Saturday, May 31, 2014

Seventh Easter Sunday, after The Ascension

 Acts 1: 6-14

Grace and peace on this Seventh Easter Sunday, the Sunday after Ascension Thursday, the Sunday before Whitsunday and Pentecost--and center stage this morning the scene as described in the 24th chapter of St. Luke’s gospel and then again in the first chapter of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles.  The risen Christ appears to his gathered disciples at the top of the mountain.  He teaches them, gives them a missionary charge, raises his hand in a final blessing, and then is lifted up out of their sight.  One beat, two beats:  time seems to stand still.  And  then two men in white.  “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?  This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come again in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

What seemed for a moment like the end of the story, not the end at all.  It seemed like he was leaving us.  But all at once we understand that he hasn’t in fact gone anywhere.  Not a departure, but a grand liturgy of investiture and inauguration.  He has been exalted to his heavenly throne, to extend the royal metaphor, ruling all things in heaven and earth, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, for ever and ever. 

That the quiet mystery of the Baby born in Bethlehem and set down in swaddling clothes to sleep in a manger bed as the angels sang their quiet carols through the night  is now perfectly revealed in power and majesty, a crescendo, that the course of history turns in a new direction, all towards heaven, to the fulfillment of the promise, all creation made new, healed, restored.  And for those who are in Christ, a new citizenship, a new Temple, a Royal Priesthood.  The priesthood of Christ, into which we as we trust in him and place our lives in his care are now incorporated, into the full power of God’s mercy and grace and love.

Why stand here looking up into heaven?  As if you are bereft.  Jesus hasn’t gone anywhere.  All around you.  Continuing present tense in the life of his church.  And coming again, in power and glory.  In Word and Sacrament.  Manifest when Word and Sacrament are put into action.  Present in faithful and obedient lives.  Present in the spirit of his gospel.  In lives shaped and reformed by him to share humility and grace and forgiveness.  To join the festive procession, into all nations, teaching everything that he commanded, generation by generation proclaiming to his people, being penitent, the absolution and remission of their sins, equipping and inspiring.  New marching orders as the King takes his position at the head of the column. 

He will return.  The assurance of the angelic messengers to those standing on the mountaintop.  No question about it.  Not a language of symbol, but the foundation of a new reality.  He will return.  So certainly, that it is in this reality already taking place.  The door swinging open.  As Paul says in First Thessalonians, “the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God.”  To find not a world of strangers, but that his own rich and continuing life in us, in our lives, will rise up to greet him.  To find a Kingdom claimed for him, his possession.

The chorus sings an Ascension anthem.   The whole Ascension festival is music and poetry, overflowing words of praise.   Echoing the hymn of praise that King David sang at the coronation of his son Solomon as king:  try, overflowing words of praise.  s, in our lives, will rise up to greet him.  A “Thine O Lord is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty; for all that is in the heaven and in the earth is thine; thine is the Kingdom, O Lord, and thou art exalted as head above all.”

Not the end of Easter season, but the perfect expression of Easter, its fulfillment.  For us this morning.

I’ve told the story before and most of you have heard how one day back I think in the middle ‘70’s I was in the reading room of St. Mark’s Church in Berkeley and saw someone reading a magazine called “Acts 29.”  I was curious, so that evening I looked it up in my Bible, only to find that the Book of Acts ends at Chapter 28.  Then the light bulb went on.  How Acts 1-28 was the story of the first disciples, how they heard Jesus call them to be his agents, to go on before to the places where he was going, to prepare the way, to be the advance party,  to preach the good news of sins forgiven and life renewed, to show forth in their lives the power of the Cross and the promise of the Empty Tomb, and to open doors and to live lives of faith--of holiness and righteousness, humility, grace, mercy, and love.  That was their great story, chapters 1-28.  And Chapter 29, that’s our story.  The continuing adventures, the Acts of the Holy Spirit in the lives of his saints.  Generation by generation, and of course then you and me here this morning, and as we pray after Communion:  “Send us out into the world in peace, to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart, through Christ our Lord.”

Don’t just stand there looking up into the sky, Men of Galilee, as if the story has come to an end.  Jesus hasn’t gone anywhere.  His story is just beginning, and the best part is beginning right here, right now.

Thursday, May 29, 2014


A reprise on this Ascension Day, 2014

May 17, 2012  Ascension Thursday  
Daniel 7: 9-14; Matthew 28: 16-20
Choral Evensong, Calvary Episcopal Church, East Liberty

Good evening, and may there be grace and peace to you indeed, from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ, whom we celebrate in this feast as he is enthroned on high, ruling in majesty, and even in a world of brokenness and sin all around us the fulfillment of our prayer, “thy kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven.”

