Friday, November 28, 2014

For Advent and Christmastide, 2014

One of my favorites, by Jude Simpson:

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Eve of Thanksgiving Day, 2014

Good evening to all, as we are here on this Eve of Thanksgiving Day and gathering not only for ourselves in this moment but on behalf of all our wider parish family first of all—those travelling in the holiday weekend, especially in the context of some less-than-friendly weather, and all those coming together with family and friends—and lifting up in prayer our Church and the larger Christian family, our neighborhood and this wider community and our nation and all the wide world. The whole of creation, as fall slides toward winter, resting in the arms of our Creator and Redeemer.

Interesting that in the liturgical directions for Thanksgiving Day the Proper Preface of the Eucharistic Prayer, the sentence at the beginning of the prayer that indicates the theme or season, the Proper Eucharistic Preface is the one prescribed for Trinity Sunday. “For with your co-eternal Son and Holy Spirit, you are one God, one Lord, in Trinity of Persons and in Unity of Being; and we celebrate the one and equal glory of you, O Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”   The message for us seems to be the one so often repeated, I believe first used generally in the Twelve Step movement:  Remember to keep the main thing the main thing.  The old song: “He’s got the whole world in his hand.”  We get caught up in the daily ups and downs of life, but to step back, to see ourselves and our world in the big picture.

All these competing strands of our life coming together in this holiday. Food, football, family. More food. And then apparently for many there will be a just few hours of sleep, and then long drives up to Grove City for the 3 a.m. outlet store openings.  Some places opening even earlier, in the middle of Thursday afternoon.  The first wave in the coming storm of hyper-consumerism, I guess, even in this still somewhat  fragile economy. All that, and as we take care of our last minute holiday preparations this evening and tomorrow morning, this word from Jesus in our gospel reading.  Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?

It happens that this Thanksgiving service is the last service at St. Andrew’s in this Church Year, as we will be all ready to go for the new year and Advent Sunday this coming Sunday morning. And the message for us is about how we would see our priorities, our concerns—how we would organize ourselves day by day in the New Year ahead.

We hear this evening and would be called to represent with our lives something countercultural. Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’  . .  .  Indeed, your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.  But strive first for the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

A moment of Thanksgiving not simply for the blessings that we have received, but even more for the one who is all blessing, from before time and forever.   And what does that mean? What does it look like? His kingdom?  His righteousness.  We sort that out along the way, of course. No easy answers. And understanding that “our” kingdom and “our” righteousness may be what we need to set aside in some sense, to come into relationship with him.  In the light of his resurrection, conforming our lives to the cruciform shape of his. Seeking not to find our own way, but to follow in his footsteps. 

Paul has this wonderful moment in the  passage from First Timothy appointed for this evening. A clue for us, perhaps.  “That we might lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” 

I’m not sure we’ve always—or even ever—done a good job of this.  Turmoil and distress from one end of the world to the other.  Ferguson, Missouri.  The terrorism of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.  Failures of trust, betrayal, loss of hope.  Arguments, mean-spiritedness, mutual disregard, self-centeredness, even violence, so much a part of our Christian past and our Christian present. Even in the life of the church. 

No question about it. But we would at the end of this year just pause. In thanksgiving at Thanksgiving.  That this might be our prayer.  To lift up in the feast of this world that it might be for us a pathway forward, from the food of this life to  the food that endures for eternal life. To make his way our way.  Advent Sunday just ahead, and as we get up from the table this week, to say in our hearts and to be ready for this reality:  The Lord is near.

Bishop McConnell at Evensong, November 16

Peace is Our Profession: A Sermon for the Mission of the Church

Preached by the Right Reverend Dorsey McConnell
The Bishop of Pittsburgh
In Saint Andrews Church, Highland Park
At Evensong
November 16, 2014

At that time you were separated from Christ having no hope and without God in the world.  But now in Christ Jesus you who were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.  For he himself is our peace. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.
                                    —Ephesians 2: 12-14,19

Then Jesus appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to come. And he said to them,… ‘Whatever house you enter, first say, Peace be to this house!  And if a son of peace is there, your peace will rest upon him. If not, it will return to you.

