Sunday, July 17, 2016

Summer Note

Shore Leave, 2016

For the next couple of weeks Susy and I will be off to Massachusetts to enjoy a bit of beach time in the pleasant seaside town of Scituate

--which is Susy's ancestral home.

Many thanks to Deacon Jean Chess and Assistants Dan Isadore and  Dean Byrom for attending to pastoral concerns (call the Church Office if you need to be in touch with them) while I'm away.

Susy and I will be slipping into a back pew at St. Luke's, Scituate, for the next two Sundays, where my friend Grant Barber has been rector for a number of years now . . . .

And in the meantime on Sundays, July 24th and 31st, the 10 a.m. St. Andrew's service will be led by our good friend and Priest Associate, the Rev. Dr. Philip Wainwright.  Always a pleasure to welcome Phil on Sunday mornings at St. Andrew's!

I of course will return rested and ready for action on Sunday, August 7!



Ninth after Pentecost

Proper 11C1 Luke 10: 38-42

So the pilgrims from Galilee are getting closer to Jerusalem: here in Luke 10 arriving at the home of the sisters Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus, in the village of Bethany--the suburbs of the Holy City.  But Jesus isn’t ready to make his dramatic Palm Sunday entrance yet.  That won’t happen until Luke 19!  Instead for a while he is going to move around the outskirts, the nearby towns and villages of Judea.  This had been ground zero for John the Baptist and his movement, and now folks seem to be coming from all over to hear John’s cousin Jesus, the famous rabbi from Nazareth in Galilee, remembering things John before he was arrested and killed had said about him.  Jesus, the one everybody’s been talking about—stirring up the common people and making the religious and secular authorities increasingly nervous--sermons and teaching, healings, exorcisms, amazing miracles.  Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are apparently old friends, in the wider circle of disciples--and of course we read more about them, and especially the story of the raising of Lazarus, in St. John’s gospel. 

This is a brief vignette in Luke 10 with Mary and Martha.  Familiar to us in part because from the story we get the idea that “a Martha” is someone who fusses a lot with the distractions of the day while “a Mary” is a more intellectual or contemplative or spiritual type.   We know from the way Mary and Martha interact with Jesus in St. John’s gospel that this is an oversimplification of their characters and their relationship with Jesus—but nonetheless the contrasting behaviors in this story in Luke have become a part of our common vocabulary.

It’s interesting I think that we’re told in verse 38 that Martha “received” Jesus “into her house.”  Not into “their house,” Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.  And actually Lazarus doesn’t get mentioned at all in this story.   It’s Martha’s house, and her younger sister and brother have apparently come to live with her.  Which would explain perhaps why Martha seems to feel with greater emphasis an ownership of the responsibilities of hospitality.  Explains also her additional annoyance with Mary.  Her sister is acting like a guest when she should be supporting her efforts of hospitality--helping her to set the table and get the roast out of the oven, and so on.  “Do I have to do all the work around here?”

In any event, the contrast of the two sisters does seem to be the point of this story, what we’re supposed to notice.  Martha, “distracted with much serving . . . anxious and troubled about many things.”  Mary, sitting with the disciples at the feet of the Lord and listening to his teaching.    And Jesus giving the obvious moral of the story, “one thing is needful.”  Mary has “chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.”  Two ways to think about our personal relationship to Christ, the nature of Christian discipleship, the life and mission of the Church.

On the eve of Holy Week, a little ways down the road, just before Palm Sunday, when Jesus and his disciples will be back in this house, as we read in John’s gospel, it will be Mary who will anoint the feet of Jesus with aromatic oil and then dry them with her hair.  This tender act of devotion, which perhaps we see foreshadowed in the story this morning.  For Mary it’s always, always,  all about Jesus.  To drink in his words, his teaching, to bask in his presence.  Open eyes, ears, mind, and heart: and to offer worship without restraint or calculation, giving everything to express the tenderness of her love. 

