Sunday, March 30, 2014

Fourth in Lent, Laetare

(Year A) I Samuel 16: 1-13; John 9: 1-41

Laetare Ierusalem.  The first words in the traditional Latin Mass Introit for this Fourth Sunday in Lent, from the 66th chapter of Isaiah.  Laetare Sunday, as it says on the front page of the leaflet.  The ancient choirs singing over the centuries, to lift our hearts from heavy weight of exile:  Rejoice, O Jerusalem: and come together all you that love her: rejoice with joy, you that have been in sorrow: that you may exult, and be filled . . . .

Something of a pause, a resting place, along this journey of Lent.  Laetare.  A green and oasis on the trek through the wilderness.  A place of shade, out of the midday sun.  Sometimes called “Refreshment Sunday.”  Also in England called “Mothering Sunday”-- and in the Downton Abbey households of the great aristocracy a day when the upstairs family would fend for themselves and the downstairs staff would be given the day to go home for a family visit.  Ancestor of our contemporary “Mother’s Day” customs.   In churches where Lent is observed with a more rigorous discipline, the purple paraments and eucharistic vestments replaced (to be clear about this, not with pink, but) with rose-colored hangings and vestments.  The one Sunday in Lent when you might have flowers on the altar and something more than coffee and tea on the table at coffee hour.  Not a time to throw all our Lenten observance overboard.  Not yet a time for the trumpets and feasting of Easter.  But to relax the disciplines just a bit.  

A reminder, just in case we have been feeling a little tweak of spiritual pride in our seasonal austerity, that we aren’t earning our salvation here, but learning our salvation.  It’s not about working harder and being perfect, some energetic climbing of the holiness ladder, but about learning to practice our mindfulness, to remember, to awaken from sleep, in the living presence of the Lord whose property it is always to have mercy. To embrace the gift that has already been won on the Cross.  To learn again and again year in and year out in the long gestation of our Christian life that it is only by his grace and love that we can have any hope for this life or for the life to come.  It’s not about us, about all our busyness and accomplishments, not even about our best moments, our good deeds and admirable character.  It’s about him, about Jesus, and only about him.  Rejoice with joy, you that have been in sorrow: that you may exult, and be filled . . . .

There just isn’t any way to live as Christians except with joy.  So St. Paul: “Rejoice in the Lord always.  Again, I say rejoice.”  Philippians 4:4.  Perhaps remembering the title of C.S. Lewis’s spiritual autobiography: “Surprised by Joy.”   All joy, blessing, and peace.  There’s Easter joy and Christmas joy and Pentecost joy, and there is Advent joy, and Lenten joy, and Holy Week joy, even on the way to the Cross.  I guess especially on the way to the Cross.  

To feel that joy in our hearts this morning of Laetare.  Even as we take a deep breath and prepare ourselves for the last leg of the journey on toward Holy Week and Good Friday.  The season something of a metaphor for our day to day lives, citizens of the Kingdom still in exile, strangers in a strange land.  A reminder of our true citizenship.  Not to say there aren’t times of pain and suffering, disappointment and loss.  Sometimes crushing us.    In every one of our lives.   Illness and injury, failure, accidents and landslides.  I’m not preaching a prosperity gospel, at least as we measure prosperity by the ordinary metrics of the world around us.  The ancient Covenant doesn’t make things any easier for the Israelites; the new Covenant doesn’t make things any easier for Christians.  Wealth and health and happiness, all wonderful when we can have them of course.   Ephemeral as they may be.   And I would hope and pray that we would each and all of us have that and in abundance.  But that’s not what the joy we would talk about on this Laetare Sunday is about. 

Two images.

Old Samuel.  Years ago Prophet and Man of God had anointed Saul to be Israel’s first King, and now that is turning out badly.   Instead of unity and peace there is division and conflict.  Instead of faithful obedience and a renewal of the ancient Covenant there is rebellion and betrayal.  And now God has directed the Old Man to the country home of Jesse, just outside Bethlehem.  And as Jesse’s sons are paraded one after the other before him, Samuel’s heart begins to despair.  Fine, strapping young men, strong and noble.  Regal.  But the Lord remains silent.  Finally with a sigh: are there no others?  And the teenaged David, scrawny adolescent, is reluctantly brought in from the back 40.  Really, Lord?  Really?  This is the one?   And Samuel takes a breath, brings out his flagon of oil.  This decisive moment in the long purpose of salvation history.  “Young Man, God has a great plan for your life.” 

Hard not to remember the words of the Prophet in the second part of the Book of Isaiah right here, chapter 55: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” No kidding.  This reversal of expectations.  Exactly opposite what we would do.  How God works sideways, from the off angle.  Upside down.  Through the small, the weak, the broken.  The last first, the first last.

And the Man Born Blind.  This odd procedure—if that’s the right way to talk about it.   Mostly  Jesus just says a word.  Or with a gentle touch. But here, spitting on the ground, taking the mud and smearing it across his eyes.  Almost a kind of deep and distant echo of Genesis 2, as God made the first man from the dust of the ground.  New and renewed creation, new and renewed humanity.  A foretaste and hint of the perfect healing that we will know in him, as we come to know him perfectly.  “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”  And of course the transformation, the words of the song that echo down the centuries, “one thing I do know, I once was blind, (but) now I see.”  “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”  Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound!