I am absolutely convinced that when the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God, it will be the combined choirs of Calvary Church, the Church of the Redeemer,  and St. Andrew’s Church that will be engaged to sing that liturgy, and I very much want to thank Alan Lewis and Nathan Carterette and Pete Luley and our three choirs for sharing with us an anticipation and foretaste of that this evening.  A  gift.  And to thank my neighbor and colleague and friend, the Rector of Calvary Church, for inviting me to participate as well this evening.  It is always truly an honor to preach in this place, and in this pulpit.  One of the great pulpits of our Church.  And I would just take this opportunity to say, Harold, as I know this week you have announced plans for your retirement from this ministry later this year, that it has been very much a privilege to serve over these years with you, and sharing the life of our wider East End neighborhood and our diocese.  There will be time I’m sure for some reminiscences and testimonials in the fall, but as this announcement has gone out, a word of friendship and great respect, and of all best wishes as you and Claudette begin to chart the next stage of the journey.

Now, whenever I come to this final scene in St. Matthew I am drawn back in memory to a Sunday School class in my childhood, I think maybe in the third or fourth grade.  One of those singular moments that stands out and has always remained with me.  Our teacher, I believe her name was Mrs. Johnson,  told us a story about a missionary in China back before the war who during the day was in a school as a teacher of English and who in the evening led Bible studies and evangelistic services.  The story was about one man who participated in those classes for some time, involved both during the day and in the evening, who came to the missionary one day with tears in his eyes, obviously moved in some very deep way, to say that he had been reading his English Bible, and that in what he was reading Jesus had spoken to him personally--personally!--and touched his heart.  And the missionary of course wanted to know more about this, and so the man told him it was right here, at the end of Matthew, as he was learning to read in English the words of assurance that Jesus shares with his friends with the Great Commission: “Lo, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  “That is wonderful, Mr.  Lo,” said the missionary.  “That is wonderful.” 

Well, it sounds kind of silly.  But our Sunday School teacher had us each take our Bibles—the ones we had received as a gift from the congregation at the end of the Second Grade—and turn to Matthew 28, and with our pencils carefully draw a line through the word “Lo,” and next to it, in the margin, to write our own name.  And so, every time I come to Matthew 28, I recall that somewhere, perhaps in a box of books in my sister’s garage out in California, there is an old red Bible in which Jesus says, “Bruce, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  Jesus speaking to us personally.  Me and Mr. Lo.  And we could all do that in our imagination.  Jesus looking over the circle of the disciples, across miles and centuries, and seeing you, each one of us.  “I am with you, with you, always.”  Insert your name here.

It is in any event something of the paradox of Ascension Thursday that the imagery of departure is surrounded and given shape and meaning by the assurance that Jesus isn’t going anywhere.  On the contrary, the message is if anything that now in the great conclusion of Good Friday and Easter Morning he is here more than ever.  Lifted high upon the throne, ruling in heaven and earth.  The great narrative arc of God’s action to redeem and restore a fallen world begun in the word to Abraham in the ancient desert of Mesopotamia, the thread of promise in the life of Israel, the hope of the prophets.  The sacramental anticipation of Israel, God’s holy people, set apart, and the Tent in the Wilderness, and the Temple in Jerusalem, now perfected in the New Israel of Christ, in the Temple of his glorified Body.  And in the Temple of his glorified Body, that is his Church.  Insert your name here.  A light to lighten the gentiles.  The glory of thy people. 

And so this evening we might hear appropriately in the background the 21st Chapter of St. John’s Revelation:  “And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.”  And of course the wonderful vision of Daniel in the reading appointed for this evening, “And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away.”

Ascension Thursday, again.  And Jesus hasn’t gone anywhere, isn’t going anywhere. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

The story of Matthew 28, like the Ascension  story of Luke 24, is not about a departure, but about an arrival, about his installation, his institution, his enthronement, his authority, his new kingdom.  It’s about who we are now, what we become, as we see him for the first time for who he truly is.  King of kings, Lord of lords.  He shall reign for ever and ever.  And the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.  Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with justice and with righteousness from henceforth even forever.

Not about the departure of Jesus, but about who we are now with him, in him.  Standing at the new doorway of Pentecost, Holy Spirit, and this Great Commission.

Earlier this spring here at Calvary Church in our Lenten Preaching Series our good friend Moni McIntyre shared this really exciting sermon with us, as perhaps many of you will remember.  Always of course with her great energy and directness of expression and good humor.  Honestly, I don’t remember the text she was preaching on that evening.  But I do remember that we were with all our Lenten Preachers reflecting together this spring on who we are now particularly as a diocesan family and expression of Christ’s Church, about the future we are being called to, and on the spirit of life and leadership that would be required of us, as we had before us the occasion of the election of our next bishop.  About being Salt, about sharing and reflecting the Light of the World, now shining above us and among us.

