Sunday, March 29, 2015

Palm Sunday

Philippians 2: 5-11

At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow, every tongue confess him King of glory now; ‘tis the Father’s pleasure we should call him Lord, who from the beginning was the mighty word.

A friend of mine commented the other day that our worship this morning is an experience of :"liturgical whiplash."  It certainly is a moment when our usual conceptual categories fail.  Palm Sunday. Holy Week.   Contradictory currents crash together and then somehow are transformed and united in unsettling new ways.  Boundaries blurred, edges crossed.  A marriage of matter and anti-matter.  An emotional, psychological, spiritual place of dissonance.  Breathtaking, jolting, mind-bending.  

The curtain rises, the actors take their places, the Passion Play begins.  Humiliation that is exaltation, loss that is gain, betrayal that is faith, emptiness that is full to the brim, defeat that is victory, pain that is glory, death that is life.  On this Friday, night falls at high noon—and we are ourselves as spectators twenty centuries later lifted from our seats on the sideline and plunged into the midst of the storm.  Holy Week.  No matter how many we’ve walked this road, no matter how well we know the story, or think we know the story, it never fails to catch us again.  Fasten your seatbelts. 

We come together this morning, as every Sunday here at St. Andrew’s, under this statement and proclamation of God’s mission, his own words and promise from before time and forever, as Jesus speaks in the twelfth chapter of St. John: “and I if I be lifted up from the earth will draw all men unto me.”   Defeat that is victory, pain that is glory, death that is life.  Perhaps to think of this as an invitation this year.  If you don’t feel like you’ve found your place in the story yet, this is a good time to do so.  Step in.  Be a part of it.

The hammers clanging in the distance, and we can hear them driving the nails through his flesh and into the wood of the tree, that by him and in him and through him the tree of death will become the tree of life, the landfill garbage dump of Golgotha a new Eden, the fresh garden at the beginning of the world.  This is a promise that will come true.  We have seen it with our own eyes.  “Lord Jesus Christ, who didst stretch out thine arms of love on the hard wood of the cross, that everyone might come within the reach of thy saving embrace.”

O Love, how deep, how broad, how high:  For us to wicked hands betrayed, scourged, mocked, in purple robe arrayed, he bore the shameful cross and death, for us gave up his dying breath.

All for us.  And the message this week is that it’s not an abstract gesture.  He wants us to take it personally.  Each one of us.  That God so loved the world.  His plan from the beginning.   From before time and forever, for us.   The word that would lead us to the Holy Table this morning and then send us out Sunday afternoon and into Holy Week and for every day and every week.  All for us.  His plan, his invitation, his perfect love.  We can play a lot of games in this life.  Fool others and even fool ourselves.  But he isn’t fooling with us this week.  We have it on the authority of his Word, spoken at the beginning of all things, the one Word that in the end we can truly count on.  In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

Our prayer—not just words spoken with our eyes closed, but the intention and meaning of our breath, the yearning desire of our heart.  Good Friday, the King of Kings reigning over all.  High and lifted up.  That at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Fifth in Lent, Passion Sunday

John 12: 20-33

Good morning, and grace and peace.  First Sunday of spring, Fifth Sunday in Lent, and on the traditional calendar of the Church Year, Passion Sunday, beginning the final stretch in Lent, two weeks of Passiontide, preparing in our hearts and minds for the drama of Holy Week, turning our attention to the destination on the road we began to walk on Christmas Eve, beginning with the shepherds as they rushed down to Bethlehem to gaze into the Manger, now lifting our eyes to the Cross—as we of course can literally do every Sunday morning here at St. Andrew’s.  

In the calendar of the 1979 Prayer Book this Sunday lost its traditional title, and then the next Sunday, Palm Sunday, was renamed more expansively “The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday,” to emphasize the new tradition in the lectionary to offer the extended reading of the Passion Gospel at the beginning of Holy Week.  I think the opportunity to hear the full Passion story on the Sunday of Holy Week is a great thing, especially because so many are not able to arrange work and family schedules to participate in other Holy Week and Good Friday services, but I am also thankful that although Passion Sunday has lost its official place on the calendar we are still today directed to the Cross, and here in John 12 of course to the great word of Jesus that we recalled last Sunday in the context of the reading from Numbers, as Moses lifted up that Bronze Serpent for the healing of the Israelites in the Wilderness—which continues to be the interpretive context for us this morning. 

The setting of John 12 is in fact Palm Sunday, the day of Jesus’ dramatic entry into the Holy City Jerusalem, and in the bustle of the crowds of those who have come to celebrate the Passover are some Greek-speaking Jews.  They have heard the shouts of the crowds welcoming Jesus, and there is stirred up in their hearts a sudden desire to know more, and more than simply idle curiosity.  They come to Philip and say, “Sir, we would see Jesus.”  Words that are sometimes carved into the wood of pulpits as a reminder to preachers of what this formal and sacramental task is all about.  I imagine that when these religious pilgrims awakened that morning this wasn’t on the agenda, but now deep in their minds and hearts and imaginations they discover a yearning more powerful than any they had ever known before.  “Sir, we would see Jesus.” 

