Sunday, May 31, 2015


Grace and peace to you, and good morning.  Trinity Sunday—something of a transitional place on the church calendar—hints of Easter and Pentecost hovering still in the rearview mirror, but then turning ahead to what is sometimes called the long “green season” of “ordinary time” through the summer to come.  We won’t have the festive white paraments out again on a Sunday morning until the first of November, All Saints Sunday—which will also be the day we turn the clocks back to standard time! 

There is a long-standing joke about assigning the sermon on Trinity Sunday to a seminarian, with the rector to sit off to the side keeping score, to chart just how many of the classic third and fourth century heresies are inadvertently promoted as the preacher seeks to communicate this ancient and foundational doctrine, that God is one Being made up of three distinct Persons who exist in co-equal essence and co-eternal perfect communion, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Three-leaf clovers don’t cut it, nor do analogies like ice, water, and steam, and don’t even begin to try diagrams with triangles spinning inside of circles--and on and on.   There are in fact some wonderful sermons, lectures, and books and essays on the doctrine of the Trinity, ancient and modern, and it is I think important to pause at least for a moment on this Sunday to acknowledge the power of this model, this theological “lens,” as a way of seeing and understanding the fundamental proclamation of our faith: that God in Christ without differentiation or distinction was reconciling the world to himself.  Making it possible for us to come into relationship with him, the perfect source of grace and mercy and love.   There’s the letter of St. Athanasius to Serapion, back in the first years of the fourth century.   In the twelfth century a wonderful series of sermons by St. Bernard of Clairvaux on the Song of Solomon.  And just a couple of years ago I recall our own Dean Byrom preached a very fine Trinity Sunday sermon.  For many of us perhaps the version of the great theological poem, the Lorica, sometimes called the “Breastplate of St. Patrick,” certainly a powerful expression, perhaps something like the “national anthem” or alma mater for the great family of the doctrinally orthodox Christian family across continents and generations.  I bind unto myself today the strong name of the Trinity.

So what I want to say about Trinity Sunday, that this is a day that is first about Christology and Pneumatology, the Son and the Spirit in the fullness of the Father,  but finally and in triumphant conclusion it is about Doxology.

First Christology.  The theological discipline of thought in which we discuss the nature of Christ and his work.  Who was this Jesus, anyway, and what are we to make of what he said and did?  What the doctrine of the Trinity helps us to see and know about Jesus. Thus the wisdom of the compilers of our Sunday morning lectionary, to give us this morning the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus in John 3, the memory verse and summation of the gospel so pervasively cited that we sometimes see enthusiastic Christians lift up signs at basketball games.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”   To understand that “sending” not as a delegation of a servant to do his master’s bidding, but as a self-offering.  God in his essence and in his fullness, born of a woman, laid in the Manger,  broken on the Cross.  For us and for our salvation, our healing and our reconciliation. 

And Pneumatology  The theological discipline of thought in which we discuss the nature of the Holy Spirit in the life of God.  To note that this is a different way of talking about the Spirit than when we sometimes hear and talk about “spirituality.”  When people say they are “spiritual, but not religious.”  The Spirit as we speak of the Holy Spirit on Trinity Sunday is to address God’s continuing gift of himself to and for his Church, his continuing presence, as Jesus spoke to his friends, “I will not leave you Comfortless, but I will send you the Holy Spirit,” and at the end of Matthew’s gospel, “Lo, I am with you always.”  God in his essence and in his fullness, speaking to us and revealing himself to us in and through the Scriptures, and as we pray in the Name of Jesus, and as we offer ourselves as his hands in loving service. 

So finally, where we are together here this morning,  Trinity Sunday and doxology.  The Greek meaning a “word of praise.”  All worship.  In God’s presence.  The call to worship, “Sursum corda!”  Lift up your hearts.  Thinking of that great Trinitarian doxology we sing pretty much every Sunday morning at the presentation of the gifts.  Praise God, from whom all blessings flow.  And the fantastic and stunning and even terrifying language of Psalm 29, appointed in the lectionary for this morning.  “The voice of the LORD makes the oak trees writhe and strips the forests bare.  And in the Temple of the Lord, all are crying, “Glory!”

