Sunday, December 10, 2017

Second Advent, 2017

II Peter 3: 8-15

I don’t know if you’ve had the chance yet to read Bishop McConnell’srecent meditation on “Waiting in Advent.” I thought it was really quite insightful—and of course from him, always beautifully written.  I’ve shared it with the St. Andrew’s Facebook page and sent a link also to our E-mail distribution list.  And by the way if you haven’t seen it yet because you haven’t “liked” the St. Andrew’s Facebook page or because your e-mail isn’t on our distribution list, please let me know and we can get you connected.  For those who don’t want to work via the digital technologies, there are paper copies as well on the credenza in Brooks Hall.  A very nice resource to add to our Advent.

Again, about all this waiting, and this morning, from 2 Peter 3

The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.  But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up.  Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the Day of God?   Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish, and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.

I think a lot of what gives Advent its richness and resonance is the elegant way in which it holds in tension, in balance, the anticipation of Christmas, which is of course all around us--the annual re-telling of the story of the Birth of Jesus, with all the liturgical and cultural and social and commercial expressions built around that re-telling—and what we might call the gestational anticipation that all Christians have of the Great Day, the Great Day, when we shall see and know and experience his Second Advent,  in power and great glory, to judge all peoples according to his righteousness.  To set things right once and for all.  It’s not like we choose one Advent or the other.  We hold them both at the same time. 

These two Advents--across the range of holy time, past and future--and so profoundly connected that in some sense neither can be true and fully known without being seen clearly in reference to the other.  We remember, and as we remember we at the same time lean forward in hope, in expectation.   Insofar as we celebrate the Savior’s Birth, a time of warmth and joy.  I heard someone say the other day, “God is crazy about you.  That’s the meaning of Christmas.  God is crazy about you.  And then at the same time as we look toward the East for his arrival on the clouds to bring judgment and justice, a time of sober penitence, prayer and fasting.  Our patient preparation, in the space of God’s patience, while we come around to him, while the Holy Spirit works in us.  He is crazy about us, he loves us so much that he will give us this space of time as the Spirit works in us, so that we will be ready when he comes.

And so we go on living our lives.  Days, weeks, years, decades, and it turns out centuries.  Generations.  The fullness of the Kingdom, the Manger, the Empty Tomb, the promise of his return: already, but not yet.  And to think about how we live in Advent, these weeks in December that we as Christians set aside in a special observance, as a way of thinking about how we live our lives.   What the theologians call an “interim ethic.” Those reborn in Christ, baptized into his death, joined to his resurrection, are gradually over the course of our lives prepared here in this world for the life of the world to come.  What will he find in us, when he comes?  Every once in a while someone will say that we Christians are called to be “Easter People,” and of course the victory of his resurrection is the lens through which the whole story must be read.  But in another way, and I think in a richer way, it is right to say that we are called to be “Advent People.”  In this middle ground.  Where we don’t get it perfectly, not on this side of the Kingdom, but where we somehow do what we can to make progress, if we make progress,  just a little at a time.  The Holy Spirit working in us.  But nourished by Word and Sacrament to live and to serve him in newness of life.  Just to find an hour a day to pray, to read his Word.  Or five minutes . . . .  So our Advent is to describe how we get ready for Christmas, and this second Advent—how we get ready for the fullness of his Kingdom, when he comes again.

Like the servant who doesn’t know when his master will return.  Who has to get things ready and to keep things ready, so that all will be in order when he arrives.  Like the well-prepared virgin bridesmaids, whose lamps were filled with oil. Like the Steward who can give a good account to his Master of the Talents left in his care. 

How do we live in the meantime?  What sort of people are we to be, as Peter sets the question before us this morning.  John the Baptist seems to have a pretty clear idea, in his preaching out there by the Jordan River.  Especially in our modern lectionaries he rises up as a defining character of Advent.  Preaching baptism for repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.   What kind of person should I be? How do I live in the meantime.  To be engaged, to enjoy.  To tend my garden, care for my family, complete the work here that he has given me to do, with creativity and enthusiasm as best I can, but without trying to hold on to the things that are passing away.  What kind of church are we supposed to be?  A good question to ask and think about.  As a lot of us are.  What’s going on around St. Andrew’s right now?  What kind of direction and correction and repentance and renewal are we being called to?  Why we need Advent.  Just as the Hebrews needed those 40 years of Wilderness life to be cleansed of the vestiges of their Egyptian slavery, to be prepared to take possession of the Land of Promise.  Just as the ancient Jews needed their decades of exile in Babylon and Egypt and Persia, to come to terms with their unfaithfulness, to re-orient their lives in relationship to God. 

