Saturday, December 26, 2015

Christmas Eve

                              Isaiah 52 7-10 and Colossians 3: 12-17

Good evening and grace and peace, in the Name of the One who was born as gracious gift and as Prince of Peace.  The door swings open this night--open to Christmas and to a new world.  

Like the Isaac Watts hymn, Joy to the World, which draws the great themes of Advent and Christmas together, singing with exuberant gladness about the Coming of Christ at the Last Day and the renewal and restoration of all things under his authority and power.  But all that shadowed forth and anticipated in this hour, this holy night.  He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove the glories of his righteousness and wonders of his love.  

Or as in the psalm appointed for this night:  O sing unto the Lord a new song; for he hath done marvelous things.  With his own right hand, and with his holy arm, hath he gotten himself the victory.

In our imaginations we see them moving quietly through the shadows across a dark landscape.  A week’s journey or perhaps a bit more on foot from Nazareth in the Galilee to Bethlehem.  In the far distance, shepherds on the hillside.  The sky glowing softly with first light--angel light.  A new world dawning.  On its way and already here.  Coming to life wherever he is.   Seated in glory on his heavenly throne.  Or lying quietly in his manger bed.  

The convergence of all history.  In the beginning was the Word.  And the Word was made flesh and came to be with us.

Hundreds of years before that night, the Prophet Isaiah: in anticipation.  Seeing far, seeing deep with prophetic vision.  The reading tonight from the 52nd Chapter.  God’s word in that particular moment to those in far exile, in the distant lands, the refugee camps and ghettos of Egypt and Persia, Syria and Babylon,  whose last memory of holy Jerusalem was of ruin and disaster, the archetypal Biblical image for the consequences of sin.  The royal palace and sacred temple pillaged and burned in the utter misery of collapse and defeat.  All in ruin.  But then in that silent night of loss, a word.  Word of God’s peace.  Scattering the darkness.  Generous grace.  Forgiveness.  Transforming the silence with hymns of joy. 

The prophet proclaims: good news, salvation.  His voice echoes across the centuries.  How beautiful the feet of the messenger who announces peace.  The music of those words, to fill and heal empty and broken hearts.  Over the realities of violence and war.  Death and disaster.  The poetic and prophetic vision, that the one God who because of their unfaithfulness had departed from his temple, would soon return. Was now returning.  Was on his way.   The return of the Lord to Zion.  To dwell in the midst of his people as they are to be gathered by him and brought home.  

Every liturgical procession down the center aisle is to remind us of this.  Make straight in the desert a highway for our God!  

To come in power, to bring comfort, strength, salvation.  And not for old Israel only, but for a new Israel.  Of every tribe and people.  Reformed and transformed and born again in him.  He bares his arm and shows his strength before the eyes of all nations.  And all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.  

Here in Isaiah 52, hundreds of years before that Holy Night in Bethlehem, but it’s all about Christmas.  In a way everything in the Bible and the whole story of the world and the universe, all leading to this.  All about Jesus.  All about Christmas.

In Scituate, Massachusetts, the town where my wife Susy’s mother’s family has lived for generations and centuries, there was a wonderful little department store called the Welch Company right down on the harbor. It actually was descended from a lumber and shipping supply business started by Susy’s great-grandfather back in the later 19th century—so a fun family connection.  And when we would visit grandma and grandpa and the family home on summer vacation each year our kids loved to go into the Welch Company because in the back there was a room dedicated all year ‘round to Christmas furnishings and decorations.  Just fun on a 100-degree late July afternoon to step into a space that was all twinkling lights and snowflakes and Santa.

An image perhaps for us this evening.  To understand Christmas not simply as an ancient story from Bible times or as one day in the year for special worship services and family gatherings and festive meals, or even as a season on the church calendar, but as a new and continuing state of being for all the world and all creation.  A new state of being.  A new way of thinking.  A new way to live our lives.  

The cry of the mother giving birth in the dark night, and the pivot point of all time, all history.  

In the C.S. Lewis story “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” the children step into the land of Narnia, which is a fallen world, a reflection of our fallen world, where it is “always winter, but never Christmas.”  But then things begin to change, and we hear tonight the new news.  That it is and will be always Christmas. 

I mean, the trees and greens will be out the door in a week or two for most of us—perhaps some of us trying to hold out as best we can until Candlemas, February 2.  Decorations back in their boxes and back down to the basement for another year.  Life goes on, and into the New Year.  

But to be always Christmas not in outward expression, but in our hearts and minds, in our conduct of life, our relationships with one another.  Christmas as a new way of living, which is what I would just pause over for all of us tonight. Because that is what I believe this night calls us to.  Not simply an interlude, a special day or week or time of year.  But a new life.  A new obedience, if that's not too scary a word for us.   In a night that out beyond the walls of this church seems perhaps something other than silent and holy.  In a season of political and social polarization, selfishness and isolation-- in a world which knows too well the horrors of violence and crime, terrorism and war.  A fallen world, as we know it first in the shadows deep in our own hearts. 

And I would conclude on this holy evening to share just a word from scripture,  of what that might mean, what this might look like.  At least to begin to picture it.   Christmas as a new way of living.  A foundation of a new constitution for God’s people, a Rule of Life.

I would turn to a short passage from St. Paul, in the 3rd chapter of his Letter to the Colossians, beginning at the 12th verse.  Not ordinarily a Christmas reading--but as I said before, it's all about Christmas.  A passage we might want to look up later, to hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.  

Write it on a slip of paper to carry in a pocket or to tape over the bathroom mirror for daily reading.  To recall when we sit down for church meetings or family dinners.  To let it sink in and work on us. 

Anyway: Paul writes this pastoral letter during a time of his imprisonment.  He can’t come to visit in person, but he has heard a report of distress in the congregation at Colossae.  Division and dispute—and also of a kind of drifting off the path spiritually.  He has heard reports of hurt and anger and dissension. The fresh spirit of their conversion to Christian life as perhaps begun to fade.  Paul’s pastoral word  in this letter is complex, rich, sometimes giving doctrinal instruction, sometimes advising about conduct and holiness of life.  But there is a pastor’s love that is communicated throughout.  

And it is a word for Christmas and about Christmas—and about what it would mean to live when we know that every day is Christmas Day.

So from Colossians 3, two thousand years ago, for them, and for us, Christmas as a way of living:

“As God’s chosen ones,” Paul says, “as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.”  (Sometimes people say they don’t like Christianity because it is all about following rules.  I think those might be some good Biblical rules to pay attention to, actually: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  We spend time choosing wonderful Christmas sweaters and caps and dresses and shoes.  Here is more about a Christmas wardrobe.)  

Paul continues: “Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”  (There again, another very good rule!  Something to wear at Christmas!)   And finally,  “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.  And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.” “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.”  (Which is what it means that we have been called to be a part of this Body, his Body the Church.  Called into his peace.)  “And be thankful.  Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.”  

What we do at midnight Christmas Eve, but always singing, from now on.  “And whatever you do”—whatever you do—“in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

Blessings in this Christmas, tonight, in the season ahead, in the new year, and always.  To live in Christmas.  To dress for Christmas.  To be all about him: 24/7/365.  “No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.”

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Fourth Advent Sunday

A Children's Pageant of Christmas

New script this year--but the same story: tidings of wonder and joy!