Be joyful, Jerusalem; be joyful Highland Park.  Good Christian people of St. Andrew’s.  It’s Lent, and the season for joy.  Not with trumpets, but in the deep quiet of our hearts.  God has a great plan for your life, for our lives.  Even if we are an assembly of odd ducks.  A great plan: we need to hear that, and to believe it.  As it was a reality for David, a reality for the Man Born Blind.  A great plan for our lives, in this life and for eternal life.   Gathered to hear God’s Word, to know the assurance of his real presence, to go out through these open doors to communicate the good news by word and deed.  Not only with our lips but in our lives.   Laetare.  Rejoice, Jerusalem of God.  The curtain is beginning to open to reveal the great celebration of his victory.  For each one of us.  The dark shadow of the cross giving way even in this Lent to the radiance of the Third Day.  Refreshment.  Our eyes opened as if for the first time.  Born blind, but now we see.  Light shining in every dark corner.  The oil of gladness flowing in abundance, anointing us with his mercy, his healing, his forgiveness, his love. 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Third in Lent

Year A: Exodus 17: 1-7, John 4: 5-42

Again good morning, as we continue our way now at the Third Sunday of Lent.  It’s often noted that the English word “Lent” comes from the same early English root as our words “long” or “lengthen,” and refer specifically to the season of the lengthening of the day, spring.  In these weeks before Holy Week and Easter a time of reflection, penitence, preparation—but also in the midst of that, to see and experience transformation and renewal, as the blanket of snow and ice and cold as we have lived through the long winter now gives way to the first signs of bright and warm new life beginning to emerge.  Maybe it doesn’t quite feel like it this chilly morning, but it is on its way! 

A meaningful and poetic analogy of image for the encounter we have in the great cycle of the church year with the pattern of our response to the gift of God, his grace and love in Christ Jesus, recognizing our sin and in repentance and in the commitment to an amendment of life to know and experience the spiritual renewal in his promise.  The awareness of sin, we might say, as the first and perhaps the most certain sign of the gift of God’s grace and power.  Even that awareness comes only by his generous action.  

That moment in the story of the Prodigal Son when the Wastrel has spent his inheritance and is plunged into the depths of ruin.  And in Luke 15: 17 as Jesus is telling the story, “and when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare . . . .  I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you . . . .”  Again, “when he came to himself.”  The literal meaning of "repent," the imperative “metanoite:” “get a different consciousness.”  Get your head on straight.  Wake up and turn around.  What can be and probably should be an incredibly painful moment.  But also again, pure gift.  The first moment of God’s gracious hand reaching into our lives.  As he acts first, while we are still deep in our sleep, deep in our denial.  Quoting again the words of John 3:16 as we heard them in the readings appointed last Sunday, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Now, in the study of new languages we always need to be alert for what my 7th grade French teacher called “des faux amis.”  False friends.  Words that look to be so similar to, even exactly like, words of our own language that we mistakenly assume a common definition.  It can get you into trouble.   So here this morning from the first words of our Old Testament reading simply to say that the Hebrew word translated here as the “wilderness of Sin” has nothing to do with the spiritual condition of the Israelites and the rebellion against God that we heard about in Genesis last Sunday.

 It’s pure and simple a geographical marker of a region of the Sinai peninsula.  We know “Mount Sinai.”  From that same word.   And if we were reading the Bible in a German translation this morning we wouldn’t pause.   But you can’t help noticing. Because we are reading in English, and this is of course what the story is about.  The sin that goes all the way down in us.  Through and through. 

The great multitude liberated from slavery in Egypt by God’s mighty arm, passing through the Red Sea with the waters parted like great walls of either side.  Coming to the Holy Mountain of smoke and flame to receive the great commands of God and the foundation of Torah, the Law, that will define and constitute their identity and purpose.  But then day after day, in the desert heat, under the open sky, hunger and thirst, the weakest struggling to keep up.  Weeks turn into months, months into years.  Conflicts arise within, there are battles with Bedouin tribes, conflicts with those through whose lands they are passing.  Even the essentials of life at risk.  “At least in Egypt we had food to eat, water to drink.”  Who is this Moses, anyway?   Can we trust him?  We’ve followed, we’ve heard him speak of how God called him, of how God spoke to him on the mountain.  The God of Moses.  We trusted for a while, but now we need to see some results.  He says “have faith, the Lord will provide.”  But that’s not enough, not any more.  Give us something to drink! 

And at the Lord’s command, in the midst of all this grumbling and rebellion, in the heart of the “wilderness of sin,” Moses strikes the rock, and pure water flows.

Or as St. Paul puts it in Romans 5, the theological framework for the waking up of the Prodigal Son, “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  While we were still wandering in that wilderness, before we even knew how lost we were.

What the faithless people of Israel deserved, after all that God had done for them, was nothing.  “Go ahead, then, all right, go on back to Egypt.  See how you like it.”  But what they got was more than they deserved.  In the wilderness of Sin, the water of life, a renewal of hope, an expression of love. 

And so the Samaritan Woman at Jacob’s Well.  So lost in the “Wilderness of sin” of her life that she won’t even dare to show her face at the well in the early morning, when the women of the village would normally go to supply their homes and families. 

She comes in the noonday heat, when the neighbors are having their siesta and no one will see.  And she dances around in this repartee with Jesus.   Hiding her brokenness she thinks, avoids the subject of her true condition. 

