Sunday, April 27, 2014

Second Easter, and Annual Parish Meeting

John 20 19-31
                                  The 177th Annual Parish Meeting 
                                         of St. Andrew’s Church

Again good morning and welcome on this Second Easter Sunday and of course the 177th Annual Parish Meeting of St. Andrew’s Church.  I thought about this last Sunday as the ushers were setting up extra chairs for some of the 245 folks who came to this place for the 11 a.m. Easter service in the bright spring sunshine last Sunday morning.  [I didn’t go fumbling in the archives, but in the records of the current service book, going back 8 years, the highest recent Easter Sunday attendance at the later service, anyway, and then with another 65 in attendance at the 9 a.m.  Pretty exciting!] Old friends and new.  Kids home from school.  The extended family—and a few from the neighborhood and beyond who woke up on that one great Sunday morning of the year and ventured to this place for the first time.  Prompted by some inward motion of the Holy Spirit. 

Certainly my prayer for them especially but for all of us that the Good News of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was presented faithfully and in a lively and gracious way in the reading of scripture and in the beautiful music and anthems and hymns, in preaching, and in the offering of the great prayers of the church.  And with continuing prayers for opened hearts and renewed and reformed and transformed lives. 

Eastertide 2014 opening for us as every Easter would begin, with an assurance of God’s faithfulness.   The Daily Office lectionary of the Book of Common Prayer shapes this long season on Easter morning as it assigned for the first gospel reading of Easter Day the same reading appointed for Christmas Day.  John 1: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son of the Father.”  In the calendar of the year we have this Easter before us for 40 days, until the Thursday of the Ascension, and then another 10 days, Ascensiontide, until Whitsunday and Pentecost.  But truly the whole life of the church, all Easter, all the time.  “Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us.  Therefore let us keep the feast.  Not with old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”

The reading for our service this morning, Second Sunday in Eastertide, giving us these two snapshot moments.  The evening of Easter Day.  Disciples gathered in the upper room.  We imagine all the jumble of their thoughts and feelings, or we try to.  The catastrophic hours following their Passover meal in the Upper Room, the Garden, the Trial, the nightmare of Good Friday.  And now this wild and unexpected turn of events.  The reports of the women, followed for some of them with their own eyewitness experience, the stone rolled away, the Tomb empty, dazzling bright angels, brief confusing tender, breathtaking encounters with a Jesus who is alive, alive again, and somehow even more alive than they had ever experienced before.  

They gather in the Upper Room again, doors and windows shut tight, and then, here he is, speaking to them, demonstrating beyond any doubt his real presence and helping them take these first steps to make sense of what truly is beyond their understanding.  Then the reading continues with a second story, the same place, the next Sunday, and the account of Thomas, who was away that first evening but now is present and in the presence of Jesus converted from doubt to faith, from fear and confusion to worship and dedication.

I think it’s a great reading for us this year, our 177th Annual Meeting.  As I say in my Rector’s Report, the 20th that I’ve had the privilege to chair as rector.  Christian people, disciples,  gathered in love and fellowship, at a moment of change, with a sense of God acting in a new and powerful way,  alert, listening for his direction.  A moment rich with potential.  Things happening!  A moment for discernment.  Not about holding back, but about opening doors, moving forward, with fresh energy and with confidence and joy.  The Church Calendar follows the timing of St. Luke in marking the occasion of Pentecost with the Giving of the Holy Spirit, and certainly there was something important that happened on that 50th day. 

But Pentecost in John’s gospel is all embedded in this first rush of Easter, as we heard just a moment ago.  The Risen Lord in their presence.  “Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  And he breathes out upon them.   Dramatically.  Emphatically.  ”Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  And the disciples become apostles.  The ones who followed--now the ones who are sent, commissioned, on assignment, filled with Spirit and with Power.

And what a power it is.  To announce the gift of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, the power of the Cross, forgiveness of sins, blessing and reconciliation.  To be agents of blessing.  Preaching and teaching, in the midst of a broken and sinful world.  Communicating God’s hope, his desire and love for everyone--not only with our lips, but in our lives. The old hymn, “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.”

