Sunday, December 25, 2016

Christmas Morning

Christmas Morning  Luke 2: 1-20
Good morning and grace and peace to you.  

The sun comes up and the shepherds have made their visit and then returned to their flocks.  The village and home that seemed so calm and serene just a few hours before, with soft echoes of “silent night, holy night,” now waking up and beginning all the bustle of another work day.   People out in the street, workers heading out into the fields.  Washing, cleaning, cooking, feeding the animals.  Another day.   I imagine Joseph’s Bethlehem family must be fussing about the new born baby now, the women gathering around to tend to him and to assist his mother as she recovers from her delivery.  And there’s a lot of food to prepare—the first Christmas Dinner!  In those days I guess they probably didn’t hand out cigars, but I’m sure Joseph and some of the men will be laughing together, clapping on the shoulders.  Congratulations!  A son!

For me, this is where my favorite Bible verse comes in Luke’s telling of the story of the birth of Jesus. After the long night.  The exhausting last leg of the journey from Mary’s hometown in Nazareth to Joseph’s home in Bethlehem, the late arrival, settling in not in the place where guests would usually be received, but in the place where the animals are brought in for the night.  Then labor and delivery.   I hope Joseph was able to be at least a little helpful .  Boil some water, collect some clean sheets.   Perhaps a doula from the neighborhood was able to be found at that hour to help, or maybe some of the women in the extended family.  Luke doesn’t tell us.   In any event, the child is born.  Swaddled in a blanket.  Set in the straw of the manger.  And then the shepherds, and their story about the choirs of angels.  What an amazing, exhausting, overwhelming night!

And then Mary.  As morning comes, the new day dawns.  Trying to get a little rest after all that.  You ladies who have given birth even in less challenging environments can testify to what this first morning would be like for her.  We must imagine all in her thoughts then,  her memories.  The encounter with Gabriel back at her home in Nazareth, his angelic presence, the divine message of her election, the sudden movement of her heart in faith and love as she gave the word.  Fiat.  Let it be.  And then her visit to her cousin Elizabeth in the hill country.  The stirring of Elizabeth’s child, leaping in her womb!  Elizabeth’s words, full of the Holy Spirit.   “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

So, Luke 2:19: But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.

It is a lot to think about, a lot to ponder.  For Mary, and for us.  To remember the story again and again.  To let it roll around in our minds and our hearts also.

As I say to the kids every year after our Children’s Pageant, this is the most familiar story in the world.  We know it by heart.  And yet every year, at every telling of the story, when we really listen, when we open our eyes and ears and minds and hearts, it becomes fresh and new and meaningful for us in ways that we have never imagined before.   Christ is born.  Emmanuel.  God with us.  Mercy and forgiveness and a new life.  Starting now.  We can spend a lifetime reflecting on that, and only scratch the surface.  It changes everything!  365 days a year can’t contain what Christmas has to say to us. 

Again, blessings and peace and joy this morning, in the day ahead.  In the week of Christmas, in the New Year.   As the hymn says, “ponder anew, what the Almighty can do, who with his love doth befriend thee.”  Merry Christmas. 

Christmas Eve Midnight

Hebrews 1: 1-12

Good evening, friends  . . .  and it is my prayer that this is a good evening for you.  That it is, and will be, a good Christmas.  That the grace, mercy, peace, forgiveness, generous love of the Holy Child of Bethlehem is felt in your heart and in every corner of your life as his free gift. 

To bring comfort in times of pain and distress and loss, to encourage our best efforts at whatever station we find ourselves, to allow a space of contentment and courage and hope to open in us and to be communicated in the world by word and deed.  As the prayer goes, “that we may show forth thy praise:  not only with our lips, but in our lives.”  

Christ in our midst; Christ born, Christ continuing to be present with us.  Word of the Father, now in Flesh appearing.    And as we recall and celebrate the story of our Savior’s birth and the mystery of Incarnation we would see in it all a sign of hope for us both for this life and for the world to come, and life everlasting.  

It’s a tough world out there.  Devastating wars.  Syria.  Iraq.  Yemen.  Afghanistan.   Berlin.  From Aleppo to Ankara.  Political discontent at home and abroad.  Nations divided.   Tensions in concerns of race and class and culture.  Wars and rumors of war.  Hatred.  Fear.  Turbulance and terror and anxiety and a lack of trust.  With all that, you can’t’ help but wonder what this is all about tonight.  A disconnect.  Candles and evergreens.  Shepherds and a manger and a new born baby.  Why would this make any difference?

As I turned to the readings from Scripture appointed for us to read together this night I found myself drawn to this complicated word from the Letter to the Hebrews—and thank you, George, for reading it for us so well.  Not an easy reading.

For unto which of the angels said he at any time, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee?  And again, I will be to him a Father, and he shall be to me a Son? 

And again, when he bringeth in the first-begotten into the world, he saith, And let all the angels of God worship him. And of the angels he saith, Who maketh his angels spirits, and his ministers a flame of fire. 
But unto the Son he saith, Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever . . . .

Our Sunday morning Bible Study group has been reading the Letter to the Hebrews this fall, and they will remember that there’s  a lot about angels in the first few chapters.  So appropriate for us on Christmas Eve, as the Shepherds look into the sky to see the whole shimmering angelic choir.   The wonderful ornament for every Christmas tree.  In the first century people were fascinated and drawn to the idea of angels as beings that would communicate spiritual experience and power.  In Luke’s Gospel  the story of the Birth of the Savior begins when the Angel Gabriel appears to Mary.   And also for us.  In recent years we’ve heard a new kind of vocabulary, as people talk about being “spiritual but not religious,” and maybe there’s an angelic connection there.  To be drawn, in spite of many doubts and a culture of secular skepticism, to the transcendental, the mysterious, the mystical.  There was a time not many years back when there were more books about angels on the shelf in the religion section of the Barnes and Noble than about any other single topic, and we would remember films and television shows.  There was an interesting note in a Gallup Poll a decade or so ago, where more Americans answered yes to the question, “do you believe in angels?” than answered yes to the question, “do you believe in God?”

The Apostle as we have heard his words tonight—he believes in angels, and he knows that there are or at least can be for us spiritual moments and experiences of transcendental grace and power, miracles and blessings, glimpses of the eternal.  But again and again he also is eager to remind us that what we observe this night-- this quiet night in tiny Bethlehem of Judea, the blessed mother, the holy child--this is about much more than angels.  For unto which of the angels said he at any time, Thou art my son?   More than angels, more than spiritual feelings.  More than ritual and symbol and ceremony  and mystical visions.  Don’t be distracted by the soft magic of candlelight, we would hear in that message.  Sweet as it all is to us in so many ways.  This is all just prelude:  types  and prefigurings, foreshadowing and preparation.  What was hidden in God from the first hour of creation, now is revealed for us not in mysterious shadow, but  in brilliant light. High Definition.   A child is born, a son is given.   The Dayspring from on high has dawned upon usThou art my Son, he says.  Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever.

To say that the point of this Christmas story is not about a temporary reprieve, to lift our mood for a few hours during dark hours and days and seasons with a dose of pleasant unreality, but to open our hearts and minds and eyes and ears and lives now and from now on to what is the new and true reality of his life and his authority.  A sustaining reality.  And we are invited tonight to make a choice, to choose to partake of that reality.  To take a breath, to make that choice.

The dark night giving way to the bright morning.  Lord of our lives, Lord of all creation, the one who lifts us to a new life and citizenship, in his eternal kingdom.  Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven.   It’s all about Jesus.  Put all the other characters in the Nativity Scene aside.  It’s who he is, and who he is to us, that matters this evening.  Not simply the sweet baby in the stained glass window or on the cover of the Hallmark card, but God-Man victorious at the Cross, the living eternal Son of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God.