We are of course mindful of all kinds of challenges.  Diminished numbers, precarious resources, a certain tenderness in the body, perhaps more than a few bruises and sore places,  remnants of old divisions not quite healed.  In moments like that it is perhaps understandable that any of us might be drawn in the direction of stepping out of the fray, to a turning inward.  But that’s not what Moni was going to say for us in her sermon, but instead with all her energy and enthusiasm and great commitment to say, “Let’s get going!”  No time like the present, this day, this hour.  It’s all about Holy Spirit and Pentecost now.  And we can remember that mid-Lent sermon as we go out this Ascension evening.  What is there to wait for?  I remember when I was in college back in the early 1970’s I saw someone reading a magazine called “Acts 29.”  And I was curious, so I went home and picked up my Bible to turn to Acts 29, only to discover that the Book of the Acts of the Apostles ends with Chapter 28.  And then, of course, the lightbulb flashed on, and my understanding was illumined.  That’s our chapter.  The substance of let’s say the 29th Chapter of St. Matthew too.  Go forth,  go forth today, into all nations, among all peoples.  Let that be our story.  To begin right here in Southwestern Pennsylvania, and not to be bashful about it--to share the good news, to be ministers of the great sacrament of renewal and rebirth, to teach and lead and inspire both in our words and by our striving to live an obedient and holy life every graceful word and commandment that he has shared with us. 

Ascension Thursday, but he isn’t going anywhere.  He is seated here and now at the right hand of the Father.  Over us, over our Church and our world.  His is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty.  For all that is in the heaven and in the earth is his.  His is the kingdom, and he is exalted as head before all.  


Monday, May 26, 2014

Memorial Day

John Christopherson, my grandmother's older brother, died in the Great War and is buried in England. His photograph in uniform, taken at the drug store in Stanley, Wisconsin, shortly before he departed, always had a place of honor on my grandmother's bedroom bureau. On this Memorial Day weekend, with deepest thanksgiving.

Almighty God, our heavenly Father, in whose hands are the living and the dead; We give thee thanks for all those thy servants who have laid down their lives in the service of our country. Grant to them thy mercy and the light of thy presence, that the good work which thou has begun in them may be perfected; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Sixth Easter Sunday, Rogation

John 14: 15-21

Grace and peace this morning, the Sixth Sunday of Easter season, and with two additional notes regarding the calendar.  Always one of my favorite subjects!  The three weekdays, the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday before Ascension Thursday are traditionally called “Rogation Days.”  From the Latin verb “rogo,” to “request,” (we have a number of words in contemporary use that are related: “interrogation,” for example.)  In this case a rogation is a prayer, and Rogationtide a brief season in which prayers would be offered in agricultural communities during the spring planting season.  

In rural English villages it was quite common at Evensong on Rogation Sunday to have a representative blessing of seed, and then to have a procession from the church to circle around the nearby fields and to bless the soil, and to pray for fair weather, sufficient rain, and an abundant harvest.  Years ago when I was serving up in Central Pennsylvania our Susquehanna Deanery, eight or nine churches up and down the Northern and Western Branches of the river, would co-host a Rogation Sunday evensong and potluck supper at St. Gabriel’s Church in Coles Creek, a country crossroads near the village of Benton--right out in the fields.  And if not too many of our St. Andrew’s  families, with the notable exception of Ben and Heather Shannon up in Stanton Heights, live on farms these days, I do know that we have plenty of gardeners.  Tomatoes, cucumbers, summer squash.  

In recent years Rogation Sunday has become time as well to think and pray about larger concerns of environmental stewardship, and always to give thanks for those who work to provide the food and clothing and shelter that we city dwellers all rely upon.

This weekend also of course the weekend of Memorial Day, and we would take a moment in our holiday of picnics and recreation to stand back to remember the origins of the day, originally Decoration Day, as mothers and fathers, wives and children, would in the years following the Civil War go out to the cemeteries to care for the graves of those who had fallen in that conflict.  And now a day to honor and remember all those who have given their lives in the service of our country, from Lexington and Concord to Afghanistan. A day for brass bands and honor guards.  And as we honor and remember them, and all those who have served and who are serving now, and their families and loved ones, to renew prayers for a just resolution to all the wars and conflicts around the world, and for a wholesome peace.

Sixth Easter.  Last Easter Sunday before Ascension Thursday, the 40th day of the season.  Such an impressive and thoughtful sermon last week shared by our bishop on the first section of John 14, reflecting on that word from Jesus to his disciples in his last hours with them on the night before Good Friday. “In my Father’s House are many mansions.”  As he shared with us, this deep and tender word a way of gathering together all that he has taught his friends over their years together and all that he has been for them.  Nicodemus, the Woman at the Well, the Blind Man, the Crippled Man, the Hungry Multitudes, Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha.  Glimpses of what it is to know the Father’s House, to be welcomed, to find our own home there.  Healing, peace, forgiveness, mercy, acceptance.  New life.

And this continues in the verses that continue as read for us this morning.  Things are about to change in big and dramatic ways, yet what is most important and of greatest value will not change.  “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me.  Because I live, you also will live.”

What a promise this is.  As at the end of Matthew 28, those profound words spoken at the top of the mountain.  “Lo, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  Or as in the Ascension Thursday accounts in Luke and Acts.  The clouds receive him, but his friends are not left without comfort, without his continuing real presence.  Which from the Thursday on the Mountaintop has been what is definitive for each and every one of his disciples, his friends.  Year after year and generation after generation.  The simple invitation.  When I was involved in summer youth ministry programs years ago, I guess decades ago now, we used to have a song for the camp fire.  “Have you seen Jesus my Lord?  He’s here in plain view.  Take a look, open your eyes.  He’ll show life to you.”