Just to say, we’re at a moment like that.  I truly believe we are.  And I’m not just talking about six new restrooms, or a new floor in the church, or an elevator, or a ramp, or new meeting space.  And we’ll hear about all these things later. 

But a moment of expectation.  A sense of the real presence of Jesus in our midst, the experience of his powerful Spirit.  That in and around all this, there is a word for us, a call for us to listen for, to discern, to lean forward.  What new thing he has in store for us.

You know what I say about St. Andrew’s.  If someone calls for directions, I just tell them to follow the signs to the zoo.  Cross the Highland Park Bridge and look for the one that says, “One Wild Place.”  That’ll take you right here.  Where we have every breed of cat.  No place more interesting, more exciting.  And never more than now. 

It has been said, when God gives you a hammer, expect to see some nails.  We have been saying for some time now that as we look toward this summer and to the completion of all these projects around us, that if we say, “we can hardly wait for things to get back to normal,” we’re missing the point.  When the Lord appeared to the disciples on that first Easter evening, that wasn’t what they thought:  “Jesus is here again: now things can get back to normal.”  

It’s a new normal.  The improvements around this place are not gifts we have purchased for ourselves, not for our aesthetic and emotional pleasure and personal convenience.  We can be sure instead that this is all about God’s purpose.  About what would be necessary for him to do the work he is ready to begin doing here.   Most of all not about what we’ve done to the buildings, but what this whole process of reflection and dedication and creativity has done to us.  All about renewal.  Refreshing a 177 year old instrument of God’s grace and power, which is what we are:  so that we might meet the opportunities God is bringing in our direction with a renewed and refreshed confidence and expression and impact of the gospel message.

I do think about those men and women and boys and girls back in the spring of 1837 who met for the first time on that Easter morning in a concert hall on Penn Avenue.  On one hand, they could have had no idea what great things God was beginning with them.  But they knew it was something important, I’m sure of that.   And their hearts would have been full.  The fun of that new ministry.  Expectation.  That the good work God was beginning in them would be realized in months and years and generations to come, in wonderful ways.  They couldn’t have pictured us in any specific way.  But I think that in the choirs of heaven they are very pleased this morning, a great cloud of witnesses.  

We have this marvelous inheritance.  From Jerusalem on that first Easter to Pittsburgh 1837, and now here this year, this summer, and hints already, these doors opening in Highland Park.  I thank you, and I know we would thank one another and smile and applaud for all the prayer and devotion and creativity and stewardship of time, talent, and treasure, for friendship, for a life together as we would continue to seek with all our heart and mind and strength to know the love of Jesus thoroughly in our lives, and to make that love and all his Good News known in this neighborhood and in all the world.  As we would know first and always:  it’s all his doing, and all for him.

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

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Easter Poem

Seven Stanzas at Easter
--John Updike

Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.
It was not as the flowers,
Each soft spring recurrent;
It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the
Eleven apostles;
It was as His flesh; ours.
The same hinged thumbs and toes
The same valved heart
That-pierced-died, withered, paused, and then regathered
Out of enduring Might
New strength to enclose.
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages:
Let us walk through the door.
The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
Not a stone in a story,
But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of
Time will eclipse for each of us
The wide light of day.
And if we have an angel at the tomb,
Make it a real angel,
Weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in
The dawn light, robed in real linen
Spun on a definite loom.
Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
Lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed
By the miracle,
And crushed by remonstrance.


Friends: Grace and peace to you, blessings, joy--all the riches of God’s favor, all of them in abundance, on this First Morning of the world.

Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us: therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.  (I Cor. 5)

Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him.  For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God.  Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.  (Romans 6)

And as we remind ourselves every year, the ancient  greeting of this day and season.  Before you sit down, let’s say this together:  Christos anesti! Christ is risen!  And the reply,  Alithos anesti!  He is risen indeed!  And we would share that greeting. 

Christos anestiAlithos anesti!