Sometimes this is an important tap on the shoulder when we think about outreach and church growth and evangelism questions.  We love to invite folks to experience fun social activities and to make new friends, to enjoy beautiful architecture and great music and all the rest.  All wonderful.  But underneath it all, in and with it all, that same yearning. The English writer Evelyn Underhill said so succinctly: “the thing that is interesting about religion, is God.”  We would let them speak for us this morning, for those who are seekers and inquirers, setting out on the road of discipleship, opening eyes and ears and minds and hearts, and to be reminded always of what we’re actually doing here.  What this is all really about.   Who it’s all about.  As Paul in Second Corinthians 4, “it is not ourselves that we proclaim, but Jesus Christ as Lord.”   It’s not about us.  About him.

Passiontide.  The Lord has returned to Zion—ride on in majesty!--to the very gates of his Temple, and the nations are streaming in, yearning to know him.  As we are here.  This is the hour in which his glorification begins.  The voice from heaven confirms it, rolls out like thunder across the land, across all creation, time and space.

“And I if I be lifted up from the earth will draw all men unto me,” John 12, on our Rood Beam. That this instrument of terror and death becomes for us the sign of mercy and love, forgiveness, grace, the fullness of abundant life, the heart of God’s goodness beyond all measure, at the very center of all that is, heaven and earth.  The reason to invite a friend to church.  God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, to the end that all who believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.  What we want even when we’re not quite sure ourselves what we want.

 So the old hymn: There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea; there’s a kindness in his justice, which is more than liberty.  There is welcome for the sinner, and more graces for the good; there is mercy with the Savior; there is healing in his blood.  The New Covenant promised by God in Jeremiah, as we heard this morning.  “For they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

So we would enter this season, taking it seriously.  High stakes.  A matter of life and death.  The story plays out before us with drama and intensity.  Sir, we would see Jesus.  Familiar, because we’ve seen it all a thousand times.  Yet new.  As if for the first time.  And asking us to stand up and follow along, become a part of it ourselves.

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

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Holy Matrimony

Christopher Garrett Yates
Katharine Melaine Campbell

Tobit 8, I Corinthians 13, Matthew 7

Katie and Garrett, what a wonderful afternoon!  The first full day of spring!  Blessings and peace to you, and for all your family and friends—with prayer and affection.  It is an honor for me personally and for all of us to be here with you.

You are two exceptional young people, and very special to me personally, to this congregation of St. Andrew’s, seminary friends, and again, in wider and wider circles.  A great day, as you with joy, smiles, laughter--and with seriousness and with a deep and sincere expression of your Christian faith—consecrate and dedicate your lives in this new way as husband and wife, in the sight of God and  in the face of this company

You are a great couple.  A wonderful combination of romance and friendship, shared passions, and a context of kindred spirits, and with enough differences of temperament to keep things, well—let’s say, interesting!  With all of that: he looked across the classroom on that first day and saw this stunningly beautiful young woman reading The Confessions of St. Augustine, in Latin, of course, and he said, “that’s the girl for me!”  No question about it. 

But of course there is more.  In Luke chapter 5 Jesus tells his disciples, who have been fishing all night long without catching anything, “Put out into deeper water.” In many ways that’s what he has been saying to his disciples ever since: go deeper.  And that’s what we would do with you here this afternoon.  Pushing out from the shore.  As the Prayer Book says in the Address at the beginning of the Marriage Office, “the covenant of marriage was established by God in creation . . . our Lord Jesus Christ adorned this manner of life at Cana of Galilee . . . and Holy Scripture commends it to be honored among all people.”

This is deeper water here.   What we witness in you and participate in this afternoon is in the pattern of Holy Baptism: death and resurrection, Good Friday and Easter, the entrance rite to a consecrated life not about who you are but about who Christ is.  In him and with him, through him and for him.  From the Garden to the families of Noah and Abraham and David, to Mary and Joseph, and in the stewardship of the life of the Church, this consecrated life and community is one of God’s instruments, creating and sustaining his promise generation by generation—and all the way to the last chapters of the Revelation to St. John, as the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, comes down from heaven, prepared by God, new creation, “adorned as a bride for her bridegroom.”  You have chosen each other, of course, but as we put out into deeper water we know that he first has chosen you, and for his own purposes, to be a part of something much bigger than yourselves, and deeper, for the work of preparation, as we wait for the fulfillment of his kingdom.

Some of you may know that I was not the first choice to preside and preach on this day.  My friend and colleague and important friend to both Garrett and Katie, and Garrett’s teacher and mentor, the Rev. Dr. Johannes “Jannie” Swart, who so unexpectedly passed from this life to enter greater life last September, and just as the fall semester was beginning at PTS.  I would love to have heard him preach at this service, with all his humor and energy and insight, and I know you both know that in the high galleries of heaven he is here and sharing this day with you. 
But as I was reflecting on that and thinking about what Jannie might have said today, along with his expression of friendship and love, I was reminded of a couple of devotional pieces that he had written in October of 2009 when he was at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, which I read this past fall at the time of his death.  In one of them, a meditation on Mark 10, Jannie talks about how when we truly hear Jesus say, “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” . . . then we suddenly realize that possibility and belonging are more important than problems and self-interests . . . .  That almost sounds to me like Paul to the Corinthians: love seeks not its own way.