We’ve just come as we read this chapter of Luke from the scene of Jesus and his street-corner debate with the Teacher of the Law and the Parable of the Good Samaritan—which left us with the question: who will be our savior when we are beaten and bruised and left by the side of the road?  Not the institution, it turns out—rabbis and lawyers, chief priests, popes and bishops, councils and conventions, rectors, vestries, committees and projects, not ceremonies and sacrifice—but God himself,  appearing as one despised and rejected, yet offering himself to pay the full cost of our healing, to bring blessing and peace and life.   That wounded traveler certainly could have sung about his Samaritan savior, “yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”

And now in the very next scene, Martha, who welcomes Jesus with formality into her home, but she is so taken up with the externalities of setting the table and preparing the meal that she is just about entirely disconnected from the one she has invited in.  So busy that she misses the moment.  And in contrast: Mary sitting at the feet of the Lord.  An icon.  A picture, a reflection of what it looks like, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and strength.   The first and great commandment.  An icon of the faithful church, of each individual Christian.  At his feet, listening to his teaching.  Drinking it in.  The whole rest of the world fades away, and he is all in all.  Jesus is everything.  Mary opens her eyes and her ears and her mind and her heart, to receive, embrace,  breathing-in his every word.  Remember what the heavenly voice said to the disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration just a short time ago in the 9th chapter, as this journey to Jerusalem began:  “This is my beloved Son: Listen to him!”  Mary has chosen the good portion, Jesus says.  The good portion.

Hard not to think of phrases of Psalm 119 as they might well up in the heart of Mary of Bethany.  With my whole heart I seek you; let me not stray from your commandments.  My delight is in your statutes; I will not forget your word.  This is my comfort in my trouble, that your promise gives me hope.  Your statues have been like songs to me wherever I have lived as a stranger. The law of your mouth is dearer to me than thousands in gold and silver.  Your word is a lantern to my feet and a light upon my path. Early in the morning I cry out to you, for in your word is my trust. I long for your salvation, O Lord, and your law is my delight.

Watching Mary this morning, sitting at the feet of Jesus, I think about our summer book this year, Mark Ashton’s “Christ and His People.”   Mary as an icon of the individual Christian and of the faithful church.   Ashton begins his book by unpacking this complex sentence: “the word of God does the work of God through the Spirit of God in the people of God.”  A good English Evangelical like Ashton doesn’t talk much about having a “patron saint,” but certainly in spirit Mary of Bethany would be just right for him and for his congregation.  Perhaps for all of us.   St. Paul in Romans talks about faith in Christ as being something that lies asleep in us, until it is awakened by the Word. Which is why teaching and preaching and Bible Study and spiritual conversation are all so important.  In the words of Archbishop Cranmer’s Collect for the Second Advent Sunday, on Holy Scripture: “ Grant that we may in such wise hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest it, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life.” It is when we take in the word, each one of us—each one of us like Mary at the feet of Jesus—that the church comes to life, that the mission of Jesus begins in us. 

We all have a bit of sympathy for Martha.  I mean, it is certainly true that sooner or later somebody is going to need to get to the dishes!  But it is so easy for us too, and almost tempting sometimes I think, to be like her, “distracted,” caught up so much in the things that matter less, that we end up missing what matters most.  To forget about the main thing being to keep the main thing the main thing.  We remember the saying, “no man on his deathbed ever said that he wished he had spent more time at the office.”  Perhaps to say, “no one of us in our relationship with Christ, as he has come near to us and into our homes and our lives, will ever say with Martha that we wished we had spent more time in the kitchen.” 

The point isn’t to be judgmental for the Martha in us, or for our involvement in programs and activities and the general busyness of our lives.  We all would strive to do the best we can in a complex world.  It’s just a tap on the shoulder about perspective, about remembering why it is we’re doing what we’re doing.  About finding our “inner Mary.”   Each one of us.  “This is my beloved Son: listen to him!”  That’s the invitation this morning, and as we have heard his word in Holy Scripture, as we approach the Holy Table.   Taking a breath, opening our eyes and ears, our minds and our hearts, leaving the dishes in the sink for a little while, whatever that image may stand for in our lives--and instead going on in to the inner room, to sit at his feet: to be with Jesus.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Eighth after Pentecost