And yet Jesus stays with her, and in a word reveals and shares with her such an abundance of grace and affection, his very self, that she is at once convicted and absolved, exposed and freed.  Dying to an old life, and rising in a miraculous transformation to be not simply renewed herself but to be the catalyst for others.  Those who wouldn’t speak to her, those to whom she wouldn’t dare to show her face—they are now suddenly lifted up with her to a new life.  This amazing converted village of Samaritans.  Inviting Jesus to come and stay with them, receiving him as guest and knowing and proclaiming him as their Savior.

The Israelites don’t manage their successful crossing of the wilderness of Sin because of their Boy Scout Camping skills, and they certainly don’t get to the Promised Land because they have shown themselves worthy.   The Samaritan Woman and her village neighbors don’t receive the blessings of new life in Jesus because they worshipped in the right words and ceremonies or because of their moral purity. 

It all comes to them as a gift, free.  More than they deserve.  An abundance beyond measure, when they really deserved nothing at all. 

If we could know this to be our story in Lent.   What that long reading of Psalm 51 on Ash Wednesday is all about.  “I have sinned O Lord, I have sinned, and I know my wickedness only too well.”  The long look into the mirror in the morning.

The awareness of where we are, in the "wilderness of sin," we might say, as the most certain sign there is of the gift of God’s grace and power.  Why Lent is such a blessing.  I had no idea how hungry I was, until he fed me.  I had no idea how thirsty I was, until from the Rock there flowed a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.

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

Monday, March 17, 2014

Patrick of Ireland

Our preacher at Choral Evensong Sunday afternoon, March 16, was our good friend the Rev. Dr. Philip Wainwright--Priest Associate of St. Andrew's Church and Priest-in-Charge of Episcopal Ministry at the University of Pittsburgh.  Propers for the service were for Patrick of Ireland: First Thessalonians 2: 2-12, and Matthew 28: 16-20.

There was a book in the shops a few years ago called ‘How the Irish saved
Civilization’. It grabbed a lot of people’s attention by its audacious
claim, although the title wasn’t quite true—but there was enough truth in it
that no one would blame the author for catching people’s attention with it.
Well, anything the Irish can do, the English can do too; so I’m going to say
that Patrick was an English Protestant who saved the Irish! Not quite true,
but true enough that I hope I won’t be blamed for getting your attention
that way either.

The weakest part of my claim is that he was English: Patrick was born
sometime around the year 400 AD, in what is now England, but it really isn’t
fair to use that name at that period. It was then a province of the Roman
Empire called Britanniae. Patrick almost certainly thought of himself as a
Roman, a citizen of the Empire, although Roman protection was withdrawn from
Britain when he was still a boy. He was born into an important family in a
small and unimportant town. He refers to himself as ‘noble’, and says that
his father was a Decurion, a member of the local governing body. He was also
born into a Christian family, indeed into an ecclesiastical family. His
father was a deacon as well as a decurion, and his grandfather was a priest.
Patrick, however, was careless of spiritual things in his youth: ‘we
departed from God, and we kept not His precepts,’ he tells us of himself and
his friends.

From the coast near his home, you could see across to Ireland, which was not
part of the Empire, and was considered the home of barbarians. When he was
sixteen, a boatload of Irish warriors came ashore, and captured him and many
others and took them back to Ireland to be sold as slaves. Patrick ended up
at a little village in the north-west, and was given the job of looking
after his owner’s cattle. He was sure he had been taken into slavery as
punishment by God for his ‘departure’ from Him, and he began to take
spiritual matters seriously. He tells us that he prayed hundreds of times a
day. After a few years, a dream came to him in which he heard God say,
‘because of your fasting, you shall soon go home.’ A few nights later he had
another dream, in which he heard God say that his ship was now ready. So
Patrick, now 22, ran away to find his ship. When he got to the coast he
found a ship, just getting ready to set sail. After a bit of confusion, they
took him to France, where he seems to have stayed about three years,
studying Christianity, and was perhaps ordained to the diaconate there. From
there he eventually was able to get back to his family in England.

But not long after he returned home, he had another dream. In this dream he
saw a man from Ireland with hundreds of letters addressed to him. He opened
one, and saw that it was headed ‘The voice of the Irish’. As he looked at
the words, he could hear voices, and they were the voices of the people he
had known in Ireland, and they were ‘crying as though with one voice, “We
beg you, holy boy, to come and walk again among us.”’ He realised that this
was not because of any personal quality of his, but because they wanted the
faith that he had come to have while a slave in Ireland. He tells us that he
was ‘stung with remorse’ at his absence from them, and he went back to
Ireland, never to leave it again. He is assumed to have been consecrated as
a bishop before going, but only because his devotees could not imagine
anything else; he himself says only ‘I am a bishop, appointed by God, in
Ireland. I consider that I have received what I am from God,’ which could
mean many different things. Once there, he preached the gospel, made
converts, organized them into churches, and raised up local leadership
everywhere. Within 200 years, he was the almost legendary founder of the
Irish church, which became an institution of great importance for European
history—not quite ‘saving civilization’, but certainly functioning as a
major factor in the transmission of civilization during Europe’s dark ages,
and (more importantly) sending evangelists to preach the gospel in Scotland,
England, and the European mainland. Patrick brought the word of salvation to
the Irish, through which God saved their souls, so even if it’s not quite
true that he was English, he was certainly God’s instrument to save the