So I just pause there, with those simple and yet profound indicators, and with the readings from Scripture that you have selected for us this afternoon.  From Tobit, as Tobias and Sarah so wonderfully begin their marriage on their knees before the Lord, together in prayer.  And from St. Paul to the Corinthians, stressed by conflict and division, pulled in many directions by jealousies and self-interest.  Love is patient and kind.  And as we hear Jesus at the end of the Sermon on the Mount in this wonderful little parable, of the architecture and engineering of our lives.  About attending to the good foundation.  About making the main thing always the main thing, so that when the storms come, there will be something solid, someone solid, and you will be able to stand firm on the one who is the Rock of Ages.  Garrett and Katie shared with me some of their own reflections on this passage, which I think are wonderful.  They noted how the image of shifting sands, like our shifting expectations, are ultimately untrustworthy—just as in any marriage and any human relationship our own perceptions are always fallible.  Only if Christ is the center and the lens by which we see the other can we be sure that our marriage is solid, and our love real, and only then can we hope to know the other person, and in this journey of forgiveness and sacrifice (I love that phrase, and St. Paul would have loved it too I think!) to have our marriage recognized by Christ.  What would it mean for Christ to look at a marriage and say, “I know that marriage.  I recognize my fingerprints on it.”

I believe Jannie would have loved that you chose these readings for us to hear today, and he would in them have commended you to the love and care of Christ, so that as you are rooted in faith, as you grow in spiritual maturity, and wisdom, and grace, as you love one another with humility and mercy, subject to one another, loving each other as Christ loved the Church, all the way to the end, then you will be so powerful, to be taken up by him and used by him in wonderful ways that we can only begin to picture this afternoon.  To be a blessing, with signs and wonders and miracles.  And that is what we all have in our hearts and in our prayers for you today.

It’s going to be amazing to see, Katie and Garrett.  I’m looking forward to it—and we all are.  He is doing better things in you than we could ever ask for or imagine. 

Now as Katie and Garrett and their witnesses come forward to exchange the vows that will make them husband and wife, let us stand and sing a hymn they have chosen to consecrate this moment in the mystery and joy we share in the waters of baptism, #686 – Come thou fount of every blessing.

                                                                                                                --Bruce M. Robison

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Fourth in Lent, Laetare

Nu. 21: 4-9; John 3: 14-21

Good morning, grace and peace.  This Sunday the Fourth in Lent, with the traditional name Laetare, reflecting the first words in the traditional Latin Mass Introit for this Fourth Sunday in Lent, from the 66th chapter of Isaiah. Laetare ierusalem.   The ancient choirs singing over the centuries, to lift the hearts of God’s Chosen People from the heavy weight of their exile:  Rejoice, O Jerusalem: and come together all you that love her: rejoice with joy, you that have been in sorrow: that you may exult, and be filled . . . .   

We come to the vernal equinox this Friday as well, and so all around us in the church and in the wide world a hint of spring.  Warmer weather, gentle rain, and some nice sunshine.  And today we turn the corner in Lent, having completed more than half the distance on our way to Holy Week and Good Friday and then to the joyful celebration of Easter morning.  Some parishes give up coffee hour for Lent and flowers on the altar, except on this Sunday, and an unofficial traditional name for the fourth Sunday in Lent is “Refreshment Sunday.”  In olden days a day called in some places “Mothering Sunday,” the ancestor of our Mother’s Day observance, a time to give gifts to mothers and also traditionally a day in the Downton Abbey world to release the service staff for a day to go home to visit their families.  Lord Crawley and family I guess fending for themselves or perhaps running over to the village Eat ‘n Park for dinner.    In many places as well in church the purple Lenten paraments are replaced by rose-colored vestments to reflect this shift of tone.  Laetare: a hint of Easter, foreshadowing.  We’re not there yet, but this annual Lenten exercise in the reformation and renewal of our thoughts and our feelings and our corporeal lives still has some time to do its work.  But there is light on the horizon. 

Some of you may remember perhaps with a smile the time a few years ago over at Redeemer in Squirrel Hill when I preached on this lesson from the 4th Chapter of the Book of Numbers during the East End Preaching Series.  Happened to coincide more or less with the opening of the Samuel L. Jackson film, “Snakes on a Plane,” and I attempted to find a little bit of humor in that reference.  Even brought a few plastic snakes with me to add a bit of visual texture to the moment! 

In any event, it’s a pretty dramatic scene: Moses and the wandering Hebrews out in the wilderness, the slithering mass of poisonous snakes reminding us perhaps of one of the plagues that struck the Egyptians earlier in the Exodus story.  The Ancient Enemy whom first we met in the Garden of Eden now once again bearing down on us in a crisis that can lead only to darkness and death and eternal ruin.  The consequence for God’s people when they forget the One who has created them and who sustains them—when in their impatience and rebellion they lose their faith and turn from him in their hearts and minds and seek to complete this great journey to the Land of Promise on their own terms.  But as they catch a glimpse of this, and as the deadly venom begins to run through their veins, they realize what they have lost and cry out for the only Helper who can come to their aid. 