That’s what this is all about tonight.  How we come into the presence of our King.  How we give ourselves to the authority of his Word.  Turning our lives to his holiness and righteousness.  Opening our minds and hearts and consenting to his action to prepare us for the new life that he has in mind for us.  Which is what our worship at the manger is all about.   Making and renewing the essential commitment of our lives.  Take my life and let it be consecrated Lord, to thee.  Take my moments and my days, let them flow in ceaseless praise.

If we leave the manger this evening the same people we were when we arrived, then Christmas hasn’t happened, no matter what the calendar says.  But if we look into the face of the Child and see the One who from this night forward is our King, our Savior and Lord, then it will be Christmas not just this one Night, but from now on: ever more and ever more.

Let all the angels of God worship him.  As Paul says in Philippians 2: that at the Name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Again, blessings this Christmas Eve, friends, in this season ahead, and always.  Mercy, grace, forgiveness, peace, and joy—the word for us from heaven above.   Where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Fourth Advent Sunday

Fourth Advent is always the Sunday for our St. Andrew's Children's Pageant at the 11 a.m. service --

But here's my sermon from the 9 a.m., on Romans 1: 1-7:

Good morning and grace and peace on this Fourth Advent Sunday, the Sunday before Christmas Day.     As we noted a few weeks ago, Advent marks the beginning of a new year in the Church Calendar and a time of preparation and reflection about the character and quality of our Christian lives in the “in between time” between Christmas and Good Friday and Easter Sunday and the Day of Judgment when Christ shall come again to claim his people and to bring us into the fullness of his glorious Kingdom—a kingdom which we even now in this time are allowed to share in as a kind of anticipation and foreshadowing.  In this world that is passing away, as St. Paul says, but not “of” this world.  In our hearts and minds and lives, in our families and in our congregational life seeking to live “already” what is the “not yet” of the New Jerusalem.

I’ve found it helpful this year in my personal reflections and in my sermon preparation to see the four New Testament Epistle Lessons appointed for these Advent Sundays as clues or guides we might say to the living of an Advent life. 

The first week we had the reading from Romans 13 where Paul talked about the kind of conversion of life that comes in our Christian commitment.  In the power of the Cross and the Empty Tomb there is grace and mercy and forgiveness, opening our eyes and changing our hearts.  No longer treating God’s Law as a kind of authoritarian rule book, but instead being transformed so that we yearn for the grace and power to walk in a new way with Jesus.  Paul uses the image of a change of clothes.  “Let us cast off the works of darkness,” all the sinful thoughts, feelings, behaviors that separate us from God, “Let us cast off the works of darkness,” he says, and let us “put on the armor of light.”  Conversion, repentance, transformation.  Themes for week one of Advent.

The second week we had the reading from Romans 15, where Paul talked about how as we now have turned from darkness and are girded and protected by the light, we are to be encouraged and strengthened by God’s Word.  That Scripture would be for us not some obscure and distant foreign text, but instead something that is living and life-giving, that will fill us with hope and will call us into harmony and worship in fellowship with other Christians.  How as we put our roots down in the Word of God our hearts are opened in warm and generous hospitality and friendship, joy and peace.

Last week we left St. Paul and Romans for a moment and had a reading from St. James, in the fifth chapter.  Building on the foundation of the first two Sundays, here we read James share with his congregation very much a word about Advent, about  living in the “already but not yet” world we live in.  James wrote to a congregation in the midst of social and political turmoil, harsh persecution, and high anxiety.  Perhaps to get the full force of it we would think of these words not so much in our more settled context but how they would be heard today by Christians in Egypt after the cathedral bombing last week, by Christians in Syria or Iraq, with the knowledge that the soldiers of ISIS might knock on the door at any time.  In the midst of all that, James writes, “Be patient, therefore, brethren, until the coming of the Lord.”  When a farmer has planted his field with seed he might stand back and look over the scene and actually not be able to see anything.  Just an empty field.  But his heart is content, because he knows that deep in the soil the seed is germinating and taking root.  You can’t see anything yet, but the crop is growing, the harvest will come.  So like the farmer, James says, be an Advent people, be a patient people.   Let anxiety go, and be filled instead with peace and joy and, again, the contentment that comes from sure knowledge of the good that God has in mind for those who come to him in Jesus’s name.  Be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord.”

Finally this morning we’re back in Romans, in the opening chapter, St. Paul writing the first words of his introduction  to a group of mature Christians whom he has not met, but whom he is hoping soon to visit and to live with and to share with in his apostolic and pastoral ministry.  I love the way Paul talks about his life and ministry here .  That he is a servant of Jesus, called to be an apostle, to serve the gospel, the good news, which was revealed in Scriptures and now has been revealed in its fullness in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  It is through Jesus, Paul says, that “we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all nations . . . .”  This last Sunday of Advent might leave us with a word to reflect on about purpose, vocation, mission.  The “why” of the work of the first three Sundays.  What’s the point of following Jesus?  What are we supposed to accomplish?  That through our conversion of life, our repentance and our faith, that through the love and joy of our fellowship as it is rooted in God’s word, that through the amazing witness of the contentment and patience that we can find in ourselves as we are rooted in the deep soil ourselves of God’s grace and mercy, so God will then use us to call and gather others.  This might come in a very intentional way as we would speak or write or witness our faith, as we share with our children, our husbands and wives, our neighbors and co-workers, or perhaps as we are sent out into some wider venue of mission.  Or it might come simply that as we live Advent-shaped lives, the light of Christ will itself so shine from us that it will be less that we go out, but that others are drawn to hear the word for themselves, preaching sometimes with our lips but always with our lives, an invitation to what Paul here calls “the obedience of faith for the sake of his Name.”  On the Fourth Advent Sunday we perhaps pause over that prayer that we often say after communion, “and now, Father, send us out to do the work that you have prepared for us to do, to love and serve you as faithful witnesses.”

So the pageant is happening at the 11 this morning, and the whole story begins to be told once again.  May it be all a season and a new year of blessing and peace.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Third Advent Sunday

December 11, 2016  Third Advent  James 5: 7-10

Good morning.  A little liturgical history to start with.  The season of Advent evolved  as a mirror image of the season of Lent.  Originally a parallel six weeks in length, and the fourth Sunday in both observed as a pause for refreshment in the fast, with purple or black vestments and paraments temporarily replaced with a soft rose color.  In Lent the Fourth Sunday, “Laetare Sunday,”  in Advent, “Gaudete.”  The names of these days taken from the first word of the Latin text of the Choir Introit appointed for the day.  Both words are generally translated in English as “rejoice,”   Though the have slightly different nuances.  Laetare is a bit more inward in connotation, while Gaudete has a sense of outward expressiveness.    By the time of the reforms of the calendar at the Council of Trent in the middle 16th century Advent had been abbreviated, now four weeks, and Gaudete Sunday observed on the Third Sunday.  The Choral Introit, “Gaudete in Domino semper; iterum dico, Gaudete.”  From Philippians 4, as St. Paul wrote to that little church:  “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I will say, Rejoice.  Let your gentleness be known to everyone.  The Lord is near.”   (Our Choir’s Introit this morning, in English rather than Latin.) 