Easter blessings, and in abundance.   (Please be seated!)  Wonderful to see you this morning.  It was in the low 80’s in the afternoon of Palm Sunday.  Then it snowed on Tuesday afternoon.  Easter morning dawns with a more seasonable forecast, somewhere in the middle, April in Pennsylvania.  C.S. Lewis writes somewhere about walking to church on an Easter morning in the spring sunshine behind a family with a little girl who was skipping along perhaps after a long winter like ours and singing to herself a joyful refrain, “Chocolate eggs, and Jesus risen!”  In any event-- whatever the weather, the day above all days, for sure, as in our hearts and minds and imaginations we return again year by year to stand with the women at the opening of the Tomb, in the presence of the angel, flashing bright as lightning, shimmering white in the new morning, and with them there in that wild, strange, disorienting  moment, to hear this news, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.  He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.”

It’s true he had spoken directly about this to his friends.  In Matthew 16 at Caesarea Philippi, when Peter had first put into words his answer to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” -- “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  At verse 21 then, Matthew says, “from that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribe, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”  And the Evangelist tells us that they simply couldn’t accept this, or even comprehend it.  “And Peter took him and began to rebuke him saying, ’God forbid, Lord!  This shall never happen to you!’”  Not long this, shortly after the experience and vision on the Mount of the Transfiguration, Jesus and his disciples return to their home district.  At Matthew 17:22, “As they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them, ‘The Son of man is to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day.’ “ And Matthew says, “They were greatly distressed.”  I’ll bet they were.  How in the world to make sense of what all that might mean.

They had seen Jesus before all this, at the time of what I guess we would call the “healing” of the daughter of the synagogue official.  The crowd that afternoon had already begun the mourning rituals, as recorded in the 9th chapter of Matthew.  Then Jesus arrives and without even seeing her announces, “the girl is not dead but sleeping.”  The people laughed at his presumption, but then, at verse 25, “he went in and took her by the hand . . . and the girl arose.” 

Hard not to think of the word of Jesus to Martha of Bethany in John 11, by the tomb of her brother Lazarus, as we heard it in the gospel reading week before last, “Did I not tell you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?”

“Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.  He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.”

“As he said.”  The scriptures have been preparing us from the beginning.  From Noah to Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David, Jonah, Elijah, Elisha, the prophets, the exile and return--all the pattern of death and resurrection.  The divine pattern, the way God works, in all his mysterious glory.

The angel says, “Don’t be surprised, don’t be afraid—it’s all happening just as he told you it would.”  And yet they are—surprised, confused, afraid.  And so we continue to be.  This reality of a power, an event, an assertion, so far outside our own frame of reference and expectation crashes over us like a wave, knocks us off our feet.

The temptation always to deny the event, to rationalize, maybe we might say to “spiritualize.”  To retreat into the idea that this is all metaphor and art, speaking to “deeper truths” about the nature of existence.

This is I suppose exactly why so many people will say they are “spiritual but not religious.”  Makes it just that much easier to step back.  But as we prepare to come forward to the Table on this Easter morning, I would simply offer as pastor and friend and fellow-traveler a word and sincere encouragement, that we would resist that temptation, and resist it with all our heart and mind and strength.  And that we would instead insist with confidence and faith and certainty based on the credibility of the report and the authority of scripture and the power in us of the Holy Spirit that what the scriptures say happened that Easter morning happened.    And not in a different world than our world.  In our world.

I would quote a poet against poetry here.  John Updike, in his wonderful  Seven Stanzas at Easter.  Not to read the whole thing, though I would recommend it to you and will have it posted up at my Rector’s Page blog for those who would like to see it there, and with a link also on the St. Andrew’s Facebook page.  But here’s a part of what he says –

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages:
Let us walk through the door.  [Ah--I love that.  “Let us walk through the door.”]
The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
Not a stone in a story,
But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of
Time will eclipse for each of us
The wide light of day.

“Let us not mock God with metaphor.”    St. Paul gives his account of Easter at the beginning of First Corinthians 15 and then concludes by saying the same thing Updike is saying: “Now if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?  But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised.  If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.  We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise, if it is true that the dead are not raised.  For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised.  If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.  Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.  If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied.”  Then a long pause, before First Corinthians 15:20, a new paragraph.  “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.”  A new paragraph.  A whole new world.  As in our Psalm, “On this day the Lord has acted: we will rejoice and be glad in it!”