                                    —Luke 10:1-2, 5-6

As many of you know, I am a son of the military, the Air Force, to be exact.  I was born during the Cold War on a B-52 base in the middle of the Great Plains, and one of my earliest memories is of lying in my crib listening to those huge aircraft in a scramble drill.  Their flightpath was practically over our house and as they roared into the air in quick succession, I watched the windows of my bedroom tremble in their frames.  I wasnt afraid. It was a comforting sound, really, the way some children might think of the tea kettle boiling in the kitchen.  My mother had told me that those planes were protecting us, and I believed her.  One of the first sentences I learned to read, emblazoned in a painted banner on the side of every bomber, under a mailed fist that clutched both a lightning bolt and an olive branch, was the motto of the Strategic Air Command: Peace is our profession

It took me years to grasp both the true sense and the inherent contradiction of those words.  On the one hand, it was frankly absurd: how can you think of a flying machine carrying several megatons of mass destruction as an instrument of peace? I dont think that is what the author of the prayer of Saint Francis has in mind when he asks God to make us instruments of his peace.  On the other hand, it made sense, when I first dove into Saint Augustines great work The City of God.  Augustine says that all human activity, every effort of human society, even war, is in pursuit of peace.  Of course, we never get there, because the peace we are in fact yearning for is far greater than the cessation of earthly conflict, greater than the fragile equilibrium that can be established by human treaties or human concord.  What we are yearning for is the peace of God, and that can only come from God Himself.  But what is this peace of God?

The author of Ephesians is pretty clear that this peace of Godis a complete reversal of our natural state. He points out with stunning force that by birth and nature we are separated from Christ, having no hope and without God in the world.”  That would cause most people on the street to raise their eyebrows a bit dont you think? When I first heard it, as a young man considering Christ, I certainly thought it went too far.  I mean, I had my flaws, but surely I was still basically a good person, wasnt I?  Yet, the more I showed up in church, the more I started realizing how untrue this assumption was.  Something began happening to me. My sin became more visible to me.  Habits that I had indulged in without a moments thought now began to give me pause; my own malice and anger, my utter self-centeredness, my pride and gossip, actually began to grieve me a little. I began to see the enormous distance between the person I was and the person I might become, that God wanted me to become.  I began to intuit that the peace I had always wanted lay in my giving up my own will to His will, accepting His judgment of my sin, and receiving His mercy by acknowledging His rule over me; I came dangerously close to realizing that this alone would lead me toward becoming the person I inwardly yearned to be. 

And yet, simultaneously, far from wholeheartedly wanting to become that fulfilled, benign, and loving creature filled with the peace of God, I discovered there were huge parts of me that wanted to destroy that vision utterly, to drown it out, to get rid of the God who offered it, and enthrone themselves in His place. And that scared me.  It didnt scare me enough to make me a Christian, but it did get my attention, for a while; so I did what any normal person would doI stopped turning to Him, stopped going to church, stopped reading Christian books. Instead I filled my life with adventure and kept on the move.  I moved every three to six months for two years across three continents and (with a few nearly catastrophic exceptions) I avoided churches like the plague.  I had made a fortress of my egotism and for a time I thought I was safe.

What I had not counted on is that this God of peace chases us, through his human instruments.  Then Jesus appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to come.”   If you read the passage in Luke carefully, you will see how clever a strategy it is, because if those disciples take what Jesus is saying seriously, if they actually do what He says they should do, theyre going to wind up looking an awful lot like the one who sent them: they will be lambs in the midst of wolves, as He the Lamb of God is content to be; they will trust the Father for their provision, not despising any house or table, just as He does, who eats with anyone who asks, from Pharisees to prostitutes; strangely, as they do this, they will begin to resemble the one who sent them, and they will come with a blessing of peace, from the one who is peace. And if a child of peace is there, that peace will find its resting place, the way an arrow finds its mark, the way Jesus finds those to whom he comes and says, Follow me.”  Do you see how brilliant this is?  His disciples, as bearers of His peace, in spite of all their flaws, will in the main mysteriously show forth the character of their Master so that others will be drawn not to them but to Him. 

This peace they are carrying with them is nothing less than this complete reconciliation between human beings and God won through the blood of Christ; it is the peace that Ephesians is talking about, a reconciliation that spills over into human relationships, our relationships, changing them forever; it may not turn our enemies into friendsthats their choicebut it does turn them into the beloved, and it does mean that our whole life is now about putting others at the center of our world, not ourselves, because that is where Christ iswith them, weeping with them, laughing with them, begging to wash their feet.  And a child of peace, I think, is someone who, in spite of all reason, in spite of all the parts of herself screaming, Run away! Run away!, in spite of his limitless capacity for relapse which he will continue to provea child of peace is someone who, for reasons know only to God, yearns for that peace; that yearning is God-given, born of grace, and, I believe, in the end irresistible.   So even someone who doesnt look like a child of peace at allwho is restless, or contrarian, even vengeful and violentmay indeed be one, having underneath all their conflicts the deep-seated unconscious knowledge that in the end all that will matter is their repentance, that they will only come to the peace they yearn for by giving up and saying Yes to the God who alone is peace. 