I would pray with all this that we would each one of us hear the mid-Advent message and word of encouragement and refreshment in those words and in the quiet and lovely symbol of the Rose Candle.   Maybe thinking of it not so much as for one particular day on the calendar but even more as a Biblical word about the character of Christian life that we would be encouraged to explore and cultivate 24/7/365, in the sense that we are all our lives in the midst of an Advent, the in-between time, as we wait for the full realization for the victory that Christ as won.   That our lives and our relationship individually and as a congregational family, in our families and schools and where we work, everywhere, that this word of Gaudete would settle in as we wait for his coming.  So that the world would say, these Christians, how gentle they are, how good, how kind, how generous, how full of joy.  These Christians, how they love one another.  Rejoice in the Lord always.  And again I will say, rejoice.  The Lord is near.

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I’m following the Epistle Lessons appointed for Advent in our lectionary A this year (and if you would be interested in having the series to take home with you for daily reflection, there are still copies in the narthex and over in Brooks Hall).  On this Third Advent Sunday morning  we turn to the Letter of St. James in the 5th chapter , and the Brother of our Lord and leader of the early Christian community in Jerusalem speaks pastorally to his congregation of the character of Spirit that makes the joy symbolized by our Gaudete Rose Candle a possibility.  The beginning of our selection this morning, verse seven, is the heart of it.  Short and sweet:  Be patient, until the coming of the Lord.  That’s James’s main pastoral message first to his congregation, as they lived in confusing, uncertain, tumultuous times—and then the Advent message for us this week, for the times we live in.   Be patient.  A word to an impatient people in an impatient world.  A patient spirit is the fruit of a life rooted in Christ Jesus and the condition that allows Christian relationships to grow.  Again: families, communities, congregations. 

Allowing ourselves to be impatient, to give way to anxiety, can be so destructive—as I think we can see evidence of this all around us.  The headlines in the morning paper and the sad mess of so many lives and families and communities and churches.  Perhaps even a sense of anxious urgency can be a tool of the Enemy, to work real spiritual harm, along with so much emotional and material and physical harm.  As a farmer plants seed into the earth and then waits carefully and confidently as beneath the soil the germination begins and the first growth of the new plant, so James says, “take a breath.”  Restfully, confidently.  There may not be much to see when you look at the newly planted field, but there is so much more going on under the surface.  To be patient until the coming of the Lord.  The full harvest is beginning, coming along just as it is supposed to,  but slowly and silently.  To the naked eye the world may show no evidence of what Christ has done.  The works of darkness continue, human brokenness and sin and strife--in our homes and families and our cities and nations.  Even tragically in the life of our Church and perhaps most of all in the people we look at when we look into the mirror in the morning.  But be patient, says James: be patient, and trust in the Lord, who has begun a good work, a perfect work, and will bring it to completion.  Establish your hearts in hope, trust him and trust this process of transformation, trust in what he has promised, what he has demonstrated for us in the victory of his Cross.

Patience is a difficult thing.  Especially rare in our culture, with our mentality of the race to the finish line.  Buy now, pay later.   We want what we want, and we want it yesterday!   Some have said we in this time suffer from a kind of collective Attention Deficit Disorder.  Reflected so often in our marriages and family life, in our sense of vocation and career, in the crazy way the misuse of drugs and alcohol and money and sex cascades all around us.  A world of secret potions and magic wands and politicians and salesmen and religious leaders on every side promising the moon.   Buy now, pay later.  The latest diet book on the supermarket magazine rack: “30 days to a new you.”  So often we push ourselves, we push our kids, we push each other.  Sometimes just a nudge, but other times with violence of words and actions.  Because we can’t wait to have what we think we need to have—we can’t wait to get to where we think we need to be.

But Advent is about this patient waiting.  About re-centering.  Calling us back from the edge, calling us away from the storm of busyness:  about discovering, exploring, finding the deep contentment of a patient life.  Waiting for Christmas each year is a little part of it.  An annual discipline, just to see if we still have it in us.  Waiting for Jesus to be known and to make a difference in our lives and in our world.  Waiting for Jesus to come again, in power and great glory.  Leaning forward with anticipation, but with a heart that is content, a spirit that rests in confidence. 

Advent  isn’t just about four weeks in December.  It is instead a re-set button for the whole year, for how we understand ourselves, how we live.   It is about the character of our life in Christ.  About who we really can become as we turn to him in faith, join ourselves to him, place ourselves in his hands. 

Again, may this holy season of Advent and especially this Gaudete Sunday be a source of enrichment, a time of deep and patient contentment, of grace, of joy, and of peace.  “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I will say, Rejoice.  Let your gentleness be known to everyone.  The Lord is near.”  

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

Monday, December 5, 2016

Second Advent Sunday

Matthew 3: 1-12
The Rev. Daniel J. Isadore

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Advent Sunday

 Romans 13: 8-14

Good morning, grace and peace—and I would say as well, “Happy New Year!”   Advent Sunday.  The great story, the year of the Church and the pattern of our Christian lives now again to be renewed and refreshed.    Lots happening in the patterns of our worship to mark the New Year, as we hear new themes and language in the collects and prayers, the hymns, anthems, and readings. 

I tend to think of Advent as in some ways the richest time of the year, because it is centered in this sense of deep Christian hope.  We prepare ourselves to hear again the story of Jesus, his incarnation, his birth in Bethlehem on Christmas,  his teaching, his works of power, and then his death, resurrection and ascension—all about to unfold between now and Easter, the journey again from the Manger to the Cross.  And at the same time Advent explores what God is about to do, in our lives and over all creation.  When Christ will come again.  Someone has described this as a season of “already, but not yet.”  A season of assurance and anticipation.  Catching us leaning forward for the fulfillment of the victory that has already been accomplished.  The four candles on the wreath not intended mainly as a countdown to Christmas, but as a reminder of what are sometimes called “the Four Last Things.”  To cut through the superficialities of life and to turn to the concerns that we need to deal with now, before the Great Day of his coming.  So, four candles, the four weeks traditionally:  Death and Judgment, Hell and Heaven.  The world around us in this season in so many ways seems to say, “let’s just have our party now, eat, drink, and be merry--and we can worry about the collateral damage and the credit card bills some other time.”  But Advent says, “pay attention.”  He will come when we least expect him.  Sleepers, wake up! 

As I approach Advent every year I like to find different ways to explore it, to tease out different perspectives, images, vocabularies, new layers of meaning.  This year I’ve found myself drawn in our Sunday lectionary to the four Epistle lessons for the four Sundays, three from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, one from the Letter of St. James.  These readings in Year A of our lectionary seem very rich as ways to frame our spiritual reflection.  I’ve printed up a set of the readings together.  What I thought I would be doing personally would be taking the handout and simply keeping it by the chair where I do my devotional praying and reading in the morning and evening, and during the next four weeks reading the Epistle for the week over from time to time and to allow it to have some space to influence how I approach my day to day life.  Kind of a self-guided mini-retreat.  Anyway, there are copies out in the narthex and over in Brooks Hall if you’d like to join me in this.  (And as aside, I’d encourage you also to put the morning of Saturday, December 10th, on your calendar, as a time to come together for what in the past few years we’ve called “A Quiet Morning in Advent.”  Carving out two or three hours in what sometimes is such an over-programmed and busy season for a time of reflection—and I’m very pleased that Susy Robison has agreed to lead the Quiet Morning this year. )

So to turn to Romans 13.  Paul is writing to the Christians of Rome before he comes to visit them for the first time.  When he writes to Corinth or Galatia or Thessalonica or Ephesus he is writing to congregations that he founded or helped to found or at least has visited on his missionary journeys.  They know him well, and he has an established pastoral authority.  But as Paul prepares a mission to Rome he writes to introduce himself to the Roman Christians.  We might say that he presents his resume.  He offers an expansive overview of the great themes of his preaching and teaching of the gospel and of his understanding of the implication of that gospel in the lives of individual Christians and in the life of the Christian community as a body.    He writes to assure the Roman Church that even though they haven’t met him yet, and perhaps have only heard of him by reputation, the gospel he will preach when he arrives and the pastoral direction he will offer will be in accord with what they have already heard and known in the preaching and teaching of the other apostles.