The psalmist calls us to worship the Lord “in the beauty of holiness.”  Not the “holiness of beauty,” which would be to talk about what we make and do, but in the beauty of who he is.  Above and beyond all our scales and standards, whose breath moves galaxies.  Source of all light, in his own perfection.    To get that tough message somehow into our heads, to comprehend what is so strange and unthinkable in the container of our ego, and how we understand ourselves.  That this is not about us.  About the hardest concept ever to get our minds around.  Almost an impossible idea, since we seem born with the notion that we are the center of the universe.  But the message of this Sunday: It is not about celebrating who we are and what we do.  If a friend asks, “why do you go to church?” and our reply begins “because I,” that’s a warning light on the dash.  “Because he.”  God in three persons, blessed Trinity.  It’s all about him, first and last.  Trinity Sunday.  Father, Son, and Spirit.  High and lifted up.

One of my favorite movies, quite a few years ago now, Robert Duvall as “The Apostle,” the story of this profoundly broken and imperfect preacher and evangelist who has everything stripped away from him and gets himself into all kinds of trouble--yet who somehow manages to hold on to a vision and a certainty of the glory of God.  Constantly muttering that one word.  “Glory.  Glory.  Glory.”  And it is through that one word, “glory,” that we begin to see God’s redeeming work.

“The Lord sits enthroned above the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as King for evermore.  The Lord shall give strength to his people; the Lord shall give his people the blessing of peace.”

Trinity Sunday a day to open ourselves in mind and heart to the magnificence of God, the glory of God, who is real--who found us when we were lost, who healed us when we were broken, who is present with us in Word and Sacrament, who offers even now, and right now, forgiveness for every evil thought and intention and action of our past, who reaches out to bring us safely home. 

An old friend of mine used to say that at least once a year every Assembly of God Pentecostal ought to take a Sunday to visit the local Episcopal Church, to touch base I guess you would say with the power and depth and meaning of sacramental worship—and that at least once a year each of us in the honored tribe of introverted and restrained Book of Common Prayer Episcopalians ought to give ourselves up to an hour or two of hand-clapping, arm-waving, halleluiah-shouting abandon of praise in return.  Or maybe in all the denseness of our liturgical vocabularies and our aesthetic ceremonial, to sit in the plain simplicity of a circle of Christian Friends at a Quaker meeting, attending to the movement of the Spirit, and to meet Jesus in silence.  To shift our frame of reference, anyway.   To get ourselves away from that odd question, “what sort of worship do you prefer?”  As if coming into his presence was something like deciding which box of cereal to choose at the grocery store . . . . 

An old definition of art is that it is a process to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange.  Perhaps that should happen in our worship as well, to explore the far reaches of doxology.

I’m not prescribing the necessity of an actual Sunday morning exchange, mind you.  Some may find the idea helpful, others not so much.   But simply to say that this is about our frame of reference—about how in our hearts and minds on this day of the Holy Trinity we are called to lift our eyes and our minds and our hearts to take in the glory of God in the absolute and radiant splendor of his magnificent complexity—and of his profound simplicity.  To come into his presence with thanksgiving, to show ourselves glad in him, to give thanks unto his Name.    To allow ourselves in this instant to be lifted out of our “comfort zones” and into the light of his countenance.

So the old hymn.   Trinity Sunday.  God himself is with us, let us now adore him, and with awe appear before him.  God is in his temple, all within keep silence,  prostrate lie with deepest reverence.  Him alone, God we own, him our God and Savior.  Praise his name for ever.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Day of Pentecost: Whitsunday

Acts 2

Hail, Festival Day!  And grace and peace  this holiday weekend of Memorial Day, of course, and on the church calendar the Eighth and last Sunday in the long reach of Easter.  Whitsunday: Pentecost.  Balloons and bright red paraments and Sunday School cakes to celebrate the Birthday of the Church, great choir anthems, organ fanfares and liturgical alleluias. 