This yearning for peace is so deeply woven into the mystery of human identity as to be indelible; it is like an innate characteristic in someone, the way we say a person has her fathers eyes or his mothers laugh. It emanates from some strange ember burning deep within the ashes of the human soul, but it needs something to call it into life, to set it on fire.  That happens by nothing other than the word of the one who is our peace, the word of Jesus, through His willing disciples, who are on assignment to chase down the reluctant children of peace and throw their entire lives into merciful chaos just by offering the Peace of Christ.

Sounds like fun, doesnt it?  Apparently it is!  Jesus had a great time doing itconsider what he does with Simon Peter for example: taking a hardened and skeptical fisherman, and in a matter of hours swamping his boat, dragging his partners into the mess, making him beg to be left alone, and then extending the completely nonsensical offer that Simon might consider fishing for men, because he doesnt seem to be doing very well with tilapia: seems like a lot to go through for one disciple, but some cases are tougher than others.  Some need a quieter approach, as with Levi the tax collector, the Lord just showing up where he works and looking at him with all the force of an irresistible love, until he says Uncle.  Or coming to the grief-stricken Mary Magdalene on a peculiar Sunday morning and showing her that there is a love stronger than death. To each of these, in a way appropriate to each, He says, Peace be with you; stop struggling, come to me and you will find rest for your souls, and once they have done that, after his resurrection, He gives to them essentially the same commission as He gave the seventy:  He says, now take the word of this peace into the worldseek out my reluctant children, that they may come into their inheritance, the peace prepared for them from the foundation of the world.  And, as unlikely candidates for the job as they are, nonetheless that is exactly what they doPeter and James and John and Andrew and Mary and Martha and Mary Magdalene and the rest, children of peace bringing the word of peace to others who are called to be such children, but do not yet know it.  

That is certainly what happened to me. Try as I might to avoid them, I kept running into Christians.  Some of them were scary, and some of them were boring, and some of them were clearly insane, but some of them had a quality that was so compelling I can barely describe it. If I had to put it into a few words I would say they had their Fathers eyes. They looked at me with understanding and compassion; they showed me in the way they talked and listened, the way they acted and prayed not out of a small part of themselves, but out of their whole being, and they helped me see that the meaning of my life didnt lie in my resolving my frustrations with my job or my girlfriend or in overcoming the various other obstacles of ordinary existence; rather it lay in that bright ember burning at the core of my soul, which they knew because it was theirs as wellthis yearning for mercy, for peace, that had been answered by Jesus, who has made peace by the blood of his Cross.  When they spoke of it, they seemed a bit sad that such a cost should be necessary, and a bit wise as if they knew this need were everywhere, and overall joyful because they knew they were finally home, no longer strangers and sojourners, but fellow citizens with the saints, members of the household of God; and soon I wanted to live where they lived, so I said Yes, and found the same mercy creeping into every part of who I was.  Its been nearly forty years, now since that moment; Im not sure Ive made all that much progress as a child of peace, but as I frequently tell my wife to console her for choosing me, just think of what Id be like without Him! 

The terrors of this world are always around us; our demons bite and maim and leave countless lives wounded and neglected by the side of the road.  We stare helplessly at the results of the wrongs we have done, which we would not do, and at the good we might have done which we never did. But none of this is too much for God.  He knows all our  wreckage, and He has chosen us anyway.  So if youre here praying tonight, you can assume you are among those he now sends out to preach peace to his reluctant children, to those who are far off and to those who are near.  In a few moments, the Cross will lead us out; as it does see if you can read the motto written through it in all but words: Peace is our profession.  And if as you lie in bed tonight you doubt you could be the one He has chosen and sent, then end the day with this prayer or something like it: have mercy on me Lord Jesus, have mercy; by the power of your Cross, join me to the household of your saints; let others see in me your Fathers eyes, and help me help them receive the blessing of your peace.  I assure you: if the chorus of the angels were audible after such a prayer, you would hear the riot of their glory as they passed over you in quick succession, and the windows of your bedroom would tremble in their frames. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

St. Andrew, 2014

It is the custom here in recent decades to observe the Patronal Festival of the Parish of St. Andrew the Apostle, Highland Park, Pittsburgh, on the Sunday before the Thanksgiving Day holiday.

 Matthew 4

Good morning and grace and peace fellow St. Androids, friends, neighbors, extended family, visitors.  Always a fun day in the life of the congregation—and the wider neighborhood, as folks up the block and around the corner put down the Sunday paper and come out on the porch to see what all the fuss is.  Bagpipes and drums and smiles and greetings.  