And he does not fail them.  Help of the helpless.  From deepest woe I cry to thee.  Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, thou art with me.  And God directs Moses, who pins the bronze serpent to the pole—cadeuseus—a sign of the defeat of the Lord of Darkness, and the victory of God.  All who look upon this sign are immediately restored to life and health.  Hints of Easter. 

A dramatic and powerful story, and one then that comes to mind immediately for Jesus as he speaks to Nicodemus in the third chapter of John’s gospel.  Nicodemus has come to Jesus in hope, but also with a sense of personal doubt.  He sees God at work in Jesus, yet he feels that he is himself too old, too set in his ways, too heavily invested in the old order.  You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, he tells Jesus.  How can a man as old as I am be born again?  You have good news for others, but not for me.

And then when Jesus speaks we see how the sign of the defeated serpent in the wilderness long ago was a foreshadowing and anticipation of what was to come in the ultimate victory of the cross.  “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

And of course for us that very familiar verse.  One of the “Comfortable Words” in the Absolution in the Prayer Book Communion Service and the reference on so many signs in basketball arenas.  The gospel in a sentence: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

There’s some good news for the week ahead.  Winter to spring.  As we head down the road to Holy Week.  As we lift our own eyes here every Sunday to the Great Tree of the Rood that towers over us in this place, and to read the words of Jesus from John 12: “and I if I be lifted up from the earth will draw all men unto me.”  The crushing of the serpent’s head, the Enemy, the one seeking our death, seeking above all as he did with Eve in the garden to undermine our trust in God and to separate us from him forever, all coming now as we approach Jerusalem and the Cross.  Which we begin even now to see in all its glory.  The tree of life.  As in the 22nd chapter of the Revelation to John: “the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.”

These images that can settle into our minds and hearts and imaginations in this lent.  That we might experience this healing in our own lives, to be released from the power of sin and death.  The sentences of Ash Wednesday echoing.  Words spoken first to Adam and Eve in the Garden. “ Remember that thou art dust, and unto dust shalt thou return.”  So turn away from sin and believe the gospel.  Look to him and be refreshed.  As the days grow longer and as the holy history of the victory of God’s costly and limitless love for us is remembered again and made present and fresh and new in our lives.   “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent . . . so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Third in Lent

Exodus 20: 1-17

For Anglicans the 10 Commandments have always had a special prominence.  Even folks who don’t do much Bible reading would know about them in some detail.  Thanks to Charlton Heston in part, perhaps.   In England and certainly in Colonial America and all the way into the 19th century it would have been rare to have a cross or crucifix above the Holy Table.  Most commonly in earlier times what you would see in church as you sat in your pew on a Sunday would be the two Mosaic Tablets, sometimes just marked with the ten Roman Numerals, other times with the title of each commandment.   You still see this.  On our annual little after-Christmas vacation Susy and I go to church at St. Michael’s in Ligonier and there even in a fairly modern mid-20th century church building that’s what they have above the Communion Table.

The Catechism of our new 1979 Book of Common Prayer—popular reading, I know-- on page 849 follows the pattern begun in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer and reviews each of the Commandments as we have heard them this morning in Exodus 20.  A reminder that what that catechism was for generations and centuries was something to be presented to young people after Evensong on Sunday afternoons, in preparation for Confirmation.  Something to be committed to memory.  So the Ten Commandments were a part of the essential core of what we would now call a Christian Education “curriculum.” 

And just to note that one of the innovations of the first American Prayer Book in 1789 in the Holy Communion service was what we now call the “Summary of the Law”—as we hear at the beginning of the service most Sundays, “on these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” This opening for the service was composed as an alternative for use at simple service—now become the default setting in Rite I services.  What is now in the Episcopal Church the rarely used alternative, beginning on page 317, but in the English Prayer Book tradition it still is the norm, again, and around most of the Anglican world, is to begin every communion service with the full recitation of the 10 Commandments in litany form.  Every Sunday  each commandment to be  read by the presiding minister, beginning with the phrase, “God spake these words, and said.”   And the congregation responding to each Commandment, “Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this Law.”  Some congregations still use this litany at least in Lent.  Still in our Prayer Book, pp. 317-318.  But  my guess is that most people think our Communion Sunday services run a little too long anyway, so I doubt there would be much enthusiasm for using the full form on a regular basis . . . . 

Our Inquirer Class this year is looking at the Sam Wells book, “What Episcopalians Believe.”  We appreciated the humor of the comment on the back cover by Ian Markham, Dean of the Virginia Theological Seminary, who said that this book helps to dispel “the myth that Episcopalians don’t believe anything.”  In that context to say, my main point this morning,  that until about fifteen minutes ago as these things are calculated in ecclesiastical time it would have been absolutely clear to visitors and inquirers and anybody who just happened to peek in at us Anglicans and Episcopalians in worship and in Church School and in Confirmation Classes and even in the architecture and design of nearly all of our churches even to the most accidental tourist or visitor that “what we believe” as Anglicans and Episcopalians, is that these “Ten Commandments” are of critical importance at the foundation of what our faith and identity are all about.  Not just a colorful story for the Sunday School or the Charlton Heston movie.  God’s Word for God’s people, highlighted, underlined twice, worthy to be memorized and inscribed not only on our memories but in our hearts--present day by day with authority and treasured as a precious gift.   