Ten days after the first Passover and God’s Chosen People, the descendants of Jacob, have been lifted from their bondage in Egypt, and saved through the parted waters of the Red Sea, and delivered by God’s mighty hand to the base of Mount Sinai.  And then Moses begins his steep ascent skyward, up the mountain and into the clouds, in deep and personal communion with the Almighty.  And 40 Days later he returns—cradled in his arms the great Tablets of the Law, God’s word for God’s people.

Fifty Days from Passover, this long gestation and pilgrimage, and then Pentecost!  In Hebrew, Shavuot.  The spring festival to be kept from that day forward, the giving of God’s Word Written, his very breath the finger that carved the text of the holy Covenant.   Torah. 

The sign of this promise, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.”  The poetic association as well of the spring planting season.  As the farmer plants seed in the earth, to bring an abundant harvest, so God plants his word in the hearts of his people.  To bring forth new life in him.

And it was on Shavuot, as here in this second chapter of the Book of Acts—on Shavuot, on the Festival Day of Pentecost, that the friends of Jesus are gathered in one place, in that Upper Room that we have come to know so well, from Maundy Thursday and all the way through the life of this Easter season.   Leaning forward in anticipation after the amazing experience of the Mount of the Ascension, has they had been instructed, to see what will come next.  

And then the promise of Jesus, that he would come to them in a new and fresh way is fulfilled, like a rush of wind, filling the room with electricity, bright flames, energy.  Lo, I am with you always.  The Holy Spirit will come upon you.  Comforter and Advocate, Companion and Guide.  Very God of very God.

Balloons and bright red paraments and Sunday School cakes, great choir anthems, organ fanfares and Easter alleluias.  That all seems just right.  The Lord and Giver of life.  Who proceedeth from the Father and the Son.  With the Father and Son together, worshiped and glorified.  Who spake by the Prophets.

I was sorry to miss church at St. Andrew’s last Sunday—though Susy and I were glad that our Bed and Breakfast was right around the corner from St. Stephen’s Church, in Westborough, Massachusetts.   We were able to walk over in the morning and share in a wonderful service there for the Sunday after The Ascension before heading out into the afternoon of our Linnea’s graduation from the Tufts Vet School.

But Phil and Garrett were both kind enough to share their sermons from Sunday—Phil in the morning, Garrett at Evensong—so that I could post them on my Rector’s Page sermon blog.  And just so very meaningful  to read both of them. 

Phil reaching into the word of Jesus and his promise of the Holy Spirit at the Mount of the Ascension, and to say that even as that word was spoken it was already fulfilled in the precious word of Scripture itself.  As we confess in the Creed, “He has spoken through the Prophets.”  A reminder that the Spirit lives in us and among us in every syllable of God’s Word, every fragment of Sunday School memory verse, every Biblical echo of Prayer Book liturgy.  A reminder that the reader who stands at the Lectern to read God’s Word to God’s People is in the same place as the minister of the Holy Communion, in the administration of bread and cup.

 A reminder that as we eat and drink and commune in the fullness of his presence in his written Word, so our lives our nourished and our minds and our hearts are changed and renewed.   Phil quoted Archbishop Cranmer’s great Collect for the Second Sunday of Advent, as we now have it in the last set of Propers right before the beginning of Advent.  This classic Anglican meditation on the truth of Scripture as God’s Incarnate presence.  Of these Holy Scriptures, “Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them.”  --Inwardly digest.  So that as the saying goes, “you are what you eat.”  We become what we hear, as we hear him speak, take in his Word.

And Garrett’s very fine sermon at Evensong last Sunday, moving also from the Mount of the Ascension to the affirmation of the Creed, “He is seated at the right hand of the Father.”   That in the Ascension, the truth that Jesus doesn’t so much leave his disciples as he does lift them up with him in anticipation of God’s Kingdom and the fullness of his glory.  This vision that Garrett called “radical.”  Transformational.