Monday, December 14, 2015

Third Advent Sunday: Gaudete

Luke 3: 7-18

Good morning and grace and peace on this Third Advent Sunday.  The Proper Collect  began with the words “Stir Up.”  "Stir up thy power, O Lord, and with great might come among us."  As some of us may recall from era before what I still call “the new Prayer Book,” the old “Stir Up Sunday” collect  for 500 years or so in the Anglican world was for the Sunday before Advent,  25th after Trinity—“Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people . . .”--and the custom was that “Stir Up Sunday” would be the reminder to all the cooks in village that the festivities of Christmas were approaching and that it was time to get going on the preparing of traditional holiday fruit cakes.  Third Advent may be a little late for that, but there’s probably still time to pick something up at the bakery . . . .

Also the Sunday of the Rose Candle on the Advent Wreath, Third Advent, traditionally called “Gaudete Sunday.” In the Middle Ages there was a customary introit sung on this day--from the opening words of the Epistle Lesson appointed for today, Philippians 4, as St. Paul wrote to that little church that he loved so much.  (We don’t have an Epistle Lesson in Morning Prayer, but if you look back on page 3 of the service leaflet at the order for our 9 a.m. service you can see it.)   Gaudete, Latin for “rejoice.”   “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I will say, Rejoice.  Let your gentleness be known to everyone.  The Lord is near.”  

In the old BCP lectionary from the 16th century and until the 1979 Prayer Book with its three-year lectionary this reading was the Epistle for Advent IV, not Advent III, but always then a part of the season.   

I would pray  that we would each one of us hear the Advent message and word of encouragement in that reading.  That our lives and our relationship individually and as a congregational family, in our families and schools and where we work, everywhere, that this word of Gaudete would settle in as we wait for his coming.  So that the world would say, those Christians, how gentle they are, and full of joy.  The Lord is near.

The gospel reading appointed for this day in Year C of our three year lectionary is from Luke 3, another glimpse of John the Baptist.  Second week in a row, as we remember the reading last Sunday, when the Saduccees and Pharisees came out to see John and find out just what he was up to, who he was.  

A friend of mine posted on Facebook that if you’re wise you don’t preach on this morning’s text until the annual stewardship campaign is complete.  So we’re running a few weeks behind, and I hope nobody takes the message too personally.  There’s also appropriately for this Sunday a picture floating around Facebook showing a greeting card with a wild-eyed John the Baptist on the cover, dressed in rags and long scraggly beard and hair flying in every direction.  Printed over the image: “Happy Advent, you brood of vipers!”  And Happy Advent to you too, John.  Seasons greetings!

Of course, that’s just the catch line.  If John's congregation was just settling back for a 15 minute snooze, this would wake them up.  Something about being called a “viper” that causes you to pay attention I guess.  In any event, John is out there in the wilderness preaching about metanoia, usually translated “repentance.”  Literally something like “another consciousness.”  Maybe a preacher today would say, “get your heads on straight, people!” 

It’s not just tweaking around the edges, a few good resolutions aimed at personal improvement.   It’s not just about the careful outward performance of religious rituals or about formal subscription to a set of verbal doctrines.  Rituals and doctrines have their place.  But what John is talking about on that desert strand across the Jordan is about something that goes deeper: a thoroughgoing transformation of life.  

The line about, “don’t go saying, ‘but we have Abraham for our ancestor,’” is going to say that our relationship with God isn’t established by having our names on the membership roll of the local tabernacle.  The tree can look the part but be all deadwood.  This is about being the kind of tree that is alive, and that puts forth good fruit.  The point is letting that four word sermon from Philippians 4 really settle in and have its full impact.  A promise.  A warning.  The Lord is near.

The people are excited by John, about John.  The crowds are streaming out from the Holy City and the towns and villages and all the countryside to come to hear him.  I don’t think he ever read a book about church growth.  But whatever he’s doing, it seems to be working.  The crowds coming out in great numbers in a way cause the authorities to begin to feel real anxiety.  A crowd like that, and who knows what might happen?   

John’s congregation.  Filled with “expectation.”  Not in spite of his bold demand, but because of it.  

They don’t come to hear John announce, “I’m o.k., you’re o.k.”  Preachers do that a lot.  What a great bunch we are.  So much better than those guys over there.  But that’s not what John is saying. He's not just encouraging a little tweak of midcourse correction.  If somebody says, “we could all stand to lose 5 or 10 pounds and do a little re-ordering of our leisure time priorities, well, that’s one thing.  Probably good advice, but nothing earth shaking.  

If somebody says, “change, or die,” that’s a different story.   More urgent.  

I’m reminded of Annie Dillard’s reflection, in her autobiographical essay called “Teaching a Stone to Talk,” when she talks about growing up over here in Shadyside and in her childhood at the Shadyside Presbyterian Church.  They had distributed Award Bibles to the Children of the Sunday School, and she went home and began to read, and was astonished.  They give this book to children?  

She says, “Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? … [Remember, this is about Presbyterians!  Not Episcopalians.  So don't take it personally!]  Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.”

And on this Third Advent Sunday John points the way by saying exactly that.  The time is short. The message for us to have in our thoughts and in our hearts at Christmas and the New Year.  Change or die.  “One who is more powerful than I is coming . . . .  He will baptize you with Holy Spirit and with Fire.”   Be ready for that! Crash helmets, life preservers, and signal flares will be available for those who know what’s good for them . . . .  The Lord is near.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Second Advent Sunday

The Rev. Daniel J. Isadore, Deacon Assistant, St. Andrew's Church
Advent II, December 6, 2015

Advent. Arrival. Appearance. Who is coming? For what are we waiting? We know…don’t we?

The nation of Israel thought they knew…The Pharisees had their ideas of what the Messiah would be. They were the curators of Israel’s national identity, and the strict observers of the Law. They knew that Messiah was coming to set up a powerful earthly kingdom. The Sadducees were convinced they had it right. These were the politically savvy priests, the guardians of the temple. They knew Messiah would build the true temple of God. The Essenes, those who separated themselves from the rest of society, they were waiting in eager anticipation for Messiah, who would establish establish the true people of God. And the Zealots thought they had it altogether as well. These revolution-loving warriors were awaiting Messiah’s arrival to come and conquer the Gentiles. And what did they all do when the Messiah came? “Crucify him, crucify him!”

The Romans, even though they weren’t waiting for a Jewish Messiah…they knew what kind of Lord they were looking for. He was to be strong, a winner of wars. He was to be wise, politically savvy and able to rule well. He was to be able to hold the nation and its territories together, and to ensure peace and safety throughout. And yet, when the true Lord of world came, what did they do? They nailed him to a tree.

Even the disciples, those who followed Jesus day after day, his closest friends, those who heard his every word and observed every sign…those who left everything to follow him…where were they when religion and politics were nailing Messiah to a tree? Excepting a couple of brave women, and John, they were nowhere to be found. And even John and Mary were baffled by what they witnessed…

Do we know for whom we wait this Advent?

Martin Luther, the great reformer, brilliant theologian, and, at times, out-of-his-mind  German pastor, is said to have begun the Reformation by nailing his 95 theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg…This was the first of those theses: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent,” he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Luther, in other words, believed that repentance, a changing of one’s mind in light of the coming of Messiah, was something that was never finished. That repentance was not a once-and-for-all act or decision but the way of life that was to characterize the followers of Jesus. This “baptism of life-change” as Eugene Peterson puts it is what John, son of Zachariah, was preaching that the people must enter into in order to be prepared for the coming Deliverer.