“I will not leave you orphaned.  The world will no longer see me, but you will see me.”  In one sense Easter “the season” comes to an end with Ascension Thursday and then ten days later Whitsunday, Pentecost.  But the mystery revealed is that to know Christ and to see him is always and eternally a present-tense activity.    As he is revealing himself to us right now in scripture, in the daily reading of the Bible, which is such an opportunity and gift.   In community, the fellowship of this particular body, and all the strange connectedness of the wider church and of all the strange constellation of church bodies.  In worship, sacrament.  The splash of water at the font.  Bread broken, wine poured out.   In the face of his poor.  In the wounded.  In the unloved.  –Have you seen Jesus my Lord? -- Take a look, open your eyes.  He’ll show life to you.

As Bishop McConnell said, to hear those words rolling down the centuries.  Into our homes and into our lives.    In my Father’s House.  The way.  The truth.  The life.  Mercy. Hope. Healing. Forgiveness.  A new life.   A place for us always and forever, from this day forward, in his presence.

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

Friday, May 23, 2014

Sermon at Evensong, May 18

Our preacher at Evensong on Sunday, May 18, was the Rev. Jeff Murph, Rector of St. Thomas Memorial Episcopal Church, Oakmont, Pennsylvania, and Chaplain of St. Margaret's Hospital in Aspinwall.  Propers for the Evening Office on the Fifth Easter Sunday, Year Two, were Psalms 8 & 84, Hebrews 12: 1-14, and Luke 4: 16-30.

Is there more than what the empirical indicators of the world reveal?  And if there is more then what is there and how are we to recognize it?  These are two questions that I think actually are very pertinent in an age where, at least in Western societies, more and more people describe themselves as having no belief whatsoever.  And in addition to these so-called atheists, there are many more who describe themselves as spiritual but avoid conforming themselves to any faith system or faith community at all.  Often they seem to have devised a set of spiritual ideas, whether or not it has any logical coherence that becomes their personal creed.  Not surprisingly, these sets of personal creeds often fit quite comfortably with the pattern these folks happen to live.

In contrast, we in the Church have a much more inconvenient spiritual framework.  We subscribe to a revealed system of faith, which at times can present embarrassing beliefs, politically incorrect perspectives and which can articulate a framework that may be very challenging indeed to the way we might prefer to live our lives.  What may be the worst is that we Christians all are expected to live out this faith in the context of a community, the church, which is filled with all kinds of people that we might much prefer not to associate with, not to mention the hypocrisies and petty squabbles that can characterize just about any Christian community.  But I am getting ahead of myself, I want first to return to the original questions with which I began this sermon:  Is there more than what the empirical indicators of the world reveal?  And if there is more then what is there and how are we to recognize it?

In reality, there are more things in the world than those things that can be tested empirically.  An overwhelming amount of human energy has been devoted to describing the power of love and yet, it is very hard indeed to empirically quantify a human emotion.  Despite this, very few would deny that love is a great motive behind many human events.  We Christians, of course, maintain that there is a spiritual dimension to this world that is very real.  And yet, it does not submit itself to the kinds of empirical experimentation that our world tends to demand for authenticating reality.

In my last parish, I went to visit a parishioner who had been ill for quite a long time and who, indeed, had a disease that could have killed him.  “I just don’t know for sure whether I believe if there is anything that comes after,” he confessed to me in the midst of his anxiety.  I continued to listen to him speak and, within ninety seconds of making this confession of uncertainty, he then proceeded to tell me about how he had felt supernaturally guided when he was going through some of things left to him by his recently departed father.  He almost seemed to be like that old story in Mark’s gospel where the father of the epileptic boy cries out, “I believe, help thou my unbelief! (Mk. 9:24).  There was lacking perhaps that empirical proof that he would so have liked to have; and yet, even so, almost in the periphery of his field of sight, he could perceive God’s reality all the same.

Tonight, the writer of Hebrews, writing to a community that was perhaps wrestling with doubt, with uncertainty, with anxiety because of persecution and hard times, with the disapproval and rejection of the Pharisaical Jewish authorities, calls his readers to open their eyes to a spiritual reality that they were having trouble seeing.  “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.  And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”  This verse has always fascinated me.  In fact, it has always conjured up in my mind a giant track and field event, held before a great stadium.  In this event, running along the racetrack, going as hard as we can, are we.  In the seats of the stadium, cheering encouragement at the top of their lungs are all the saints who have already finished the race; aiding us with their intercessions and, of course, with the examples of their own lives.