 Proper 10C1  Luke 10: 25-37

The dramatic journey continues in Luke from the Mount of the Transfiguration to Jerusalem and Holy Week.  First as we read two weeks ago in Luke 9 there was the incident at the Samaritan village—as Jesus and his disciples were refused the customary hospitality of travelers.  No room in the inn for them!  And then,  in last week’s reading from the first part of the 10th chapter, the mission of the 70,  sent out two by two to preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins and the coming of the Savior and his Kingdom.  There were some amazingly positive things that happened, we’ll remember, but also doors slamming.  Rejection.  An early foretaste of what it would mean to be “lambs in the midst of wolves.”

Now the pilgrims, becoming something of a crowd as folks come out to see them,  are stopped in one of the towns along the way by a lawyer--which we probably should understand not quite in our modern secular sense anyway.  What we might in our context call a “canon lawyer,” in this case a rabbi specially trained in the scriptures, a teacher of the Law of Moses, a “Torah expert,” an important leader, someone to whom the community would go for questions and judgments on matters of Jewish religious law and custom.  He approaches Jesus to “test” him, which is an interesting word.  It’s a question addressed by one debater to another.   It’s strategic, an opening move, searching out a weak spot.   Tell me, Jesus, “what must one do to inherit eternal life?”   Throwing down the rhetorical gauntlet:  show me what you’re made of.

This Jesus crowd must be creating quite a stir, a buzz, and those in the villages who heard the message of the 70 now have come out to see what is going on.  The authorities can’t ignore it anymore.  They feel forced to step in now to see if they can’t nip this business in the bud.   To demonstrate that they are the ones the people should trust and follow--and not this charismatic but uncredentialed country preacher from Nazareth. 

Jesus is quick to turn the tables:  “You tell me.”    The Lawyer then quotes Deuteronomy 6 to show that he is on top of his game.  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.”  Right in the heart and center of Biblical Jewish teaching.  But the lawyer tries another move to see if he can’t find something he can use:  “All right, then, Jesus: who is my neighbor?” 

 Jesus doesn’t quote scripture.  Instead he steps into the preaching role that has been so effective in his ministry in the Galilee.  He tells what is for us of course the familiar Parable. A wounded victim,  two stock religious officials.  We might think of them as colleagues of the Lawyer, both of whom of course would have recited from memory the same verse that the Lawyer has just quoted about loving God and loving neighbor, even as they pass by and look the other way.   In Matthew 23 Jesus tells his disciples to pay attention to the words of these religious leaders, but not to follow their example.  Probably a good bit of advice in any era.  They talk the talk, but they won’t walk the walk.  “Whitewashed sepulchers,” he calls them.  Like tombs that are beautiful on the outside but full of death and corruption within.  --And then, finally, famously, the Good Samaritan himself-- the last person in the world the rabbi or priest or Levite or any even marginally observant Jew would ever have pictured in such a role. The hero of the story—the most unlikely character of all ends up embodying the values that the official defenders of the faith can’t seem to put into practice in their personal lives.

It’s not hard to find the kinds of analogies that we would search for to get the impact of this.  Thinking this week with a heaviness of heart about the polarities and divisions in our own society,  Questions about who our neighbor is.   In the tensions in the African American community and among those who serve in police and public safety positions, issues of trust and connection--and in all the latent electricity that gets sparked across the political spectrum and in the press and media and social platforms.   We imagine settling down to talk with a circle of  Palestinian villagers in the occupied West Bank, and to share with them the Parable of the Good Israeli.  In Apartheid South Africa we venture into a shebeen in the urban sprawl of Soweto and recount for the gathered crowd the Parable of the Good Afrikaner.  Perhaps we gather a few Hillary supporters and tell the Parable of the Good Trump Supporter!

We just so often put our trust in all the wrong places.  That’s the idea that makes this story work.  We expect one thing, we get something else altogether.   What we think is going to save us when the chips are down, when our backs are against the wall.  Who and what we think we can count on.  Those two religious officials: if the victim of the mugging was awake at all, he must have rejoiced to see them coming down the road!  We all have our own items on the list.  Our financial resources, our education and careers, our physical fitness, our intelligence, our respectability, our friends, our families, our political and social and religious institutions and leaders, the fact that we go to church on Sundays or give to good causes or support the right causes and candidates.   