A special welcome and word of thanks again as for so many years our friends of the Syria Highlanders have blessed us by joining in the celebration.  And as we are reminded by your presence to include in our thoughts and prayers the important work of the Shriners’ Hospitals for Children, which you all continue to serve as your fundraising mission.  It’s an honor for us to have the opportunity to share in that work with you.

Our St. Andrew’s ancestors were sent out on a missionary endeavor in the winter and spring of 1837, to lay the foundations of a second Episcopal Church to serve Pittsburgh’s growing population.  Must have been an exciting time for them.  Energized with a vision for Christian witness, the proclamation of the gospel in a new place and in new ways.  For them in a fresh and new way the echoing invitation and commission of our Lord to our St. Andrew and his brother Peter, from St. Matthew’s Gospel this morning: Come follow me, and fish for people!   The Parish of St. Andrew the Apostle.  St. Andrew: Called by Jesus.  Sent by Jesus.

As most of you will have noticed in multiple mailings, our stewardship campaign for 2015 has the title “A Year of Renaissance.”  Partly this refers to the fact that after over two years of dedicated work and commitment though the Opening Doors Capital Campaign we are now just beginning to explore the new opportunities for life and ministry, discipleship, stewardship, proclamation, and outreach that our renewed and expanded church facilities make possible.  Figuring out how to operate the elevator, how to program the thermostats, how to make available all this new and renovated space to do the good work God calls us to do in the congregation and the neighborhood.

We’re just at the beginning of that “renaissance,” and I think as we continue over the next months and years we will find that we have a lot in common with our ancestors.  One chapter beginning 1837.  Then another, 1906, with the move of St.  Andrew’s from the original location out here to this new neighborhood.   And then why not 2015?  A fresh start.  A new page.

But the idea of “renaissance” runs deeper.  We would notice in that sentence, the word Jesus has for Andrew and Peter—that it has two parts.  The first, “come, follow me,” and then, “and I will make you fish for people.”  Discipleship first.  Following him.  Opening eyes and ears, minds and hearts.  Delving deep into the Word is how we might apply that first of all.  Not simply as academic study, though some of that is always important.  But with a prayer that God will use his Word to bring us into relationship with the Word made flesh, to give new shape to our lives.  To refresh us in thought and word and deed.  To reorder our priorities.  To give us new minds, new hearts. 

At our diocesan convention a few weeks ago Bishop McConnell issued a deep and I thought actually very moving invitation to all of us in our diocese to a season, perhaps a year, perhaps more, of reflection and discernment.  Inviting us to consider centering our Christian lives individually and as congregations not on projects and proposals and the busyness of one activity after another, no matter how wonderful and well-intended each of those projects and activities might seem in themselves--but instead to center our lives in a renewed commitment to a Christian fellowship of Scripture and prayer.  To let God’s Word fill our hearts and then flow in an outward direction to heal and refresh and to perfect our relationship with God and with one another.   Bishops are in my experience so often interested in promoting projects and programs and activities.  But this reminded me of the saying which I think sometimes can be so important: “don’t just do something.  Stand there.”  Turning the expected phrase upside-down.  Don’t just do something.  Stand there.  We might add: stand there, close to Jesus.

And then, Jesus says:  “I will make you fish for people.”  Noticing how these verbs work.  Not something of our initiative.   “I’m going to make that happen,” Jesus says.  Not something that will come out of us.  Not according to our timetable.  Not the result of our best thinking, our endless committee meetings, our exhausting busyness.  Not something we can do for ourselves or by ourselves, but something that he promises to make happen, in us and through us.  Again, as we have been immersed in him, our prayers are what he is praying through us.  Our actions will what he is working through us.  When he is ready. 

In the older pre-1979  calendar for us Episcopalians and Anglicans the Sunday before Advent had the informal title, “Stir up Sunday.”  The name came from the first words of the traditional collect: “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  And with a smile “Stir up Sunday” marked the time to begin preparation in the kitchen of holiday fruit cakes!  But again a reminder of what is called “prevenient grace.”  That it is God that comes to us.  He does the stirring!

Andrew is only mentioned a few times in the New Testament, and it is often remarked that when he does appear in the story he seems to have had a particular role or ministry of bringing people to Jesus.  And I think it’s important to see just how this happens.  When the little boy with the five loaves and two fishes comes forward at the time of the Feeding of the Multitudes, he comes to Andrew, and then Andrew brings him to Jesus.  When the Greeks come out searching to find the famous rabbi they’ve heard so much about, they come to Andrew, and then he brings them to Jesus.  Andrew doesn’t go scrambling around the countryside looking for them.  They come to him.  When people come looking for Jesus, they are led by God to Andrew, and because Andrew knows where Jesus is, he can take them by the hand and say, “of course, let me bring you to him now.”