I’m not going to walk through them in detail this morning, which perhaps will be a relief to you.  But it occurs to me that it might be an interesting series of Coffee and Conversation hours.  Ten weeks.  Christians have been trying to figure out just how to apply things like “Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy” and  “thou shalt not kill“ for centuries and generations,  and it might be really something to take a slow walk through some of those conversations.   Not that we all come up with precisely the same understanding of what the commandments actually mean, but to begin with the understanding that they do have specific meaning, and that they are given to us, that they are for us.

“God spake these words.”  Think what it would be like to hear that at the beginning of every service.   That they are in some sense, these 10 Commandments, particularly and intentionally for us, as we hear and receive them,  and as week by week we would pray that our hearts would be inclined to receive them, and not simply conceptually and emotionally, but specifically and effectively.  To “keep” them.  A significant word.  It certainly means “obey,” but I think the resonance is a bit broader.  To hold on to.  To embrace and hold fast.   “Incline our hearts to keep this law.”   That when we would pray on our knees week by week and day by day for forgiveness for “things done and left undone” in the actual shape and behavior of our lives, as we live day by day in our own thoughts and feelings and in our behavior, these Commandments would be not exclusively but with priority the template we would use to evaluate our lives in relationship with God and with one another.  That these Commandments expressed in clear ways the map God desires us and even directs us to be following.  A resource that is precious to us-- to shape not only our talk but also our walk.  Not only with our lips, but in our lives. 

Not to say that being a Christian is about following a bunch of rules, but that these words themselves are derived from what emerges in lives changed by Christ.   They are prescriptive and proscriptive, about what to do and what not to do, but even more deeply they are descriptive.  That our response to the call to follow Christ  will bring about and reveal in us lives shaped in this pattern, a Christ-like pattern.  This is what our encounter with God’s love does to us, what it makes of us.  Transformed lives growing organically from lives transformed though faith in Christ Jesus.  Not that you become a Christian by submitting to this obedience, but that as we are rooted deeper and deeper into Christ,  this is the life that begins to take shape.

The first four commandments describing our relationship of loyalty to and love for the God of the Bible, the God who created the heavens and the earth, who lifted Israel out of bondage in Egypt and who in the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus defeated once and for all the power of the Evil One and opened the Way of Life Eternal.   Then Commandments 5-10 project the character of life aligned to God in Christ.  Each one of them we would note in this Lent is about restraint, about letting God be God, about not falling for the kind of temptations Satan offered Jesus in the Wilderness.  The temptation that stands at the source of all our temptations,  to play God.   To imagine that we are the center of the universe.  To imagine that life and death are ours to determine,  to imagine that our plan for our lives and our relationships and our world have priority over God’s plan, to imagine that our wants and hungers and desires are the point of our lives.

Altogether,  what is shaped here in this passage from Exodus is a life grounded in the Gospel, where God is acknowledged to be God.  Where we are his people and the sheep of his pasture.  Marked, again, by respect, restraint, humility, and care.  Walking in the footsteps of our Savior.   Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and your neighbor as yourself.

Third Sunday in Lent.  And simply to say that from the days of the Apostles Christians have been a challenge to the world not simply because of what we try to say about what we believe to be true, but because of how in our desire to be faithful to that truth  we then seek to live our lives.  Countercultural, in every culture and across 2,000 years.  Putting the love of God into action.  Walking the talk.  Calling us back to the map.  That as we walk in his footsteps in this Lent and in all of our lives we would see before us a sign of God’s own character, and to begin to live here and now the lives he will bring about in his kingdom.

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

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Two Funeral Sermons

February 28, 2015  Burial Office
Geraldine Goessler Egerman
October 26, 1924 – February 20, 2015

Jesus speaks to his disciples in the 14th chapter of St. John:  “Whither I go, ye know, and the way ye know.”  This is the night of the Last Supper, with the whole story of Good Friday and the Cross about to play out for Jesus and for his friends.  Seems right to remind ourselves of this context and setting, as we light the Paschal Candle and dress the church with white Easter paraments, even here in the early weeks of Lent. 

The tension, the contrast, of Lent and Holy Week, the Cross and the Empty Tomb, so deeply in the heart of the Christian story and of our Christian life.  Thinking in this Lent 2015 how much Gerry and St. Andrew’s friends enjoyed visiting around our East End congregations for the schedule of Lenten Dinners and preaching services.  Strong and serious themes of this season, yet with the bright smile and conviviality that were so much a part of how she faced the world day by day.  When she was getting ready to go to the Willows after her surgery a few weeks ago she said one of her goals was to get back home before March 24, when St. Andrew’s would be hosting the dinner and service. 

