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.