For me, it is a dynamic vision of the reality of God’s Kingdom, both here as well as in Paradise, as well as the connection that, in Christ, binds us, the living, even to the dead—who, of course, are still alive in the Lord.  But the writer also points us rather emphatically, and quite appropriately, to Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” 

Luke, in his short account, gives us an example of Thomas Wolfe’s claim that “you can’t go home again.”  Jesus returns to Nazareth, but as a noted rabbi, not as the carpenter that everyone thought they knew so well.  And he is greeted with rejection—such a common human experience—and one that most of us fear so terribly.  It was not, it seems a rejection of him as a rabbi, because, at least at first, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips.”  But then he started saying things that they didn’t like, nice things about Gentiles.  “Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon.  And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”  Only then did rejection come with fury and even with violence, as they sought to toss him off a cliff.  The writer of the Hebrews seems to suggest, “Jesus knew rejection too—especially when he did and said things that other people did not like.” 

Fear of rejection can certainly cause people to avoid certain things.  In a way, it is how we socialize one another—don’t do or say things that confront the status quo.  Isn’t this what Hebrews is about—how to stand fast in faith in Christ Jesus when the world around you is turning up the heat of rejection?  As a corrective to this rejection, the writer of Hebrews reminds us of a very real dimension of reality that is not visible to the naked eye.  He reminds us of the faithful priestly ministry of Jesus, who endured rejection even to the cross and the grave to rescue us from the authority of sin and death.  He reminds us of the cloud of witnesses, the saints, who were just like us, enduring the hardships, the rejections, the ridicule, the sacrifices of life in this broken world and yet who had been given the grace with their perseverance to finish the race.

Just a few weeks ago, the Pittsburgh Marathon was run through your neighborhood (in fact, I imagine that a number of you weren’t able to get to church that day because the streets were closed).  The slowest time that I was able to research was seven hours and thirty-four minutes, and some seconds.  First, let me say how much I admire this last place finisher—talk about perseverance!  My goodness gracious!  He did finish the race.  And I don’t know but I’ll bet he had his own cheering supporters on hand at the finish line, just like everybody else.

Sometimes, life in this broken world can be so hard that you can just barely put one foot in front of the other.  Sometimes perseverance just runs out of all its juice—and a encourager may be the only lifeline to help you going.  People deal with hardships like illness, unemployment, jobs they hate but are afraid to leave.  They deal with caring for loved ones, with unwelcome diagnoses, with despair.  In a lot of those kinds of things there seems to be a built-in rejection, even if it is not explicit—and in some cases, like unemployment, the rejection seems loud and clear.  In times like that, is there something to hold onto more than what seems empirically available—because all that empirical stuff so often ends up seeming insufficient?  Hebrews answers, “YES!”

Times will be hard in a broken world but we are not alone.  “Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles”—and that includes fear, even fear of rejection.  “And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.  Jesus doesn’t just mark the race route; he runs alongside us, helping us through the hard parts—if we let him.  And like my old parishioner, maybe sometimes your uncertainty bubbles over and you just aren’t sure about him—and you certainly aren’t sure about whether you can make it.  Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith—and remember, he has been there for you in the past—and he will be there for you to the end.  Amen+

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Fifth Easter Sunday

On this Fifth Easter Sunday we welcome to St. Andrew's our good friend the Rt. Rev. Dorsey W.M. McConnell, VIII Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh.

Bishop McConnell will preside and preach at our 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. services.

The 11 a.m. service will include the celebration of Holy Baptism for Howard Quentin Hull and the Rite of Confirmation for Tess Ralston Buchanan, Maeve Marie Denshaw, Jacquelyn Suzanne Gunter Frankle, Tessa Jane Friday, Daniel Joseph Isadore, Hallie Marissa Young Isadore, Jacob Isaac McGuffin, Maighread Elaine Southard-Wray, Erika Robyn Spondike, and Becky Kay Wetzel Usner.

A festive reception will follow both services to welcome Bishop McConnell and to applaud those baptized and confirmed on this day.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Fourth Easter, Good Shepherd

John 10: 1-10

Good morning!  Mother’s Day, of course, and with all good wishes and blessings on that occasion. 

On the ecclesiastical calendar the Fourth Easter Sunday in this great season of the Church Year has in the 1979 Prayer Book calendar become our “Good Shepherd Sunday,” as we hear in the Collect and of course in the 23rd Psalm and in the reading from John 10.  In older Prayer Books “Good Shepherd” was the Sunday after Easter, what we would call now “the Second Sunday of Easter,” and the appointed gospel reading also from this long passage in the tenth chapter of St.John, but in the section that immediately follows our reading this morning, beginning at verse 11.  We have verses 1-10 today, and then verse 11: “Jesus said, I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.”  In our modern three-year lectionary cycle we get in years A, B, and C some different perspectives on the longer passage of John 10, all of it rich with “Good Shepherd” imagery.  

And as a side note, simply to commend the very lovely Good Shepherd Window in the narthex.  One of my great predecessors, Harry  Briggs Heald,  rector of St. Andrew’s, died very young, 1924, while he was still serving, and as a tribute and memorial to him as pastor and friend the window was contributed by the children and families of the St. Andrew’s Church School.  Then back in the late 1990’s the window was restored and conserved with gifts honoring our friend David Leighton, 13th Rector of St. Andrew’s and then later Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.  He died just this past fall, and is still remembered by so many in this parish and diocese and in Maryland, and with prayers of thanksgiving.   And so a day when we might remember those two and all the pastors of this parish and in all the places of our lives . . . .