At church or I suppose at bridge, with family, friends, with her neighbors at the Park Lane.  A day like today and this season, of rich texture and meaning and substance.  She seemed to know everything about style, always composed, in a way that seemed almost effortless, gracious, dignified.  But that bright style on the outside opening to an amazing depth of brilliance within.  Intelligence and wit.  Her ability to detect and to see right through whatever was phony or pretentious or untrue.  A person who had her—well, let’s say “her distinct opinions.”  And utterly undisturbed and uninfluenced by any need to fit in.  She absolutely didn’t mind to say the thing that no one else was saying, to be a party of one. 

Self-contained and self-confident and at home in her own skin.  And so generous and kind, and with such a sharp and penetrating sense of humor.  And so genuine.  And at the same time so tender and affectionate.  One member of our St. Andrew’s congregation wrote to me about how Gerry had always seemed so graceful and elegant.  She said that she reminded her of someone who could “civilize a wild beast and invited it to tea and teach it French.”  And yet, this friend, who is very involved in our children’s ministries here, and with young children, goes on, “I always thought to myself, when I saw her, that I would like to be like her one day when I have slowed down enough to enjoy people instead of running after children or to appointments. Her hair always upswept in a classic chignon, never in so much of a rush that she couldn't talk about the "angels" with affection and pat me on the arm.” 

To know Gerry, was to know someone of such a kind and generous heart.

Which takes us back to Jesus on that night of Holy Thursday.  You know where I’m going, and you know how to get there too.

It is very much for me an honor and a privilege to share this morning in this service for Gerry.  As we are all of us pausing for a moment to reflect on her life.  To share in the sorrow of loss with all of you, Sally and Ralph and all your family and friends.  As we offer together the prayers of the church, not just as we say the words but as we gather the faith and life and witness of the whole Christian family and offer the deepest knowledge and desire of our hearts to almighty God.  As we hear the words of scripture, the psalms, the lessons, the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Jesus is talking to his disciples about something more than what we might call our religious opinions and theories, our interpretations, our theological positions or understandings of various issues and concerns of the day.  Gerry had her opinions about a lot of these things, in the church and in the wide world.  But this isn’t about score keeping or whether any of us or all of us would agree or disagree with any of that.  What Jesus is talking about is a deeper kind of knowing.  The kind of knowing that we talk about when we say that a child knows his mother.  It’s about relationship, connection.  About the word we use in the Church with real meaning and sincerity: about faith.  About being in relationship with God deeply and securely.  “You know where I am going, and how to get there, because you and I are going to the same place, returning to the same home, to that mansion that the Father has prepared for us.”  To hear him again, Jesus, as Cortney has read for us, “I go to prepare a place for you, that where I am, there ye may be also.”

And St. Thomas—who later gets called Doubting Thomas.  But he’s the one who has questions.  And it is because of the question that Jesus then opens the door.  “I am the way, the truth, the life.  No man cometh unto the Father but by me.”  And we are left this morning, as we remember Gerry and lift her up with love and prayers in the midst of so many memories, we are left with this word.  “I am the way.” 

The Funeral Sentences from the ancient prayers of the Church, “In the midst of life we are in death.”  So many people have said “I can’t believe Gerry was 90.  That doesn’t seem possible.”  All her energy and vitality.  I remember really the first time I met her, as she hosted one of the parish dessert meetings to welcome the new rector and his family back in the summer of 1994, and it certainly doesn’t seem to me that she aged a day in the more than 20 years since then.  But a reminder.  Thinking how very fragile we are in this short life.  How precious every day is.  There is a line in the Psalms, “Lord, let me know my end, and the number of my days.”  But of course we never can know. Every day is a gift.  To live that way.

The course of prayers appointed when a person is near death is a reminder of baptism. At the beginning, so importantly, the prayer and assurance of pardon.  Forgiveness.  In her earthly body Gerry may not have been able to hear these words, but in the fullness of the life of the world to come, these words were spoken and heard in the reality of her mind and heart and soul.  “God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Through the holy mysteries of our redemption, may almighty God release you from all punishments in this life and in the life to come.  May he open to you the gates of paradise and welcome you to everlasting joy.”

Now certainly in the sure and certain hope of life in Christ Jesus, what we all have to be about this morning, with the sadness that there is in the separation from a mother and grandmother and great grandmother and aunt-- and friend—what we all have to be about is to learn to live every day of this precious life in the love of God and of one another.

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

Gerry was such a great supporter and cheerleader for music at St. Andrew’s in so many ways over so many years, and as we reflect on our memories and give thanks for her life, we would hear our Organist and Choirmaster Peter Luley present this musical offering as a tribute to her.

March 2, 2015  Burial Office
Melissa Elizabeth Schnap Marsh
October 3,  1953 - February 26, 2015

Again,  grace and peace.  In addition to the words of scripture that we have just heard from Romans 8 and Psalm 23 and John 14, I’d like to add a bit more.   First from Isaiah, in the 55th chapter, verses 6-13:

Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near. 
 Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon. 
 "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," declares the LORD. 
 "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. 
 As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, 
 so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. 
You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands. 
Instead of the thorn bush will grow the pine tree, and instead of briers the myrtle will grow. This will be for the LORD's renown, for an everlasting sign, which will not be destroyed."