So, this Advent, for us.  Peter says that this space, this interval, this wilderness, this life we share, December 2017, all of it, is for us the patience of God, he’s holding back, not turning the page quite yet for the next chapter of the story, while the Spirit works in us to sort things out.  The First Advent in one hand, the Second in the other.  And certainly in the meantime to cultivate this Advent quality in our own lives.  At church, at home, at work.  Patient with one another.  Patient with ourselves.  The Eastern Orthodox call Advent a “Little Lent,” and it is a space for us like the days of Lent,  remembering the call to observance on Ash Wednesday, to the observance of a holy season, “by self examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”  A reminder to make good use of the time we have.

The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.  But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up.  Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the Day of God?   Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish, and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.

Blessings again in this Advent, this New Year of our lives.  While we still have time, in this Advent, walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Advent Sunday, 2017

Dan Isadore's sermon this morning.  Isaiah 64: 1-9

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Last after Pentecost, Next before Advent, Christ the King

Matthew 25: 31-46

So this is a Sunday of transition in the Church Year, a day with something of an “identity crisis,” with several titles, as you see on the cover of the leaflet.  First, and this is the official name of the day on our Episcopal Church calendar, simply the “last Sunday” of the Church Year, this long season of Ordinary Time after Pentecost and Trinity Sunday.  Next Sunday, December 3, is Advent, a new year, and our annual retelling of the Holy Story will begin again with the ancient Prophets.   So the last page of the book, the final scene of the play.  Winding things up.

On the other hand, in the Church Calendar of the Anglican world, ours also in the Episcopal Church until the 1979 Calendar revision,  this Sunday is and was set aside not as an ending, but as a prelude.  Not the last page of the old book, but the preface of new, not the final scene, but the overture—that moment when we lean forward with anticipation, as the curtain is about to come up for the story to begin.

The Book of Common Prayer Collect for this Sunday next before Advent, was “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing fort the fruit of good works, may by thee be plenteously rewarded.”   The Collect to remind us in prayer that we are capable of no good work, until God stirs up the capacity for, the desire for good within us, and that we deserve nothing, that we have earned ourselves no reward, except for the reward that he gives to those who call upon his Name.  What the theologians call “prevenient grace.”  That we love him only because first he loves us.    That we desire the good only because he first plants that desire in our hearts and minds and imaginations.  “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people.”    So the day is “Stir up Sunday”—though I didn’t have Michelle put that title on the leaflet also.   As a footnote, in Victorian times the custom began to have this “Stir up Sunday” mark the beginnings of preparation of the Christmas Pudding.   Which needed to be stirred in a big bowl.   I guess we might think of it as something like the Christmas fruitcake.

We also have in the deeper texture of this Sunday—and actually also for the last two Sundays--the earlier practice in the Church of the Middle Ages that was called St. Martin’s Lent.   November 11 is the feast day for St. Martin of Tours, and the three Sundays then before what we now call Advent and the four Advent Sundays were a season of penitential prayer and fasting parallel to the 40 days of Lent from Ash Wednesday through Easter.  If we’ve been listening to the epistle and especially the gospel readings for the past couple of Sundays we have been alerted to this with the increasing focus on “getting ready for the end, for the final accounting”—all of that to set the table for us as we prepare to encounter the four great themes traditionally associated with Advent, the “Four Last Things:” Death and Judgment, Heaven and Hell.  

The wide world outside the Church of course prefers a somewhat different focus for the Holiday Season.  But in the church along with the gentler customs of Advent and our preparation for the annual celebration of the Birth in Bethlehem, we pause perhaps not with the fasting of St. Martin’s Lent, but even so on the Sunday next before Advent, to remind ourselves that the reason Jesus was born for us is that we who are lost, we who are condemned, we who are without any grounds for appeal or to request mitigation of sentence—we really do need a savior.   That’s the foundation of Christianity, the theological convergence of theology and anthropology.  That’s what Advent is supposed to remind us, and in a way that would simultaneously wake us up and flood our hearts with gratitude.  Christmas and Good Friday and Easter are essentially meaningless unless we begin here.  So the Pre-Advent Little Lent of St. Martin.  We really do need a savior.