Two Mountains, one at the beginning of the Story, in  Exodus, and one at the end of the Story, in Acts.  Torah and Ascension, Word and Spirit.  Shavuot and Pentecost.  All one story.  Creation and New Creation.  God in action.  

And as I’ve shared in my recurring reflections on “Acts 29,” not a story that ends long ago and far away.  Our story.  To us and for us and about us.  I think when I saw that magazine, Acts 29, in the library of St. Mark’s Berkeley all those decades ago, and in the moment a few hours later when the significance of that title popped like a lightbulb, there was this moment when the ground for me just seemed to shift a little bit.  I wasn’t “slain in the Spirit” and singing in tongues—and I didn’t rush out into the street like Peter and the others to shout the news.  As Garrett pointed out correctly last Saturday: we are, after all Episcopalians.  I say that I’m descended from a long line of Introverted Northern European Males, and that is something of the DNA that so often characterizes our Anglican inheritance.  A sense of decorum and restrain and understatement.

But if there’s a day to whoop and holler, to see our own names written in the pages of Acts 29, to rush out into the highways and byways, like those first Christians, our mothers and fathers, all of us with them to babble and sing, to tell the story of Jesus, to declare the great things God has done,  it is today, Whitsunday, Pentecost, Shavuot. 

Quietly, reasonably, and with restraint, of course.  Rite I, plainsong . . . .

The Child’s name was to be called Emmanuel, God with us, and the whole reality of his story returns again and again to that name, from the Manger to the Cross, from last December to this morning,  from the Empty Tomb to the Garden to the Upper Room and to the Mountaintop, and  now that name opens for us and settles in with us.  Look at that wonderful  Clara Miller Burd Ascension Window here in this North Transept as hours go by and days and year after year, and nothing changes, because he is lifted up,  but he doesn't really anywhere.  On high, at the right hand of the Father.  Yet truly here with us.  At the Lectern and on the Holy Table, on our lips and in our hearts.  Flowing outward from us, in word and action: the love of God, in Jesus Christ our Lord.  Whitsunday, Pentecost.

The to hear in our minds and hearts, our imaginations, all our lives, the prayer of the old Pentecost hymn: Breathe on me, Breath of God, till I am wholly thine, till all this earthly part of me glows with thy fire divine.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Seventh Easter Sunday: After The Ascension

Sermon at Evensong, by C. Garrett Yates, Seminarian

It’s so wonderful to be here this evening, and share this beautiful service with you all. I want to think a little bit with you about the Ascension – for we are in the part of the year where confess and pray that Jesus’s cosmic reign has begun. Jesus is not just resurrected, he didn’t just head to heaven and join the ranks of the celestial company. He ascended. And we are told he sits at the right hand of the Father, ruling and reigning until he comes again in glory. 

Well I don’t know about you, but some of this language is a bit abstract. This is all very hard to conceptualize. And for some of us, even harder to believe. Is this what it means to be a Christian, to believe in things like this, to know these facts about the world? I do think the doctrine of the Ascension is one of the harder doctrines, but not necessarily because of its metaphysical claims. I think the Ascension is a hard doctrine because of the claims it makes upon us – it is not making claims on our reason, so much as on our lives.

You may remember one of the earliest experiences of the Ascension. It’s the story of the first martyr Stephen. As you may remember, Stephen is killed because of his association with the Jesus movement. Stephen was one of those people whose life was shot through with God’s grace. And Acts tells us that he radiated a tremendous spiritual presence, and his wisdom and insightfulness were utterly contagious to the early Christian community. Stephen believed that Jesus changed everything. Well, as you may have guessed, this Jesus message landed Stephen in a lot of trouble. He was arrested and charged for sedition. Even on trial, the author of Acts tells us that everyone present “saw that his face was radiant, just like an angel’s.” And with just a few minutes left on death row, Stephen gives one of the best sermons ever preached. All about God’s unconditional mercy and kindness in Jesus. But his hearers, sensibly enough, found this message threatening. And so, following the customs of Jewish law for punishing terrible offenders, they picked up their rocks to stone him. But before the first rock strikes his body, Stephen lifts his eyes to heaven and there he sees Jesus. And a few seconds later, literally as he is going down, he draws strength from the ascended Jesus and speaks a word of forgiveness over his torturers.