My third claim, that Patrick was a Protestant, will take a little longer to
explain than these other two. Protestants, of course, are those who believe
that the Bible, the word of God, has an authority higher than the traditions
of the church, no matter how venerable, an authority higher than its current
opinions, no matter how sensible. You may not have any trouble accepting
that Patrick believed the Bible to have that authority; what you may find
harder to believe is that the church of his day did not believe in
evangelising Barbarians like the Irish, and it was over that issue that
Patrick defied the church and obeyed the higher authority of the Word of

During the first five centuries AD, the Roman Empire believed itself to be
the civilized world, with nothing outside it except savagery. Now it’s true
that the Romans knew about India and China, and they were aware that those
cultures were civilized even in the Roman sense of the word, but they were
so far away that they did not really enter into the thinking of the average
citizen of the Empire. As far as day to day life was concerned, there was
the Empire, civilization, and beyond its borders there was nothing but
savagery. Within the Empire there were cities full of luxurious houses,
stately public buildings, shops, libraries, theatres, paved roads stretching
for hundreds of miles linking the great cities and the smaller towns. There
were differences from one place to another, but the differences were less
important than the similarities, and in all important respects, there was a
single civilization, Romanitas, Roman-ness. Outside the Empire there was
just desert to the south and east, populated by strange nomadic tribes who
didn’t stay in one place long enough to acquire civilisation; forests full
of wild animals to the north, populated by the ‘barbarians’— savages whose
language sounded like ‘bar bar bar’, and who didn’t have the mental capacity
to be civilised. To the west there were a few rocky islands on the edge of
the endless sea with small civilised communities in the south and barbarians
in the north.

When Christianity settled down in this setting, it began to acquire this
attitude. In the very beginning, Christianity spread in Jewish society, but
by the end of the 1st century, there were far more gentile, ie Roman
Christians than Jewish ones, and the number of Jewish ones was declining. By
the end of the 2nd century, Christianity was basically a Roman religion,
although pockets of Jewish Christianity survived for another couple of
centuries in some places.

After the period of the apostles, not only there was no attempt by the
church to spread the gospel outside the Empire, but by the 4th century the
church came to believe that it would be wrong to try. ‘Roman and barbarian
are as distinct from one another as are four-footed beasts from humans’,
wrote the Christian Prudentius around the year 390. Once the gospel had been
preached throughout the Roman Empire, wrote another Christian, Hesychius in
418, the command to preach the gospel to all nations had been fulfilled, and
further evangelism was useless, because Christ’s return was imminent. The
church believed it would not survive the attempt: ‘The priesthood… does not
exist among barbarian peoples… it would not be safe if it did,’ wrote Bishop
Optatus of Milevis in 360 or so.

Christianity did spread outside the Empire, but it did so as people from the
Empire were required by business or military service to live outside the
Empire. They continued to live as Christians, they raised their children as
Christians, and eventually there might be enough of them in a particular
place that they would write back to the church in the Empire and ask for
clergy to be sent to them so that they could participate in the full life of
the church. There was even such a church in Ireland, at the other end of the
island, before Patrick, under a bishop named Palladius. But Palladius would
not have dreamed of spreading the gospel elsewhere in Ireland.

St Augustine was the first to consider the possibility that such work should
be undertaken. He lived in the days when Rome was finally sacked by
barbarian soldiers, after a thousand years of being the richest and most
powerful city on the face of the earth. He wrote a book about it called the
‘City of God’, and in that book he argued that Christians were in fact
strangers and sojourners even in the civilization of the Roman Empire. And
he wrote a reply to Hesychius saying that the gospel had not been proclaimed
to all nations if it had not been proclaimed to the barbarians too. But to
Augustine it remained a theoretical idea; although a bishop in north Africa,
with barbarian tribes living in the desert to the south, Augustine never
sent an evangelist to them, any more than Palladius sent an evangelist to
the barbarians in the northern part of Ireland. A contemporary of Augustine,
a man known as Prosper of Aquitaine, took up Augustine’s ideas in a book
called De Vocatione Omnium Gentium, ‘On the Calling of all Nations’, but he
specifically ruled out any active evangelism to them; he argued that God
would save them without human intervention. Patrick’s family, and the church
of his home town, tried to stop him going. Only a century after Patrick’s
time did the church begin a serious mission to the Barbarians, sending
Augustine to Canterbury to convert the Anglo-Saxons—and even that was
motivated as much by the desire to get there before the Irish did as by
Jesus’s commission to the church.

So Patrick was the first we know of to call the church to return to Biblical
teaching, and to take the gospel to barbarians in the full conviction that
God desired their salvation too. And he specifically quoted Scripture as
justifying, even insisting that he do so, citing among others the Great
Commission at the end of Matthew’s gospel. And he did so despite a personal
experience that might have driven him to hate barbarians, and with which all
of us would have sympathized. And that’s the great example that Patrick
provides for us: someone who compared what he read in God’s word with what
he saw in the church, and said, ‘It’s time we started living the way God
wants us to.’ There really is a sense in which Patrick can be seen as an
early Protestant—he’s certainly one of the first to point out that the
church of his day had wandered from the task God gave it, and that it should
get back to it. If the saints do pray for those of us still in this life,
Patrick’s prayers are with all those in our church who have compared the
teaching of the church with the teaching of God’s word and seen that we have
departed from God’s word, and are hoping, perhaps even working, for
obedience like Patrick’s. May we all be among them, and may God prosper us
as He prospered the work of Patrick.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Second in Lent

Year A, Gen 12: 1-4; Romans 4: 1-5, 13-17; John 3: 1-17
Baptism of Nolan Charles Nachreiner

Good morning, grace and peace this Second Sunday in Lent, and in the midst of this spiritually rich and meaningful season what a great privilege to join with the Nachreiner family to celebrate and witness the transformational power of God as Nolan is presented to be passed through the deep waters of baptism and in the affirmation of Christian identity and life to be adopted as a child of God and numbered in the household of faith.  Lately we’ve been saying a lot that “big things are happening around St. Andrew’s,” and this morning we can say with certainty that it doesn’t ever get any bigger than this.