Perhaps a way to frame that for us this Sunday morning, to say, “that when people come looking for Jesus, they sometimes show up at  St. Andrew’s.”   And you never can tell who is going to come through those doors next.  Happens all the time, and not always the people we expected.  Not always the people we thought we needed.   We like to plan ahead, to strategize, but the reality is that this really isn’t something that we can control.  Somebody else is figuring this out, no matter how much we sometimes like to think we are in charge of things.  How often it is that we get up in the morning with one agenda, one “to-do” list.  And it turns out that God has another idea.  The question always  just whether we’re paying attention enough to get with his program . . . .

For us, on St. Andrew’s Day at St. Andrew’s Highland Park--on the Sunday before Advent, the Sunday before the beginning of the new year on the Christian calendar.  As we come forward for communion, following in the footsteps of men and women and boys and girls of this place over the last 177 years.  And then going out as they did too into the wide world.  Home, work, school, neighborhood.  And perhaps on this St. Andrew’s Day we would think about forming in our hearts and minds as individuals and as a congregation, an intention of discernment in this New Year, which is really the critical word: discernment.  That through our fellowship with one another,  through a renewed dedication to the scriptures, through a commitment to an ever-deepening practice of prayer, we will know Jesus ourselves.  Who he is.  Where he is.  And that the ministry that Jesus called his friend Andrew to on the Galilean shore all those centuries ago, might be our ministry as well.  To meet those he sends our way, and to make the introduction.

As the song from All Saints, for St. Andreans on St. Andrew’s Day:  They lived not only in ages past: there are hundreds of thousands still.  The world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus will.  You can meet them in school, or in lanes or at sea, in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea, for the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.

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

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Twenty-Third after Pentecost

Proper 28A  Matthew 25: 14-30

Good morning and grace and peace.  A chilly November weekend, and with the holiday decorations in full bloom around the shopping mall we continue to notice in the cycle of our church year and lectionary an unofficial but distinct season of “Pre-Advent.”  Archbishop Cranmer’s magnificent prayer on Holy Scripture which we have prayed this morning he originally placed as the Collect for the Second Sunday of Advent, drawing close together in our minds and heart God’s self-expression and Incarnation in the Bethlehem Child and in his Word written.  The compelling image of the Bible in the Manger, the gift that comes to us of God’s presence and promise.  Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life which thou hast given us in thy Son our Savior Jesus Christ.

The gospel reading this morning is again a part of the series we’ve been reading over these last weeks: Palm Sunday in Jerusalem, at the Temple.  Because we’ll be all bagpipes and St. Andrew next Sunday, this is our last hour in this Holy Week scene.   Jesus and his followers in the midst of the bustling crowds of the pilgrims who have come to the Holy City for the Passover. 

The confrontation first with the priests and scribes and then continuing with the Pharisees.  The parable of the Five Talents this morning flows directly out of the parable of the Five Wise Maidens and the Five Foolish Maidens that we heard last week.  The previous story ends with the unprepared Maidens running out to try to find a place to buy lamp oil in the middle of the night, then to return only to find themselves locked outside the door of the Groom’s family home, unable to come inside and join the banquet.   And then immediately following, as we’ve just heard: “for it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them.”   The preposition “for” an explicit connector.    The story here grows directly out of the preceding one, to explain it or expand it in a different way.   From wise and foolish maidens to faithful and unfaithful servants.   

In this sermon or series of sermons and responses, we have had two kinds of sons, two kinds of tenants of the vineyard, two kinds of wedding guests, two ways of approaching the payment of taxes, two kinds of bridesmaids, now two kinds of servants.  Here one kind of servant who understands the responsibility that has been given to him, and who accepts that responsibility and who acts as a good steward, even when to do so means that he must take a risk, perhaps even put his life on the line-- and another kind, who doesn’t get it.  Who doesn’t understand the responsibility that has been placed in his hands.  Who steps back from his moment of opportunity, who shirks his responsibility.  He accepts the Treasure from the Master, reminding us perhaps of the Son a few weeks ago who told the Father that he would absolutely and without question do what he asked.  But like that Son, this servant doesn’t follow through.  He perhaps in fear, is unwilling to risk, unwilling to put himself into this with his whole heart, just buries in the ground what the Master has given him.

And of course the dramatic conclusion.  The faithful servants are welcomed to the fullness of life when the Master returns—but like the Bridesmaids, like the Unruly Tenants, like those who ignored the King’s invitation to the wedding, the unfaithful servant is condemned and cast into outer darkness.  With an eternity of consequences: weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Again.  Offered I guess we might say here as we roll on toward the end of the year.  A framework to think about as we assess our own lives.  Think about just how we’re doing.  Two kinds of people.  Two ways forward.  A decision to make, with real consequences.