Our passage from Chapter 13 comes toward the end of the Letter, and it has been since 1549 the appointed Epistle reading for Advent Sunday in Anglican Prayer Books.  So if we do spend some time with the passage during this week we’ll be connecting with some pretty deep roots in our tradition.   The critical point of the reading in verse 12, which includes the phrase that Archbishop Cranmer uses in his Collect for this first Advent Sunday.  Paul says, “Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”  The armor:  Paul uses similar imagery in Ephesians 6 when he encourages the Christians of Ephesus to “take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”  The image of the Roman soldier dressing in preparation for battle.   Stripping away whatever  would be unhelpful or even dangerous, then strapping on his battle gear.   A particular take on the phrase, “dress for success.”   The Advent Sunday Collect recasts the same language as prayer:  “give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life when thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility.”   And something deep in our imagination about turning to this image as a metaphor in our lives as we approach the dark season and the longest nights of the year.  Contrasting the works of darkness with the coming of the bright morning star, the one in whom there is no darkness at all. 

So what we might call an ethical Advent.  Not simply ideas and images, but an invitation to a certain practical discipline.  A way to live our lives:  what we take off and lay aside, and what we put on.  Works of darkness, on one hand, armor of light on the other.  Paul gives us some examples to think about in terms of what we might call our practices of this season and of our Christian lives.  Reveling and drunkenness, debauchery and licentiousness, which all seem to go with the sins of the dark, sins of the night—but then also quarreling and jealousy.  That’s something to think about.  Even as we may find it fairly easy to differentiate ourselves from the first set of sins, this is harder, especially with Facebook and Twitter and all the rest.  Sins of the flesh and of the spirit.  What we now set aside to prepare the way for his advent.  And  the “armor of light” on the other hand.  A little more conceptual here, just offered by implication—though I would connect to a passage from Paul in Colossians 5 to get a sense of what he is thinking about when he speaks about the right wardrobe for the season and the battle ahead—the armor of light.  “Put on then,” he says, “put on then as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another, and if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other.  As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.  And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”   Which we might say is about dressing like Jesus.  The armor of light.

So the question, the topic for reflection, this Advent morning, and the first week ahead, for our little self-guided Epistles of Advent mini-retreat, is about our wardrobe.  Making sure we are dressed for the occasion that is about to be upon us.   Of course each one of us in the end needing to sort out what this means in terms of application in our own lives.  Our seasonal attire: reindeer sweaters and Santa Claus ties, and armor of light. 

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

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Christ the King

Guest Preacher at Choral Evensong was the Rev. C. Garrett Yates, Assistant Rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Mt. Lebanon, and former Seminarian at St. Andrew's.  Propers were for Christ the King,  Luke 23:33-43.

Observing St.Andrew the Apostle

Matthew 4: 18-22

Good morning fellow St. Andreans—or as some of our choir used to say, “fellow St. Androids”--  family, neighbors, and friends.  A special welcome and word of thanks, as for so many years our friends of the Syria Highlanders have blessed us  in the celebration.  We are reminded by your presence to include in our prayers the important work of the Shriners’ Hospitals for Children, which you all continue to serve as your fundraising mission.  It’s a great pleasure for us to have the opportunity to share in that with you.

This year St. Andrew’s Day was also set by our Vestry as Stewardship Sunday --and the idea  was that St. Andrew’s Day would be a good occasion to share a prayer of dedication of our offerings of time, talent, and treasure.  And in that context I want to pause over a phrase in our gospel  for St. Andrew’s Day that is at the thematic and theological heart of what Matthew wants us to understand about Christian life, Christian stewardship.  From Matthew 4: 20.  Jesus calls to Andrew and Peter, as we hear every year on this day: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men,” the beginning of a new chapter of the holy story, the first evangelistic invitation to join in the life and work of the Church of God, the Body of Christ.  And then, Matthew tells us, “immediately they left their nets and followed him.”  And to shine a light on those four key words:  “they left their nets.”

The point here may seem  fairly obvious.  But I’ll try to draw it out anyway.  Andrew and Peter were fishermen.  Their nets were their livelihood, the tools of their trade.  Those nets were what made it possible for them to be fishermen, and so to take care of themselves and their families.   The sign of their role in the community, the source of their paycheck and their pension.  And so, what this gesture represents, this putting down of their nets:  from this point on in this strange new way of life, say Andrew and Peter, we’re not going to be relying on our skills and resources, we’re not going to be trusting in our knowledge and experience and professional expertise.  We’re not going to be known mainly as “fishermen” any more.  That’s behind us now.  It doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll never fish again.  But it will be just what we do, not who we are.  We’re putting our future into your hands, Jesus.  Who we are going to be, what we are going to be about, from now on.   We’re going to take what you have to give, and be o.k. with that-- even if what you have to give turns out to be different from what we thought before that we wanted.  From this point we’re going to be following, you, Jesus.  Not fishermen, but disciples.

This is exactly the difference in the gospels between those who are in the crowds, who come to see and hear Jesus, and those who become disciples.  The disciples are the ones who put down their nets.  Who stopped being what they were, and became something new.   It’s one of those resonating metaphors.  They left their nets--which had given them their identity, security, self-sufficiency-- in order to say that from that moment on, Christ would be sufficient for them. They would trust in him from here on out.  I doubt these First Century Palestinian Jewish fishermen would have appreciated contemporary Western Christian praise songs, but perhaps as they dropped their nets and set out on this new journey as disciples of Jesus they might have been singing  the words of the popular Stuart Townend song, “In Christ alone.”  In Christ alone my hope is found, he is my light, my strength, my song.   The emphasis would have been on that word, “alone.”  In Christ alone.   Following Jesus wasn’t going to be a hobby, a special interest, something to attend to in their spare time, after work, on weekends, on the side.  What Matthew is communicating in this small narrative detail, that they put down their nets, is that now and from now on, everything is different for them.

They don’t seem really to think this over strategically.  They just set the nets down.  It’s not that the disciples will never go fishing again.  They will.  But in this moment as Jesus calls and as they answer his call everything changes, as they learn deep down from the passage from Deuteronomy 8 that Jesus had quoted to Satan in the wilderness just a few days before:  “Man shall not live by bread alone.”  Or in this case, fish.  Whatever security and meaning those nets had for these Galilean fisherman, something new, someone new, was in front of them now, and they were turning to him.

It probably doesn’t take any of us very much time in reflection to figure out what our nets are--and how this story of the calling of our patron Andrew and the beginning of his Christian life can speak into our lives and have something meaningful to say to us on St. Andrew’s Day and Stewardship Sunday.  We have a custom of using those familiar words, “time, talent, treasure.”  Maybe part of it just to think about what it is that is actually happening in us we fill out our blue and pink pledge cards this and put them into the offering plate or pop them in the mail.  (Blue cards indicating our financial commitment, the pink cards our offerings of our attention and talents and spiritual gifts for the upbuilding of the church and its ministries.)  The gospel truth of the matter is that if in our hearts and minds we’re singing  In Christ alone my hope is found,” then our Stewardship Campaign and any Stewardship Campaign will have been a rousing success, no matter how much money is raised and how many ministries are supported with new participation.  He is my light, my strength, my song.   I suppose it’s alternatively true to say that so long as we keep holding on tightly to our nets, so long as we find ourselves thinking instead, this is what I can give of my time and talent and treasure and still know for sure that I can take care of myself and meet all my goals and complete all my plans—then maybe not so much.  Even if we were to exceed the annual 2017 budget goal and need in terms of dollars for the parish operating budget, even if the sign-up sheets for congregational ministries and activities were to be filled from top to bottom, it would be leaving us all right where we were before.   Still standing in the boat, and not walking on into the future with Jesus.