In any event, finally, the third title for this morning, the Feast of Christ the King, is not actually on the Episcopal Church calendar, although it obviously informs the Collect of the Day.  The feast was first put on the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar at the last Sunday of October in 1925, particularly as a counterpoint to the rising tide of state-sponsored atheism in the new Soviet Union--and later when the new post-Vatican II calendar was published in 1970 it was moved to the Last Sunday in Ordinary Time.  The pre-Advent focus on Last Things is of course still very strong in our readings, and especially in this Parable of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25 this morning, but it is framed for us at the same time in the Collect and the hymns and anthems of the day by the acknowledgment and acclamation of the eternal Lordship of Christ, the One above all others, King of kings and Lord of lords.

Just briefly: the Parable of the Last Judgment, the Sheep and the Goats, is the third and last in the sequence of the Parables of the Kingdom in Matthew 25.  Two weeks ago we heard the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Maidens.  The contrast between those who kept their lamps full and at the ready for the Bridegroom’s return and those who slept thoughtlessly and were caught unprepared.  Then last week the gospel reading was the Parable of the Five Talents.  The contrast between the three Stewards, the two who took the resources the Master had left for them to manage and fearlessly invested them for the Master’s benefit, and the one who was more concerned about his own skin than about the Master’s welfare, who fearfully hid in the ground what the Master had put in his care.   And this morning the Sheep and the Goats.  Those who were so deeply attuned in their faith that even when they didn’t see Jesus directly with their eyes, still served him day by day, in every encounter and opportunity, and those  who were so caught up in themselves that they didn’t notice Jesus as he made himself known to them in the lives of the hungry, the naked, those in prison. 

In this context I love the Thursday Collect in the 1979 Prayer Book service of Evening Prayer.  There’s an evocation of the Easter Evening story of the Disciples and Jesus on the Road to Emmaus, which seems just right for us as a prayer at the end of the year, as we gather ourselves to prepare to kneel once again in just a few weeks at his manger throne:  “Lord Jesus, stay with us, for evening is at hand and the day is past; be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts, and awaken hope, that we may know thee as thou art revealed in Scripture and the breaking of bread.”  A prayer to see Jesus, to know him.  At the end of the old year, leaning forward to welcome the new year,  to honor Christ our King.   In the Word and the Breaking of Bread.  In the face of the poor, the suffering, the lost.  That we might see you, Jesus, where you choose to be, even when those places may not be the ones where we expected to find you.  Kindle our hearts, and awaken hope.

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

Sunday, November 19, 2017

St. Andrew's Day 2017

Matthew 4: 18-22

Good morning fellow St. Andreans-- family, neighbors, and friends.  Our festival day!   Always so much fun—family from near and far, old friends, new friends.  A special welcome and word of thanks, as for so many years, to our friends of the Syria Highlanders.  We are reminded by your presence to include in our prayers the important ministry and 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 in this small way to share in that with you.  Thank you for that opportunity.

This year again St. Andrew’s Day, was circled on the calendar by our Vestry as the official conclusion of our stewardship campaign for 2018--and the idea is that St. Andrew’s Day would be a good and really fitting occasion to share a prayer of dedication of our offerings of time, talent, and treasure.  (In reality we continue to receive pledges of financial commitment for 2018 through the end of the year and sometimes with a last few to be received at the beginning of the new year, so if you haven’t gotten your cards in yet, there’s still time!)
 But today we dedicate all that in our prayers, expressing our gratitude to God for his grace and mercy in all ways, and above all for the gift of his Son and his work at the Cross, for forgiveness and restoration, for our new life in him, and in a very particular way for the privilege of sharing that life together, with one another, here at St. Andrew’s.   And in that context I want to pause once again this year 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 discipleship, Christian stewardship.  Jesus calls to Andrew and Peter: “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.”