But what kind of sense does this make? Surely we have to make up our minds, don’t we? This is how we have learned to work in the West. We gather the data, we systematize it, and we create expectations in light of those systemizations. We then use these expectations that we use to construct nice, neat categories to help us navigate the world. There is, of course, much to commend about our methodology…but what if our expectations and our categories are wrong? What happens when new data doesn’t fit our preconceptions? Will we allow space for that?

Luther and John are telling us, and society (religious, political, and social) at the time of Jesus’ coming has showed us, that if we do not allow for that space when it comes to Jesus, then we, too, will miss Him. That is to say, if we do not permit an opening for correction within ourselves, if we will not allow for our minds to be changed in light of the coming of our Lord…well…then there is a very good chance that we will crucify or abandon Him at His arrival as well.

Why is this? John the Apostle gives us some help here…John 1:17-18 - “No one has ever seen God,” writes the Apostle. “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made Him known.” Matthew concurs. Matthew 11:27 - “…no one knows the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him.” According to the New Testament, if our conceptions of God are not formulated according to the appearance of Jesus, then our conceptions are wrong. And if those conceptions are wrong, what will we do to God incarnate when He arrives? We’ll ignore Him, we’ll abandon Him, and we’ll kill Him.

If we are to know Him, we must open ourselves up to Him and permit Him to make Himself known to us. We must not make our minds up about who He is. Rather, we have to allow Him to change our minds, reforming them according to His Person.

How does this happen?

Anglican missionary to India, Leslie Newbigin, says this: “The gospel is news about a man called Jesus, and there were witnesses who had known him, seen him, heard him speak, and touched him (1 John 1:1). These witnesses had gone everywhere telling the story of Jesus. … But when the hearers began to ask, ‘But who is Jesus?,’ how could one begin to answer the question?” He continues, “…the witnesses can only begin by using words which have some meaning to his hearers. They have to begin by assuming a common framework of language, of experience, of inherited tradition… They can only introduce what is (radically) new by provisionally accepting what is already there in the minds of their hearers.”

Why do we come, each week, and repeat the same basic liturgy of Word and Sacrament again, and again, and again? It’s not to reinforce what we already know. It’s not to make us comfortable, and lock us deeper and deeper into our present assumptions. The liturgy is about opening ourselves up to the mystery who is God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and what this God has done to re-create the cosmos. We do this, over and over, because God is infinite, and therefore we are never finished. We never get it all together. We can’t wrap our minds around this thing. Jesus is never done making God known to us. We do this every Sunday morning to practice repenting, to practice opening ourselves up to this One who has come, who is coming, who will yet come again.

This is what the church is here for: not to help cement our agendas or as a place to further our causes, but to help human beings respond to John’s call. To help us open up space in our hearts and lives for God the Son to appear to us in Word and Sacrament, and make Himself known, again, and again, and again, to the glory of God the Father, in the power of God the Holy Spirit, world without end. Amen.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Advent Sunday

(Year C)  Luke 21: 25-36

Good morning, a word of welcome on this Sunday of the Thanksgiving Holiday weekend—and “Happy New Year!” as well.  Not quite the celebration out in the wide world a month or so from now, with First Night concerts and fireworks at the Point, college football bowl games, New Year resolutions, Guy Lombardo and Auld Lang Syne.  But on the calendar of the Christian Year on this Advent Sunday--beginning again, and with themes of the New Year centered in the character of Christian life rather than Times Square.

There is a strangeness to this first gospel reading of the New Year as Jean has read it for us this morning, the 21st Chapter of St. Luke.  Sometimes called the “Little Apocalypse.”   A word than be translated “revelation.”  A vision that is both compelling and repelling—as it draws us in but then also seems to push us back.  A moment in which the edge of the curtain is pulled aside so that we can catch a glimpse of the stage as it is set for the last act of the play.  We don’t see it all in detail, of course--but in the symbolic language of visionary experience, a glimpse.  In the old Anglican Book of Common Prayer one year lectionary this was always the reading for the Second Advent Sunday, but with a three year lectionary the patterns aren’t quite as consistent.

 In any event, the setting of this passage in Luke is Holy Week, a day or two after Palm Sunday.  Which again may feel a bit off-track at first, here in the weeks before Christmas.  Jesus is teaching in the Temple precincts and causing quite a stir among all the pilgrims gathered for the coming festival of the Passover.  The Temple authorities are worried, pushing back and questioning and confronting him, trying to discredit him in the eyes of the crowd.  The opposition is growing intense.  We get the feeling the pot is about to boil.

Just before this passage, at the beginning of the chapter, Jesus pointed up at the glorious walls of this magnificent building, to say that soon, very soon, it would all be rubble.  “Not one stone left on another.”  Perhaps an insightful foreshadowing of the destruction that would come a few decades later in the Year 70, when the Romans would destroy the building—perhaps a symbolic way of talking about his own death, which was about to take place—perhaps also a wider vision of what will be true for every generation, and even as we would look around here today.  What we build, no matter how magnificent, how strong, how beautiful   is destined to be dust.  All of this.  All of us too.   We’re kidding ourselves if we think otherwise. 

The T.S. Eliot poem East Coker has that haunting refrain.  In my beginning is my end.  In my end is my beginning.  So interesting that on this first Sunday of the year we are asked to pause in a meditative way for a few moments over the end of the story, the final leg of the journey, the great contest of darkness and light, good and evil, the Way of Sorrows and the hike up that hill to the place of the Cross.  Manger and Cross blurring together as one.

 In theological terms we might say that Advent has for us the complex intertwining themes of Incarnation and Atonement.  The identity of Christ and the work of Christ.  The world around us loves the soft twinkling lights and gentle Bing Crosby sounds of the winter holiday, but for the Christian proclamation-- there is no Christmas possible unless it is held together with Good Friday.  No Manger, again, without the Cross.  They are fabricated from the same Tree—the one that stood at the beginning, in the center of the Garden.  In my beginning is my end.  In my end is my beginning.

The vision here for us begins with imagery of distress shaking to the foundation all our securities.  In the natural world.  The sun, the moon, the stars.  The whole created order spinning wildly off its center.   It’s like the stories we read about El Nino, but on steroids.  Polar caps melting, oceans rising, storms and earthquake, fire and flood.  And the nations of the world all human society imploding with fear and violence.   We might say poetic language, though perhaps in some ways all too real.  Just pick up the front page of the morning paper.  Natural disasters striking suddenly or unfolding gradually over decades and centuries.  Wars and rumors of war.  Terror in the night.

And then, Jesus says, people will truly hope for a savior.  And he reminds them of the great vision of the Prophet Daniel in the Book of Daniel, Chapter 7, when the Prophet sees “one like a Son of Man” coming on the clouds.  The end of the story.  Hark the glad sound, the savior comes.  Happy New Year, indeed.

And then in the midst of the crowd Jesus turns to speak to his disciples.  These simple men of rural Galilee.  Farmers and fishermen from the countryside.   And he offers a promise—one that we would continue to pay attention to.  He says, You know by looking at the trees whether it’s spring, summer, or fall.  So don’t worry.  When the time comes, you’ll know.  Just sink your roots down deep in my Word.  Closer and closer to me.  Heaven and Earth will pass away, but not my Word.  Everything else is destined to be dust.  But not God’s Word.  Make that your solid ground.   It will be a lamp unto your feet in the darkest night.  A consolation in the time of sorrow.  True food, true drink.