If we were doing an analysis of this story in an undergraduate English Lit. course one of the bright students would probably point out fairly quickly that the Samaritan is “a kind of Christ figure.”  The unexpected outsider who gives sacrificially of himself to save one who has done nothing to deserve that precious gift.   The stranger who pays the debt in full, before the debtor even knows how much he owes.  It is precisely in and through this Samaritan, of all people, and not through one of those religious leaders, that the peace and hospitality and gracious blessing of God’s kingdom is revealed.  

 If the Lawyer posed the question in the first place to “test” Jesus, Jesus is testing him right back—and testing us too, I guess.  Because we all know, don’t we,  that all those places where we most of the time turn to find our help in the day of trouble, they’re like the house built on sand that Jesus talks about at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 7.  Deep down we know, though we try to pretend otherwise, that one heavy storm will wash the whole thing away.   In the end none of that will save us, just as the priest and Levite who passed by would save the man by the side of the road.  They just didn’t have it in them.  None have foundations deep enough to stand against the storm of sin and death.  We know that.  None of them are able to pay the price that needs to be paid.  What the crowd may be thinking as they look at their canon lawyer this morning.  The thought that may go through all our minds.  Who will be the one who will stop for us?

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

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Seventh after Pentecost

Proper 9C1    Luke 10: 1-20
Baptism of Brody Potter Harris

Good morning.  A holiday weekend, and we might note for Brody’s Baby Book that on the occasion of his baptism there were flags and parades and fireworks from sea to shining sea!  Especially appropriate for a family so dedicated to the service of our country here on the eve of Independence Day.  A  celebration here in the Church Militant, and we know in the realms of heaven, as the Church Triumphant joins the choir with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.  That’s poetry in a way, but also reality.  It’s a simple thing that happens at the font, but simplicity is often deceptive.  There isn’t anything more important in heaven or on earth than what happens when Christian people gather faithfully by and in and through the waters of baptism to be joined to the death and resurrection and eternal life of our savior Jesus Christ.  The ancient stain of our sin and rebellion against God washed away by his sacrifice.  The power of the Evil One turned to crushing defeat.  A truly new life begins!

Last Sunday in the second part of the 9th chapter of Luke we turned a corner in the story as Jesus and his disciples come down from their mountaintop experience of Transfiguration.  The time has arrived, his “hour,” and he “sets his face toward Jerusalem.”  Now begins the long procession toward  Holy Week and the Cross.  In last Sunday’s gospel reading we’ll remember that the party attempted to stop on the first night in a Samaritan village—but that they were turned away, refused hospitality.  Just the beginning of what will be a steadily gathering crescendo of rejection, opposition, persecution.  The disciples didn’t handle the situation well.  We might say, not a very Christian response.  They immediately wanted to call down a blast of fire from heaven to punish and destroy the Samaritans.  Jesus calms them and encourages them to continue on the journey in a different spirit. 

This morning’s reading from the first part of Luke 10 gives us another moment in this journey to Jerusalem.  We notice that in addition to his near circle of the 12 Jesus is accompanied by a larger crowd.  Here he sends a group of 70 two by two to announce his coming in the  towns and villages along the way.  The point not simply to arrange for lodging and hospitality, but even more to preach the Good News and to recruit new disciples.  Repentance and the forgiveness of sins.  To announce that the savior is on his way to Jerusalem.   “The harvest is plentiful,” he tells them.  “The laborers are few.”  Even 70, traveling two by two, won’t be enough to knock on every door.  (So Brody doesn’t need to worry at all that there won’t be anything left for him to do in the life and mission of the church when he gets a little older and is ready to help!)  At the same time the incident of the Samaritan village is fresh in their memories, and Jesus reminds them of that as well.  There are going to be doors slamming in their faces, and worse.  “I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves.”    There are some who will welcome them and him, who will hear the word and receive it with joy.  Others will turn away with a sneer, or worse.  Being an ambassador of Christ isn’t going to be all sunshine and fair breezes.  There will be opposition all along the way.