A concluding story about nets.  At the Stewardship Dinner our keynote speaker the Rev. Adam Trambley talked about how a number of years ago he and his wife Jane settled on the Biblical idea of commitment to God of a tithe, 10% of their income each month, in their financial pledge to their Church.  At the dinner you could sort of feel a little ripple of tension as he began to talk about this.  The word “tithe” doesn’t seem very Episcopalian, I guess.   But anyway: he said they were pretty sure as the two of them talked it over that they could make it comfortably on 95% of their income every month, by pledging 5% of their income, but that they were not so sure that they could on 90% with a 10% pledge.  So after a good deal of prayer and discernment and sort of holding their breath:  90% is where they decided to set the bar.   As an aside at one point he used the image of the circus trapeze artist swinging high in the air without a net.  A slightly mixed metaphor, but it does connect with us and with Andrew and Peter this morning.   And boy: right about there is about as brave as I could imagine a young married couple to be--with kids raise and feed and send to college, and a mortgage,  and student loans, and all the rest.  10% is a lot, and they committed that first, and then decided to manage all the rest of their family budget from the 90% remaining.  Adam shared with us some stories about how that decision and commitment began to transform their lives, their marriage, in small ways and in some dramatic ways, shaping their sense of themselves as husband and wife, as parents, as Christians.   He actually said he thought this decision saved his marriage.  He didn’t go into any detail, but clearly a very powerful experience.  And he said, and I would repeat, so that everybody could breathe and keep listening, even Episcopalians, that what wasn’t important was the legalistic calculation of some specific percentage or amount of pledge by an arbitrary formula, 5%, 10%, or whatever.  The point for them and for us was just to do whatever it would take to move us out of our comfort zone.  The question, what does it take, time, talent, treasure, how much does it take, that we would give away, put down, let go of, so that we find ourselves needing  to rethink everything else in a new way?  That’s where it gets exciting, Adam said.  Where all this “stewardship” talk finally comes into focus.  Wherever the tipping point is between security in the idea that we’re in charge and can take care of ourselves, and the risk in the idea that we can’t quite see how it’s going to work, and that we are going to need to seek God’s guidance and God’s protection.   Putting down our nets.  Working without a net.  That with prayer we are going to put ourselves in the hands of Jesus, and to trust in him with all our hearts.

Blessings, friends of St. Andrew’s, on this St. Andrew’s Day, and in our homes and families, our circles of friends, our neighborhoods, the places we work and study and play.  Blessings on this St. Andrew’s Day and as we move toward Advent next Sunday and a New Year.'

Sunday, November 13, 2016

26th after Pentecost

Our Guest Preacher this morning was Mr. Zac Neubauer, Senior Year Seminarian at Trinity School for Ministry and a Candidate for Holy Orders in the Episcopal Diocese of Central Florida.

Proper 28C-1  Isaiah 65: 17-25

Sunday, November 6, 2016

All Saints Sunday

Ephesians 1: 11-23

Good morning on All Saints Sunday—a high day of the Church Year and at St. Andrew’s an exceptionally rich day of worship and music.  I would share a word of thanks to our choir and the members of this Pittsburgh Festival Orchestra, to Pete Luley, Tom Octave.  In our reading from Ephesians Paul uses this phrase twice, “that we who were the first to set our hope on Christ might live for the praise of his glory,” and, “this is the pledge of our inheritance toward the redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.”   And that sounds just right for this morning: “the praise of his glory”

All Saints about connections: our connections with one another in this Christian community of faith, our connections with Christians around the world, and with those of every generation.  And this morning as we have heard Dr. Knight read the appointed lesson from Ephesians 1, thinking about the Church of Ephesus, and connections.

Ephesus was an interesting place in the first century.  San Francisco in the 1970’s or Times Square in the 80’s, a dash of Las Vegas on the side. Materialism and, really, hedonism the dominant themes, as they were around most of the Hellenistic world: a “go-go” economy, a jumble of high culture and low culture.  “What happens in Ephesus stays in Ephesus.”  A crossroads of trade and commerce.  All sorts and conditions, nationalities and ethnicities and social classes jumbled together.  The famous temple of the goddess Diana made Ephesus a global tourist attraction and a center for cults and spiritual and religious groups.  Think Past Lives therapists and tarot card readers on every corner.  A wild and crazy place.   And not a very easy place to be a Christian.  There was a small Jewish community, and there were Christians there also from a very early time, both Jewish and Gentile—and the Church of Ephesus had a rather high profile in the world of the New Testament.  It was a center for St. Paul’s ministry, a place where he lived and taught and built up the church for over two years.

In all the hustle and bustle the Christians were distinctively counter-cultural.  We might picture a handful of Lancaster County Amish set down in an Atlantic City casino.   Known for their piety, for their modesty and temperance, for their social and moral restraint, for their quiet faithfulness in marriage and family life, for their charity, for their care for the young and the elderly, the sick, those unable to care for themselves, for their careful teaching of the gospel message of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the forgiveness of sin and the promise of new and everlasting life to those who put their trust in him--and for their sometimes too-visible refusal to participate in the extravagant public ceremonies celebrating the pagan gods and values of the city.  It wasn’t so much that they were on the street-corners preaching hellfire and damnation.  But just going about their day to day lives seemed to their neighbors like an unspoken but nonetheless very public affront.  The Christians were in turn mocked, scorned, attacked--sometimes persecuted. Fired from jobs.  Their kids didn’t get invited to the prom or accepted at the better colleges. Christians were bad for business—and they made the Chamber of Commerce and pretty much everybody at the party a little uncomfortable . . . .

Perhaps they would have been comforted to hear Jesus in our gospel reading from Luke 6.   Blessed are you who are poor, you who are hungry, you who have experienced the pain of loss, you who have known rejection and oppression for my sake.  It doesn’t sound like the recipe for a popular movement, certainly as the world then or now would define it.  Not what many Church Growth specialists would suggest we print on the front page of our “Welcome to our Church” brochures.   But when we do suffer for his sake, it means a lot to remember him saying that he notices, that he is with us. The mothers of Ephesus didn’t want their sons and daughters to grow up to be Christians.  But the Ephesian Christians remained steadfast.  A life in exile.  Strangers in a strange land.  Which maybe anyway is our natural condition.

It is always so interesting to me that here in the Letter to the Ephesians we have what is perhaps the most beautiful and graceful expression of Paul’s witness to the Gospel and his exposition of Christian life and thinking.  I would commend it to you.  A book you could sit down and read  in less than an hour.  Hearing all kinds of echoes of language and images incorporated into our prayer book collects and services.  Not quite as systematic in theological development perhaps as Romans, but for me anyway a literary jewel.  Swimming against the tide, the Ephesians are again and again for Paul the heart and soul of Christian life and community.  Not that they don’t have need of warning and correction.  Paul wouldn’t have written this letter if he wasn’t concerned about how they were doing.   Keeping the main thing the main thing, in a world of distraction and temptation.  The description at the end of Acts 20, Paul’s last farewell moments with the elders of the Church at Ephesus, is just one of the most emotionally powerful and deep scenes in the story of the early Christian church.  Paul says, “I haven’t held anything back; I’ve shared with you the whole gospel as it has been revealed to me; and now I commend you with my love to God’s continuing care.”  Christian pastors and preachers and teachers, parents, friends, all of us in one way or another haunted by those words.  “I haven’t held anything back.  I have shared with you the whole gospel as it has been revealed to me.”  A reminder always of the compromises and accommodations and self-indulgences that so often flavor the water we swim in.  A high bar and standard, anyway.