A word of forgiveness over his torturers.

The ascension of Jesus was reality for Stephen. It was not something Stephen argued about among religious folks, nor did he believe it because, well, that’s just what you believe. Stephen drew energy and life from the Ascension. The Ascended One, who went straight into the heart of darkness himself, empowered Stephen to stare the god-forsakenness of the world right in the eye. And to look at it, not in anger, but in outpouring gestures of love and forgiveness. Stephen lived and died the Ascension of Jesus.

But here we are, living in 21st century America. And lucky for us, dying for our faith isn’t something faced by most of us living on the east end of Pittsburgh. We go about our days and yes we may suffer some discomforts, but it is my hunch that may have very little to do with our faith. The “world”, whatever that is, seems quite alright with us being Christians. And honestly, as I have been writing this sermon, I am not sure how I feel about that. I can’t make up my mind – has the world become a better place or have Christians lost some of their punch? Because, if I am honest with you, as I read Jesus, I encounter a radical. I encounter someone whose passion for love and mercy and justice unsettled some folks. People thought he was off his rocker. They thought he had a demon.

Now, before you think I have gone off the deep end. Let me assure you, I am Episcopalian to the core. Fanatics of any kind make me nervous. I like poetry better than football, and anything less than high Anglican worship makes me think that we’ve cheapened our spiritual offering to God. I am Episcopalian. But as I read the story of Stephen, and how he lived the Ascension, I cannot help but miss the radical beauty of his gospel. The ways in which his life was soaked through with grace. The ways in which his love for Jesus challenged the world. Really upset people; not because he was divisive or argumentative, but because he was aflame with God’s love. They probably thought that he too had a demon. 

So what might living the Ascension look like for us? Let me turn to one of my favorite poets, and one of the great Anglican imaginations of the 20th century, W.H. Auden. His poem “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” captures to my mind what living the Ascension means. And although he is talking about Yeats and other poets, it might not be bad to think of us Christians as poets in our own particular ways – but that’s another sermon. Here’s the last few stanzas: Follow, poet, follow right/To the bottom of the night/With your unconstraining voice/Still persuade us to rejoice/ With the farming of a verse/Make a vineyard of the curse/Sing of human unsuccess/In a rapture of distress/ In the deserts of the heart/Let the healing fountain start/In the prison of his days/Teach the free man how to praise.

That’s got to be something of what living the Ascension means. Learning how to go into the inextinguishable pain of the world, and therein finding the words of praise. Going into the shadowy corners of earth’s night, and learning to see the light of Christ burning there. Or maybe we could say this: Christians are people who persuade others, while they persuade themselves, to rejoice. Whatever this rejoicing may look like, Auden suggests that it is a journey into some amount of darkness.

Maybe your journey is more interior, say you practice centering prayer. Maybe you journey out onto the dark and frightening territories of your own inner life, and you stay there (in the deserts of the heart) anchored as best as you can with a spiritual word. Or maybe you address the darkness in more outward forms: you go to a homeless shelter, and you find the beauty and dignity of Jesus there among people whom the world has written off as dirty and unclean. And it may not be as big and noticeable as either of these: maybe you are swallowed up in existential boredom and numbness, and the journey into the darkness for you is nothing more than allowing yourself to be loved. I cannot say what it means for you to live the Ascension.

But I can say that living the victory of Jesus frees us up to be vulnerable, and to meet others in their vulnerability. Jesus is alive, and your life is hidden with him, therefore take risks. For not even death can separate you from his boundless love. And so we should, as best as we know how, allow ourselves to relax our desperate control grips. It’s safe; as long as he lives, as long as his love and mercy reign, we are safe. Just as he was there with Stephen in the moments of greatest peril, so he’s there with you and me.

