Sunday, August 31, 2014

Twelfth after Pentecost, Last Summer Sunday

 . . . and at St. Andrew's, "The Sunday before Renaissance Sunday" --

Proper 17A     Matthew 16: 21-28  (with a bit of Hopkins at the end)

I want to apologize right now if you feel like you’ve been sold a bill of goods.  Like one of those Labor Day Weekend Furniture Sales that don’t actually seem to have saved you any money when you finally get home and review your credit card statement.   You discover you’ve fallen into a kind of low-level bait-and-switch transaction.  One of those glossy advertisements, all sunshine and sea-shore, brilliant colors and breathless text.  Didn’t even notice the small print--just a gray smudge at the bottom of the page.  Have to take out a magnifying glass to read it. 

The sign out front on Hampton Street says, “You are Welcome Here.”  Come as you are!  The spirit of hospitality—with room for everybody! 

Almost miss the warning on the back of the label.  The side-effects list.  You know the ones I’m talking about.  On the television commercials.  Medication to treat even relatively minor complaints, then with a terrifying list of potential consequences rolling along in the background.  The cure so often begins to sound far more dangerous than the disease. 

I mean, it says on the website (and we have a new website launching even as we speak--check it out later this week!)  that we’re a bunch of friendly folks who enjoy a spirit of generous hospitality.  And so we are.  You come in, take a leaflet from a smiling member of the Pews and Sittings Committee, listen to a lovely bit of organ prelude, share a smile with the family across the aisle.

And then: a word from the Founder and Director of our organization--who looks us dead-on this morning without so much as a smile, and now that we’re more or less stuck here for the rest of the hour anyway he gives us the straight scoop.  Plain and simple:  nobody gets out of here alive.

I mean, look:  of course there’s no coercion.  It’s a free country.  The doors aren’t bolted.  But I guess if we thought we were in one of those realms where “the customer is always right,” we have another think coming.  People have been heading for the hills after they meet Jesus for 2000 years, so no need for any of us to be shy about hightailing it out of here.  In fact my guess is that there aren’t too many of us in the building this morning who haven’t bailed on him at least once or twice.  Sometimes once or twice per week . . . . 

Remembering what John Mitchell said about his wife Martha back in the Watergate scandal.  “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.”  Even if we don’t literally run, we are usually pretty good at hiding.  At self-medication.  Skimming over the hard parts.  Jesus says to Peter, “you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things,” and we all experience that moment of self-recognition.  Just keep thinking about the comfortable parts, and maybe the nasty bits will just go away on their own.

In the “Church Bulletin Bloopers” department, some years ago when I was at St. Paul’s in Bloomsburg our church secretary absent-mindedly typed in the first line of a communion hymn, #707, “Take my life and let me be.”   And I suppose who hasn’t offered that prayer with all sincerity?  Not “take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to thee.”  But, “let me be.”  I want to be close to you Jesus, but only if you promise not to change me in any way.  Just “let me be . . . .”  

In the background we see fleeting images.  Tax Collectors leaving their offices and going to the bank and emptying their savings accounts of a life-time of profits.  A Young Ruler, discouraged at the word to sell all he has.  The woman caught with a man not her husband, told to change her ways.  Fishermen who leave their father and their families and all their situations and plans of life behind, as he invites them to follow him.  Bonhoeffer famously talks about “costly discipleship.”  As if there ever could be any other kind. 

Yet strangely, we keep coming back.  Kind of counter-intuitive.  The marketers are always saying, “if you want a lot more people to come to church, the first thing you need to do is to make it easier.”   We are reminded, as we have all been invited to the celebration of the baptism of Jackson Tobias Young, our Church Secretary Michelle’s son, this afternoon here at 3 p.m., that this is an organization whose ritual of initiation is a symbolic drowning.  St. Paul says we’re “buried” in the waters of the font.  And as my old friend Harold Lewis used to like to say, there is no luggage rack in a coffin. 

So the baptismal point is that there’s going to be a lot that needs to be left behind in that water if we’re going to make it back to the surface. 

We may have come of age in the roaring ‘60’s, when Psychologist Eric Bourne’s best-seller was printed as a banner over a generation.  “I’m O.K., You’re O.K.”  But looking up through the clear water from the bottom of the pool, we know that’s simply not the case.  If we had been o.k., we never would have gotten ourselves into this situation in the first place.