And second from the Revelation to St. John, in the 22nd Chapter,  John is given the vision of the New Jerusalem, the City of God:

 “Then he showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.  There shall no more be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and his servants shall worship him; they shall see his face, and his name shall be on their foreheads.  And night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they shall reign for ever and ever.”

There are so many things in my heart and I know in all our hearts about Melissa this afternoon, as we come together to remember her, to give thanks for who she was, as the person God created her to be, to give thanks for what she shared with us.  And to hear in our reflections and especially in the readings of scripture and the great prayers of the church the larger and stronger word of faithful Christian witness—so deeply ingrained in Melissa’s life and important to be proclaimed here.  That neither life nor death nor any power in heaven or on earth or under the earth can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.  That he knows us each by name, and that in him we may with confidence look to a victory over every evil and every wrong and every power of death and the grave—and to life, and eternal life.

I first met Melissa when she came to me to apply to serve as a field education intern, to satisfy the requirements of the Master of Divinity and Social Work joint program at the University of Pittsburh and  the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.   We talked together about her special interest, which of course was deeply grounded in her own life story, about how the companionship of the ones she called “God’s critters” had such meaningful impact in the social and emotional and spiritual life of individuals and families, young and old.   

And out of that insight and interest such a very rich ministry grew here at St. Andrew’s, as Deacon Chess has mentioned already.    So many families blessed through her counsel and prayer at the death of a beloved pet.  Praying and talking with children.  Sitting with elders who had given up beloved friends because of the necessities of nursing care.  Encouraging and assisting some who without her help might not have been able to keep and care for their pets.    And all of it coming together in our annual St. Francis Day service, from which these little songs have come today.  Where the great vision of Isaiah and of John in the Revelation and of Paul in Romans opens a window to a renewed creation in all its fullness and abundance.  Our hope.  What is sometimes called a “creation spirituality,” and a love of God expressed in so much of the stories about St. Francis, about whom Melissa preached several times.  The saint who called the animals his brothers and sisters.  All with the same heavenly Father. 

Jesus says in John, “in my Father’s house are many mansions,” and as I allow that imagery to come to mind this afternoon there is in the center of that great mansion of hope and promise and love a roaring fire in the fireplace, a beloved dog resting quietly in its warmth, and certainly a cat or two along the windowsills.  As Susy reminded me the other day, when Melissa would be asked if these beloved cats and dogs would be there with us in heaven, she would reply, “it wouldn’t be heaven without them.”  As a licensed layreader Melissa was one who could assist and lead non-sacramental services in the Episcopal Church, and of course the St. Francis Day service was the one time each year when that ministry was center-stage. 

So very touching and meaningful to me that she requested to be buried wearing the scarf that is the vestment  of that ministry—the traditional plain tippet in her case ornamented with all the decals of the passengers on Noah’s Ark.  The kids attending the service always loved to see that.

Melissa was a person of compassion and strength, and certainly as M.J. McCarty and Joan Morris and others of you who have worked with her in the Off the Floor Pittsburgh ministry have seen and can testify over many years, and as we see and know in her call and vocation as a social worker and counselor.  A friend, co-worker, fellow parishioner-- a daughter, a sister, a wife, a step-mother.   And with much love to you, Ray, reflecting more than 30 years of marriage--and to you, Richard, her beloved brother.  She was a complicated person of many challenges, some of which she overcame, others of which she went into battle with every day, and one day at a time.  A person of edges and texture,  strength and courage, of vulnerability and fragility.  Serious and at the same time so very funny, with such an authentic, deep smile and laugh.

We all will have our memories.  And this afternoon we would hold those memories together as we remember most of all and simply a saint of God, redeemed by Christ and sustained by faith in him—and inspired by the strong vision of God’s goodness all around even now, as a sign of all the goodness that is to come.  It would be such a gift for her to know that as we remember her today we also would seek in our own lives to catch that same vision, to know God’s love in Christ, and in all the world, and with all God’s “critters.”  All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small.   Indeed, may she rest in peace, may she rise in glory, and may Light Perpetual shine upon her.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Second in Lent

Mark 8: 31-38

Grace and peace this morning, as we move on through the first days of this Lent—Holy Week and Easter still a good distance ahead, and we have miles to go.  In the context of any of our Lenten disciplines, a good word is to pace ourselves.  We’re in it for the long run.

The lectionary has us bouncing all around with Mark’s gospel over these past weeks.  We had several pre-Lenten Sundays in chapter one, the Baptism of Jesus and the beginning of his ministry.  Then two weeks ago, on the Sunday before Lent, we skipped ahead to the ninth chapter, the Transfiguration, the pivot and turning point on the road to Jerusalem.  Last week we boomeranged back to the first chapter for the story of the Temptation in the Wilderness, and now today we skip ahead again, this time to the eighth chapter, a passage that is in some way the prelude to the Transfiguration story, certainly beginning to set the stage for the journey toward Holy Week.