This is not of course a stand-alone moment, for Nolan and his family, for any of us.  To be woven into a continuous fabric of lifelong discipleship, individually and in community.  Not the end of something, but a beginning, the spiritual foundation of prayer and incorporation—and on this foundation we will all of us—mom and dad and family, godparents, friends, Church School teachers, members of the congregation, each and every one of us here this morning will have a critical role to play, building all the richness of Christian life in our prayers and in our affection and support, in the example we give in our lives, in our stewardship of resources, in our work in the mission and ministry of the church.  This just “Day One.”   As the saying goes, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.”  We make this promise to do “all in our power,” and of course I know we would all of us desire to take that seriously.

John Richardson, a Church of England priest who is also what I guess these days we call an “Internet Friend” of mine in the Facebook and Social Media sense, wrote about this recently I think both for his parish and as a proposed baptismal resource for the wider church.  He reminded us, and I’m quoting here, that “to be effective, the outward act of baptism in water must be joined with inward faith in the Word of God.  It is therefore necessary for this child to be brought up as a believer if he is to enjoy the benefits which will be promised to him today.  In baptism he will be united with Christ.  He will be buried with Christ in his death, and so he must die to sin in his own life.  And he will be raised to new life with Christ in his resurrection, no longer to live in slavery to sin but as a servant of righteousness and a child of God.  Therefore as we praise our God who gives us these great blessings, so we also pray that he will grant this child grace to believe, and his parents the wisdom and ability to bring him up to love God as his Father, to obey Christ as his Savior, and to walk in step with the Holy Spirit as his guide and comforter.”

And again, I would emphasize, not only his parents, though they will have a primary role, and his godparents, who stand in we might say as special, deputized representatives of the Christian family.  But then also, all of us.  As we will join together in a renewal and reaffirmation of our own baptismal vows, remembering the work begun and continuing in us, and then as we join in that great welcome after the baptismal rite, “We receive you into the household of God. Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.”  Nolan will hear these words this morning, I suppose, but I don’t know that they’ll mean too much to him right now!  A lot of noise, friendly and loving voices, the splashing of water.  But in the years to come, it would be my hope and prayer that that the things we say this morning will unfold in clear and meaningful ways, that he would hear them and see them lived out in his family and in the Christian family day by day.  That these words of invitation and a life of Christian companionship would be spoken with an intentionality and a self-evident reality, not simply with our lips, but in our lives.

Great readings this morning for a baptism!  To pause just here for a moment on our way to the font.  The call of Abraham!  Wow.  And even more critically, the response of Abraham, in the last verse.  This the vocational turning point and key moment in the great drama of redemption.  Out in the plains of ancient Mesopotamia, we can already see shimmering in these words the image of Jesus and his Cross, and the life of this Christian family, every step of the way.  God chooses, speaks, invites.   “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  Think of the words of Jesus in John 12 over us at every service of worship here at St. Andrew’s, “And I if I be lifted up from the earth will draw all men unto me.”  And Abraham says yes.  Actually, he doesn’t even seem to need to say the words.  He puts it into action.  Might remind us of the words Mary will speak when she hears the angel.  “Let it be to me according to your word.”    So much meaning in those simple words in verse 4, “So Abram went, as the Lord had told him.”  That’s the key.  He gets up, he puts his “yes” into action.  Abraham places his trust, his hope, his self-understanding, in the God who has called him.

And then John 3.  Must be the perfect reading for a baptism!  Nicodemus makes this risky passage under the cover of darkness.  Not led we see by simple curiosity, but with the deepest hope in his heart that in this Jesus God was himself fulfilling his promise to Abraham.  He struggles with it.  Can I even know myself a blessing, broken as I am?  Can this old dog learn new tricks?  And to hear Jesus speak the word about what is possible, as the Holy Spirit brings forth for us new birth, regeneration, renewal. Water and spirit.  What we’re all  about this morning.  A second birth, from above, in the power of God. 

It is all about what our local New Testament scholar Dr. Ken Bailey calls the central message of the Cross, to make present for us God’s unexpected gift of costly love.  The present is loss, but the future is bright.  For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, fully everything of himself, putting himself on the line, all that he is, Creator, Master, Lord of Heaven and Earth, for us.  The cross rising up in view in this Second Lenten Sunday in that ancient desert as God calls Abraham, and in that secret nighttime conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus.  All about the cross.  God giving himself for us.  So that everyone who believes in him should not perish, but should have everlasting life.  That all the world may know conciliation and forgiveness and blessing in him. 