We know a few of the names of the Ephesian Christians from the first century.  Prisca and Aquila,  Alexander the Jew, the household of Onesiphorous.  But in the Paul’s words to them here we see the reflected pattern that is intended to be passed down by these ancient strangers generation by generation, from Ephesus all the way to Pittsburgh.  For all the saints.  “That the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power in us who believe . . . .”  Wisdom, but not the wisdom of the so-called wise.  Riches, but not the kind you can take to the bank.  Power, but mostly the kind known in the grace of a fragile, holy weakness.  Like the power Jesus demonstrated on the Cross. 

We would picture the Communion of Saints this Sunday morning—the ones in the books and the stained glass windows, and here our ancestors long ago in Ephesus, who in some distant way must have had us in mind, the people of St. Andrew’s Church, Highland Park, Pittsburgh, as they lived faithfully together in their time and place, and shared the Good News of Jesus with their friends and neighbors, their children and grandchildren.  As we would, in our time and place.  We picture this morning the saints and heroes who live on in simply in our memories and prayers of family and friends, not so much like the elite members of a Christian Hall of Fame, but as a simple and loving fellowship of encouragement and witness.   A choir of voices who sing in a way that will bring out in our time and place the best in us, so that we can sing too—and so that our hearts and minds and lives would be lifted more and more perfectly and day by day in the knowledge and love of Christ Jesus our Lord.

Let us pray, and perhaps especially this morning with our brothers and sisters from ancient Ephesus in mind.

O God, the King of saints, we praise and glorify your hold Name for all your servants who have finished their course in your faith and fear; for the blessed Virgin Mary, for the holy patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, and for all your other righteous servants, known to us and unknown; and we pray that, encouraged by their examples, aided by their prayers, and strengthened by their fellowship, we also maybe partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light; through the merits of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Twenty-Fourth after Pentecost

Proper 26C-1  Luke 19: 1-10

Hard not to be struck these stories through this section of Luke, about what we might call major and sudden changes in life-direction.  Just a few weeks ago Luke 15:  the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  The son who with breathtaking disrespect asks his father for his inheritance.  “Waiting for you to die is taking too long, dad.”  And then who squanders it all in loose living.  And then that moment, when he’s broke and broken, his eyes are opened. The wonderful phrase, chapter 15 verse 17, “when he came to himself.”  He realizes all at once the crushing enormity of his sin, and his heart and mind overflow with sorrow and love—and with the desire for reconciliation and forgiveness.  

We heard in Luke 17 the story of the Ten Lepers.  Gathered outside a village in the borderland between the Galilee and Samaria, they are begging, calling out for a bit of kindness, a token, some spare change.   Rejected in every aspect of their lives, cut off from family and friends.  Hopeless.  And then Jesus comes along and responds not with a coin but with the command to go and show themselves to the priest, which is what they would need to do to be certified to return to their lives.  Somewhat surprisingly, they do what he tells them.  On their way, they are cured of their disease.  All I’m sure are filled with joy, but the story is really about this one, a Samaritan, the least likely one to want to relate to a Jewish rabbi, who stops and turns at once, when he sees what has happened.  Who, like the Prodigal, comes to himself. And even before he gets to the local priest for his certificate he and he alone comes back and falls at the feet of Jesus, his heart overflowing with thanksgiving and worship. 

And now  in the series of portraits of people “coming to themselves,”  Zacchaeus.  We think about what it would be like to be Zacchaeus.  “Little Zacchaeus,” although his stature is probably the least of his problems.   He some time ago made what we might call a challenging career decision, as Canon Andrew Piper described for us in his sermon on the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican last Sunday.   Not a vocational direction for the faint-hearted.  Deciding to go into the tax collecting business is a choice that raises a lot of issues.  It was a lucrative profession.  But we understand the downside.  In those days the tax collectors worked on commission, so the more he could squeeze out of his neighbors, justly or unjustly, the more his own bank account grew.  To be anachronistic, we might say that if he didn’t approve an exemption or a deduction, there could be no appeal.   And he didn’t approve many of them, we can be sure.  So: a job guaranteed  not to make you a lot of friends!  Everybody in the neighborhood looked at his lovely home and his new cars and the new clothes his kids wore to school and the fancy vacations and all the rest and they knew, they knew, that Zacchaeus had wrung all his wealth out of their hides.  And they just plain hated him for it.  He can feel the waves of resentment that would surround him every day--the moment he hit the sidewalk, the moment  people caught sight of him.

You would wonder if maybe he hadn’t many times have had second thoughts.  Sure, we all think about money, what a job pays.  And we all want to do the best we can for our own family.  But there’s more to life than money.  What it is that makes you feel good about yourself, happy, content.  And Zacchaeus must have had more than a few sleepless nights.  Maybe when his kids came home from school with tears and hurt because none of the other kids wanted to be their friends.  Maybe when his wife began to feel the burden of her isolation in the market and the town square.  And of course the whole business was compounded by the fact that he was collecting taxes that support the oppressive system of the Roman occupation.  He’s a collaborator, a traitor to his people.  Can’t even show himself at the local synagogue without scowls and whispers.  Probably can’t show himself pretty much anywhere, without one or two of his security people alongside.   Rocks through the windows sort of a regular occurrence I would imagine.  Catcalls on the street.  In some ways he was a big man around town.   Powerful, sure.  Or at least a man with powerful friends.  Not liked, not respected, but certainly feared.  In so many other ways though, and not just physically, he must have felt pretty small.  

So then this moment, when Jesus comes to town.  I don’t know if Zacchaeus could have put into words why he was suddenly so eager to see Jesus.  In theological vocabulary we talk about God’s “prevenient grace.”  Before we know him, he knows us and loves us and calls us to himself.  We feel like it’s our idea, like we’re taking the initiative, but it’s really his work in us from the very beginning.  And now this almost slapstick moment when for all his dignity as a man of wealth and power, as if that was all nothing to him.  He rushes down the block and climbs into the tree,  like a kid.  And who cares what other people think, how they’re going to point and laugh?  Just to catch a glimpse of Jesus.  Again, hard to put into words, though I guess the Prodigal Son and the Samaritan Leper might understand. 

Jesus has been going around the region of Judea, in these days and weeks before the Passover Festival, preparing for Palm Sunday and Holy Week.  Preaching, teaching, healing, blessing.  Zacchaeus must have heard something of this.  Something is stirring, anyway, to get him up into that tree.  And then the turning point.  Jesus sees Zacchaeus.  Seems to know who he is, calls him by name.  He seems to be the one Jesus came to town to see!  He speaks to him, not in judgment or condemnation, but with kindness. A smile.  To say, “I will come into your house today.”  -- It has been a long time, a long time, since anybody had talked to Zacchaeus that way.

And so then, the turning point.  Remembering the point in my sermon about the healing of the Ten Lepers, to point out the contrast in St. Luke’s Greek vocabulary.  All ten were cleansed, we remember the way the Greek worked in that.  All were cured of their disease, but the one who returned, who came back to Jesus, was saved, made whole.  “Your faith has saved you,” Jesus says.  The Greek verb sozo.    And now as it was for the Samaritan, the ocean of gratitude and thanksgiving and love that swells in the heart of Zacchaeus—it leads to a complete change of life and direction, what the word “repentance” means, metanoia, a changed life, a renewed heart and soul.  “The half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.”   And Jesus says, again from that same Greek root:  “Today salvation—salvation-- has come to this house.” 