I’ve told the story before of Pope John XXIII, when he spoke to some students of a dry period in his own Christian life.  Without a sense of the presence of God.  A spiritual dark night.  A kind of moral and spiritual and vocational depression.  And how with the persistent care and urging of a friend even through that period he continued to read the office lessons and prayers every morning and every afternoon to sit quietly for 15 minutes or so say the prayers of the Rosary.  Even when they all seemed just empty words.  Going through the motions.  Until one day, all at once, it was as if the sun suddenly broke through the clouds, and he could see Christ again and hear his voice and feel his presence and love in the depths of his heart.  To know himself as a sinner forgiven: I once was lost, but now am found.  Someone asked him, “how long did that empty period last?”  And he answered, “17 years.”  Which is something, when we think about how impatient we can be.  I know I am.  So easy to give up and move on.  I tried prayer once.  I tried reading the Bible, once.  I tried going to church. But nothing happened.

 Though of course the point of the story was that in retrospect Pope John had come to know and understand in a very deep way that it wasn’t at all right to call this an empty period.  That God was present indeed.  All along.  Feeding him with the Word and supporting him as the Holy Spirit.  Even though it seemed an absolute silence.  For 17 years!  So much was going on under the surface.  A seed waiting deep in the soil for the right season before coming to life and growing to flower. 

So as Jesus says here, when it looks to us like the end is upon us and everyone everywhere is hiding in deep denial or quaking in fear: “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”   Advent Sunday.  A New Year!  The first chapter and the last word.  The new year of our lives, the new old story.  Given for our healing and our forgiveness and our renewal and our salvation. 

Sunday, November 22, 2015

St. Andrew's Day 2015

Observing St. Andrew the Apostle

Good morning and grace and peace-- fellow St. Androids (I love saying that!),  extended family, neighbors and friends.  Always a fun day in the life of this 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.   And a cookie table!

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.  Taught by Jesus.  Sent out into the wide world by Jesus to share the Good News, to invite people into fellowship under his Cross, to be his hands and in his service as he builds his holy Church. 

I love that very simple description in the Book of The Acts of the Apostles, at the end of the second chapter, describing the days following the great outpouring of Holy Spirit on Pentecost Sunday.  “And day by day,” St. Luke writes at the beginning of verse 46  . . . “and day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people.  And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” 

All about sharing prayer and worship, the Holy Communion of the Bread and Cup.  About living wholesome  and attractive lives in their neighborhoods, so that everyone commended them.  About generosity, expansive generosity.   I love that description, “they partook of food with glad and generous hearts.”   Sounds like St. Andrew’s to me!  And day by day, the Lord working in the lives of new friends, drawing them into this fellowship, turning hearts and changing lives.

Of course our St. Andrew was in that apostolic crowd that we read about in the second chapter of Acts.  In John’s gospel we have several wonderful  glimpses of him.  One very familiar, in John 6, when the crowds had followed Jesus out into the wilderness, and the miracle of the Feeding of the Multitudes.  The disciples had no idea how in the world they were going to figure out how to deal with this day—beyond the skills of even the most skillful event planner.  And then the little boy shows up, with his lunch, five small rolls, two fish.  And he is seen first by Andrew--who is keeping an eye out, confident I think that when we’re about the Lord’s business the Lord will provide--and Andrew immediately knows what to do, and brings him to Jesus. 

And then later, in John 12, on the afternoon of Palm Sunday, as the story is headed towards its dramatic turn, when strangers who have come to Jerusalem from distant lands to celebrate the Passover festival, Greek speaking Jews--they come searching for the famous Rabbi, the one everyone is talking about, who made such a stir in the streets earlier in the day.  And the Spirit stirs up a curiosity in their hearts.  They come to Andrew and say, “Sir, we would see Jesus.”  And immediately he brings them to him.  (The great 18th and 19th Century Church of England priest and preacher Charles Simeon had those words carved into the lectern on the pulpit of Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge, where he was rector for 54 years.

It all reminds me of the prayer that is said daily in observance of St. Benedict in every Benedictine monastic community.  The prayer that through God’s action the community may grow “in number and holiness.”  Those two things together. 
Catching a glimpse of that in John 6 and 12, in Acts 2, and in our gospel reading this morning, the very beginning of the ministry of Jesus,  in this conversation by the lake, as Jesus comes across these old followers of John the Baptist, now back at home and back at work, and invites them to come in a new direction, for a new work, with him.  And they follow:  Peter and Andrew, James and John.  The Lord adds to the fellowship day by day those who are being saved. 

People still come looking for him, and some Andrew or other makes the introduction.   Could be you, could be me.  Any of us.  And it doesn’t really take special skill or training.  Just a willing heart, we might say.  Since it’s God himself, Holy Spirit, who is going to work through us to do whatever it is that will be done.

A simple way of describing “apostolic witness.  ”   And of course ever encounter is unique.  Every conversation fresh and new.  Every story is different.  A bit later in the Acts story Peter and John are going to meet a begger at the Temple gate.  Philip is going to meet an Ethiopian official returning home from a diplomatic visit to Jerusalem.   Paths cross.   It’s like at a wedding, when you might ask someone you don’t know, “so, how are you connected to the bride and groom?”  We could go around the church this morning to ask that question, as we did a bit at our Coffee and Conversation hour this morning.   “How did you get here?”  What’s your story?  Who was it who introduced you to the Bridegroom?

And we would find in telling those stories again and again versions of some story about meeting St. Andrew.  Or one of his spiritual offspring, generation after generation.  Greeting you at the door, or out in the street, or over the back fence, or at work, or at school.  “I’m glad to meet you.  And  there’s someone else  I think you’d like to meet.  I know anyway he’d like to meet you.   In fact, he’s expecting you!  Please allow me to introduce you.” 

The spirit of St. Andrew, our patron, whom we remember today, whose continuing and inspiring work would shape all our lives—and let’s pray that it will continue to do so, that we will be built up as worthy successors to him, his legacy--so that we would know that deep down all Christian people are St. Andreans.  It’s a bustling crowd and a good bunch, and we can be proud to march together under his banner.

A Marriage Homily

November 21, 2015 Holy Matrimony
Katherine Anne Jones and Robert Scott Hess
Tobit 8: 5-8; St. John 15: 9-12

Wow.  Good afternoon everyone!  Family and friends . . . .  It is so great to be here today, as we are witnesses and participants in this wonderful celebration of Christian marriage.  Katie and Bob, I would simply personally and I know speaking for everyone here today, and with truly a full heart, express my and our deepest thanks for including us, for inviting us to be with you as this new page is turned, a new chapter begun. 

Here in Pittsburgh, as you know, we live at the source of one of the great rivers of the North American continent, as the confluence of the Allegheny and the Monongahela gives birth to the mighty Ohio.  Perhaps that is a fitting image or symbol for us today.  Two fabulous  people, gifted, accomplished, intelligent, fun, real maturity, a wonderful shared sense of humor.  Flowing into one great new river for all the years ahead.

In the midst of all the complexities of work and travel and the busyness of the season I’ve really enjoyed the chance to get to know you in our pre-marriage conversations, and then yesterday at our rehearsal to have had the opportunity to meet and get to know some of your friends and family as well.  And not that anybody has asked me this question in so many words, but I just want to let you know that I approve of your marriage!  It seems like a very good idea to me.  You guys are great for each other, great with each other.  In ways that we can see, and in deeper ways—and simply to say that in the deep mysteries of his Providence, God is doing a new thing here, and I think an important thing.  He has gifted you, each of you individually and then in what you are together,  as your lives are synchronized, we might say, and we are only just now beginning to unfold. 