This is the foundation.  All I really have to share this lovely morning.   “In fact”—and that’s got to be the key word, or none of the other words matter—“In fact Christ has been raised from the dead.”  For each of us personally.  As he stepped out of the shadow of the Tomb, he pictured us, you and me, each of us.  Good Friday for each of us personally.  As he hung on the Cross, we were in his thoughts.  Not as a crowd, but each of us.  Easter for each of us personally.  Revealing our origin and charting our destiny.  As Paul says in Romans 10, “if you declare with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you shall be saved.”  The foundation also of what any of us who would call ourselves Friends of Jesus and Christians would have to say when we walk out of this great place on Easter morning and into the wide world.  To have a word of power to speak into cultures and systems and patterns of life and behavior that hurt and oppress, that wound and kill.  A world of wars and rumors of war—sin and death.  A word of power spoken into this real world.  Not a metaphor, but a fact.  A hard fact.  A reality.  That God is doing something new, it has begun, began at Easter, and that trusting in him, we can dedicate our lives to being a part of what he is doing. 

Grace and peace, blessings, joy--all the riches of God’s favor, on this First Morning of the world.  Chocolate eggs and Jesus risen!   The song for us to sing.  Easter.

Christos anesti!  Alithos anesti!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Holy Saturday

Descendit ad infernos.

Ikon: The Harrowing of Hell

--Denise Levertov (1923-1997)

Down through the tomb's inward arch

He has shouldered out into Limbo

to gather them, dazed, from dreamless slumber:

the merciful dead, the prophets,

the innocents just His own age and those

unnumbered others waiting here

unaware, in an endless void He is ending

now, stooping to tug at their hands,

to pull them from their sarcophagi,

dazzled, almost unwilling. Didmas,

neighbor in death, Golgotha dust

still streaked on the dried sweat of his body

no one had washed and anointed, is here,

for sequence is not known in Limbo;

the promise, given from cross to cross

at noon, arches beyond sunset and dawn.

All these He will swiftly lead

to the Paradise road: they are safe.

That done, there must take place that struggle

no human presumes to picture:

living, dying, descending to rescue the just

from shadow, were lesser travails

than this: to break

through earth and stone of the faithless world

back to the cold sepulchre, tearstained

stifling shroud; to break from them

back into breath and heartbeat, and walk

the world again, closed into days and weeks again,

wounds of His anguish open, and Spirit

streaming through every cell of flesh

so that if mortal sight could bear

to perceive it, it would be seen

His mortal flesh was lit from within, now,

and aching for home. He must return,

first, in Divine patience, and know

hunger again, and give

to humble friends the joy

of giving Him food--fish and a honeycomb.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Good Friday, Second Meditation

C. Garrett Yates, Seminarian

“The dripping blood our only drink, the bloody flesh our only food: In spite of which we like to think that we are sound, substantial flesh and blood— Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.” (That’s from Eliot’s Four Quartets)

...And yet we call this Friday good. Good? I want to pull back the curtain on that word and think about what we might be saying when we refer to this Friday as “good.” Do we mean the same thing by good as God does? Think with me back to the opening chapter of the Bible: God says good on the heels of life and abundance as he looks fondly at the proliferation and fecundity of creation. And he calls it good. He creates us on the sixth day, it is very good. Good, so this story tells us, has to do with creativity and freedom; with blessing and delight. Who are we to take this word that God has uttered and apply it to this Friday?

What if you had been there in the circus-like madness of the day? Jesus is thrown from one court to the next like a pinball, and beaten and whipped even more dramatically. This was of course all preceded by an unforgettable night of panic and fear in a garden, the terror of isolation, and the death of meaning, the pandemonium of an innocent arrest....he sweats drops of blood, choked in dread of the future. Maybe we should be careful with this word "good."

There would be something cruel if we were to go back in time and visit Mary Jesus' mother or John, or any of those others who had experienced the wrenching loss of a friend, and tried to stitch meaning into their experience; that despite appearances God was actually at work in it all. No, who are we to do that?

