.  “by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”  Mercy and forgiveness, just to be the stuff you are made of, because that’s what God is made of.  Coming close to Jesus as Lord and Savior, to stand at his cross.  To be lifted up into his life.  To be holy as he is holy.  To be perfect as he is perfect.   Or as we say as we kneel before Holy Communion, that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

VI Epiphany, Septuagesima

Matthew 5: 21-27

Good morning to all, grace and peace, and a word once again of congratulations and appreciation.  I know it takes a good bit of will power to venture out on these winter mornings.  I would pray that the Spirit that brought you here will make of this day a special gift and blessing.  This Sixth Sunday in ordinary time after the Feast of the Epiphany coincides this year with the traditional date of Septuagesima—as those of us with longer memories of the calendars in earlier Prayer Books will remember the names of the three pre-Lent Sundays, Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima.  A kind of countdown, 70, 60, 50, anticipating then the 40 Days of the Wilderness of Lent—inviting us to a time of reflection and preparation.

We noted last week that the readings in Year A of our new revised three-year Sunday Eucharistic Lectionary have us reading along in the Sermon on the Mount.  Beginning first with the Beatitudes at the beginning, then shifting from general words about the character of a holy life to a rather strong and pointed moment with the disciples about the consequences of following him—what Dietrich Bonhoeffer back during the years of the war in Germany and in the context of faithful decisions that eventually led to his imprisonment and execution called “costly discipleship.”  Finally just where we left off last Sunday Jesus tells his friends that their obedience to the Law, their “righteousness,” must surpass even the obedience of the scribes and Pharisees, the great religious professionals of the day.  Because the character of their obedience will be judged not simply by their words, nor even by the care of their outward behavior, but by the consistency of word and action going all the way to the deepest secret corner of the heart.  In Matthew’s gospel when Jesus comes to the Jordan to be baptized by John, John objects.  “You’re the one who ought to baptize me.”  But Jesus says no, and using the same word as here.  “It is necessary for us to fulfill all righteousness.”  Complete obedience.  The journey that will take Jesus to the night of that prayer in the Garden, “not my will, but thine.”

The rest of the Sermon on the Mount, through Matthew, the territory we began to look at last Sunday,  chapters 5, 6, and 7, is how Jesus then begins to unpack for his disciples what all this means—“unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  We’re going to hear just the first part of this before our lectionary turns us in another direction as we get up to Lent, but this week and next week I think at least enough to see the direction.  

This morning three related points of what in old fashioned homiletics they used to call “application.”  Anger, infidelity, deception.  Then next Sunday two more points, each gathering more and more momentum until we reach the fireworks at the end of Chapter 5, in verse 48, the last sentence of next week’s gospel, when Jesus takes a deep breath and looks at his friends and says, “You, therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  

Just keep that goal in mind.   For those of us who strive to be good-enough students and good-enough friends and good-enough citizens, good-enough husbands or wives, good-enough parents, workers, neighbors, good-enough Christians, wow.  We were still reeling some at the idea of  improving upon the performance of the scribes and Pharisees, and now this.  When good-enough isn’t good enough.  “You therefore must be perfect, perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  Bar just seems to get higher and higher and higher: out of sight.

So we begin with Jesus and his sermon illustrations this morning.  “You have heard it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder.”  Which is of course in the 10 Commandments.   We’re all agreed on that?  Actually there isn’t that much agreement. Capital Punishment?  Euthanasia?  Abortion?  Combat?  Self-defense?  Things seemed simple for a minute, then not so much.  And then Jesus complicates the thing even more.   “But I say to you if you are angry, or if you insult a brother or sister, even if you just roll your eyes and murmur under your breath, “what an idiot,” you will be liable to the hell of fire.    So again, wow.   Diocesan clergy conference will never be the same . . . .  And what about when we kill someone’s aspirations?  Self-confidence?  Self-esteem?  Drilling down here.   Just a little comment to spoil your day.  To love God, to follow Jesus, is to hold in our hearts as precious whatever he holds as precious.  So precious that you would do anything to fix whatever has gone wrong between you and him.  