Here in Pittsburgh lots of people went down to the point last night, with the annual “Light Up Night” and all the festivities of the season.  For me, I think those fireworks were for you, and with the cheering and songs of angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, there are fireworks over us  and around us today, in great celebration!

During the last month or so you both spent some time, and we did together, to  give careful thought to the selection of the readings from Scripture to be read and shared at this service, and it was a gift for all of us to hear them.   

The reading from Tobit, and the story of the marriage of Tobias and Sarah.  This touching moment as their marriage begins with a prayer.  Back in the 1950’s and 1960’s the National Council of Churches ran an advertising campaign with billboards all across America, with the slogan, “The Family that Prays Together Stays Together.”  Maybe that saying is still familiar to some.  And wisdom in that. 

Married people are not clones of each other, of course.  And often the differences of interests and perspectives and life experience are so valuable, as you learn from one another and grow in appreciation.  One  spouse may never learn to love football, and the other may never truly appreciate Italian opera.  But we learn and grow.  But what Tobias and Sarah do for us is to invite us in marriage to find and explore a deeper unity of spiritual life and prayer.  And as they began their marriage in prayer, I would simply commend that invitation to you and to all married couples here today. 

The reading from St. John’s gospel is also I think well-chosen for us today.  These very tender words of Jesus: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you: abide in my love.”  And I would simply lift up the last few words : “love one another, as I have loved you.”   And as we hear those words here in lovely old St. Andrew’s I hope our eyes might be lifted up to see what we call the great Rood Beam.  “The Rood” is an Old English word for “the Cross.”  And we are reminded that the love of Jesus that we are called to follow in our lives and in our marriages, is not so much about how we “feel,” and what we “get” in our relationships, but about what we have to give, to share, to offer.    Not about our winning, but about figuring out how we can lose so that the other can win!  (And if both husband and wife keep working at that project you have to be pretty creative sometimes.  Like when people race to pick up the check after a nice dinner out, before the other can get to it.  Rushing ahead to open the door.  “After you.”  “No, after you.”)

There’s a prayer that we sometimes pray at the end of services here at St. Andrew’s that is called the “St. Francis Prayer,” because it sums up in a very simple and beautiful way the insight into Christian life that St. Francis communicated both with his words and in his life.  It begins like this:  “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”  Perhaps you’ve heard that prayer.  I think it’s the perfect prayer for a wedding day.  And in the second half of the prayer,  these words: “Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved, as to love.”  Because it is when we give that we truly receive.  It is when we have forgiven others that we are truly forgiven ourselves.  And it only when we die to ourselves and to our own wants and our own self-centeredness, that we truly begin to know what it means to live, both here in this life and for eternity . . . . 

This the sign of the Cross.  Really the heart of the Christian message.   The One who died for us, and in that death opens the door to forgiveness and grace and new life.   And with that sign over us, here is the word of Jesus for you, with all the richness of his blessing: “love one another, as I have loved you.” 

So thank you for selecting these readings for us—truly a gift.  A great word for all of us to keep close, and meaningful that you have shared it with us today.  We might almost say that choosing and sharing these readings with your family and friends is the first step, the first example, of the vocation of your marriage.  The Church says that marriage is “sacramental”, and at least part of what that means is that  in marriage you two become outward signs of what Scripture has to say to us about God’s will for all our lives . . . about God’s grace and love.  He creates and establishes marriage, and he invites you now as you enter into marriage yourselves to this work and ministry-- inviting you day by day to a life shaped according to his purposes, that you will be equipped to communicate his love to others.  A great blessing, an exciting adventure of a life.  That you would know our love and prayers and support today and in all the days ahead.

And now as Bob and Katie come forward to exchange the vows that will make them husband and wife, let us pause for a moment and bow our heads and in the quiet of our own hearts offer our prayers of love and blessing for them—for today and for all the days of their lives.

her brought over from the heritage of Jewish practice o

                                                                                                             --Bruce Robison

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Comedy of Pre-Advent

Ruth 3: 1-5; 4:13-17 (Proper 27B)
Baptism of Violet Rose Hickman
November 8, 2015

Good morning and grace and peace.  Moving into a rich season of the year in the wider church and here at St. Andrew’s.  The Sunday after All Saints Sunday —remembering just what a wonderful and truly beautiful and meaningful service that was last Sunday—choir and orchestra and our prayers remembering saints and heroes of the faith, and as well honoring and offering prayers in memory of our loved ones.  Next Sunday the Harvest Brunch and a celebration of some of the ways we here in this corner of the East End are able to share in some very exciting ministries in the wider world, and especially with our focus in Bolivia.  Then on the 22nd, St. Andrew’s Day, and bagpipes and our annual homecoming and patronal festival.  And then Thanksgiving and Advent and Christmas and the New Year.  A reminder for me of what a real blessing it is to have the privilege to be a part of this great congregation.

In the patterning of the Church Calendar we recall the two great cycles of the year—reflecting the two great and inextricably intertwined theological themes of Incarnation and Atonement: Advent-Christmas-Epiphany, and Lent-Holy Week-Easter.  The calendar also charts out a transitional phase, an interlude of preparation, before each of these cycles.  We are more familiar with what is sometimes called “Pre-Lent,” and the Sundays of Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima, as each of these in turn directs our attention ahead to the great drama of the Cross.  Similarly there is a somewhat less emphatic but still meaningful “Pre-Lent” that comes before Advent, the Three Sundays that begin today, and we would begin to listen carefully to the appointed Collects and Lessons and Psalms to hear the advancing footsteps of the Advent messenger.  The Collect this morning lifting up the Manifestation of the Blessed Son of the Father, to destroy the works of Satan and to redeem fallen humanity—and calling us to await eagerly the day when he shall come again, with power and great glory, lifting us forever in his presence.

So it’s not just the department stores and radio stations that are leaning forward into the calendar.  So too the Church and in the heart of every Christian.  Eagerly rushing forward to Christmas with the prayer of his First and Second Advent, “Come, Lord Jesus.”

And a reminder in that this morning, with the baptism of Violet Rose, here at the same font where, wearing the same baptismal gown,  her mother Kristen was baptized by my predecessor Ralph Brooks at the end of July, 1985.  Just a tad over 30 years ago.  Violet’s parents and godparents standing at the crossing here presenting her for baptism and accepting the spiritual responsibilities of baptismal sponsors in the same place where on June 27, 1981,  her grandparents exchanged their marriage vows.  A lovely image of the life of the Christian family carrying on, one generation to another.

The Old Testament lesson appointed for this morning, from the Book of Ruth, seems very appropriate I think for this morning’s celebration of Violet’s baptism.  For her, and for all of us.  And especially in “Pre-Advent.”

We’ve been in this series for a couple of months now in the lectionary of what is sometimes called the “Wisdom Literature” of the Old Testament.  Some time back we had the reading from Proverbs 31, the portrait of the Capable Wife.  And then we had the readings from Esther, and from Job.  And now this morning we would remember the story of Ruth.

The story like so many of this part of the Bible begins in exile.  Easy for us to picture these days, with the images before us daily such great numbers streaming out of Syria and Afghanistan and Northern Africa.  Naomi and her husband and their two sons are forced by famine to become refugees, and they come to live in a foreign land, Moab.  Yet even so, far from home, they continue to hold on to the memory of their homeland Israel and their worship of Israel’s God. 