St. John of the Cross, one of the most relentlessly probing of the church's mystics, talked a great deal about the dark night of the soul; the experience of deprivation where all the glittery meanings and purposes that the soul formerly held on to are exposed as thin and wispy veneers, illusions that prop up a threatened sense of self. The soul becomes unmoored from all that it has known; there is only darkness and disorientation.

There is in all of us, I suspect, an initial aversion to such experiences as St. John describes: we prefer the straightforward, the easy and the tranquil, the times when life is neither too mean nor not too nice - it just rolls along without too much drama. We might even prefer days that are totally repetitive, like Bill Murray's character in the movie Groundhog Day, to the fluctuating and unpredictable. But as much as we'd like to immune ourselves from it, the inevitable comes, life happens, we experience something that puts our entire world in question: we lose a loved one, our much enjoyed hobbies are no longer available to us because of age, we are unable to kick that nagging depression, we are separated from our bodies because of pain or illness, or maybe we just open the newspaper for the umpteenth straight day to read about another case of human carnage. And as much as we'd like for it not to be, something like St. John's dark night sets in: the God who was so good to us previously is nowhere to be found. Darkness stretches taut on our horizon – we are left with questions that all spiral heavenward sounding something like, “My God my God why have you forsaken me?”

Our Hebrew ancestors knew a great deal about this deprivation and loss of faith. In some sense, their entire history is one great exile of meaning: they think they get it, and then they are assailed by the darkness of enemy forces. We really have to look no further than the first few verses of the Bible to see what they thought about chaos and evil: they tell us that apart from God's meaning-giving and creative word there is only chaos. "Darkness covered the deep." Apart from the generative activity of God, they tell us, there is an abyss of darkness, nothingness. There is God and then there is nothingness. But that's not quite what we are talking about on this Friday. It's not God on the one hand and nothingness on the other: as if neither has anything to do with the other. What we see happening in the events leading up to the death, not to mention the death itself, is God entering into the nothingness Godself - God drawing the nothingness into himself. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, so the first chapter of John tells us. That is, the Word came into our darkness and deprivation - the Word became, and indeed is still becoming flesh, and entering into our own private hells. There is no corner, no dimension of the human experience that is cut off from transcendent light and love. God has made his home among us, and in the dereliction of the cross, has plunged himself to furthest corners of the human experience. It’s basically what it means to be a Christian: to associate oneself with a God who refuses to draw limits or boundaries to his love; a God who has an infinite capacity to forgive; a God who withholds nothing but instead goes to the edges, to boundaries of the mess we’ve made and pitches his tent to stay with us there. Let’s not be mistaken: the darkness of this Friday is real, as real as death is real. But I also want to say that there is a strange goodness in this darkness – what I mean by that is that it is big enough for the darkness of the entire world to enter in, and thereupon enter into the very heart of God. The cross is God’s open heart to each of us; an invitation to take into himself the chaos, separation, and yes, even the madness of our world. There is no darkness, no dimension of our lives or of the world that is not invited to be assumed, drawn into the darkness of the cross – which we have been saying is the darkness of God himself.

One of the very great theologians of the early church – Gregory of Nyssa spoke much about the darkness that exists in God. He believed that the closer one grew to God the more and more one lost contact with one’s senses - the light of one’s reason is extinguished and darkness blankets the mind. But, he didn’t think the journey ended there. Beyond, beneath, and behind the darkness that is within God; surrounding and enveloping it is what Nyssa knew to be boundless love; the darkness finally yields to the inextinguishable love of God. That is what today is all about: the darkness that God has drawn into Godself opens up onto the infinite frontiers of God’s love. From everlasting to everlasting, there is love. And perhaps it because of that that we dare to call this Friday good.

Good Friday, First Meditation

Bruce M. Robison

The story unfolding before us—so familiar.  We can almost whisper along word by word.  The images fill our minds, perhaps glimpses from works of great art down through the centuries, or from films or songs, from the patterns and memories of the past. The old Good Friday hymn asks, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” And it is indeed as though we were there, as though our experience of these hours is memory, deeply felt, deeply experienced. The sights and sounds and smells of that corner of the city landfill outside the gates of Old Jerusalem so vivid. We close our eyes, and we are there, on that day.