That’s the reality of the life we are dedicating Brody to here this morning.  Joy in the Lord, but not an easy joy.  To paraphrase the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote about "Costly Discipleship," today we approach a “costly joy.”  The life of faith and obedience always to encounter cross winds and storms and steep uphill climbs.  Sometimes the edge of the sword, even torture and death, and sometimes simply what happens when you’re swimming against the tide of time and culture.  Sheep in the midst of wolves.

The disciples are encouraged to be steadfast as they head out into their mission.  I’m reminded of the wonderful verse in First Peter chapter 5 that is one of the set readings from scripture in Compline, the Prayer Book service before going to bed at night.  “Be sober, be vigilant, because your adversary the devil, like a roaring lion walketh about, seeking whom he may devour; whom resist steadfast in the faith.”  I remember hearing that verse as a child and being so caught up with it.  A roaring lion!   It may be that we tell our kids as they go to bed at night that there are no monsters under the bed or in the closet.  But of course we know better.  When Brody gets older we’ll need to explain this to him: there are monsters.  There is a roaring lion seeking someone to devour.  This is situation normal.    Sometimes the enemy out in the open, sometimes in deep disguise.  The small Jewish villages of Chorazin and Bethsaida and Capernaum might have seemed like friendly territory at first, certainly safer than that Samaritan village.  These were the hometowns to many of Jesus’s disciples, right down the road from Nazareth.  Places where many are willing to greet Jesus with a round of polite applause.  He was a local boy, after all, from down the road in Nazareth.  But appearances can be deceiving, and the spiritual reality sets them with Sodom and Tyre and Sidon and all the great cities that have fallen under the shadow of darkness by choosing the path of sin rather than the way of obedience to God.  We expect our enemies to look like enemies, dangerous monsters to look like monsters, lions to look and sound like roaring lions--but the betrayal and rejection and opposition that the disciples will face will so often come from those who are near.  Who look like friends and family.

So the word to Brody this morning—this isn’t an easy course we’re signed up for.  Starting right here at this font.  Fun baby pictures and balloons and cake and family celebrations are entirely appropriate, but even so, this is serious business.

Then in our reading this morning the conclusion of the mission of the 70.  Pretty exciting. Even in a world of monsters and wolves and roaring lions!  If the disciples got failing marks at the Samaritan village, this time things go much better.  The word is proclaimed with clarity and strength.  The workers sent  into the harvest to announce the transforming power of the gospel--and “even the demons” scatter at their approach.  Teacher Jesus writes a glowing comment of encouragement at the top of the paper.  “A+, guys!  While you were out there, I could see “Satan falling like lightning from heaven.’”  What you are doing in these little villages along the road today may seem small.  The conversation with a villager.  A quiet prayer with someone  ill or distressed or in grief.  A word of encouragement and forgiveness and hope to one who is lost in sin and doesn’t see any way out.  To stand at the door of a home and pronounce a blessing in the name of the Lord.  No headlines there.  No earthshaking miracles.  But nonetheless of eternal significance.  You’ve seen wonderful things happen around you, disciples and friends.  Certainly worth celebrating.  But celebrate this, that though these victories seem small and transitory, they are recorded in heaven.  Our cheers here simply a foretaste of the abundant  banquet of joy and feasting and thanksgiving in the realms of the Father.  And you, and we, are part of that. 

Here at this font on a summer morning.  What a joy and privilege.  Thank you, Mike and Anna, and Bradley and Brycen, two great big brothers, I know--and our godparents and family and friends and good people of St. Andrew’s.  The reality is that all creation, everything in heaven and on earth, turns to this place and to this moment.  To welcome the Lord to his holy Temple and among his people and in their hearts and minds and lives, to hear and receive his Good News.    “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.”  A big deal.  The key moment in the story.  A joy and a privilege as disciples of Jesus to be a part of it.

Now I would ask Brody Potter Harris and his family and his godparents to come forward to continue the baptismal office.