A new direction.  A new life. What happens when Jesus shows up.  “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.  I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.”   It is the ordinary pattern of an authentic Christian life.  The Prodigal, the Samaritan Leper, Zacchaeus: when we tell our own stories as Christians they are sooner or later going to sound just like their stories, though the settings and details will be unique to each of our lives.  In the same moment that we become aware of just how far away from him we are, he shows up on our doorstep.  He gives himself to us to forgive and bless, to renew and to save. 


Monday, October 24, 2016

Twenty-Third after Pentecost

Proper 25C-1  Luke 18: 9-13

It was a great pleasure on Sunday, October 23, 2016, to welcome the Men and Boys of the Choir of Hereford Cathedral, U.K., to sing a choral service of the Holy Communion at our regular 11 a.m. service and then to return in the afternoon to sing a service of Choral Evensong.

I invited the Canon Precentor of Hereford Cathedral, the Rev. Canon Andrew Piper, to preach at the 11 a.m. service.  His text, in reference to Proper 25C-1, was Luke 18: 9-13, the Pharisee and the Publican.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Twenty-Second after Pentecost

Year C, Proper 24, Track 1
The Rev. Daniel J. Isadore

So two weeks ago we took a look at the Kingdom of God through the lens of David Foster Wallace’s address, “This is Water”…

If you’ll remember, what water was to the two young fish in Wallace’s story, the Kingdom of God is to us…
- Like the water to the fish, God’s Kingdom is one of those realities that is so “obvious, ever-present, and important” that we often don’t realize that we’re in it all of the time…(pause)

I also mentioned what, exactly, was meant by God’s Kingdom…(slight pause)
- …that the foundations of the universe are not mechanical nor chaotic, but personal…
o …that Jesus called this personal reality at the core of our existence “God,”…
o …that this God was love…
o …and that Jesus was, somehow, someway, “one” with this God. (p)
- Furthermore, the “Kingdom” of this God is…
o …the sphere of existence where what God wants done is done…(p)
- …and we have been invited to participate with God as He works to heal and transform everything…(p)
o I hope to spend future sermons sermons more fully explaining these realities…

But this morning I want to address an email I received in response to that sermon from two weeks ago…
- It was from a theologian (someone who thinks and talks about God), a resident theologian, I might add, who gave me permission to share his thoughts…(slight pause)
- Dr. George Knight wrote this to me: "As a citizen of the Kingdom of God (as one who is “in the water” so to speak), are we just floating along, enjoying ourselves, or are we using the gifts given to us by the Holy Spirit to advance the Kingdom, inviting others to dive in, to swim, and make a splash? (p)
- “In all of Jesus’ instructions (and commands) to us He uses active verbs; go, preach, teach, feed, etc. Nowhere does it say, sit back, relax, float…” (p)
- “I don’t know why I feel this sense of urgency about being proactive…it may be personal since I am old and feel time is fleeting and there are so many who don’t know Jesus.  Oh, people know about Jesus, but for so many there is no personal, life-giving connection.  How do we motivate people to take an active role, to become empowered and enabled, and then go out to share the Good News? My constant struggle!" (p)
How indeed? (p)
- What a thought provoking question: What motivates people to "swim around and make a splash" in and for the Kingdom? (p)
Actually, I think Dr. Knight answers his own question…and according to Scripture, I believe we would do well to take note…
- Listen again to how he ends his email, paying careful attention to what motivates his plea…
- “I don’t know why I feel this sense of urgency about being proactive; it may be personal since I am old and feel time is fleeting and there are so many who don’t know Jesus.  Oh, people know about Jesus, but for so many there is no personal, life-giving connection.” (p)
- (9 am) I know why George feels that urgency: because he knows God. (p)
- (11am) George, I know why you feel the urgency: because you know God. (p)
o Our brother doesn’t just know about Jesus; He knows Him personally…
…not like we know movie stars or politicians or athletes…
…but like we know our family and friends. (p)
o He knows that the accounts we read, Sunday after Sunday, about the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, and the coming of the Holy Spirit, are not myths…
They’re not stories made up primarily to illustrate moral truths, or to provoke us to social or political action, or to get us to make a one-time decision for Jesus, or to get us to come to church, put money in the plate, and then go home…(p)
o No…these Scriptures were given to us to us by God, the living God, that we might come to “Know the LORD,” as the prophet Jeremiah put it…(p)
…the God of Abraham, Isacc, Jacob, Moses, David and Isaiah…
…the God made known in, through, and as the man, Jesus. (p)
o God gave us the Bible so that we might come to gain an intimate acquaintance with Himself …
…and then live our lives in cooperation with Him as He works the heal, restore, and transform the world. (p)
What motivates a person to make a splash in this Kingdom water in which we live? (p)
- An intimate, personal, living-giving connection to the God and Savior of the world, Jesus Christ. (p)
- Think about it…
o Why does Jesus tell the story we just read about the persistent widow? (p)
o He tells the story to communicate who our Father is…
He tells the story to fuel us with motivation for not giving up, for not losing hope, because God will indeed act to fulfill His promises to set everything right (to give “justice” as our text puts it)…(p)
o It is on the basis of who God is that Jesus appeals to us to persist, to keep on…
…to keep on praying, and acting, and living as if the Kingdom is real, as if we really are in water. (p)
- And if anyone lacks this motivation, then the fact of the matter is that person just does not know who it is that has loved them and invited them to participate in what God is doing in the world…(p)
- And if that is the case, then you’re missing out…(p)
o …you’re missing out on real, true, deep, life…
o …”the life that really is life,” as Paul puts it at the end of his first letter to Timothy…
(11am) Can I get an amen? (p)
But here’s the thing: No one has to miss out. (p)
- And I think that this is what Dr. Knight is at pains to communicate…
o Don’t get me wrong: you can opt out if you want…
…you can choose, instead, to orient your life around money or politics or fame or fashion…
…the list of replacements that will leave you ultimately wanting never ends…
o But no one has to miss out on knowing the One for whom they were made. (p)
God has made sure of that by giving us His very words…
Note 2 Timothy 3:16: “All scripture,” writes the apostle, “is inspired by God…”
- Literally, “All of Scripture is breathed out or spoken by God…”
“…and is useful for teaching…”
- (for communicating to us the truth about the nature of ultimate reality, the truth about who God is…)
“…for reproof…”
- (for pointing out what we’re getting wrong…and yes, we do get things wrong…or else we wouldn’t need God to come and die for us…)
“…for correcting…”
- (for setting what is wrong in us right)
“…and for training us in righteousness…”
- (for helping us to live in a cooperative, interactive relationship with God)…”

“…so that we might be proficient (or competent) in (doing) every good work that God calls us to do.” (p)
No one has to miss out on knowing God and all that that entails because the Scriptures are the means by which God has promised that we can get to sufficiently know Him…
- And by “sufficiently,” I mean that God, through the Bible, promises to equip us to know Him in a way that we know where we stand with Him and how to participate with Him in what He is up to in the world…(p)
- By giving us the Scriptures, God has given us access to a personal, live-giving friendship with Him. (p)
And so if it is, indeed, knowledge of God that motivates us to dive in, swim around, and make a splash in this Kingdom water in which we find ourselves, I say let’s go to the means by which God has promised to make Himself known…
- Let’s become people who read, mark, and inwardly digest Holy Scripture, as the collect puts it so well…
- And as we do so, let’s invite others to join in…
I sense Jesus asking us a question this morning…
- It’s coming through Dr. Knight’s email, and through the texts we’ve read…
- When Jesus returns to the creation bodily, as we confess in the Creed, each week, that He will…will He find faith on earth? (p)
- Will He find us, the people who identify with the institution we call “the church,” as people who know Him? (p)
o Will He find us swimming in this water of the Kingdom that He died to give us? (p)
o Will He find us getting to know Him through Scripture, and acting accordingly, “making a splash,” as George has put it? (p)
o Or will He find those who claim to be His people floating along…aimlessly drifting from one amusement to the next? (p)
The water of the Kingdom of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is all around us. (p)
- The means to knowing this God is readily accessible to us…(p)
- The life that really is life is within our grasp…(p)
“And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Twenty-First after Pentecost