Please hear me. I am not telling you to leave here and go be a Jesus radical – whatever that means. But I am saying this: if we can manage to look to him, and slowly acclimatize to his security and hope, I suspect that our lives will be freed up in new ways for radical love. And as we do this, as we go from here and live the Ascension, we may just find that we radiate with the same love that carried Stephen through to the end.  

Seventh Easter Sunday: After The Ascension

Sermon Sunday Morning, at the Holy Communion
by the Rev. Dr. Philip Wainwright, Priest Associate
Acts 1: 15-17, 21-26

'Send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us', we prayed in the collect at the beginning of the service; and God's reply can only be, 'Guess what--I already have. It's yours any time you want.' I say this because I've recently been thinking about Paul's words in Acts 20.32: I commit you to God and to the word of His grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. God’s word, which can build us up---strengthen us---and sanctify us, make us holy.

Those words are said by Paul to the leaders of the parish of Ephesus, and they are said when he has to leave them. He is reminding them of the resource they will still have, even though they will no longer have him. That resource is God’s word, and Paul suggests that it’s the next best thing to having a real live apostle preaching in the church every Sunday. God’s word builds us up, strengthens us, and gives us a share in what the Prayer Book calls the inheritance of the saints, an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. God’s word is the key to salvation, and the key to growing stronger in faith once we are part of the saved community. 

Paul is saying this to the church in Ephesus, but there’s no way it can be true for them but not for the church in the USA, the church in Pittsburgh, and the church in Highland Park. If it’s true for anyone, it’s true for everyone. And the Episcopal Church endorses this every time it uses the prayer on p 236 of the Prayer Book: ‘Blessed Lord, Who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which You have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.’ Scripture teaches us what we need to know, and leads us to everlasting life, to the inheritance of the saints.

That the Scriptures were written for our learning is a direct quote from the Bible, I Corinthians 10.11. The Bible was given to us so that we could know things we don’t know, and acquire abilities we don’t have. It’s good to use it, because not knowing things can be dangerous. If you don’t know anything about electricity, you might not believe it if someone were to say to you, don’t touch that cable over there, you’ll die if you do. But if that cable has 100,000 volts of electricity running through it, and you touch it, it can kill you. Not knowing about that can be very dangerous. That’s why we put warning signs around dangerous things, for our learning. In case someone doesn’t know, we put up the warning sign—danger, don’t touch.

Not knowing other things is not dangerous, but just such a pity, because they are such wonderful things to know. There are so many great things you can never know about, never enjoy, if someone doesn’t teach you. My favorite example of this is rhubarb. If you’ve ever seen rhubarb growing, you know that it doesn’t look very interesting or appetising. And if you’d never learned about it, and decided to check it out for yourself, you’d have an awful time. To start with, the leaves are poisonous, so if you tried them you’d never even get to the stalks. But if on a whim you decided to take a bite of the stalk, you’d still spit it out in a second because it tastes so awful, and you’d probably never believe any one who told you that if you combine it with something sweet, you discover one of the most delicious flavors in the world. You can just dip the end of the stalk in sugar and suck it like a lollipop, and you’d never believe it was the same plant. And if you pour hot syrup over diced rhubarb and let them soak it up, and serve it with ice-cream or custard—oh man, there’s nothing better! But if no one teaches you how to eat it, you’ll never know how good it is. There are lots of things in life like rhubarb; they look like things you don’t want anything to do with, but once you understand how to use them, you’d never want to be without them. Until you treat Scripture as something written for your learning, you just don’t know how wonderful life can be.