Time passes, and they begin to make a life where they are as best they can.  In time their sons marry local girls and begin to settle into their adult lives.  But then in a series of calamities perhaps reminiscent of Job’s, death takes first Naomi’s husband and then both her sons.  In sorrow and bitterness and regret Naomi gathers her two daughters-in-law together and gives them her blessing and tells them to return to their families, so that she herself can return in the ashes of mourning to die herself in the land of her ancestors. 

Which the first of the two daughters-in-law does.  But not Ruth.  Ruth refuses to leave the side of Naomi.  The famous line: “whither thou goest, I will go.  Where thou lodgest I will lodge.  Thy people will be my people.  Thy God, my God.”  And this deep and costly gesture of love and loyalty begins to plant a seed of transformation.  Naomi and Ruth return to Israel and to the Land of Judah, near the small country town of Bethlehem, where they find a farm owned by Boaz, a distant relative. 

Boaz welcomes them with kindness and generosity, begins to care for them.  And then, in the way now as the story unfolds of a wonderful romantic comedy, as time passes, we come to the scene in the reading this morning.  In the movie I would cast Tom Hanks as Boaz, Meg Ryan as Ruth!  In the secret mysteries of Jewish mothers, perhaps we would say, Naomi now knows and sees by all the intuitive signs what is in the heart and of Cousin Boaz—perhaps understanding him better than he understands himself.  How he looks up when she is standing across the field.  How his eyes follow her when she walks with the others to the daily chores of the farm.  Naomi has Ruth prepare herself, and go to his home, and once she arrives—well, the rest of the story.   We’ve read it here.  As at the end of every romantic comedy.  Love and marriage.  Laughter and wedding bells.   Joy, healing, and new life. 

And even to conclude with this wonderful note, Ruth’s first son Obed is embraced by Naomi, taken up into his grandmother’s loving arms—her own husband and sons gone, but now new life and a new generation.  Hope and promise.   A happy ending!

And even the parting word to us readers, as the first hearers and readers of the story of Ruth would have known already-- that this child Obed, the first-born son of Boaz and Ruth, would be himself the father of Jesse, who then in turn would be the father of King David.  And for us today, of course, as we look ahead through the weeks of fall and then to Advent, to know that he is the ancestor of Mary and so of our Lord Jesus Christ.  O Little Town of Bethlehem!  Not Thanksgiving yet, but already we can hear the angels singing to the shepherds in the fields.  Perhaps these very fields, where Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan—I mean, Boaz and Ruth, first caught sight of one another.

God’s  great plan of salvation, the Holy Story of God, resting on this comedy of love!  When Ruth makes the decision to give up everything.  Not to return to her family, but to care for Naomi, who was lost in her bitterness, without hope for any future.  That one generous, humble, sacrifice of love--and how God took that and used it for purposes that have been in his heart from the beginning of time.  Anticipating the word of Ruth’s daughter Mary, who would say to the Angel centuries later, “Let it be as you have said.”    Again.  Pre-Advent.

Good to say this, for Violet on her baptismal day.  As she has been now washed in Christ and sealed in the Holy Spirit, forgiven, cleansed, lifted to new life.   To have this sense of what God will use from her, from us.    We don’t know the specifics, but we know the author of the story, and that the story continues, drawing in each of our lives.  New lives one by one, generation after generation, here at the font of baptism and new life.

We have this rich liturgy.   Simple but deep.  The service would have been the same for Kristen in 1985 as for Violet this morning.  Parents and Godparents begin by making their particular commitments of prayer and support to see that the child they present is “brought up in the Christian faith and life” to the “full stature of Christ.”  And then on behalf of the child being baptized and on behalf of the whole congregation they begin what is sometimes called the “Baptismal Covenant” with those great statements renouncing the devil , the world, and our sinful nature.  And then so meaningfully:  “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?”   Heart and soul and mind and strength. 

Like Ruth: “whither thou goest I will go.”  Like Mary: “Let it be to me as you have said.”  This free gift, without condition, no “Plan B.”  Like the old hymn, “O Jesus I have promised to serve thee to the end.”   Faithfulness, no matter what the cost.  This is what true Wisdom is all about, again and again through these words of the Bible as we have been hearing them over the past few months.  Proverbs and Esther and Job and Ruth.  The fear of the Lord.  To love him with all our heart and soul and mind and strength.  

It is an image, a foreshadowing also for us and most importantly for us in “Pre Advent” of the love and sacrifice of Ruth’s great-great-great-great-great grandson Jesus, who was the Wisdom from on high. And an image and a foreshadowing of the life we share with Jesus in and through these baptismal waters.  

So welcome this morning to Violet Rose, and to say for her, and for us all, “Dare to be a Ruth!”  Because that’s how Christmas happens.  And with thanks for the opportunity that we all have to be renewed and refreshed in Christ.  

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

Sunday, November 1, 2015

For All the Saints

All Saints Sunday
Revelation to St. John the Divine 21: 1-6
Gospel of St. John 11:32-44

Good morning and grace and peace this morning of All Saints Day.  A highlight of the church year and always a wonderful service here at St. Andrew’s.  With thanks to Peter and the Choir and the Orchestra and our good friend Tom Octave.  Your participation and offering makes this day exceptionally meaningful.  A real gift.  Of course, always meaningful for us as we remember the great saints and heroes of our Christian family, known through the generations for their holiness of life and their courage and witness. 

Remembering as well as we do in our prayers today the saints and heroes and loved ones nearest to us. Family, friends, neighbors, co-workers.   Perhaps most of them not to be commemorated with statues and stained glass windows in their honor and special feast days on the calendar--but in our hearts and minds dear to us and remembered as inspirations each in their own way of faithful Christian life and God’s love.  Rest eternal grant unto them, O Lord, and may Light Perpetual shine upon them.  May they with all the faithful departed rest in peace and rise in glory. Amen.

The reading this morning from the opening of the 21st chapter of the Revelation of St. John the Divine always so powerful—and most appropriate on All Saints Day.   It was suggested to me several years ago and I have made it a part of my regular devotional pattern once each month or so to sit quietly for a few minutes in a morning or evening prayer time and to re-read the 21st and 22nd chapters of the Revelation to St.  John the Divine. 

A magnificent set-piece of Christian testimony and witness, with language and a poetry and a great and encompassing vision that settles deeply into the imagination.  A word of comfort, of encouragement, of inspiration.  Fuel for the tank as we go about the day to day unfolding of our lives in our homes and with our families, at work, with our friends, in the quiet of our own inner space of thought and feeling.  I have found it so, and I would commend that practice and discipline to you, actually, on this All Saints Day.  When we have a challenging journey it can be helpful to be able to picture our desired destination.  To have the mountain-top in mind as we face the steep climb in front of us.   For me it’s also like hitting the “refresh” button, to shift the metaphor.  Re-centering.  Maybe something to do on the first day of every month, for a year, as an experiment, and to see what strikes you over time, as you let these words and this imagery of the great victory of God come again and again to your attention.  This victory that we are and will be a part of.  Each time of reading and re-reading, to see something new, or from a new perspective.  To go deeper.

This vision of John the Seer-- of the Holy City, New Jerusalem, coming down from heaven from God.  I find this turns the imagery around for me, in terms of what I had usually pictured in my mind when I thought about God’s Kingdom.  I thought, to use the phrase, that “we would go to heaven.”  But that’s not what John sees. 