One way of approaching this story as a kind of free-standing unit is to say that the moral of the story is how important it is to be good stewards of the gifts God gives us.  Which is a great moral.  If God has given you a beautiful voice, sing his praises in the choir.  If he has given you the eye and the hand of the artist, create paintings that enrich and inspire.  If your work and life situation have provided an abundance of financial resources, put them to work to build up the Body of Christ and support its mission.  Care for the sick.  Feed the hungry.  Certainly an echo here of what Jesus says to his disciples in the twelfth chapter of St. Luke: “From those to whom much has been given, much will be expected.”  Don’t hide it under a bushel.  Let your light shine!

But the context adds more for us.  Something to say to us about what the stakes are in this.  Not simply an encouragement to overcome any fear of failure and to do what it takes to be all we can be, but let’s say also, a serious word of warning.  High stakes.  With that weeping and gnashing of teeth, with doors to the wedding banquet that are locked and that stay locked. 

Because what we come to understand is that what that parable of the Two Sons is about is not simply that we should obey our parents or keep our promises.  The moral of the parable of the tenants is not that we should remember to pay our rent on time, or that as landlords remember to do background checks before signing lease agreements.  The moral of the Parable of the Wedding Banquet not simply that we should plan to attend the next royal wedding we’re invited to.  The moral of Parable of the Coin not simply that we should pay our taxes.  The moral of the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Maidens not simply that we shouldn’t put things off to the last minute.  Though those are pretty much all good points to keep in mind.

He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not.

Standing here at the crossroads of cosmic history.   That’s the breathtaking reality.  Here in Matthew 25, Holy Week.  At the door of his holy temple.  Before us.  The creator and sustainer of the universe, word made flesh, only son of the father, God from God, light from light, very God from very God.  In our midst.  He has come to us and for us. 

The Advent Calendars are flying off the shelves.  That time of year.  The four candles on the table.  The map of our journey week by week, on our way to Bethlehem.  In the distance and not very far away we can hear the Angel Choir rehearsing their Gloria.  And of course that time of year is actually the eternal present of our lives.  The one born that night in the City of David is born into our world and into our lives as a present reality.  Meeting us in Word and Sacrament and in the way we walk in our day to day lives.  In the quiet of our own thoughts, the secret corners of our hearts.

And what we do with all that is the question.  The question for Advent and Christmas and for Palm Sunday and Holy Week and Good Friday and for every day.   As we leave our pews and approach the Holy Table.  As we get back into our cars and head home.   Two kinds of people, in all these stories.  Two kinds of people who make choices and then who must live with the consequences of those choices. 

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 . . . .  And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Twenty Second after Pentecost

Matthew 25: 1-13 (Proper 27A) 
Baptism of Quinn Wells Filipek

What a great morning to come together for worship--and most especially with mom and dad, Marlie and Dan, and with big brother Cooper, and godparents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins and all family and friends to celebrate the baptism of Quinn Wells Filipek.  We prayed for her—even though we didn’t know her name yet!—and for her mom and dad for all those months before she was born, and certainly we celebrated with much applause her grand entrance.  Such a blessing, a gift, and we are here today with much love, as we have joined our voices with the choirs of angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.  A simple moment.  Parents and godparents have offered a confession of faith on her behalf, to plant a seed of intention that will grow with care and good attention in years to come.  Some water was splashed in the font.  A dab of oil to sweeten the moment.  Yet looking through the simplicity of this as a window to an event of cosmic and eternal significance.  Death and resurrection in the waters of baptism, a reminder of the victory of God, through the Cross, over all the forces of evil and death.  So vivid to us.  The deep pattern of repentance and forgiveness, the embrace of his mercy—and in the late morning of a fall Sunday on Hampton Street we catch a glimpse of the fullness of God’s promise in Christ Jesus. 

So a great morning indeed.  Hearts full of thanks for the gifts of this day.  Big smiles!  Even as we understand that baptism is in its deepest meaning not simply an event or a day or just one splash of water at the font, but the entry to a way of Christian life and commitment, for Quinn and for her family and for all of us.  To be open in our hearts and minds as we hear and read and come to know God’s Word for us, as it is written in Scripture and made flesh in his Son Jesus.  To grow in faith, in his knowledge and love, and to encourage and support one another day by day.