God caused Holy Scripture to be written for both those kinds of learning, learning that warns us away, and learning that guides us to. Some things are really dangerous; not dangerous physically, like electricity can be, but dangerous spiritually. And God caused Scripture to be written so that we would learn about those things, and avoid them. Some things turn out to be wonderful, spiritually, even if they don’t seem wonderful when we first come across them or hear about them, and God caused Scripture to be written about those things, too, so that we would learn about them, and add them to our lives. That life goes better when we follow Jesus, for instance, is one of those. Most people think that their lives go best when they do what seems good to them. But the Bible says There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death. We would never know that life goes better for those who follow Jesus if God hadn’t caused it to be written down, written for our learning.

And God has so many more great things for us to learn. I’ve been a Christian for forty years, and I’m still learning wonderful things to do, and dangerous things to avoid, and I’ve known people who have been Christians even longer than that who tell me the same thing. But the Bible doesn’t do us a bit of good if we don’t read it, or at least listen carefully while someone else reads it. And hearing it, or reading it, doesn’t do us a bit of good if we don’t think seriously about what it says. Remember the Prayer Book formula: we are to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest God’s word. The word mark means to pay attention, as in ‘mark my words’—pay attention, get the message! Scripture is not just ‘holy words’, Scripture is information that makes a difference when we pay attention to it, and only when we pay attention to it.

One of my mentors in the faith, now with the Lord, wrote this not long before he died after a long battle with cancer: ‘The Bible speaks to me with ever greater authority and relevance. Each day as I open it, God speaks straight into my heart by his Word. And it tells me of what lies beyond this life. I can see the end of life. It looms over the horizon, and I am encouraged to think it will not now be long before I am there.’ It’s the Bible that gives us a faith that can turn something bitter into something not just sweet but eternally good. And only God’s word does it—even the best sermons don’t do that. Good sermons only point you to the Bible. You still have to open it and apply it to yourself. When you do, your life starts to grow in ways you’d never guess.

We can all deal with the bitter things in life by adding the sweetness of God’s word. A parishioner at the 9 am service gave me the perfect closing point after the service, when she said that the next time she came across a passage that was difficult, she would remember the rhubarb, and pray that God would sweeten the passage for her. When you come to a passage that seems difficult to understand or that says something you don’t want to hear, remember the rhubarb, and ask God to show you the sweetness. We can all go easily to the source of salvation and growth faith, by simply opening our Bibles and reading them, and remembering that the words we read are God’s words to us personally.

No wonder Paul said what he did to his church when he was called away: Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. May we also be built up by it, and given our share of the inheritance of the saints, through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Fifth Easter

Acts 8: 26-40
Baptism of Grayson Scott Frankle

Blessings on this Fifth Easter Sunday—of course with more emphasis to give the day it’s unofficial name, “St. Marathon Sunday,” as we of Pittsburgh and here in Highland Park host this significant event.  Great for our city and region in many ways, but of course jumbling things up for us also in many ways.   To express congratulations to the small but dedicated band who have made their way here through traffic and barricades to worship as we hear God’s word and worship and nicely on this day celebrate Grayson Frankle’s baptism.  

The Collect for Five Easter seems appropriate for the day of a great road race.  We’ve been looking at maps of the 26.2 mile course, and in the Collect the phrase from John 14 about the map that is of central importance for us as we run the “race” of Christian life, as Jesus tells his friends, “I am the Way, the Truth, the Life.”    --“That we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal life.”

Makes sense also on this day of an Easter Season baptism:  Grayson brought forward by his parents and brothers and godparents and extended family, as they especially and we all with him spiritually and for him, on his behalf, renew our faith, declare with clarity that we turn from the enemy and turn to Christ, committing ourselves to run the course of our life with him and for him.

The reading from Acts of course perfect for this, for an Easter Sunday of baptism: Philip and the Ethiopian Official.  It is a fascinating story.  We notice first of all that this isn’t an accidental encounter.  Philip isn’t just out for a stroll.  God calls him and directs him to this particular place.  And Philip doesn’t delay.  In the world of Easter and Pentecost the friends of Jesus, those who at the Ascension were commissioned to go into all the world to make disciples, they are waiting eagerly for the word of the Lord, listening carefully, “sitting by the phone,” and when the call comes, Philip is off like a shot, even though he doesn’t know what he is going to find when he gets there.