In the great day of God’s victory, heaven comes to us, here, to earth, the Holy City, and as it arrives the earth itself is transformed and the lives of all God’s faithful are met and drawn into him.  Not that we sail up into the skies, riding on otherworldly clouds to God’s presence. Instead, as the voice announces to John, “See, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them.”    A parent hears that a child is in distress, and drops everything and rushes to be at the child’s side.  “God himself will be with them, he will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

The victory of the Cross displayed right here.  To answer the question of Good Friday, “why does this have to happen?”  Remember Jesus in John 12, as inscribed here on the great Rood Beam, “and I if I be lifted up from the earth will draw all men unto me.”  The embrace of the Father for the Son, and his arms wrapped around us, as we in and through Jesus receive the free gift of God’s love:  his forgiveness, his generosity and abundance.  Ask and ye shall receive.  Knock and door will open unto you. 

Read the 21st and 22nd Chapters of John’s Revelation to see what that New Jerusalem is, that is ours, flowing with the restoring and renewing waters of the River of Life.  The towering trees of the New Garden, fresh and green and with leaves that are for the healing of the nations.  Come unto me, all ye who travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.

And then we consider in the Gospel reading appointed for this morning the Sign of Lazarus.  Come out of the tomb, Lazarus!  Again right before our eyes, the token of God’s promise for each of us.  They fit together, hand in glove, these two readings: one word of transformational triumph.  That life is changed, not ended.   The whole creation. Fallen and then lifted up.  The gate of our suffering and death, the portal to his great conclusion.  The Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.  Trustworthy and true.  Making all things new.

What a great gift.  For all the Saints.  Beyond any words, any sentence that we could compose in reply.  No adequate expression of thanks and appreciation.  Almost impossible even to describe in words.  Perhaps music--Franz Schubert and the transcendence of music only a step in the direction.  I know this particular mass setting is not considered to be one of the most complicated of Schubert’s works.  But a certain expression for me of a quieter grace.  The Kyrie sung at the beginning of the service just a few minutes ago always touches so deeply.   A reminder in one kind of beauty of that deeper wonder that the psalmist calls “the beauty of holiness,” which is God’s eternal and life-giving presence.  Coming for us and for our salvation in the victory of the Last Day, and with us now.  In our prayers, in the Word of Holy Scripture.  In the Holy Food and Drink at the Table of the Lord’s Supper.   A presence that we can know perfectly in the face of his Son.   Always near when we call.  Who despite our unworthiness and our persistent sin went to the Cross for us, and who has opened this door for us.

It is such a big deal.  Enough to rouse us from our sleep and to arouse our curiosity.  Tell me more.  What this is all about.  As we celebrate this morning, for all the All Saints.  For this life and the life to come

Monday, October 19, 2015

St. Luke, Physician and Evangelist

On October 18th our regular "Third Sunday of the Month" service of Choral Evensong observed the Feast of St. Luke.  Our Guest Preacher was the Rev. Daniel Hall, M.D.  Dan is Episcopal Priest in Residence at the First Lutheran Church of Pittsburgh, Grant Street, Downtown, and has a practice of General Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and the Hospital of the Veterans' Administration.

Evensong, St. Andrew's, Highland Park
Feast of St. Luke
The Rev. Daniel E. Hall, MD

Ecclesiasticus 38:1-4,6-10,12-14

Honor physicians for their services,
for the Lord created them;
for their gift of healing comes from the Most High,
and they are rewarded by the king.
The skill of physicians makes them distinguished,
and in the presence of the great they are admired.
The Lord created medicines out of the earth,
and the sensible will not despise them.
And he gave skill to human beings
that he might be glorified in his marvelous works.
By them the physician heals and takes away pain;
the pharmacist makes a mixture from them.
God's works will never be finished;
and from him health spreads over all the earth.
My child, when you are ill, do not delay,
but pray to the Lord, and he will heal you.
Give up your faults and direct your hands rightly,
and cleanse your heart from all sin.
Then give the physician his place, for the Lord created him;
do not let him leave you, for you need him.
There may come a time when recovery lies in the hands of physicians,
for they too pray to the Lord
that he grant them success in diagnosis
and in healing, for the sake of preserving life.

2 Timothy 4:5-13

As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.

As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

Do your best to come to me soon, for Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica; Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful in my ministry. I have sent Tychicus to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments.

Don’t you just love evensong? Great music. Great scripture.  Perhaps great preaching?….but at least a chance to bust out the cassock, surplice, tippet and academic hoods.  And I’m delighted that at least up here in the choir, it’s not just the clergy wearing their hoods, but a whole range of colors representing your various degrees.  If you really wanted to double down, everybody out their in the nave could show up with their black robe and hood and we could all live into a lovely dream that this corner of Highland Park was just a step away from Edwardian Oxbridge—our own little taste Downton Abbey with Lord Grantchester sitting right over there. This is the stuff that makes the Anglican ship in which we are sailing so beautiful and compelling. It is good to be with you this evening.  Thank you for the invitation.

You may have noticed that my own hood here is green rather than red.  That is because it is the hood I received on graduation from medical school.  As some of you know, I am surgeon as well as a priest.  And that was Bruce Robison’s clever twist in inviting me to preach today with these texts appointed for the feast of St. Luke, sometimes remembered as “The Physician.”

You see, the tradition holds that in addition to being the author of the eponymous Gospel and the Book of Acts, Luke was first trained as a Greek Physician.  The evidence is pretty thin, but in his letter to the Colossians, St. Paul names a Luke who he also identifies as a doctor.  And scholars have noted that the composition of Luke and Acts betrays a man of education—the vocabulary and syntax is substantially more sophisticated than the rest of the New Testament.  And since Luke’s writing employs a preponderance of medical and nautical metaphors, scholars have thought that he might have been either a physician or a sailor before meeting Jesus, but there is controversy about which one is more likely. When my New Testament professor explained this for the first time, I spoke with him after class with my tongue in cheek saying, “I don’t understand the controversy. It seems pretty obvious that Luke was a Doctor sailing his yacht around the Med!”

Joking aside, the tradition of St. Luke the Physician and the texts appointed for this occasion give us an opportunity to reflect on the practice of medicine, and its proper place in our common life as Christians.  And to the extent that I’m a physician myself, perhaps I can bring a fresh perspective. So what do we learn?

At first glance, things seem to be particularly good for physicians according to Ecclesiasticus. (As if we needed any more air pumped into our overly-filled heads!):

Honor physicians for their services,
for the Lord hath created them;
for their gift of healing cometh from the Most High…
The skill of physicians makes them distinguished,
and in the presence of the great they art admired.

So far so good.  Ecclesiasticus sounds like a proud Jewish grandmother.

And then Ecclesiasticus outlines a very sensible position on the proper place and use of medicine.  It acknowledges that God is the source of healing, and that our first impulse should always be to confess our faults and pray to God for healing.  And having done so, to turn ourselves over to the care of a physician, because God created medicine, and gave the physician skill, and even though miracles can and do happen, sensible people will not despise the skilled care and effective medicines that God has seen fit to bless us with through the practice of medicine.

The position of Ecclesiasticus seems to mirror the common sense of the old joke about the man stranded on a desert island who prays to God to save him, and in his fervent faith, turns away first a fishing boat, and then a cruise ship and finally a helicopter because he is confident that God’s miracle if salvation will be supernatural.  And when he finally perishes, he asks God why he didn’t answer his prayer, and God says “I did.  I sent you a fishing boat, a cruise ship and a helicopter.  What more were you looking for?”