And of course that memory surrounds and permeates, explores, illuminates, embraces, interprets, haunts, so much of our lives. Day by day.   The horrors of this world. War and rumors of war. Natural disasters. Cruelty and crime.  A disturbed high schooler in Murrysville.  A ferryboat in Korea.  A public square in the eastern corner of the Ukraine.  A physician shakes his head in sadness as he reviews the latest round of test results.  We see him on that Cross and ask what it all means: how to make sense of what is beyond making-sense.   The fragility of our lives seems to go up there with him, the whole burden of our weakness, our vulnerabilities. Our tenderness. We bend. We break. 

Just a lot of Good Friday, all around us, in our midst, in our own lives. And we close our eyes, and we are there, on that day. We remember. It is not far away at all, but all too real. Nearby. And the Cross that is above us, overhead, not an ornament of architectural decoration, but the essential key to the interpretation of our lives.  At the darkest moment, a sign of dawn on the horizon.  Without it, it is night, and we are alone in the forest, without a clue, without a map, without a trail to follow. It is all we have.

Jesus said, I go to prepare a place for you, and if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and bring you to myself, that where I am, there ye may be also. And Thomas said, Lord, we know not whither thou goest, and how can we know the way? How can we know the way?

And he gives us this sign. Himself. On the cross. And with those words from John 14: I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man cometh unto the Father, but by me. 

We of the church, the Christian family, friends of Jesus—we have been struggling to find the right words for two thousand years.  To share this essential news, this hope, this promise.  Sometimes all we can do is point.  This the way, as the Cross beckons us, the light on the path, the gate, the door, the way forward. He prayed in the Garden that last night: Father, if there is some other way forward, show it to me now. But there was no other way. Not for him, and so also not for us. Before Sunday morning, always Friday.

We carry this hope, we live in it, and for it, the deep foundation under us. The King of Love my shepherd is, whose goodness faileth never. But it doesn’t make this part any easier. Oh. Sometimes it causes me to tremble. Tremble. Tremble. 

And so, here we are. Trembling.  However strong, however, complete, however good we may appear to others.  On our way to the Cross ourselves, as he is before us on his. Listening for his last word for us: Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.

Good Friday, and all of us together here with him. And even at the grave we make our song. It is his victorious Cross, trampling down death by death. 

The Way, the Truth, the Life. The Cross and only the Cross, this day, this hour, light in the darkness, the power of God, giving life to those in the tomb.  May his Cross be for you this day the opening door to life and eternal life in him.

Good Friday

All majesty has vanished
from the daughter of Zion.

Her princes have become like deer
that can find no pasture
and run on, their strength all spent,
pursued by the hunter.

Jerusalem has remembered
her days of misery and wandering,
when her people fell into the power of the adversary
and there was no one to help her.

Lamentations of Jeremiah 1: 6-7

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Palm Sunday

Grace and peace this spring morning, the entryway to Holy Week, a sunny day but storm clouds gathering,  and simply to say that I hope and trust we will all find moments in the coming days for prayer and reflection, on the way toward Good Friday and then finally to Easter morning.  This winter and this lent have been very challenging in lots of ways,  but I pray in those challenges that it has been a time of growth and a deepening of faith.  So may the season ahead be rich and full of many blessings.

Those of us above a certain age will remember—perhaps with a smile or a sigh or a rolling of the eyes—Attorney General John Mitchell, at the height of the Watergate scandal and investigation, commenting on his famous wife Martha and saying, “when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.”

It seems appropriate or at least timely to notice on Palm Sunday that the behavior is more common than you might at first think.   If not shopping, to be immersed in entertainment.  Or drinking, or drugs.  Busyness.  So often, whatever it takes to duck the hard questions, to slide over the rough patches.  As they say in the 12-step movement, “Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt.”  A river that flows through every neighborhood and community, every home and family, touching each and every one of us.  “If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”

The desire to get out there into the churchyard for that champagne reception and egg hunt on Easter morning.  To skip past this dark week with its haunting and painful stories as quickly as we can.  A nod in the direction of some profound musical expressions, of course, and certainly there are those. The Cross on a distant green hill, far away.  But getting down to brass tacks in terms of our own lives and maybe what we would call hand-to-hand combat with the harder questions that the week ahead have for us may just be a little more than we had in mind.