And so this morning, the 10 verses of John 10 that are the prelude to that dramatic 11th verse.  The reading really with two sections.  The first, having to do with the unique and personal relationship between the sheep and the shepherd.  Thieves and bandits slip into the sheepfold by climbing in over the back fence, but they have no right to be there, no legitimate and honest business, and they are strangers to the sheep.   Rustlers.  All criminality. 

The true shepherd comes in by the front gate, and the sheep immediately hear and know his voice.  And he knows each one of them by name.  And there is trust, not fear.  They don’t run away, but they will follow where he leads.  There is an authentic belonging, one with the other.

And then in the second part of our reading this morning Jesus shifts the image a bit.  The shepherd is now all of a sudden the gate and in a more extended sense even, the sheepfold, the safe and secure dwelling place.  This all is a bit more a poetic conceptualizing.  The way we might speak of living in a family.  The Old Testament will use a phrase like “the House of David.”  I think we still use that for Queen Elizabeth’s family, her ancestors and descendants, “the House of Windsor.”  Not about a building of wood or brick, but a different way of thinking about space.  I am the dwelling place of the sheep, the gate, the means by which true life and rich and prosperous life may be discovered.  Good pasture.  As Jesus will say a bit later in John 14, “I am the way.”  The road, the door, the instrument of healing and hope, health and salvation.  This wonderful saying, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

If you don’t mind my quoting myself, as I will say sometimes in the context of the Easter message, a natural and appropriate first response to the announcement, “Christ is risen,”  might very well be something like: “Lucky for him!  Everyone I’ve ever known who has died has stayed dead, so this must be one for the record books . . . .”

If the Easter Message is truly “gospel,” truly good news, then it must be good news for more than just one person 2,000 years ago, long ago and far away.  It must mean something more, and it must mean something for us, for you and me.  Not just an inspiring story, but that our lives are different as a result.  That it makes a difference.

And so the word for us in this reading, the invitation for us to hear really at the deepest level, in our minds and more importantly in our hearts, is that the sheep and the shepherd go together.  That his life is our life.  That he is not distant, but continues to know us each by name, continues to speak in a voice that we will hear and know to be true and good, again, in the deepest listening of our hearts.  This perfect assurance.   For as in Adam all died, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.

At the service for Bea Minkler this past Thursday Tim Hushion, who is our priest in charge at Trinity Cathedral these days, read the traditional lesson from Romans 8, and it goes right to the center of this truth about sheep and our Good Shepherd:  “For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

The bandits and thieves of this extended and complicated metaphor are of course always all around us.  I remember seeing the bumper sticker a few years ago, “The one who dies with the most toys wins.”  The business page says that these days the action in the economy is all about “winning eyeballs.”  Attracting an audience for advertising.  So many voices who will tell us what life is all about, about what product, what set of experiences, what political or social direction will lift our hearts and bring us to rich pasture.  And of course there can be tantalizing hints.  The surge of adrenaline at the latest acquisition or conquest, the sweet exhilaration of victory or even the sweet self-congratulation that can come in a defeat.  Since we will all of us love our grievances, a sense of being right even when others more powerful than we are wrong.

The fuel that runs along in everyday life.  Family, career, relationships.  The good things of every day.  Which of course can be good, and constructive, and life giving and meaningful in so many important ways. Each section of St. John’s gospel calling us back to the great Prologue, the first 18 verses of the first chapter.  “He came to his own home, and his own people received him not.  But to all who received him who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. . . .  And from his fullness have we all received grace upon grace.”  The Good Shepherd and his flock.

The Easter question.  Why it matters what happened on that Sunday morning, not just to him, but gathering in the whole flock.  To ask, where are we in our relationship to the Shepherd of the Sheep?  Is his the voice we hear?  Is he the door, the gate, our home?  That he might live in us, and we in him.

With the prayer that in this Easter we may find and know the answer.  As kids we used to sing the hymn in Sunday School:

Savior, like a shepherd lead us; much we need thy tender care; in thy pleasant pastures feed us; for our use thy folds prepare.  Blessed Jesus!  Blessed Jesus!  Thou has bought us, thine we are. (708)

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

Friday, May 9, 2014

Burial Office, May 8, 2014

Beatrice Ann MacGinitie Minkler
July 28, 1939 – May 3, 2014

Jesus, to his disciples,  in the 14th chapter of St. John:  “Whither I go, ye know, and the way ye know.”  He says this in the night of the Last Supper, Maundy Thursday, with the whole story of Good Friday and the Cross about to play out for him and for his friends, and for all of us, at all times and in all places.  In the imagination of our hearts.  You know where I’m going, and you know how to get there.  And of course this afternoon in the Third Week of Eastertide, the guiding light of the Paschal Candle to show the way.  

Bill—and Tom and Don and Margie and Sharon, and Gordon, and all your families, all friends and loved ones here this afternoon, what an amazing assembly at the reception at the funeral home on Tuesday, and members of our congregation of St. Andrew’s Church, old friends from Trinity Cathedral, Bethel Park neighbors, a great circle of clergy admirers and friends here, and of course the South Fayette High School Boosters and Band.  