It’s the sick people who need a doctor.  Or as the poet Jude Simpson says in the poem that I send around every Advent, Jesus didn’t come for those who have their act together. 

For those who want to save their life will lose it.  Those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

The gospel tells us that many of Jesus’ early followers began to drift away when he started talking like this.  Which makes sense.  The whole thing is actually quite offensive.  Certainly hearing that in Peter’s response to what Jesus is saying.   “Don’t talk like that, Jesus.”  Don’t talk like that . . . .

So we don’t kid ourselves this morning.  Coming through the Great Doors on Hampton Street.  Lining up in the aisle to approach the communion rail.  The stakes are actually higher than we first thought.  Gain and loss.  Life and death.  Beginning to wrestle, each of us in our own way, with the challenge of change.  Not just a bit of tidying up around the edges.  But transformation.  We’re calling next Sunday “Renaissance Sunday,” and it sounds like a lot of fun.  It will be a lot of fun.  But real “renaissance” is a messier business.  Remembering Nicodmus.  “How can a man be born again?”  Too much mileage on the vehicle, Jesus. It’s hopeless.  You just can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

Our Centering Prayer Group is reading Richard Rohrer’s book, “Immortal Diamond.”  I haven’t finished the book yet, but I love the title.  Just to hear those two words this morning.  “Immortal Diamond.”  About what comes up out of the water, after the old has been washed away.  About what gets found, revealed, created new as the Old Adam is stripped away like a rag suit.  Rohrer’s title is from the poem by Gerard Manly Hopkins. What Jesus sees in us, underneath the layers of distortion and disguise.  Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven.   Meaningless to those who are well, I guess.  To those who have their act together.  But for the rest of us, good news.  If you know Hopkins you know that his poetry isn’t the easiest to read aloud, but to try it hear, the last few lines of this magnificent work, “That Nature is a Heracletian Fire, and the Comfort of the Resurrection.”  That’s the title.  Purging fire, then comfort.  It’s a poem we could have a whole year of Adult Education groups unpacking I think, but here is the end of the poem:

O pity and indig ' nation! Manshape, that shone
Sheer off, disseveral, a star, ' death blots black out; nor mark
                Is any of him at all so stark
But vastness blurs and time ' beats level. Enough! the Resurrection,
A heart’s-clarion! Away grief’s gasping, ' joyless days, dejection.
                Across my foundering deck shone
A beacon, an eternal beam. ' Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; ' world’s wildfire, leave but ash:
                In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, ' since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, ' patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,

                                     Is immortal diamond.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Eleventh after Pentecost: From the Bullrushes . . . .

Ex.1: 8 – 2:10; Mt 16: 13-20

In the first chapter of the American classic, young castabout and half-wild pre-teen scallywag Huckleberry Finn tells us about how the good Widow Douglas has thought that she might rescue him from his life on the run from his alcoholic and abusive father and take him into her home to “sivilize” him, as he says, and on the first evening after a ritual of cleaning and dressing and eating at the table, all so strained and even painful for Huck (though he knows she means well and tries his best to receive her attention) , the good Widow opens the Bible.  Huck says:

“After supper she got out her book and learned me about Moses and the Bulrushers, and I was in a sweat to find out all about him; but by and by she let it out that Moses had been dead a considerable long time, so then I didn’t care no more about him, because I don’t take no stock in dead people.

Pretty soon I wanted to smoke, and asked the Widow to let me.  But she wouldn’t.  She said it was a mean practice and wasn’t clean, and I must try not to do it anymore.  That is just the way with some people.  They get down on a thing when they don’t know nothing about it.  Here she was, a’bothering about Moses, which was no kin to her, and no use to anybody, being gone, you see, yet finding a power of fault with me for doing a thing that had some good in it.  And she took snuff, too; of course that was all right, because she done it herself.”

It’s a resonant allusion here in Huck Finn.  The story of an endangered child cast out upon the waters of the mighty river in a fragile vessel.  A raft.  

A basket of woven grass.  Yet one destined first to become a savior.

To think about the escaped slave Jim.  (I don’t think we need a Huckleberry Finn spoiler alert here.)  We know about him, an adult man, married, with a daughter, risking everything, his life literally on the line, in his journey from a Land of Bondage to a Promised Land.  His dear hope to make it to the Free States, to work and save, and then to buy his wife and daughter out of their slavery.  His only hope, the only thing in the world that matters to him.  Worth everything.  Risking his life.   And putting it all into the hands of this boy.  What is Huck?  Eleven?  Twelve?  A boy he doesn’t really even know.  But the reality is,  without Huck, Jim doesn’t stand a chance.