Thank you, Jennifer and Eric, --Nolan, thank you!—and family, godparents, good people of St.  Andrew’s.  A great morning for celebration in that Holy Spirit rushing down upon us from on high, and a great morning in the splashing of water in the old font here at St. Andrew’s Church, a great morning for each of us to refresh and renew our obedience and our love.  That’s St. Paul in Second Corinthians 5: If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.  The old has passed away.  Behold, all things have become new.

So now with big smiles and full hearts, simply, Eric and Jennifer, if you could bring Nolan and his godparents forward, and we can turn together to the order for Holy Baptism as it continues in our Service Leaflet . . . .

Sunday, March 9, 2014

First in Lent

Genesis 2: 15-17; 3: 1-7

Grace and peace this First Sunday in Lent, and as we sail on ahead into this season--and to repeat again as we hear so often the invitation from the Prayer Book service for Ash Wednesday, a time we are encouraged to set apart  “by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”  And then the words we heard on Wednesday, in the Imposition of Ashes.  In the sentence prescribed by the Prayer Book, “Remember that thou art dust, and unto dust shalt thou return.”  The reminder of our mortality, from Genesis 3, the consequence of the catastrophe that we had heard about in this morning’s first lesson.  

In the Roman Catholic order the person administering the ashes on Ash Wednesday has two sentences--“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” followed by this direct appeal, “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.”   Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.  The hard reality of our fallen condition, but then also and I think so importantly the reminder that this is no dead end.  By God’s grace given in fullness in Jesus and in the work of his Cross, a door that swings open.  The dead end transformed by the one who is the way, the truth, the life.  Remember that you are dust.  Turn away from sin, and be faithful to the gospel.

The famous psychiatrist Karl Menninger wrote a popular book 40 years ago or so, Whatever became of sin?  It has been nearly all those 40 years since I read it, when I was in college, but as I recall what Menninger was talking about in this book was that even though the concept of sin has largely disappeared from mainstream vocabularies, certainly in the therapeutic disciplines, the traces remain primarily in a kind of disconnected sense of guilt.  That we all of us have this nagging feeling that something isn’t right, that our lives aren’t fully in alignment, that things need to be repaired and put back in order not just out in the wide world, where things are crazy enough, for sure--but also in the matters of our thinking and feeling.   Even if we’re not sure exactly what it is, something seems wrong.  Psychologist Thomas Harris just a few years before had written his famous book, I’m O.K., You’re O.K.   Two books perhaps signposts of the decades to come.   Menninger, an Orthodox Jew, suggesting that it was a mistake and even a tragic mistake to lose track of the concept of sin.  Harris suggesting that the further away humanity could get from that concept , the better.

In any event, remembering that it was back in the 1920’s that President Coolidge, known as “Silent Cal” because of his succinct way of expressing himself, was asked, when he came out of church one Sunday morning, what the preacher’s sermon had been about.  “Sin,” Coolidge replied.  After a pause, the follow -up, “Well, what did he have to say about sin?”  “He was against it.”  

These days of course the odds are somewhat long that you’d hear a sermon about sin most Sundays.  Seems kind of old fashioned, I guess, maybe even on the First Sunday in Lent.  But if the usual cluster of newspaper and television reporters are gathered outside St. Andrew’s this morning to find out what the Rector’s sermon is about this week: sin is the topic.  In case you were wondering.  I believe there is such a thing.  Absolutely, as a powerful force and an intentional force, in rebellion against God and devoted to our destruction.  Yours and mine.  For my money the one thing we really need to understand about the human condition, before we can even begin to talk about the human condition.  And just to be clear:  I’m against it.  I don’t want to turn the news on tonight and hear anything different.

I suppose the point is to whatever extent the scriptures and these ancient prayers and hymns in Lent make it possible, and perhaps flying in the face of the whole weight of Romantic individualism and all the 19th and 20th century psychological movements of Self-Actualization and Self-Esteem, we only begin to make our way forward through this once we are able to get a handle on an inversion of Harris’s thesis.  Something like, “I’m not o.k.  You’re not o.k.  Now what?”  Now what? 

In the 2006 Brian Singer film, “Superman Returns,” the Man of Steel has come back to Metropolis after a few years of sabbatical, and Lois Lane brushes him aside, actually kind of rudely, with the news that in her opinion anyway the era of Superheroes has come to an end.  We’ve grown up now, she tells him.  We’re beyond childish dependence.   We can get done what needs to be done.  She tells him, “the fact of the matter is, we don’t need a savior. We can take care of ourselves.”    Though of course even as we hear her say these words we are cringing in horror, because we already know what she doesn’t know yet, but will soon learn, which is that the inherently and thoroughly evil villain Lex Luthor is at that very moment, at that very moment, putting into motion a sinister plot that will essentially destroy the world as we know it and leave everyone cowering in slavery under his evil domination.  And the irony is that actually the evidence of this plot had been right in front of her for some time.  She had just found it easier to pretend that it wasn’t there.  To rationalize, to minimize, to look the other way.   As they say, “Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt.”

There’s a place out on Route 22 I think just beyond Blairsville where a little white frame church sits right off the highway, so that if you’re driving west toward Pittsburgh you see the front door, from far in the distance, and over the front door in brightly glowing neon red, “Jesus Saves.”  Which is of course a more-or-less meaningless message, if you don’t really feel like there’s anything you need to be saved from . . . .”  For Lois Lane, it’s just a joke.  You can see her roll her eyes as she drives by.  “We’re so beyond that.”