I’ve shared with you before the experience of I guess—insight--that I had many years ago, one afternoon back in the 1970’s, when I was pretty new in my adult Christian walk and was looking for something in the parish library of St. Mark’s Church in Berkeley.  I happened upon a newsletter with the title, “Acts 29.”  You’ll remember that later that evening when I was back in my apartment I had this moment of curiosity and opened my Bible to see what Acts 29 was all about. 
The book begins with Jesus and the Disciples at the Mount of the Ascension and then traces the work of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and then flowing through the life of the rapidly expanding Christian community and expansion of the Gospel from Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.  So: Acts 29.  And I opened the Bible only to find that the Book of Acts comes to an end at chapter 28, with Paul preaching and teaching under a kind of house arrest in Rome.  There is no Acts, chapter 29.  A pause, and then the lightbulb over my head.  Acts 29: what comes after Acts 28.  As Paul Harvey used to say on the radio, “the rest of the story.”  The part of the story that comes next.  The part with us in it.  The work of the Holy Spirit, the expansive reach of the Gospel message to every tribe, people, and nation, and in every generation. 

The point here may seem fairly obvious.  But I’ll try to draw it out anyway.  Andrew and Peter were fishermen, a role and a way of life passed down from father to son generation after generation.  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 place in the community, their station of life, the source of their paycheck and their pension. 
And so, what this gesture represents-- this putting down of their nets:  from this point on, 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 mean we’ll never fish again.  But when we do, that will be just what we do, not who we are.  A new identification, if you will.  We’re putting our lives, 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 on, we’re going to be all about this one thing:  following you, Jesus.  Not fishermen anymore, 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 then go home, back to their ordinary lives, 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 put down 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.
 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 and go with 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.  About how entangled we get sometimes in the nets of our lives.  About how our work and study and family roles and community activities somehow become not what we do, but who we are.  We can each of us preach that sermon for ourselves and to ourselves.  Thinking about that old hymn, singing it softly to ourselves in the course of our day, “take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to thee.”  It’s all Acts chapter 29 from this point forward.  The challenge and invitation every year, as St. Andrew joins us in our festival day.    It’s usually not about dropping out, quitting our jobs and heading off to distant lands. 
But it is always, whether we travel around the globe or never get more than a few miles from the place where we were born,  about how we think about ourselves, about why we do what we do, simply and centrally—and just deep down, about who we’re following.

If we would know that, if we know him, we would know everything we need to know.  And he comes to us this morning as he came to Andrew.  Present in his Word, and as we break bread together and share the cup.  And the truth of the matter is that if in our hearts and minds we’re singing “take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to thee,then our 2018 Stewardship Campaign will have been a rousing success, no matter how much money is raised and how many ministries happened to be supported with new participation.  That’s what Peter and our patron Andrew and James and John are singing this morning.  And we are invited in our hearts and minds, in our imaginations, in our souls and bodies, in all our lives, to sing along with them all in the next chapter and chapters of the holy story.  Acts 29. Whatever he may have in mind for us.   And of course for us this morning, all with soaring bagpipes and rolling drums!

Blessings, friends of St. Andrew’s, on this St. Andrew’s Day, here in our church, and in our homes and families, our circles of friends, our neighborhoods, the places we work and study and play.  Here we are, in our section of Acts 29.   The part where we, you and I, go fishing with Jesus.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Twenty-Third after Pentecost

Sermon by Pastoral Associate the Rev. Dean Byrom on Sunday, November 12 (Proper 27A2).  The audio is posted to the St. Andrew's website, click here for sermon audio.

I Thessalonians 4: 13-18

                                                “We Grieve, But with Hope”                

“We do not grieve as those who have no hope,”
writes Paul to the Thessalonians.  Yet we still grieve.  Elsewhere, Paul calls death “the final enemy.”  And when that enemy touches your life - snatching from your loving grasp those whom you love - you grieve.  Grief is normal.  Grief is natural.

Randy Jones, my Clinical Pastoral Education supervisor, used to teach us often about “Grief work”.  And having myself engaged in over an hour of grief work with a member of another church just recently, I affirm that for griever and pastor, that is just how it feels.  It is hard, tough work.

“The hour of lead” is how Emily Dickinson named grief.


And it isn’t just in the few days afterward.  Grief goes on.  The way I figure it, in our congregation, on any given Sunday, over 80% of us are in grief over someone.  That’s why we weep at the funerals of near strangers.  That’s why we avoid funeral homes.  Grief keeps coming back at odd times, grabbing us from behind, and throwing us into deep sadness.
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Loss has so many tentacles that hold us in their grip.  Personally, any time that I read in the paper, see a television show or movies that includes the suffering or death of a young child I am frequently moved to tears which harkens back to the death from cancer of my three year old daughter, Melanie.