I guess to think about Moses.  As we hear a little ways on at the Burning Bush, he’s also not a likely candidate for the big job.  An inarticulate, wanted criminal on the lam, married to a foreign woman.  Yet he was the one who was called.  And without him—somehow it has come to this, without him the Children of Israel don’t stand a chance.

A funny memory I have of a moment in my childhood.  In September, 1959, --and I had to look the date up in Wikipedia—Nikita Krushchev came to the U.S. for a summit meeting with President Eisenhower.  It must have been a Sunday evening that I remember, because we were at my grandparents’ house in West Los Angeles, where we often went for dinner on Sundays.  The adults were all watching the news while I was sitting on the floor looking at the Sunday funny-papers.  There was this moment when Eisenhower and Kruschchev were standing on an airport tarmac, and my grandfather said, pointing at the screen,  “there are the two most powerful men in the world.”  I remember looking at the t.v. set--.  (Kind of a tiny screen in this great big mahogany console) at those black and white figures.  Two bald and portly old men in dull gray suits.  I mean, that’s just astonishing.  Most powerful in the world??  What about Superman?  What about Batman?  These old guys didn’t look like they could go even 30 seconds with any self-respecting superhero!

Not sure I did any deep theological reflection at the time.  But something in the scene caught my attention, and the moment has kind of lingered in my memory, as you can tell.  A little bit of a funny story, but maybe also a deeper meaning, a reminder,  what we might have before us this morning--that real power, real strength, sometimes is to be found in unexpected places.  Unexpected people. 

Another literary reference, and then I’ll stop, but perhaps what catches our attention in the film “Slumdog Millionaire.”  If you saw that—really an excellent film.  But just to reference the consternation and disbelief.  How is it possible that this boy from the streets can know the answers?

Real power, real strength, the one who can carry us from slavery to freedom, from the land of bondage to the land of promise.  Certainly the long narrative of scripture tells us that this is how God keeps working in our lives and in our world.  Old Abraham and old Sarah, to be the parents of a new nation.  Moses.  The Boy David.  Elijah and Jeremiah, pretty much all the prophets.  A peasant girl in a backwater village of a backwater country.  And then, the child Mary sang to sleep in the straw of the manger—perhaps an echo of that wicker basket of a raft that Moses’ mother pushed out into the Nile.  The radiant glory of the Father, all Power and Might.  But hard to recognize.  Not what we expected.

So bringing us this morning to Matthew 16.  The question at Caesarea Philippi.  Confession of St. Peter.  The question echoing around us and certainly before us as we come to this place.  As we participate in the Memorial of his Passion.  Look straight on into that ancient phrase,  “the mystery of faith.”

Jesus asking.  “But you.  Who do you say that I am?”  What do you see, when you look at me?

From the First Chapter of St. John’s Gospel.  “The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world.  He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not.  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.”

“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!  For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”

It is a gift, eyes that can see him, a mind that can know him, a heart that can love him.  Even when he comes to us in such an unexpected way.  Even when he reveals a way of life and faith for us that doesn’t make sense at all in the world as we had thought we understood the world to be.

The unexpected savior saves us in an unexpected way, so that we might be changed and made new, in ways that we never expected.

As St. Paul says in the First Chapter of First Corinthians, “we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews, foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

And so on this summer morning, as he is made present for us in Word and Sacrament, the prayer: “open, we beseech the, the eyes of our faith, that we may see him,  Jesus, recognize him, know him, who will be for us Lord and Savior.”

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

Saturday, August 9, 2014

An Anniversary Reception

I believe my Letters Dimissory from the Bishop of Central Pennsylvania were accepted by the Rt. Rev. Alden M. Hathaway of Pittsburgh on July 15, 1994, marking officially the beginning of my tenure as Rector of St. Andrew's Church, in the Highland Park neighborhood.  The parish was busy refreshing the rectory, so the Robisons didn't actually roll into town until the beginning of August.  I believe the second Sunday of August was my first service, and I recall that Pete Luley and the ever-magnificent St. Andrew's Choir made a special effort to suspend the usual holiday and return for full-dress Choral Matins.