The New Testament reading this morning from the 25th chapter of Matthew, and just a reminder that in the sequence of our readings where we are in the gospel is still Palm Sunday.  Jesus and his disciples entering the city—with all the cheers and the waving of branches.  Hosanna to the Son of David, hosanna in the highest!  The procession through the Holy City up to the Temple, and then the confrontation with the Temple authorities and Scribes, and then after the Priests and Scribes depart to continue their plotting in secret, continuing an ongoing debate with the Pharisees.   They are trying to discredit Jesus in the midst of all the crowds of the faithful who have come to the City for the celebration of the Passover.  Jesus has pushed back even more emphatically in those parables—the two sons, the unruly tenants, the marriage feast, the Roman coin.  We took a brief break last Sunday for All Saints Day, but as we return we’re still in that moment—Jesus was just about ready to leave the Temple, but as he is debating now the Pharisees, who are still trying to catch them up, he has a few parting words, and we come to this very familiar parable, the Wise and Foolish Maidens.

We’re back in the imagery of the wedding, where we were a couple of weeks ago.  A bit different this time.  This time referring to a marriage custom of the day, as the groom comes to the home of the bride, receives her from her father, and escorts her to the celebration by the light of lamps carried by her bridesmaids, probably her sisters and cousins.  The parable here is simple.  The groom has a flat tire on the Parkway and is delayed.  Some of the bridesmaids are alive with excitement, a sense of expectation, clustering at the windows so that they can see him the very moment he comes into view; others lose track of time, get distracted, fall asleep, neglect to prepare their lamps.  And then all of a sudden he’s there, knocking at the door, and they’re all flustered, panic fills the room, and the lamp-oil shops are closed for the day, and only those bridesmaids who were ready are able to join the parade and participate in the feast.

It’s a great parable to hear again of course in these weeks now leading up to Advent Sunday.  Traditionally a part of that season.  And I think it’s perfect for a day of Baptism.   This striking convergence, Palm Sunday leaning into Advent.  Hearing that in our collect for today as well: "when he shall appear again with power and great glory."  And so: Holy Week and Christmas.  Incarnation and Atonement.  The manger and the cross.  And again the haunting echo of the first chapter of John, our midnight reading Christmas Eve, as it was brutally made real with the shouts of the crowd, “Crucify him, crucify him!”: “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us,” and yet, “He came to his own home, and his own received him not.”

The tension is building in Matthew 25 as we move toward Holy Thursday and the Arrest and Trial and then all the catastrophe of Good Friday.  But it is a tension that is not just for those who lived a long time ago and far away.  The calendar twists and turns, folds back on itself.  And we’re looking into the mirror.  Across all the centuries. 

Asking this key question about readiness.  About living prepared lives.  About knowing the Bridegroom, who is on his way--about remaining awake, alert, preparing ourselves while we still have time, filling our lamps, leaning forward with eagerness to welcome him when he comes to the door.

It is a matter of decision.  To be prepared.   A choice.  The echoing of those central baptismal questions, as we have just heard them addressed to Quinn’s parents and godparents:

Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your savior?  Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?  Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?

There were two kinds of people in Jerusalem on that day.  Those who knew that he was the one the had been waiting for, and those who would do everything they could to tear him down.

In Matthew 25, Proper 27, Year A, in the Revised Common Lectionary, it’s Palm Sunday and almost Good Friday.  Here in Pittsburgh on Hampton Street, the Ninth of November, a crisp fall morning, the day of Quinn’s baptism, and almost Advent. 

The Bridegroom is coming, and coming soon: time for us to know and to be sure and to affirm with all our heart and all our mind and all our strength just how and where we fit in the story. 

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

Sunday, November 2, 2014

All Saints Sunday

 John 3: 1-3

Good morning.  All Saints Sunday, a principal feast of the Church Year and always an amazing Sunday at St. Andrew’s.   “They lived not only in ages past, there are hundreds of thousands still. The world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus’ will.  You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea, in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea, for the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.”  (Apologies!)  

Or as St. John has it in our Epistle this morning, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.  What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”

There is of course a sense in which this All Saints observance calls us to remembrance.  The heroes of the faith: apostles and evangelists, past generations of spiritually gifted men and women in prayer and vision and holiness of life.  And the secondary feast, which we’ll be observing with the service tomorrow evening, All Souls—in our Episcopal Church Calendar of Lesser Feasts called the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed.  

Not so much the folks in the history books, but those Christian people who have lived perhaps quieter lives of faithful discipleship, who have been our role models, whom we have known and loved, who have brought us to faith and modelled not only with their lips but in their lives the deepest truths of Christ Jesus.  Centered in him.  Perhaps a parent or grandparent, a teacher, a pastor, a friend, a neighbor, a husband or a wife or a child.  Thinking about many of those we will be remembering in our prayers this morning, and of course those names that are known to God alone.