Jesus and his disciples are on the road, preaching healing, casting out evil spirits, with a miraculous feeding of the multitudes--proclaiming by word and action with authority that God’s Kingdom is right now in their presence breaking into this world.  Then they come to Caesarea Philippi, and the famous exchange and moment of focus that we traditionally call the Confession of Peter.  In chapter 8 verse 27 Jesus asks, “what are people saying about me?  Who do they say I am?”  And the disciples respond that some think he’s like John the Baptist back from the dead.  Others think he’s a prophet, like one of those in the ancient days of scripture.  Elijah or Elisha.  Jesus then turns and with a certain intensity puts the disciples themselves on the hot seat:  “well, how about you?  You’ve been with me all this time.  You’ve seen what is happening every day.  You’ve heard me preach.  You’ve gone out yourselves as my emissaries.  Now, what do you have to say about me?  In your opinion, how would you describe what’s going on here.  Knowing what you know, who do you say that I am?”  And of course Peter famously blurts out all at once the critical affirmation: “You are the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One.”  God himself returning to his Temple, as foretold in Scripture.   And Jesus seems to pause and nod.  And then, almost quietly, he tells them not to let this kind of talk get out into public.  It’s not time yet.

Then we come to the passage we’ve read this morning, beginning in verse 31.  Jesus starts to tell Peter and the others just what all this is really going to mean for him and for them.  Unfolding the story.  That the Enthronement of God in his Temple Israel was not to be without the greatest cost.  The greatest cost.  The hammer and nails of Good Friday echo in a real and frightening way in the distance.  And we hear Peter’s objection: Don’t talk like that, Jesus!  And Jesus in his reply.  “Get behind me.” 

On the first Sunday in Lent last week we were in the Wilderness with Jesus, and here his power and clarity of purpose in the context of Temptation comes forward once again.   We remember essentially the same words from the account of the Temptations in Matthew and Luke.  “Get behind me, Satan.”  And perhaps we feel in this moment a hint of foreshadowing of the turmoil that would burst to the surface in Mark 14, on Gethsemane in the night before Good Friday, as Jesus himself would begin to pray, “Let this cup pass from me,” but then, “Not my will, but thine.”  Jesus needs them to know that there is no “Plan B.”  No easy way out, once they get in.

And then the second part of this reading.  Jesus steps back from the private conversation with his friends to address the crowd.  “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”  Jesus told the disciples to be silent about this, but now he himself declares his destiny to the crowd.  “If you would follow me, you’ll need to pick up a cross of your own, and come along and die with me.”  Here not simply a metaphor. Not like saying “we all have our own crosses to bear.”  This is literal, not metaphoric.   The crowds must know more or less what lies ahead for Jesus.  They had seen it all with John the Baptist, of course.  What happens when your path crosses the way of the Romans and their collaborators.  We perhaps hear the echo of the Prayer of St. Francis, “It is in giving that we receive, in pardoning that we are pardoned, in dying that we are born to eternal life.” 

Applications here for us as individuals, as a church—and for the whole Christian family.  I referenced a couple of weeks ago the famous quotation from the C.S. Lewis “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”—the character Mr. Beaver speaking about Aslan, the great Lion, when one of the children asks, “is he a tame?”  No, not tame.  “Good, but not tame.”  Just to think about how often in our own personal lives and in our church we seem to prefer the tame to the good.

So let me in the context share a few sentences from Deitrich Bonhoeffer’s famous book, The Cost of Discipleship.  I remember reading this when I was in college and something of a new Christian or at least new in my sense of myself as a Christian—and just what a strong impact they made on me.  Especially as I thought about Bonhoeffer’s biography.  Famous young theologian, comfortably situated in a professorship in the United States, then choosing to go back into Germany just as war was beginning in Europe to risk his life in service of the underground church.  An image something like the picture of firefighters running into a burning skyscraper while everybody else is streaming out.  Finally of course his death in the concentration camp in the very last days of the war, on account of his support of a failed plot to assassinate Hitler. 

“Cheap grace,” Bonhoeffer says, “is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.  Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: "ye were bought at a price," and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.” 

Follow Jesus into Jerusalem, and the odds are that when he is arrested you will be arrested, and that when he dies you will die.  I can’t help but think of the cost exacted from those Coptic Christians in Libya and then the villages of Assyrian Christians in Northern Iraq as they fell into the hands of the Islamic State group.  I haven’t been able to bring myself to see any of videos, but I understand that for a number of them it was the name of Jesus that they shouted out as they were murdered.  Like a time machine back to the first century and the martyrs of Rome.

In any event it makes me think about my little Lenten disciplines in a different way.  What I would call “modest austerities.”  Or about all the little moments, places where I’ve cut corners, chosen the easy way rather than the way the seems most in his direction.  Swimming in the shallow end of the pool.  Walking the way of Jesus, but somehow missing some of the steeper parts of the path.  In the book we’ve been reading for our Inquirers Class this spring Rowan Williams talks about how we might understand our own baptism as an immersion into Christ’s death that connects us to and immerses us forever in the pain and suffering and sorrow of our neighbors.

How that applies to each of us is of course something we need to sort through for ourselves.  But the invitation in the reading is certainly here to suggest that if we’re going to have that conversation with ourselves, perhaps this Lent is exactly the time to do so.     This reversal.  That his way of suffering becomes the way of life for us and for the world.  “It is in giving that we receive, in forgiving that we are forgiven, in dying that we are born to eternal life.”