Amazing in a way how quickly we can skim past the account of Genesis 3.  Lots of art work of course, both serious and whimsical.   Used to be a popular story in Children’s Bibles and Sunday School curricula, though I’m not sure how most religious publishers handle it any more.  Adam and Eve, the Serpent, the Apple.  Rolling our eyes.  I mean, are we supposed to take this literally?   Forbidden Fruit.  Almost a joke, a cliché.  What in the world this strange story could have to do with me.  With us. 

But it may begin to haunt us a little, around the edges, even so--even when we can’t look at it straight on.  Just to let it percolate.  Pick up the morning newspaper.  Horrible murders in the Ukraine and South Sudan and right around the corner on Chislett Street.  Horrible.  Respected law enforcement officials convicted of stealing public funds.  Politicians lying.  Heartless drug dealers marketing the latest lethal blend.   Athletes mainlining illegal performance enhancing substances.  Or of course we just take one long look in the mirror in the morning.

The shadow of that Tree in the Garden, which is a long shadow indeed, and a very dark shadow.  Very dark.  Every lie, every betrayal.  Even the little lies and betrayals that don’t make the front page.  Fudging “just a little” on the old 1040.  Every intentional wrong.  Every theft.  Every infidelity.  Every degrading thought.   Every broken promise.  Every false god.  Every act of violence.  Every hatred.  Greed.  Lust.  Gluttonous consumption.  The classic “deadly sins” that never go away.  The kind of self-indulgent pride that wants to flourish in the diminishing of others.  Every act of abuse and assault, every cynical strategy.  All right here for us in Genesis 3 this morning.  

Every mean-spirited and cutting e-mail and Facebook post.  So easy to write, and click, and then move on.  No big deal.  Self-aggrandizement.  Bullying and unkindness.  Jealousy.  Murder.  All here in front of us, in the ruins of the Garden.  And very relevant to your life and my life.  Very relevant.   As we know sin.  As it grinds down our lives, and the lives of others, those around us.  Twists us into contorted parodies of what God created on the afternoon of the Sixth Day.  We look like people.  We talk like people.  But it’s a superficial resemblance.  Skin deep, if that.   If you’ve ever been betrayed, or lied to.  If you’ve ever been the betrayer, or the liar.   Distorting the image, damaging us in such profound ways spiritually, morally, emotionally, even physically.  We might try to minimize.  “There are of course a lot of nice things you can say about us too.  Why emphasize the negative?  I’m certainly not that bad, compared to some others.”    Actually, I’m pretty o.k., it seems to me, and if I say you’re o.k. too maybe we can just leave it at that and move along.

But then again.  A sermon about sin, after all, and I hope with clarity a sermon against sin.  Remember that you are dust, and that your destiny is to be dust.   That in the between-time the shadow of death is all around, permeating every cell of our body and every corner of our heart and soul.   Who the enemy is, his best instrument and weapon.   I’m not sure it’s exactly what she meant, but as Lady Gaga reminds us: we were born this way.

And if we have at least a hint of self-recognition this morning, in all this grim Lenten preachifying-- if we watch Eve and her Adam and their collapse before the assault of the Enemy and suddenly realize that this is in some real way about us, about who we are,  and if our heart begins to sink, that is all goodness and grace.  Be thankful for that.  Be thankful for not missing it.  For not succumbing to the temptation to sweep it under the rug.  If we hear in the distance on this first Sunday in Lent the ringing metallic sound of the hammer pounding in the nails, through his flesh and into the hard wood of the cross, and if we even for a minute take a deep breath and begin to understand that we’re the ones swinging that hammer, that’s grace.  Be thankful.

Perhaps an echo of the First Step of the Twelve Step movement.  “We admitted we were powerless, that our lives had become unmanageable.”   Looking at sin straight on, if only for a moment.  No easy grace of course.  No cheap grace.  It happens when you hit bottom.  But that’s good news.  First step in a new direction, which we can only take because he chooses to lean down and pick us up and carry us forward.  Our East End Preaching series this year, beginning this coming Wednesday.  “The Journey of Lent.”   In our Lent, the journey toward Holy Week, and to catch a glimpse of the One who put down the enemy, who overturned the old order of brokenness and crushed the Serpent’s head once and for all.   Who is holding us up even when we aren’t sure he’s there.

It has been his plan and intention from the beginning to reveal himself to us, to be for us everything that was lost in the Garden.   That’s the promise to hear when we leave this devastated garden in Genesis 3 and move forward to the new Garden, where as the women come on Sunday morning they find that the Stone has been rolled away from the Tomb.  To be here for us as we know ourselves to be trapped in the dead end, and hitting a brick wall, something more.  If we just take an honest look at ourselves, an honest look, and to see how bad things have gotten, then that gives us something to look forward to.   A reminder through Lent and Holy Week and Easter of his promise, and why he came.  In John 10, once we discover that we’re at a dead end.  “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door.  I am the door of the sheep.  All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not heed them.  I am the door; if any one enters by me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.”  We might say, through him, by way of his cross, a return to the Garden.  To rest in the rich pasture of God’s love.   The door that swings open for us.

It is good news, in Lent and Holy Week and Easter.  As the old hymn had it: “Blessed assurance.”   All good news for us.  It is the good news that begins with sin, the battle that begins when we know and really understand who our enemy is, what power he has over us, and what the stakes are.  And how victory is won.