On Sunday morning the crowd couldn’t seem to get enough of Jesus, but by Friday morning they were ready for him to be gone, and they didn’t much care how.   Let’s just get it over with.  And we just notice that over the centuries not much seems to change.  People are people.  We are what we are.

Palm Sunday.  The Passion Gospel rolling on around us all week long, echoing, catching us here and there through the routines of our lives.  Fleeting images.  Wonderings.  Perhaps extended and deepened if we stop in at Church on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday.  But in any case, in the air around us.

The question that Peter wrestles with in the Courtyard of the High Priest.  Aren’t you one of those who have been following this Jesus?  One of his guys?   One of these nuts from the Galilee?  Maybe you ought to be in there with him.  What do you think?

The grand procession begins again, Station to Station through the streets of Jerusalem.  Cheering and jeering.  The sky grows dark as we approach the walls of the old city.  We can picture just about every step along the way.  As Billy Graham used to say at his Crusades: “A Day of Decision.”  A time to choose.  Put our cards on the table.  One way or the other.  Easy enough to slip away and go back to our normal lives, if that’s what we decide.

This past Wednesday on the new calendar of lesser observances in the church year we remembered the anniversary of the execution in the Nazi prison in April 1945 of German theologian and Christian leader Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Who wrote the famous book “Costly Discipleship.”  A principled pacifist who nonetheless after years of faithful witness in the midst of a world at war participated in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.  Who talked about Christian life not as a casual affiliation or a kind of aesthetic or emotional or social experience, but of a challenging uphill daily path, the commitment to a regular and deep and prayerful study of the scriptures, and of a commitment to a rigorous application, day by day.

So: didn’t I see you with him?  There’s even something about the way you talk that makes me wonder.  You are, aren’t you . . . one of his people . . . .  I mean, if you are, why would you be out here in the courtyard, in the shadows, by the fire, trying to look inconspicuous.  Are you with him, or not?

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

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Fifth in Lent

 (A) Ezekiel 37: 1-14, Romans 8: 6-11, John 11: 1-45

Grace and peace this spring morning, Fifth Sunday in Lent, and certainly as we hear in the readings this morning we are drawing near Jerusalem now and the great drama of Holy Week and Good Friday and then the Sunday morning after Good Friday.  All coming into view on the road ahead.  Something of an advanced warning system.  Notice the fasten seat belts sign:  flying into some turbulence.

The Old Testament and Gospel lessons are both part of the grand procession of readings in the new Prayer Book Easter Vigil service, which is structured like a service of Lessons and Carols for Holy Week and Easter.  As we read Ezekiel 37 we recall the long and horrific siege of Jerusalem, the whole world crashing down around them, in 587 b.c.  The inevitable judgment on unrepentant generations: a  long era of corrupt and faithless kings, religious leaders who turned away from the faith of their ancestors.  A people more concerned with self-interest than with loyal obedience to the God of their Fathers. 

And now this.  The city surrounded by the massive enemy army.  Starvation in the streets as supplies of food are cut off.  Fear, disease, death everywhere.  Beyond the city walls the whole valley a kind of bone-yard, as every effort to send troops out to break the siege ends in disaster and defeat.  Fathers, husbands, sons, and often impossible even to retrieve their bodies for burial.  And then the final attack, the Holy City ransacked and put to the torch, the Palace and the Temple pillaged, the few survivors among the poor flee to the countryside.  Those surviving among the working and ruling classes are bound in chains and carried off into humiliation and exile--to be settled eventually in slums and refugee work camps stretching from Egypt to Iraq, their lands and possessions divided as a war-bonus among the soldiers of the victorious Babylonian army.  The promise and Covenant of Abraham all but forgotten.  The pledge to David if anything an ironic joke.