Standing with your gift at the altar.  Dressed up and  in church.  Drop the hymnal right where you’re standing, he says, and rush out the door, jump in the car, miss lunch, drive on through snow and rain, knock on the door hat in hand, not leave until what has gone wrong is set right.  Even if it’s all their fault, doesn’t matter--take the blame yourself.  I’ll pay the fine, whatever the cost, whatever it takes.  Otherwise, Jesus says, what exactly does it mean that you say you love me?   As they say, “talk is cheap.”

 Then on, as if that isn’t enough: “you have heard it was said, you shall not commit adultery.”  And it’s pretty clear Jesus here isn’t inviting us to a debate on what the meaning of “is” is . . . .  As if with husband and wife in a situation of marriage counseling it would be at all helpful to assure the other, “technically I’ve never been unfaithful to you.”   Probably not all that helpful.  And in an age of Victoria’s Secret t.v. ads and internet porn and the culture of the body. “If your right eye cases you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.”

And then this related point about divorce, Jesus repeating here what Mark reports him saying also in Mark 10 and what we hear later as well in the 19th Chapter of Matthew.  A lot to unpack, but to say that in the world of 1st century Palestine this rocked as many boats and challenged as many as it does today.  About marriage of course, but about a lot more than marriage.  About understanding marriage as more than a legal contract, like a car lease or a rental agreement, but as a place, we might say, a place where we have come to stand before him--a place that is marked and surrounded in the character of God’s holiness.  

We understand that this isn’t some kind of fierce Jesus telling us that there isn’t forgiveness and mercy and love and renewal when hard and bad things have happened in our lives.  Because that’s what he is all about.  Generosity.  Restoration.  But the whole point here is to draw us carefully into a new reality.  To follow me, Jesus says, is not like joining a college fraternity or registering in a political party or subscribing to public radio.  It’s not a club.  A hobby.  A special interest to pay attention to when convenient and then to toss aside when other concerns seem more pressing.  It’s about giving your life away to God, giving it away, in the confidence that the life he will certainly give back is one that has been transformed by his surpassing holiness.  Radiant and eternal.

You may need to follow the external requirements of this social order as it is passing away, of course.  But you no longer need to shake on it or sign at the bottom line or cross your heart.  You don’t have to swear at all.  Because you won’t just chose to tell the truth, when you decide that that’s what you want to do.  You will live in truth.  In the truth of your heavenly Father.   Of such an integrity that anything beyond your simple agreement would be entirely unnecessary.

If you thought it was going to be hard to be a Christian, but if you thought you’d roll up your sleeves and give it the old college try, the word for us this morning is, you might as well give up. Forget it.  Because it’s what you can’t do.  “You must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Again, not about trying harder in this life, but about trading this old life in for a new one.  Not about an act of will and force of discipline, but about a surrender to love.  That phrase in the General Thanksgiving that we say in Morning Prayer, “that we show forth thy praise not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to thy service . . . .”  Paul in First Corinthians 13.  Love seeks not its own way.  Why not have this be all about love, on St. Valentine’s Day weekend?  Why not?

It’s not that we can work harder and harder and get all this right.  And don’t get me wrong, it’s not that we don’t need to get it right.  We do.   But that we can become new people and good people and holy people only as we are drawn to him.  As we see Christ in one another, in the world around us, looking for him with joy in ourselves.  Then what seemed impossible will be as natural as breathing.

Think of it as a Valentine’s Day card from Jesus this morning.  Will you be mine? How we would answer, is the point of this Sermon on the Mount and the heart of the gospel.   If there can be a hymn to have rolling around in the back of our minds through these weeks leading toward Lent. 