Simply to pray that the words of our Lord for all of us would shine a bright and steady light this afternoon.  That the Good News of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ would be presented faithfully and in a gracious way in the reading of scripture and in the beautiful music and anthems and hymns, in preaching, in the offering of the great prayers of the church.  Certainly the Good News about Jesus, as we have seen it communicated and lived-out in the life of Beatrice Ann MacGinitie Minkler. 

As we have all of us been caught short by Bea’s sudden death.  One week to be preparing for a transcontinental train adventure, and then to have everything turned upside down.  In those ancient words, “In the midst of life we are in death.”  Recalling the prayer of the Psalm, “Lord, let me know mine end, and the number of my days.”

It is very much for me an honor and a privilege to share this afternoon in this service for Beatrice Ann MacGinitie Minkler, who entered this life on July 28, 1939, a Californian and a Golden Bear.  Married to Bill at St. Mary’s Napa, in the summer of 1961—Bishop Gooden officiating, the Suffragan of Los Angeles, a pretty impressive display of Episcopalian family connections, the city and diocese where I grew up--wonderful to see the photo album and those wedding pictures on Tuesday—and for this rich 53 years of marriage.  Just really a tribute.  The mysteries of marriage.  Steadfast grace.  Courage, forgiveness, growth, joy.  The blessings of family.  

Entering Greater Life this past Saturday morning, May 3, 2014, at the age of 74.  To remember her life in all its richness.  Relationships, experiences.  The up’s and down’s of every day and every year.  Daughter, Sister, Wife, Mother, Grandmother, Friend.  As we offer together the prayers of the church, not just as we say the words but as we gather the faith and life and witness of the whole Christian family and offer the deepest knowledge and desire of our hearts to almighty God.  As we hear the words of scripture, the psalms, the lessons, the Good News of Jesus Christ.  I was so touched by all the signs of her prayer life.  A handwritten prayer on a card on the bedside table.  Bookmarks, books, poems.  A rich inner landscape of faith.

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

In the years that I’ve known Bea there has been so much that has impressed me about her, so much about her and about her friendship that I have enjoyed.  Her warmth, her generosity of spirit, her smile.  My goodness, to see those photos of her as a young woman—how perfect that smile was all her life long!  The tenderness of the love that she had for you Bill.  You could see it in her eyes when she would look at you.  What she would have said back in 1961 at St. Mary’s Napa, as she held your hand, the good Bishop supervising: “I Beatrice take thee Bill, to my wedded Husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto I give thee my troth.”  You and Bea have been in a quiet way but in such a powerful way a witness and an inspiration.

“Whither I go, ye know, and the way ye know.”  You know where I’m going, and you know how to get there.  Jesus is talking to his disciples about something more than what we might call our religious opinions and theories, our interpretations, our theological positions or understandings of various issues and concerns of the day.  What Jesus is talking about is a deeper kind of knowing than that.  The kind of knowing that we talk about when we say that a child knows his mother. It’s about relationship, connection.  About the word we use in the Church with real meaning and sincerity: about faith.  About being in relationship with God deeply and securely.  “You know where I am going, and how to get there, because you and I are going to the same place, returning to the same home, to that mansion that the Father has prepared for us.”  Christ in your heart.  To hear again, “I go to prepare a place for you, that where I am, there ye may be also . . . .  I am the way, the Truth, the Life.  No man cometh unto the Father but by me.”

 So: “in the midst of life we are in death.”  Thinking how very fragile we are in this short life.  How precious every day is—the highlights and Red Letter Days, but also the ordinary days, making a home and a life together.  “Lord, let me know my end, and the number of my days.”  But of course we never can know.  Every day is a gift, a real gift—and of course a gift that comes with no guarantee.  Even when we say, “see you tomorrow,” we don’t really know.   

And so as we come together hear, to remember, to comfort one another, to give thanks, we might also hear an invitation.  Bea might be an inspiration for us in this way also.  This Christian woman of prayer and a deep and tender faith, with a deep and open and tender heart, that we would hear the invitation to love one another, to enjoy the good gift of the life, the family and friends God has given us.  And all that in the sure and certain hope of life in Christ Jesus, what we all have to be about this afternoon, with all the sadness that there is—what we all have to be about is to learn to live every day of this short and precious life in the love of God and of one another, serving God and one another, knowing that to be such a privilege.

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

If you would please stand with me now and we will turn to the service leaflet, where we would say together the ancient and timeless Apostles’ Creed, the core affirmation of Christian identity and faith, and following the Creed then to remain standing and to turn in the hymnal as we would sing together the  hymn that Bill suggested, that came immediately to mind for him as we began to think about this service-- in the larger hymnal Hymn # 388, joining our voices here, and I know Bea will be singing with us in the choir of heaven.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Third Easter, Marathon in Pittsburgh

The Rector, 1995

Luke 24: 13-35

Good morning, and welcome, and congratulations of course to all who figured out how to slip through the barricades and across the flowing streams of runners to find your way to church this morning.  Always a great day for the city, if a bit of a jumble for the churches.  Back in the mid and late 1990’s and early 2000’s I used to run in the marathon, as some of you will remember—and even though I haven’t done that for a decade now I still enjoy all the festivities of the day.  A good day I think for our city and region, and I know we would offer our prayers today with special intention for the runners and those who are assisting them at refreshment and first aid stations, all the support structures involved, for families, friends, people cheering and celebrating along the way.  Nice weather for a long run.   