 And then.  And then.  As Jeremiah the Prophet had prophesied,  70 years and two long struggling generations later the words of this new prophet Ezekiel ring out in the darkness: the Lord has spoken; open your ears, Israel: the promise is renewed.  Not because we’ve somehow earned it, through our suffering or our piety.  Not because we remembered him,  but because he remembered us.  

As the Spirit of God first breathed life into Adam, so his breath now renews, revives, restores his people.  Forgiveness, mercy, gracious gift.  What seemed beyond hope, a nation dead and buried and swept out into the dustbin of history, alive again.  The steadfast love the Lord never ceases.  His mercies never come to an end.  They are new every morning.  Great is thy faithfulness.

And of course as we’ve heard John 11, the last and greatest of the Wondrous Signs in John’s Gospel.  Lazarus.  Dead and buried four days.  And then the command, that the stone be rolled away.  “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

All pretty amazing, wonderful, mind-boggling.  Again, speaking to us, shaping our hearts and minds, our memories and our imaginations, as we approach the story at the heart of the story, Friday afternoon and Sunday morning.  Still, hard to get our mind around all this.  What it all means.  Someone says, “Did you hear the news.  Jesus of Nazareth.  He was executed.  He died on the Cross on Friday.  But then on Sunday his tomb was empty, and he wasn’t dead anymore.  He was alive.”  

And perhaps the reply: “wow.  That’s amazing.  Boy, was he lucky.  Everybody I’ve ever known, everybody I’ve ever heard of, once they were dead they  stayed dead.  That Jesus story is really one for the books, no doubt about it.”

Which is why this snippet from Romans 8 is important for us to hear this morning, and critically important as we will turn the corner next Sunday at Palm Sunday to the drama of Holy Week.   This Letter to the Romans sometimes called the Gospel according to St. Paul, and the whole 8th chapter the heart of that Good News.  Turning away from this notion that we can base our hope on anything other than the faithfulness of God, who saves us before we know we need to be saved, who frees us from the grave while we’re still under the illusion that we are alive. 

Why these stories are important, Ezekiel’s vision, Lazarus’s return, Easter morning.  Not because they are about amazing and wonderful things that happened to people long ago and far away.  But because they are about what happened then and what keeps happening.  Because what was true for them continues to be true for us.  Again this morning, Romans 8, verses 10 and 11, as we would hear these words echo all the way down: “If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.  If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”

Life in Christ.

From a hundred camps and slums, the Word of the Lord spoken by the Prophet, the Spirit of the Lord, breathed new life into a people as good as dead.  And God opened a way for their return.  And the City was rebuilt.  The Temple again restored and filled with the praises of his people.  And on that evening at the dinner table Mary and Martha and their friends from Galilee were not in tears and sorrow for the one they had lost.  Their brother was with them again.  Amazement and joy, and to think about tomorrow.  And certainly the question: what should the rest of our lives be like, now that we’ve seen this?   Questions that we ask in Holy Week and Easter.  Same old world around us, but we’ve already turned the page.  “The strife is o’er, the battle done, the victory of life is won; the song of triumph has begun.”

A little later in Romans 8, at verse 28, Paul says, “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.  For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren.  And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.”

It takes more than a Sunday morning sermon to unpack all that dense language.  And I won’t even begin to try, except to say that it is the best news of all.  The flower of Easter that grows out of the soil of Holy Week and is the blessing of our lives.  

All about grace and peace, forgiveness and mercy.  While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.  About what we can know to be entirely and absolutely true about the faithfulness of God, which is the foundation of his holiness, his divine character, and how that faithfulness then can make possible the renewal and transformation of our lives.  How it makes a difference when we wake up in the morning.  As we open our lives to his Word, as we manage and discipline our own bodies, as we apply our intellect, as we use our hands to work, as we live in relationship to others, our families, our friends, our communities, all the wide world.  Daily application, transformation, renewal.  As we show forth his praise not only with our lips but in our lives.

Paul continues at verse 38 of the 8th chapter, and I’ll just leave it to him this morning, as we will go deeper next Sunday in the Passion Gospel of Matthew and the whole week ahead after that, deeper and deeper-- the center and highlight of the Church Year.  The story we tell over and over, because this old story is our story.  Romans 8:38:  “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all reaction will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”