Breathe on me, Breath of God, fill me with life anew, that I may love what thou dost love, and do what thou wouldst do.  Breathe on me, Breath of God, until my heart is pure, until with thee I will one will, to do, or to endure.  Breathe on me, Breath of God, till I am wholly thine, till all this earthly part of me glows with thy fire divine.  Breathe on me, Breath of God, so shall I never die; but live with thee the perfect life of thine eternity.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

V Epiphany

Matthew 5: 13-20

Grace and peace this winter morning.  In the Church Year we are in a moment of interval.  The space between the Super Bowl and the First Pitch on Opening Day.   Last Sunday: Candlemas and the 40th and  last day of Christmas. Next Sunday: Septuagesima and the first official “pre-lenten” Sunday of preparation for Lent, the next great season on the calendar.  This week, the “pause” button.  What happens in years with a later Easter . . . .

 A friend of mine posted a lovely quotation from the Roman Catholic priest and author Henri Nouwen.  “Patience is a hard discipline.  It’s not just waiting until something happens over which we have no control: the arrival of the bus; the end of the rain; the return of a friend; the resolution of a conflict. Patience is not a waiting passivity until someone else does something. Patience asks us to live the moment to the fullest, to be completely present to the moment, to taste the here and now, to be where we are. When we are impatient we try to get away from where we are.  We behave as if the real thing will happen tomorrow, later, and somewhere else.”  Then he concludes, “Let’s be patient and trust that the treasure we look for is hidden in the ground on which we stand.”

For this morning and the next couple of Sundays the lectionary has for us an appropriately pre-lenten opportunity for reflection on the fifth chapter of St. Matthew, the first few sections of the Sermon on the Mount.  Certainly a good way to get ready for Lent— reflecting with a patient heart on this extended homily from Jesus himself on the character and vocation of Christian discipleship.  

Because Candlemas and the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, with the gospel reading from Luke Chapter 2, fell on a Sunday this year, we missed last Sunday the first part of this Sermon on the Mount reading, the Beatitudes --and so this week we begin a couple of paragraphs down the page, at Chapter 5, verses 13-20.  But just to set that familiar background context for us.  We remember the opening of the Sermon, verses 1-10.  Jesus sees the crowd.  He goes up the side of this mountain with his disciples and begins to speak.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.  Blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the pure in heart, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake . . . .   

We hear these broad generalities.  Each a kind of benediction, opening a thematic vista for reflection on Christian life and virtue.  For individuals, and with application to the life of the church.  Sometimes we might think of this as an outline to describe what “holy” life might be like.  Each one a rich source for reflection, and then to think about how these interact one with another. 

Then as this opening come to an end, in a rhetorical shift of some dramatic weight Jesus turns to the disciples and looks them in the eye, we might say, and speaks to them directly.  Getting down to brass tacks.  Not just talking about general types.  Verses 11 and 12, what he says right before the beginning of our reading this morning: “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

He catches their attention and our attention too.   After those broad generalities, the direction of the wind changes.  Stormy weather seems to blow in out of nowhere.  As the saying goes, “up close and personal.”  Notice that Jesus doesn’t say that his disciples will be blessed “if” these hard things happen.  “When.” 

When Jesus calls his disciples, they drop their nets and leave home and family behind.  Costly discipleship.  The idea that that wasn’t just Peter and Andrew and James and John, but that something like that call and response is true for each and every follower of Jesus.  Remembering that haunting hymn that we often sing on St. Andrew’s Day.  “They cast their nets in Galilee.”  --“The peace of God it is no peace, but strife closed in the sod.”  Read ahead to the 10th chapter of Matthew after this Sermon comes to an end and Jesus and his disciples go out on their mission preaching and healing and confronting evil spirits, and Jesus comes back to this same theme with his disciples, as an inescapable theme, making our way down the highway from Bethlehem and Christmas to Jerusalem and Holy Week, not letting us rest with midnight angels and shepherds: “Beware of men, for they will deliver you up to councils, and flog you in their synagogues . . . .  Brother will deliver up brother to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake.”  (And if we think this is all about ancient days of Christians and lions in the coliseum we can pay attention next Sunday afternoon at Evensong when we honor the life of the martyred Archbishop of Uganda, Janani Luwum, who found himself on the wrong side of Idi Amin.)  Or see what’s going on for Christians in Syria, or Pakistan. 