Proper 23C-1 Luke 17: 11-19

It isn’t a parable, though it sure sounds like one. Luke has spent the last few chapters of his gospel presenting this extended scene—beginning with Jesus leaving the Sabbath Table of the prominent religious official to mingle with the crowds, to preach, teach, heal and bless.  And then when he is criticized for conduct unbecoming a rabbi—consorting with sinners and working on the Sabbath--he strikes back with a series of pointed parables: the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, the Prodigal Son, the Unjust Steward, Lazarus and Dives.  Each presenting a vivid contrast between the comfortable, materialistic, secure, compromising, fearful, and ultimately hypocritical values evident in the lives of the establishment religious officials, and a vision of God’s kingdom: a kingdom of extravagant mercy, generosity, joy, humility, hospitality, modesty, unselfish holiness and obedience.  A vivid contrast that certainly made the officials more and more intent on getting Jesus off stage, by any means necessary. 

Luke decides that this is the time to tell about something that happened maybe a few weeks earlier.  We will remember back in Luke chapter 9, as the journey from the Galilee to Jerusalem was just beginning, the first place Jesus and his disciples passed through was a village of Samaritans.  (I preached a sermon on this text when it was appointed back on June 26th, so I’m sure it’s still going to be fresh in your minds!)  Jesus had sent someone on ahead to see if they might find somewhere to spend the night, but the Samaritans, who were hostile to the Jews, shut the door in their faces.  (If the tables had been turned, of course, the residents of a Jewish village would for sure have refused a similar request from a group of traveling Samaritans.)  In any event, the disciples wanted to punish the Samaritan villagers by praying that God would send down a storm of fire to consume them, but Jesus rebuked the disciples, and had them continue traveling.  Now here in chapter 17 we have this flashback.

 It seems that soon after this event, while they were in the same region, they came across some lepers at the entrance to another small village.  (We’re reminded that the word “leprosy” in the gospels doesn’t necessarily refer to the specific condition modern medicine calls Hansen’s Disease.  It’s what they would call any kind of disfiguring skin condition, whether chronic or transient.   We would probably have a number of diagnostic categories.  But those who suffered from these conditions were all considered ritually unclean and socially untouchable.  They were not permitted to work, to pray in the synagogue, to live at home with their families, to participate in any aspect of community life.   They became outcasts and pariahs out on the farthest margins of the community.  Their wives and husbands and parents and children could have nothing to do with them.  In the deeply family-centered and communal near-eastern culture this was pretty much like a sentence of death.)

So now Jesus and his disciples come along.  The lepers call out, “have mercy on us.”  Spare change?   You don’t even have to come close.  Just toss us a few coins!  But Jesus responds dramatically.  He stops, approaches them, speaks directly to them.  Eye contact and physical proximity.  He says, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”  Which is what would need to happen for them before they could be restored to their families and community.  To get an official health department certificate to show that they are no longer suffering from their condition and can return to ordinary life.  And Luke says that that’s what they did, right away.  They heard Jesus, and immediately they got up and headed to the synagogue.   No questions asked.  The gospels sometimes comment Jesus spoke as one “with authority.”  In any event, the Ten Lepers don’t respond in a skeptical way.  “Thanks very much, but how about a couple of dollars instead?”  Even before they can see any evidence of change, they do what he says.  Hebrews 11 calls faith “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”  And as they stepped out in faith, a miracle happened:  “As they went,” Luke says, “they were cleansed.”

So, another great work of power, as we have seen again and again in Luke and all the gospels.  Jesus exercising his authority over the powers and principalities of this world.   But then the further twist, which seems to be why Luke is telling the story.  He sees in what happens next in the story as another example of the moral and spiritual contrast that Jesus has been setting out in this series of parables.   The point isn’t only about the healing miracle. That just sets the table for what follows.  Which is that one of the lepers stops when he sees what has happened.  He turns, even before he gets to the synagogue for his certificate.  He returns to find Jesus, and to thank him, to fall at his feet in tearful appreciation--to thank him and to worship.  A perfect illustration of metanoia, repentance: a change of mind, a change of life-direction. And interestingly Luke tells us it turns out that of the ten in the group, this one happened to be a Samaritan.  Maybe originally from that village we heard about in chapter 9.  Maybe he himself or members of his family were some of the Samaritans who had turned Jesus away just a short while ago.  But now he is kneeling before him, overflowing with thanks.  And Jesus offers this grateful Samaritan a personal benediction, in verse 19: “Go your way; you faith has made you well.”

The key point of this story comes home when we notice the contrast between two words, and different translators try to communicate this in different ways.  In verse 14 we are told here in the RSV that as all 10 of the lepers were headed to the local priest to show themselves, they were “cleansed.”  But then in verse 19, again, Jesus tells the one thankful Samaritan leper, “your faith has made you well.”  In Greek the word Luke uses in verse 14 is katharizo, literally to purge, or scour, or clean, and certainly seems to refer to the evidence of disease, removing the presenting symptoms.  But then in verse 19, sozo, literally to save, rescue, restore.  To heal.  To make whole.  Your faith has saved you.

All ten obey.  All ten are cured.  But it is in the change of heart, metanoia, repentance,  in and through the response of thankfulness and worship, the heart overflowing with gratitude,  that this deeper wholeness and restoration and salvation comes to the one who returned to the source, to the giver of the gift.  Years ago Lloyd Ogilvie, the pastor of the Hollywood Presbyterian Church, had a famous sermon on the character of faithful Christian life called the “Attitude of Gratitude.” A life of Thanksgiving.  The Greek word for an expression of thanks is “eucharist.”  And the fact that the one who is saved here in this “eucharistic moment” is a Samaritan is a delicious irony.  “Who you are” obviously has nothing to do with it, because he’s a complete nobody. You can’t get farther outside the circle of Jewish life than by being a Samaritan leper.  You can’t get farther from the top of the ladder where those Scribes and Pharisees were living, among the Jerusalem elites. All ten obeyed Jesus, just as those Scribes and Pharisees are great at the details of external obedience.  Yet of the ten, only one is saved.  The one who stopped and returned to Jesus.  The Samaritan.

To make a pun, what Jesus the Great Diagnostician has been saying through this section of the gospel is that these Scribes and Pharisees suffer from a kind of “heart disease.” It’s not a question of their credentials or their outward observance, but of their character.  Not about who they are, but about whose they are.  And so Luke’s invitation in recalling this story for us.  Where are we in this story?  Who are we?  About stepping back, taking a deep breath, looking deeper, turning around.  We do have choices to make.  And one choice in particular.  We may think we’re doing just fine, as the Nine Lepers must have felt as they rushed to the priest for their documents and then returned to their old lives, their work, their families, their communities.  But for the one who comes back to Jesus, a conversion and transformation, his heart is full and changed his life is made new.  For him it wasn’t about going back to his old life, but about moving on forward to one that would be new and fresh in Jesus.  Where are we in this story?  Who are we?

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