Paul says that we grieve.  Yet, we do not grieve “as those who have no hope.”  Hope for what”

Here’s what Christians hope.  We hope that the same God who raised Jesus from the dead, shall raise us as well.  We hope that just as Christ ventured forth from the realm of death into life, so shall He take us along with Him.

Our hope is not unfounded, not wishful thinking.  Our hope for the future is based upon what we know of Christ Jesus in the present.  In “Romans” 8, Paul says that nothing will separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.  If our experience with Christ Jesus has taught us one thing, it is that our God longs to be with us, will do almost anything to be near us, will go to any lengths to have us.
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That is the story that we recite and celebrate every Sunday here at St. Andrew’s.  In the ancient Hebrew Scriptures, the prophets, the Law, the Commandments, the psalms; in Jesus’ birth, life, teaching, death and resurrection, God sought us.

When Jesus was resurrected, what did He do, first thing after He was raised?  He came back to us, to His disciples who had betrayed Him.  
That is the basis of our hope.  We are confident that the God who has gone to such extraordinary lengths to be close to us in life, shall not cease those efforts in death.  Therefore, we do not grieve as those who have no hope.

We believe that the same God who so pursued us, and reached out to us, and sought us all the days of our lives shall not cease to pursue us, reach out to us and seek us even in death.  

Our hope is not in some vague and wishful immortality of the soul, or the expectation of some eternal spark that just goes on and on, or in reincarnation, or any other assumption that we possess within ourselves immortality.
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Our hope is that the love of God is stronger than the devastation of death; that ultimately, nothing shall separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.  God, having gone to such great lengths to save us and have us in life, will continue to demand us even in death.  That is why we do not grieve as those who have no hope.

This is the hope that we experience on Sunday here in worship at St. Andrew’s.  Having experienced, on so many Sundays, Jesus’ coming to us, being really present to us in Word and Sacrament, we hope for and count on His presence with us forever.

Our hope is not that we are immortal, not that some eternal spark lives on in us, surviving death.  Our hope is that we will, by the work and will of God, be with Jesus forever.  Death, the final enemy has been defeated.

So think of Sundays as dress rehearsals for eternal life.  Think of our experiences of Sunday worship as our way of loving Jesus now, so that we might love Him forever, and praise God for all eternity.

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“Because I live, you shall live,” Christ Jesus tells His followers in the Gospel according to John.  That’s why we have hope.  Encourage one another with these words.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

All Saints

Matthew 5: 1-12; Revelation 7: 9-17

The  unending hymn of that multitude beyond number, from every nation, all tribes and people and tongues, before the Throne and before the Lamb, and the hymn of our hearts and voices.   Amen!  Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God for ever and ever!  Amen.

Good morning and always such a beautiful day and a meaningful day here at St. Andrew’s.  With special thanks to our Choir and Orchestra, Pete Luley, Tom Octave—and Tom, so very nice to have you with us this year to lead our Music Memorial.  The music welling up in our hearts and overflowing.  And a word of thanks as well to all who have contributed to our congregational offering of memorial flowers this morning.  Remembering the saints and heroes of ages past, and in our memories and our hearts as well the names and faces of those we have loved but see no longer in this life.  On the calendar of the Episcopal Church this “Sunday after All Saints Day” brings together the two traditional observances, All Saints Day on November 1st, and All Faithful Departed, All Souls, on November 2nd.    A high moment of worship.  For remembrance and reflection, for inspiration, and we might also say of motivation.  To hear in the remembrance of all the saints and holy people of God an invitation to a closer walk with Christ, lifting our sights higher, encouraging us to renewed joyful commitment, the common life of the whole company of faithful people. 