And to say, not only those who have departed this life, but those who are with us now.  And even a way of thinking about ourselves.  The point of this All Saints-All Souls observance not to be about sitting on the sidewalk and watching a parade of other people, as spectators.  This is John’s message in the Epistle and the intent that hymn, composed as a song for children yet speaking into each of our lives.  A Song of the Saints of God.  The Holy Spirit working in us, in us, as we look in the mirror in the morning, every morning, a life-long process of transformation, renewal, cleansing, preparation.  The Greek word metanoia. Usually translated “repentance.”  But literally meaning “another frame of mind.”  A new consciousness.  What Jesus means in St. John’s Gospel when he talks to Nicodemus about being “born again.”  

Benedictine monks and nuns take three related vows, obedentia, obedience, to the abbot and to the Rule of Life of the monastery; stabilitas, stability, the promise to remain in this one place and with this one community for better or for worse, even when there might be some more attractive option that comes along; and finally a commitment that’s a little hard to translate, “conversatio morum”—which basically means, I’m going to focus on how the monastery can change me rather than on how I can change the monastery. Which can be translated out into every situation of Christian life.  About faithfulness.  Not to remake Jesus in my image, but to be open to this process of my becoming more like him.

So All Saints is a day of celebration about what God is doing in us now to change us.  Which isn’t an easy process often, and can be painful.  Sometimes hammers and chisels involved.  Some of those frightening renaissance paintings of the deaths of the martyrs.  Words we all struggle with, like practice, discipline.  How so often it is that new birth needs to be preceded by letting go, seeing what parts of ourselves first need to die.  A whole picture of what he is making of our lives.  

The theological term is “sanctification.”  Something that God does in us, but something also that requires our cooperation.  The process that begins in conversion, sacramentally given power in baptism, and daily in the practice and disciplines of discipleship, not because of coercion, but flowing with eagerness from the depths of our heart.  That as we fall ever more deeply in love with him, so we seek more and more to please him and obey him and to resemble him.  About sanctification, literally, the process of being made a saint: God’s love working in us.

The book that our reading is taken from this morning, First John, is relatively brief, 5 chapters.  An affectionate pastoral letter.  Written by the author of the Gospel of John and of the Second and Third Letters of John.  So one of the major voices in the whole of the New Testament.  Most likely addressed to the new Christians of Ephesus, in Asia Minor, modern day Turkey.

The context and setting a little too complex to go into this morning, though I will say it’s really a fascinating study.  Ephesus I sometimes think of as maybe the San Francisco of this region in the First Century.  Cosmopolitan, diverse, cutting edge in all kinds of cultural and social and political ways.  A little crazy around the edges.  We know from Acts and from St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians that this was a place of incredible religious diversity—not just the traditional religions of the region but also of what we might call the First Century version of what in the 20th century we called “New Age” movements.  Astrologers and fortune-tellers and aura-readers on every street corner, and lots of synthesists, taking a little bit of this tradition and a little bit of that one.  Folks who like to say they “dabble” in spirituality.  And swirling around it all, the philosophical and spiritual movement sometimes called “gnosticism,” which wasn’t so much an organized philosophical or religious system itself but a set of philosophical and theological and anthropological ideas that got applied in lots of different contexts and made itself felt in many different traditions.

This letter from John from beginning to end has both a sense of deep tenderness and also a sense of urgent concern. A challenging environment for new Christians to be finding their way.   Lots of dangerous influences, we might say.  It’s interesting to hear the very last thing John says in the letter.  Not “sincerely yours, John the Elder,” but one last word, chapter 5 verse 21.  “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.”  

Or I guess as I have quoted the saying so many times, and this would be my best summary of the message of First John and I think perfect as a word for All Saints Sunday: “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”  Eyes on Christ.  Following in his footsteps, listening to his word.  Christ at the center.  Not trying to remake his gospel into our image, not to “dabble” in Christ, choosing the bits we like and leaving the rest--but allowing him to fill the whole screen, allowing ourselves to be changed day by day into his likeness. 

Keeping our eyes on him.  Allowing his word and his love to grow in us, to guide us, to reshape us day by day.  “What we will be has not yet been revealed,” but “what we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him.” 

A day for All Saints:  orchestras and choirs, heroes and martyrs.  Teachers, friends, parents, husbands and wives, children-- those we have loved but see no longer.  To celebrate what he has done in them and what is doing in us now, what he is making of us.  They loved their Lord so dear, so dear, and his love made them strong; and they followed the right, for Jesus’ sake, the whole of their good lives long.  And one was a soldier and one was a priest and one was slain by a fierce wild beast: and there’s not any reason—no, not the least why I shouldn’t be one too.”