As we continue to wrestle with the ongoing story of what is bad in us and in our world, the Open Door.  An encouragement every day, is what it can be.  Remember that you are dust.  And that you must return to the dust.  I’m not o.k.  You’re not o.k.  But it’s o.k.: Turn away from sin.  Be faithful to the gospel. 

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

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Last Epiphany, Quinquagesima

Exodus 24:12-18; 2 Peter 1: 16-21; Matthew 17: 1-9

Last Sunday before Lent.   Quinquagesima, and 50 days until Easter!   I hope you’re planning to join us for pancakes at the Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras dinner and party, day after tomorrow over at St. James in the Penn Hills.  And then Ash Wednesday.  A smudge made of the residue of blessed palms from the Palm Sunday procession.  The administration from Genesis 3:19, as God with I think the deepest of divine sighs shares with Adam and Eve the fatal consequences of their disobedience.   “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” 

Of course most of our day to day lives are fueled by a kind of denial of this.  Perhaps necessarily so, in a sense.  The overwhelming grief and loss of our character and essence as mortal beings.  The woundedness of our lives.  Our persistent sinfulness.  The loss of those whom we love, letting go of so much that is so important and meaningful for us.  What we break that can never be repaired.  What we have lost that will never be found.

But in Lent we are asked as Christian people to look that first and last enemy death straight on, taking a deep breath and imposing over his shadow our confidence in the saving work of Jesus and his Cross.   Not in our own strength of course, which will falter, but by opening our eyes and ears and minds and hearts, to make space in our lives for him to draw near to us, as the Prayer Book sentence for Ash Wednesday would call us, “by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”

The three readings selected this morning specifically as testimonies about God’s presence in his Word, his self-expression.   

In Exodus.  Moses is called to the mountaintop to receive inscribed by the finger of God himself the Tablets of Commandment, these great sacramental stones, visible signs, outward records.  God’s self-revelation that is the fullness of the Torah, the glory like a devouring fire roaring in majesty over the people he is calling to be his own.  Wonderful Hebrew word, shekinah.   The brilliant radiance of God’s presence.

Then from Matthew.  The story of the Transfiguration, the vision of Moses and Elijah, the two great volumes, the parallel streams of Holy Scripture, Law and Prophets, standing beside the one who is he Word made flesh in a dynamic unity.  And the thundering word from Heaven.  This is my Son.  Listen to him. 

And then in Peter’s reflection so many years later, the shimmering vision still as bright and real as it was on that day so many years before.  The vitality and intensity of the closeness of God.  “Not cleverly devised myths . . . but the prophetic message more fully confirmed.” 

So here we go, on into Lent.  St. Benedict says that for the monk all the year should be like Lent, in this way, and perhaps by some extension really for every Christian on this journey.  Turning from the preoccupation with ourselves, so that God and God alone is front and center, opening to hear the Word spoken into our lives.  Reminded of the famous story of the philosopher and scholar Augustine, who passed by a volume of scripture one day in his library, and heard a supernatural voice.  “Tolle; Lege.”  The Latin words, “pick it up and read it.”  And in that moment to realize that his very life depended on his response.

Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.  Wonderful , from Psalm 119.  O LORD, your word is everlasting: it stands firm in the heavens.  Oh, how I love your law!  All the day long it is in my mind.  How sweet are your words to my taste!  They are sweeter than honey to my mouth.

Susy and I have a joke about how sometimes it seems we like to read about prayer and talk about silence.  In contrast I guess to “praying, and resting in quiet contemplation of God's presence and love.”  To say, “I have attended many conferences on spirituality.”  Sometimes I think there may also be a contemporary tendency to spend more time reading about the Bible, talking about the Bible, than reading the Bible, and praying with the Bible.  – Wise guides like N.T. Wright and Marcus Borg and the whole constellation of interesting theologians and commentators.  Always fascinating stuff.  Or to read Luther on Romans or Ray Brown on John.  The stuff of great students and theologians.  But I think if the young and ambitious demon-in-training of C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters really wanted to get to us, that would be a great strategy.  Libraries full of commentaries and interpretation.  But in the end, like giving someone dying in the desert a photograph of a glass of water. 

There are tools.  The Lectionary of the Daily Office, which this year will have us in the Old Testament reading through the story of Joseph, in the New Testament through St. Paul, First and Second Corinthians, and along with the fast-paced story of the ministry of Jesus in St. Mark’s Gospel.  Or perhaps we might think about reading through the Psalms.  150 of them, some very short, some longer.  Or maybe to read through the Gospel of John, a chapter a day.   If none of that quite works for you, feel free to give me a call or pop me an e-mail.  There are lots of ways to shape a plan to read in scripture for this season.   

No grades at the end of Lent, no test.  But as St. Peter has said to each one of us this morning: You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.

The collect Archbishop Cranmer back at the dawn of our Anglican reformation composed for the Second Sunday of Advent, to reflect the mystery of Christ’s incarnation, his real presence in our world and in our lives.  O God, who hast caused all holy scriptures to be written for our learning.  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 Jesus Christ.

Quinquagesima.  Last Sunday after the Epiphany.  With the blazing fire of the holy mountain over us, with the amazing brightness of Christ’s transfiguration filling our vision.  Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday-- leaning forward.  To the observance of a holy Lent, and from here all the way to Easter.