In any event, this is just what comes before as we get to the passage in Matthew 5 this morning, framework and context, at verse 13.  Beginning with two metaphors, drilling down deeper into our thoughts and imaginations—to shape in a poetic way how we see ourselves when we try to understand who we are as Christians, as disciples.

You are the salt of the earth.  All kinds of associations, in the ancient world and still for us.  Salt as the essential flavoring.  To take what is bland and tasteless and without character and to bring out a fullness of flavor.  And of course salt as the essential preservative.  Without which food will lose not only its flavor but also its wholesomeness.  Especially vivid in a world without refrigeration.  Preventing rot and decay.  And not a thought from the first century, but I heard a great sermon once talking about how salt works on roads and sidewalks in the midst of a long winter like the one we are having this year.  Breaking up the ice, melting the snow.   The local news stories this week nervously headline the question of whether the city and county and outlying communities have enough salt on hand to deal with the challenges of this winter.  What will be the consequences of a shortage of salt?  Perhaps a vivid extension of the metaphor for us this winter . . . .

I’m not sure people in the wider world these days think this way about Christians very often.  How we might think of our own lives as Christians as being salt-like.  How we might think of what St. Andrew’s is as a parish community in this neighborhood, in the wider world.  Salt.   How the followers of Jesus bring flavor to an otherwise bland and tasteless world.  How the followers of Jesus work to make things that might be spoiled, rancid, toxic, now new and fresh and healthful.  Or spread on the ground far and wide as a quiet yet powerful force, breaking barriers and opening pathways.  Like any metaphor, a jumping off place for the imagination. If salt has somehow lost its ability to do these things, it’s worthless.  It may look like salt, but if it doesn’t do what salt does, what is it?  Nothing.  Worthless.   Again, a jumping off place for the imagination.

You are the light of the world.  I love those photographs from the Space Station as it orbits the earth—how from the vast distances of space you can see these flickering lights down below, towns and cities, glittering in the darkness like jewels.  In a world that can be so dark, and there is a lot of darkness.  You can read it in the newspaper, and you can find it closer to home, sometimes even staring right back at you in the bathroom mirror.  In a world covered in darkness, rolling back to us the Christmas Eve reading from John: “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.”  In a world that can be so dark, in Christ we are each with the potential to be bright and brilliant jewels.  Reflecting his perfect light.  Dazzling.  A coastal lighthouse at the mouth of a safe harbor in the night of a storm.  A lot of folks have come to know Christ because of great writers and teachers and preachers.  But I think just as often, and actually probably more often, they have come to know Christ because of the light that is reflected in the lives of Christians.  The tenderness and love and mercy and forgiveness and that we would know in Jesus shining through.   My life seemed dark and hopeless, and then I caught a glimpse of light.

It is Jesus of course and Jesus only who is the salt of the earth and light of the world. “The treasure we are seeking is hidden in the ground on which we stand.”  And he tells us how that happens, how in his presence death and darkness are overcome.  Which we may hear as a roadmap and direction—what it would mean to come close to him, to walk in his steps,   “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but fulfill.”   

It’s more than we can unpack this morning, but we will see it unfold in the coming sections of the Sermon on the Mount over the next few weeks.  How Jesus says that to come close to him, to be true salt and true light, is about not simply conforming outwardly with the formalities and legalism of the scribes and the Pharisees, who are all about keeping score and ordering the externals, but about exceeding their devotion, going farther, in a deeper perfection, a deeper obedience, with a renewal of the heart in an organic union of God’s Word, and of the Word made flesh.  I think we might say a life grounded in scripture and sacrament.  Not as observers at a distance, but as full participants in his witness, in his suffering, in his death, and in his resurrection.   Which is how we become salt and light.