Then the Ethiopian.  We don’t know too much.  A eunuch, which was a condition required in many places of the ancient world, usually from childhood, for those who were being prepared for service in the royal household.  Perhaps departing Jerusalem now after some diplomatic consultation about trade, since he seems to be something like the Chairman of the Federal Reserve.  Secretary of the Treasury perhaps.  An intellectual, he’s reading the Jewish Scriptures, perhaps in Hebrew, or more likely in the Septuagint Greek translation that was common in the First Century.  A man of curiosity, seeking to know something of the culture of the people of this place.  And as he reads the ancient prophets, questions begin to arise in his mind, in his heart.   Perhaps a spiritual stirring, a sense of God’s presence and power.

Then Philip pops up onto the scene, the Ethiopian invites him to sit down, and the conversation turns to the scriptures.  Philip replies with a proclamation of the gospel, to show the fulfillment of the Prophet’s words in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and I’m sure to tell of the story of Pentecost and everything that has happened since.  And what an amazing story of conversion and transformation and renewal, as  the Holy Spirit fans the fire of faith in the Ethiopian Official.  All at once.  “Stop the cart.  There is a stream over there.  What is to prevent me from being baptized right now?”  This flash of urgency and insight, metanoia, “repentence,” which is to say a new consciousness, a new mind, a new heart.  Here in Acts once again, a part of the larger story, the gospel spreading in wider and wider circles.  The flaming tongues of Pentecost Sunday now spreading like wildfire. 

And when this work is done, the Spirit has Philip move along.  The work accomplished.  The caravan continuing south, the gospel message flying in the wind.  Interesting to note that today two thousand years later the ancient Orthodox Churches of Ethiopia mark this encounter on the road as their apostolic birthplace and foundation.  For 2,000 years a rich center of our global Christian family.  And the final lines of this story, Philip led on to Azotus and Caesarea next, new missionary fields, continuing to spread the gospel in all the towns along his way.

Again, what a great story for Grayson’s baptismal day!  For us to remember, all of us, in the Easter season, as we are in a larger sense living all our lives from beginning to end in Easter season, in the light of the Resurrection and  the Pentecostal power of Holy Spirit.  One way or another each and every one of us of the Christian family today looking back to this moment of witness and proclamation, or to a moment just like it, and to our inheritance generation by generation of faithful communication.  Listening now to hear how God may be calling us.  To what desert road, to what coffee shop, to what brief encounter at the water cooler.  Listening for the question, finding an opportunity in our own way, our own words, to open the Scriptures and to show Christ at the center, God’s love in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and then to trust that in his own time and in his own way God will bless and sanctify that witness—often in ways that we won’t see ourselves.  As Philip himself never knows what happens as the official, still wet with the water of his baptism, makes his way home.  Trusting in the Spirit.

I mentioned a few weeks ago that some folks who write about the Bible have suggested over the years that the name of this book would be better, not “The Acts of the Apostles,” but “The Acts of the Holy Spirit.”  Though of course in a deeper sense it’s all one.  Christ and his Church.  Christ in his Church.  Christ through his Church, making his presence known to the ends of the earth.

At the time of the baptismal anointing, where we will come in just a moment,  I like to quote Samuel  as he anointed young David the Son of Jesse to be the future King of Israel, to reign in Jerusalem and establish the royal line that would reach its completion and highest point in the stable in Bethlehem.  “Young Man, God has a great plan for your life.”  True for Grayson this morning, and true for each one of us.  That as we go forth into Marathon Sunday and all of our lives we too would be leaning forward, preparing ourselves, ready to hear the One who will call us and send us too, Grayson and every one of us, like Philip, like the Ethiopian as he heads toward his home country with a new story to tell, a new life to live--and again and again and again.  It is a great story to be a part of, Acts of the Holy Spirit, and remembering that this morning with much joy.