So on one level, this passage from Ecclesiasticus is important counterpoint for those among us with Pentecostal or Charismatic tendencies—those who would rather pray that God spare them of cancer than submit to the indignity of a colonoscopy or mammogram. This kind of wisdom certainly applies to our contemporary setting. We shouldn’t ignore Jewish grandmothers. I’ve had my colonoscopy…and I hope you’ve had yours!

But I’m not sure that is the end of the story.  Although there are some who resist modern medicine in favor of miraculous cures, I think it is much more common in this day and age to find those who turn to medicine itself for the miracle.  We follow the advice of our physicians. We stop smoking. We eat better.  We exercise. We take the pills they prescribe. We supplement our food with multivitamins. We eat local.  We eat organic. We expose our children to Bach while they are still in the womb. We follow with interest the nightly news that reports the next advance in cell biology, immunology or genetics that promise to unlock the key to aging, cancer and mental illness. And the commercials between those reports sell the promise of salvation through pharmacology. No symptom is too small to manage. No experience is too trivial to ignore. If only we knew enough, we could efficiently and effectively relieve human suffering, and preserve our autonomous control over our unruly bodies. Medicine promises not only to treat disease, but to enhance our lives, making us better than well.  And although only a few technological futurists like Ray Kurzweil explicitly claim that technology will transcend all human limitation (including death), I think than many of us are captivated by the alluring proposition that medical technology might one day show us how to get out of life alive.

And in this context, the sick become morally culpable for their illness.  If only they hadn’t smoked.  If only they didn’t eat refined carbohydrates to the point of Type II diabetes. If only they ate lower on food chain or adopted the Asian diet or exercised more, or exercised better.  If only they had submitted to that mammogram, or PSA test or that whole body PET-CT scan. If only they had made any number of the countless choices that we hope will mitigate the existential threat comes to us all in illness and death. If only….

I think that this is the more common posture toward medicine and its promises. But in doing so, we forget the more fundamental counsel of Ecclesiasticus when it says:
My child, when thou art ill, do not delay,
but first pray unto the Lord, and he will make thee whole.
Give up thy faults and direct thy hands rightly,
and cleanse thy heart from all sin.
Then (and only then) give place to the physician…

Giving place to physicians and our medicine without first giving place to God makes of medicine an idol. We put our trust in the technology itself rather than in the God who supplies the genius that generates the technology. We begin to think that we can eliminate suffering from human experience rather than remembering that God himself chose to enter that suffering rather waving his hand and making it go away.  We begin to fall for the age-old temptation to believe that by hook or by crook, we can save ourselves through the choices we make and the deeds we accomplish.

The point I’m trying to make is that we have distorted the wisdom of Ecclesiasticus. We have taken the advice of our Jewish grandmother too literally. We give too much honor to physicians and the medicine they provide.  Our hopes for what hospitals, doctors and pharmacies can offer are unrealistic. As much as I want you to trust me as your surgeon—as much as I want our hospital to be worthy of your faith—we do not have the power to save you. 

That power belongs to Jesus, and him alone.  And it is precisely this point that Luke is trying to make in this passage when Jesus walks into his home synagogue, proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor, sits down and says: Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. The promise of the Gospel sets us free from the ultimately futile attempts of working out our own salvation through wise and prudent choices.

You know this.  Yet despite that knowledge, it is altogether too easy to slip back into thinking that the Gospel is about doing the right thing or being the right kind of person.  We tend to think that Christianity is about values and ethics; about doing right and living well.  And so it is, and therefore, we expect our sermons to have clear application for what it is we are to do in life. Tell the truth. Practice random acts of kindness. Raise your kids in nurturing environments. Honor physicians.  Take their medicine. Stop smoking. Go to the farmers market. Do these things and God will bless you.

But the point made by the Luke and the point often left out of our sermons is that the Gospel is not primarily prescriptive, but descriptive.  The Gospel is about reality first and action second.  Only after de-scribing the reality of the way things are does the Gospel go on to pre-scribe specific action.  When Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek” he doesn’t mean that we’re all supposed to be meek.  Instead, it’s about getting the record straight by stating that, contrary to all appearances, the meek are, in fact, blessed.  When Jesus says, “The person who seeks to save his life will lose it; but the one who is willing to lose his life for my sake will find it” he doesn’t intend it as an ethical exhortation.  It isn’t an ought statement so much as it is a description of what is real—the way things really are.

When Jesus says “strive for the kingdom of God”, he compares it to a small mustard seed that grew into a large tree. He compared it to the sprinkle of yeast that leavened the entire batch of bread. The kingdom of God is that tiny, almost immeasurable thing that when added to the rest, transforms the grist of everyday living into something different and more wonderful.  The kingdom of God is the gift of conversion, the pulling away of the veil, the illumination of the way things really are.  The kingdom of God is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 

Let me try to be less abstract and more concrete.  Who we are and what we do depends entirely on why we do it.  Exhortations to holy or healthy living may make sense to the world.  Exhortations for “values” and “hope” make sense in the political rhetoric of Republicans and Democrats alike.  But these exhortations to right action are meaningless if they are not integrally and explicitly connected to Christ Jesus.  We can’t be holy unless we know holy, and we can’t know holy until we know Jesus.  And when we know Jesus, we know that we can do nothing good apart from him.  So that any good work, if it is truly good, is not ours, but the work of Christ who lives within us. 

Apart from the love of God in Christ Jesus, all our work and toil is but vanity and chasing after wind. I can stay up all night operating on perforated diverticulitis.  You can spend five days a week volunteering in a soup kitchen.    And you can volunteer time on a church committee.  And you can teach the glories of the English Choral Tradition. And you can revel in that most tasteful of liturgical vesture, the cassock, surplice, hood and tippet. And you can give money away to the poor.  But if we do these things for their own sake—if we do them to punch our ticket—then they are but vanity and chasing after wind.

So what are we to do?  We are called to be a holy and sanctified people, set apart, living in the world, but not of the world.  We are called to be witnesses to the truth of the way things really are, exposing idolatry in whatever form it may arise.  We are called to be witnesses to the truth that God, himself, became flesh, dwelled among us, died and was raised again so that we might become heirs to his kingdom.  And yes, we are called to do not just good works, but great and magnificent works.  And the technologies of medicine do accomplish some of the most great and magnificent works.

But even the most magnificent works are powerless to save. Yet salvation has already been accomplished because in Jesus, the words of the prophets have been fulfilled, and he has proclaimed the year of the Lord’s favor. What we need are eyes to see and ears to hear this leavening truth about the kingdom of God. Those eyes and ears are not ours by right, but gifts from God—given to us in baptism and nurtured through disciplines of prayer, worship and service. With those eyes and ears, we can see through the hollow threat of bodily illness and recognize that whether we live or die, we belong ever and always to the Lord. With those eyes and ears, we can approach our own death in the confidence that death will not have the last word.  With those eyes and ears we can even now hear and see that great getting up day when all will be raised—not as disembodied spirits, but as flesh and blood in our own bodies—and with those eyes and ears we will see our Lord face to face and hear him call us to take our place with him at the Supper of the Lamb. It is this hope that frees us from fear.  It is this promise that enables us to seek God above all things. May God grant to us these eyes and these ears so that with our mouths, we might proclaim with St. Luke the Physician, the unimaginable goodness of the Great Physician, the lover of souls, the salvation of the world, the holy and undivided Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Ghost.  Amen.