In early fall we’ll pray the Collect marked now in the new Prayer Book for “Proper 21,” and the Sunday nearest September 28.  In the older Prayer Books for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity:  “O God, who declares thy almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity; Mercifully grant unto us such a measure of thy grace, that we, running the way of thy commandments, may obtain thy gracious promises, and be made partakers of thy heavenly treasure.”  And of course remember today St.Paul, First Corinthians 9: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize?  So run, that you may obtain it.  Every athlete exercises self-control in all things.  They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we, an imperishable one . . . .”

The distance from Jerusalem to Emmaus isn’t 26.2 miles.  More like a 10-K—a bit under 7 miles.  In the first century the town was the site of a Roman military barracks and prison, probably the centerpiece of the local economy.  Luke doesn’t tell us much about these two.  I’ve sometimes wondered if perhaps they were husband and wife.  We have the one name, “Cleopas.”  And we might notice that in his telling of the Passion and Good Friday St. John says in Chapter 19, verse 25, “But standing by the Cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.”  Don’t know if “Clopas” and “Cleopas” might be variants of the same name, but perhaps.  Not only then two followers of Jesus on their way home from Jerusalem after all the tumult of the week just passed, but perhaps even his aunt and uncle . . . .

In any event, the story one of the most familiar of the Easter reports.  The two walking home, late in the afternoon.  They meet a stranger.  They tell him about what has happened.  He opens up the Scriptures for them, Moses and the Prophets, to demonstrate that all the things they had experienced were a part of God’s long and careful plan.  At their invitation he comes to their home, since it’s getting dark, and they ask this remarkable rabbi and teacher to say the blessing before the meal.  He does so, breaking the bread in their presence.  And then, suddenly, mysteriously, supernaturally, he is gone.  And they do the only thing they can think to do.  Strap on their running shoes and zoom back to Jerusalem.   (Leonard Komen of Kenya has the world record for a 10K road race, 26 minutes 44 seconds.  I’ll bet it didn’t take Cleopas and his companion too much longer than that to get back to the Upper Room where the rest of the disciples were hiding out in Jerusalem.  They were motivated to share this astonishing experience.    In any event, Luke says, “that same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem.”  They didn’t want to waste any time.)

Strap on your running shoes.  Not a direct quote from scripture, but a paraphrase for my text this morning.  Strap on your running shoes.

I guess I would just take this opportunity, Marathon Sunday, to continue in the same direction that I began with my sermon and report last Sunday at the 177th Annual Parish Meeting of St. Andrew’s Church.

What we don’t read in Luke 24 is that after recognizing the risen Jesus in their presence Cleopas and his companion finished dinner, did the dishes, caught up on their e-mail, updated their Facebook Status Page, and then went to bed, with the note that they would have for sure one interesting story to tell when they next saw their friends in Jerusalem.

No.  It was already night by this time.  No lights on the road.  The most dangerous time to travel.  Wild animals, muggers and thieves.  But there doesn’t seem to be any conversation about alternatives.  They just get moving.  Right away.

I think it’s a word, an image, a story for us.  We can apply it personally, and we can apply it in terms of our life as a congregation. 

As a congregation of course we’re at this turning point, this transition.  Looking forward to the celebration of “renaissance” toward the end of the summer.  A great Easter word, “renaissance.”  Certainly a Holy Spirit kind of moment, a vocational moment.  One of those once-in-a-generation times when we would turn a new page in the history of St. Andrew’s—and I think we do sense that page turning.

But you don’t have to replace a floor and build ramps and elevators and restrooms and add new meeting space for that to happen.  In fact it’s really not about any of those things.  It’s about what God was stirring up in us that carried us into those projects, and about what God is doing with us now as we look forward to the summer and the fall and the year ahead, and years and decades, and all our lives.

Just think, each one of us this morning:  “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”  And when his blessing was given, the bread broken—as he placed it in their hands.   Luke says, “Their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.”

So I said last Sunday, say again now.  As the construction work all begins finally to draw to the end.  What if we were to listen, to open our ears and truly listen, as he opens his word to us.   Each one of us.  Our eyes and our ears, our minds and our hearts.  As we would hear and know and truly believe his blessing, receive into our hands the bread that he has broken for us.  The words of the prayers: Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.  Send us out to do the work you have given us to do.  To walk in your ways, to the glory of your name.

Were not our hearts burning within us?  ==

Strapping on those running shoes.  Every Sunday  “Renaissance Sunday.”  That’s can be our prayer and our intention and our new life in him, at this Easter season of our lives, and very hour, and every day.