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

Sunday, February 2, 2014

40th Day of Christmas, 2014


Prayer for the Blessing of Candles

God our Father,
Source of all light,
today you revealed to Simeon
Your light of revelation to the nations.
Bless + these candles and make them holy.
May we who carry them to praise your glory
walk in the path of goodness
and come to the light that shines forever
Grant this through Christ our Lord.

Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple

Almighty and everliving God, we humbly beseech thee that, as thy only-begotten Son was this day presented in the temple, so we may be presented unto thee with pure and clean hearts by the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Feast of the Purification of St. Mary the Virgin

Mary of the Grapes, Pierre Mignard, 1640

Thanksgiving and Prayer to Mary
by St. Augustine of Hippo

O Blessed Virgin Mary, who can worthily give you the just dues of praise and thanksgiving, you who by the wondrous assent of your will rescued a fallen world? What songs of praise can our weak human nature recite in your honor, since it is by your intervention alone that it has found the way to restoration?

Accept, then, such poor thanks as we have to offer here, though they be unequal to your merit; and, receiving our vows, obtain by your prayers the remission of our offenses. Carry our prayers within the sanctuary of the heavenly audience and bring forth the gift of our reconciliation.

Take our offering, grant us our requests, obtain pardon for what we fear, for you are the sole hope of sinners. Holy Mary, help the miserable, strengthen the fainthearted, comfort the sorrowful, pray for your people, plead for the clergy, intercede for all women consecrated to God.

Be ever ready to assist us when we pray and bring back to us the answers to our prayers. Make it your continual care to pray for the people of God, you who, blessed by God, merited to bear the Redeemer of the world who lives and reigns, world without end. Amen.

Groundhog Day


The Presentation of Christ in the Temple
The Purification of St. Mary the Virgin
Luke 2: 22-40

Grace and peace this morning, the 40th and last day of Christmas, really and truly, and as our Groundhog friend up in Punxatawney will have noticed this morning from the old English song, as Bill Ghrist reminded us at Bible Study this past Wednesday, “If Candlemas be fair and bright, come, Winter, have another flight; If Candlemas brings clouds and rain, Go Winter, and come not again . . . .”

In any event, whether in bright sunshine or under dense cloud cover, the midnight songs of the Angels over the shepherds and their flock have faded away into the distance, disappearing,  and the sounds we are hearing if we listen carefully this morning are a deep grinding, the machinery of the Church Calendar, this great and deep pivot just now beginning to wake up in the cold winter, to turn our perspective and point of view.  Away from Bethlehem, the Manger, the Holy Family, and on to that far horizon where before we know it, just a couple of weeks now, it will be Septuagesima, the first pre-Lenten rising in the grade of the road that will lead us in a slow, deliberate march up to Jerusalem, and Holy Week, and Good Friday, and the Cross.

In the year I turned 13 my family drove across country from California to the East Coast, and I remember a lunch stop along the way at a point along the Continental Divide.  A sign indicated the place, and each of us in turn had our picture taken with one foot on one side, one on the other.  If it had been raining that day, I guess, the rain falling on my left hand side, if I was facing North, would have found its way gradually to the Pacific, while any rain dripping on my right would have run on through the great Mississippi Watershed and the Gulf and finally to the Atlantic.  The image certainly caught my imagination.  And that’s where we are today, for this watershed moment, Candlemas, turning from Bethlehem and one foot forward now onto the Road to Jerusalem.

For St. Luke the story of Christmas ends right where it begins.  Echoes of T.S. Eliot and the beginning of his poem East Coker.  “In my beginning is my end.” 