So 20 years this summer.  Tomorrow morning, August 10, Susy and I will be hosting a little Coffee Hour reception after the 10 a.m. service to say a word of thanks for the friendship and all the kindnesses, too many to number, shared with us and with our family over this expanse of our lives.

                                     Bruce, Susy, Daniel, Linnea, and our Penelope
                                                                     Summer, 1994

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Eighth after Pentecost: Vacation Interrupted --

Proper 13A   Matthew 14: 13-21

Jesus is trying to get away by himself for an interval of rest and relaxation and refreshment, perhaps a summer day or two of vacation from all the hustle and bustle of his active life and ministry.  A time for reflection, prayer, discernment. 

What would happen of course in 2014 is that just as he would have sailed his little boat into a quiet and deserted harbor, tied up to a mooring, begun a walk along the beach, his cell phone would have begun to vibrate incessantly.  Reluctantly he would pull it out of the pocket of his flowing robe to see an accumulating line of urgent text messages and Facebook alerts.  Seems like each of the 12 disciples has a matter that can’t be addressed without his input.  A long line of e-mails that have gathered over the morning, each one beginning, “I hate to bother you on your vacation, but I was hoping you could review the attached document and let me know what you think.” 

You get the picture, anyway.   I could tell some stories from this summer.  The technology has evolved, but the basic pattern continues.  And perhaps you’ve had similar experiences.   “Jesus withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.  But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.”  Sometimes it’s just not possible to get away . . . .

From the moment back in Matthew 10 when Jesus commissioned his disciples he has been putting into motion himself the same plan of action.  Identifying and casting out Evil Spirits, healing the sick, proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom.  That all would know and see with their own eyes that  God was present in their midst to forgive and renew their spirits and their lives.  That the time was past now for being a spectator on the sidelines.  That the time is now to join in the new community of faith and of commitment to God’s future that was gathering around him.  Even if that might be costly or painful.  That this is now the day of decision.

As Phil Wainwright explored over the past couple of weeks and especially last Sunday in his sermon on the passage of Romans 8, how this is about our “destiny.”  About who we are meant to be from the beginning of time.

And as we’ve heard along through these weeks, there have been remarkable miracles, remarkable healings, remarkable transformation in the lives of those who have met Jesus.  But also opposition, and the seeds of the reaction that will lead to persecution and eventually to the Cross.

But it just can’t happen at this moment.  A summer vacation. 

No I-Phones in First Century Palestine, but “the crowds,” when they hear where he is, “follow him on foot,” and actually arrive at the place he had planned for his mini-retreat before he does.  And in that moment what Jesus sees is not that they have ruined his plans, spoiled his day off, his little vacation and sabbatical retreat.  Instead, he is moved with compassion.  He feels their yearning to know the power and the presence of God and understands what has led them to come to this remote place.  This is after all what he has come for.  His reason for being.

One of the stories about Jesus that all the gospels tell.  We in this congregation of course are especially familiar with St. John, who tells us that the five loaves and two fish that the disciples offer to Jesus have come from a boy, who brought them first to Andrew—and that it was Andrew who brought the boy and his lunch to Jesus.   This moment of catalyst for this great miracle and sign, the Feeding of the Multitudes.   A kind of foreshadowing of the Last Supper, and of the Holy Communion.  Jesus taking what little we have, and making so much more from it. Giving back to us more and better than we could ever have imagined.   “All ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.”

Whenever Jesus is involved—there is more given.  Gift upon gift.  Grace upon grace.  A sign and reminder of the abundant goodness of God.  Of grace and mercy, peace, promise,  that comes to us before we seek it.  Of the Spirit of God who comes into our hearts to teach us to pray for the gift of God’s presence.  All blessing.

I heard someone recently say that people need to stop thinking about what Jesus gives for them and start thinking about what they can give to him.  Which is of course just absolutely and wildly backwards.  A formula for unending anxiety, guilt, confusion, suffering.

The old Good Friday hymn.  “For me, kind Jesus, was thy incarnation, thy mortal sorrow, and thy life’s oblation; thy death of anguish and thy bitter passion, for my salvation.  Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay thee, I do adore thee, and will ever pray thee, think on thy pity, and thy love unswerving.  Not my deserving.”

In a wasteland and wilderness, the meal that is set before us in generosity and abundance.  The work of his life and his cross:  grace and mercy, forgiveness of every sin, hope, new life, peace, promise.  The one whom we call to mind as we receive the bread and drink from the cup.  All of this is his gift for us.