We might remember with our Advent memories the beginning of the story in Luke, which is the prelude about the birth of John the Baptist.  Beginning at the 5th verse of chapter 1, to read that again:  “In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah; and he had a wife of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.  And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.  But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.  Now while he was serving as a priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, it fell to him by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense, and there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense.  And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him.  But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer is heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.  And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth.”

All that time ago.  And remembering Zechariah’s great song at the birth of John.  The Matins canticle, the Benedictus.  “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people.” And now here at the end of Christmas.  The world has kept on turning.  But “in my beginning is my end.”  And a husband and a wife to fulfill all righteousness, in accordance with the Law of Moses, make their appointed offering at the holy altar of the Temple of the Lord.  And the Evensong canticle, from old Simeon.  “Lord, now lettest  thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word.  For my eyes have seen thy salvation, which though has prepared in the presence of all peoples.  

From Simeon’s hymn in the Temple we get the name for the season.  “A light to lighten the gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.”  The old custom of the blessing and distribution of candles, to be taken home and placed in all the windows of the village.  A reminder of the one who is the Light of the World.

And then the turn, the pivot, as the baby is returned to the arms of his Blessed Mother.  “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts out of many may be revealed.”

All Lent and Holy Week.  You can almost hear the hammer pounding on the nails.  The blending of musical chords.  The last whisper of Silent Night giving way to the Good Friday hymn.  O sorrow deep!  Who would not weep, with heartfelt pain and sighing!  God the Father’s only Son in the tomb is lying.” It hardly seems like we have time to blink, and beyond this mother and her precious Child we catch a fleeting glimpse of the Pieta.  “A sword will pierce through your own soul also.”

All this, beginning and ending, the broad reach of the holy story that will come to frame each of our lives, to mark each of us, in the  Temple of the Lord.  “How lovely is thy dwelling place, O Lord of Hosts!  My soul longs, yea, faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God.” Where this story takes place.  The beginning and ending.  So Malachi, the Prophet whose name means God’s Messenger:  “Thus says the Lord, See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.”  So the Letter to the Hebrews, “Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.”

And as we hear the story once again this year come in our imaginations to the great Temple of Jerusalem and watch with Mary and Joseph in this last moment of Christmas and as the old bumper sticker would say, to know this Candlemas, this morning, February 2, “the first day of the rest of our lives,” to remember St. Paul as he wrote to the Christians of Corinth, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple, and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”  

This story not just about something that happened a long time ago and far away.  True for us now, as we would open our eyes and our ears and our minds and our hearts to welcome him.  Christmas ornaments boxed up and carried to the attic for another year.  But even so--always Christmas, always Good Friday, always Easter.  The great word of the Prophet Habbakkuk as we sometimes will hear at Morning Prayer, not in the past tense, put always in the present, here and now, with Ancient Israel, with the Holy Family, with you and me.   The Lord is in his holy temple.  Let all the earth keep silence before him.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

At the Burial Office, for Sandy Ferguson

Sandra Kay Ashcraft Ferguson
May 13, 1949 - January 14, 2014

Jesus speaks to his disciples in the 14th chapter of St. John:  “Whither I go, ye know, and the way ye know.”  He says this in the night of the Last Supper, with the whole story of Good Friday and the Cross about to play out for him and for his friends, and for all of us, at all times and in all places, unfolding in our hearts and imaginations generation after generation.  You know where I’m going, and you know how to get there.

It is very much for me--and I know I would be speaking for every one of us here—very much an honor and a privilege to share this afternoon in this service for Sandy Ferguson.  To remember her life in all its richness.  Daughter, Sister, Wife, Mother, Co-worker, Mentor, Friend.  In her work and career, in the life of her family, in all her creative interests.  Especially to share in the sorrow of loss with Bob, with Linea and Rob, 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.

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

In the ten years that I’ve known Sandy, since she and Bob moved here from Chicago,  there has been so much that has impressed me about her, so much about her and about her friendship that I have enjoyed.  Her warmth, her generosity, her wonderful hospitality—and how much she enjoyed filling the table with great food and welcoming friends from the neighborhood, the church, family.  For the Super Bowl, or for a Summer Book Discussion evening.  Her smile and her laughter.  And thinking about those Book Discussion evenings, her thoughtful insights and careful reflections.  Thinking about how much she enjoyed her work—just the perfect blending of gifts and personality and knowledge in the care of others.  And then when she retired, thinking about the way she continued with such creativity, such wonderful work with arts and crafts.  Thinking about her interests coming together in the neighborhood holiday arts and crafts boutiques that she organized for us all here at St. Andrew’s.  About the interest and enjoyment that she felt in the service and ministry of our parish Altar Guild—the great friends she made here in that work, the good humor of her work, the care and diligence in the preparation of the altar.  

A woman of prayer and steady faith.  Not exactly a starry-eyed mystic, perhaps, but who knew deeply and experientially the presence and care of God.  As we’ve said in sharing stories, a woman who had heard the voice of an angel.  And how that faith sustained her through this long illness.  Knowing Christ as Lord and Savior, confident that with all the ups and downs of doctors and treatments she was always secure in his hands.

“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 . . . .  I am the way, the Truth, the Life.  No man cometh unto the Father but by me.”  It may seem on first appearance that we’re traveling alone, but that’s not the case.  He is with us every step of the way, every hour, every minute.

Remembering--Bob, Rob, Linea-- the afternoon we shared Christmas Communion together around Sandy’s bed in the hospital, just a few weeks ago, as she was over and over again covered with prayer and anointed with holy oil, to hear assurance of God’s blessing. 

“The Almighty Lord, who is a strong tower to all who put their trust in him, to whom all things in heaven, on earth, and under the earth bow and obey: be now and evermore your defense, and make you know and feel that the only Name under heaven given for health and salvation is the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

A word for Sandy that comes to my mind with clarity as I think about this illness, and with thanks for all the doctors and nurses and all the caregivers who have been a part of this story, and especially in these past months-- the word for Sandy is courage.  And I know I think all of us who walked a little bit of that road with you, Bob, Rob, Linea, I think all of us saw this, felt this, experienced it.  In you, in all the family, and most especially in her.  Not that there weren’t tender moments, or not that times of hope and encouragement weren’t also followed by anxiety and discouragement.  But courage.  A word that comes from the word for heart.  And in all those hours, all those days, we so clearly could see her great and generous heart.  A courageous life.

The Funeral Sentences from the ancient prayers and scripture of the Church, “In the midst of life we are in death.”  Thinking how very fragile we are in this short life.  How precious every day is.  Bob, as you have shared a little about how so much of all the years of your marriage have been distilled in a special and meaningful way in these days.  How precious every day is—the highlights and Red Letter Days, but also the ordinary days, making a home and a life together. 

And so wonderful to see the photos you’ve collected to share just a few reminders of all that.  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, a real gift—and of course a gift that comes with no guarantee.  Even when we say, “see you tomorrow,” we don’t really know.   And so as we come together hear, to remember, to comfort one another, to give thanks, we might also hear an invitation.  Sandy might be an inspiration for us in this way.  Courageously, with a great and open and tender heart,  to love one another, to enjoy the good gift of the life, the family and friends God has given us.

In the sure and certain hope of life in Christ Jesus, what we all have to be about this afternoon, with memories, 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, serving God and one another, knowing that to be such a privilege.  And putting our hope in him.  Entrusting ourselves and those we love to him.

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.  

“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.”

If you would please stand with me now and we will in the smaller Book of Common Prayer turn to page 53, where we would say together the ancient and timeless Apostles’ Creed, the core affirmation of Christian identity and faith, and after we’ve said the Creed, to remain standing and to turn in the larger hymnal as we would sing together Hymn #  671,  joining our voices here, and I know Sandy will be singing with us in the choir of heaven.  Amazing Grace.