We speak of the “two states” of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.  The Church Militant, and the Church Triumphant.  The two sides of the stream, yet continuing one Body, a Cloud of Witness, All who in the gracious mercy of God are redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, who are justified and brought into relationship to God the Father through faith, who are sanctified by the Holy Spirit, to walk in newness of life, ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven.  Apostles and evangelists, martyrs, faithful witnesses in every generation.  And remembering in our own day the heartbreaking faithful witness of martyrs in places from Egypt to Iraq and Syria, Kenya and Nigeria—it seems almost daily stories of oppression, persecution, and execution for those who will identify themselves as Christian.  Figuring out how to live faithful lives is a challenge in any context, for sure.  But when I hear these stories it does just lead me to a time of reflection and to wondering about how I, how we, live, about witness, courage, all those big questions.  Peter and Andrew, James and John, and their line continues.  Those who stood near Jesus on the Mountain as a preached to the crowd, who heard him with their own ears, and all of us since.  “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Saints and heroes.  In the 1979 Prayer Book lectionary, before the Episcopal Church adopted the Revised Common Lectionary a few  years ago, we had for All Saints  the reading from Ecclesiasticus, which perhaps you’ll remember.  “Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers in their generations.”  The introduction first of the celebrities of the sanctoral calendar, those with calendar days and stained glass windows, bishops and kings, martyrs and miracle workers--but then also this, that “there are some who have no memorial, who have perished as though they had not lived; they have become as though they had not been born, and so have their children after them.  But these were men of mercy, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten; their prosperity will remain with their descendants, and their inheritance to their children’s children.”   Moms and dads, grandmas and grandpas, neighbors, friends, teachers, maybe even a preacher or two.   A reflection in the memorials in our prayers this morning.  Whose faith and character and love in Christ—tenderness, kindness, generosity, will shape our lives in so many meaningful ways.   The images in the stained glass windows of our hearts.  I can’t help but think this morning of our dear friend Dorothy Graham, who died last Sunday and was buried from St. Andrew’s Thursday morning.  In her 91st year—she and her husband Albert lived and raised their family in a little house down on the 700 block of North St. Clair, just a few blocks from here.  Dorothy and Bert’s kids came to St. Andrew’s Sunday School,  went to Fulton School and all the rest, Peabody High, off to college, grew up, married, moved away, had families of their own.  Six great-grandchildren. 

Dorothy for many decades a bright and delightful member of the Altar Guild, best known probably as the one who would every year on the Saturday before Palm Sunday show all the rest of the Guild how to fold the most beautiful and elaborate Palm Crosses.  She always made a dozen or so especially fancy ones for me, asking me to carry them to our shut-in or hospitalized parishioners.   The best ones, really special, so that they would know we were thinking of them.   She was shut in herself pretty much for most of the last 20 years, first in her little apartment over in Aspinwall, then when even that was too difficult to manage, in a nursing home out in Wexford near her daughter’s house.  But always with this great warmth and smile.  No matter what her health was at any particular moment, just a sense of being delighted to be there with you.  She loved to brag on her kids and grandkids.  And there was a lot about them to brag about.   She loved hearing the news of the church, what special events were happening, what was going on in the neighborhood-- receiving communion, praying together, and she always prayed for St. Andrew’s and especially for the children of the parish.   Such a pleasure and such a privilege.  Anyway, just one story.  A bit of memory, reflection.   I could go on all day.  The Church Triumphant, and the Church Militant too, as we would look around old St. Andrew’s this morning.  Just look around.  Who are these like stars appearing?  For all thy saints.  As the children’s hymn goes, “you can meet them in school or in lanes or at sea, in church or in trains, or in shops, or at tea, for the saints of God are just folk like me . . . and I mean to be one too.”  And so we sing on.

Amen!  Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God for ever and ever!  Amen

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Fall Retreat

I'll be away from the parish Wednesday, October 25, through Monday, October 30, on my annual fall retreat at St. Gregory's Abbey, Three Rivers, Michigan.  With thanks for your prayers.

Twentieth after Pentecost

Matthew 22: 15-22

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Nineteenth after Pentecost

Matthew 22: 1-14 (Proper 23A2):  Dress for Success!

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Eighteenth after Pentecost

Proper 22A2 Matthew 21: 33-46

It’s Monday of Holy Week—that’s the setting of our New Testament reading, Matthew 21.  The time left is very short.  The storm is gathering.  Jesus at the Temple, the rabbi from backwater Galilee on center stage at last.  It doesn’t get any more prime time than this.  His last extended public teaching, in debate with the preeminent religious scholars and leaders of the nation and with a large crowd of Jewish pilgrims in attendance, as they have come from every corner of the world to observe the Passover in Jerusalem.   Jesus begins to speak with two parables, two short, symbolic, allegorical stories that share in common a concern for, a focus on, a Vineyard:  The  parable we had as our gospel reading last Sunday, the Parable of the Two Sons, who are called by their Father to work with him in the Vineyard,  and as we heard this morning the Parable of the Unruly Tenants , who abuse the privilege of their stewardship of the Vineyard.  Jesus is being poetic, I guess we could say, but not obscure.  Everybody listening understands, and our Old Testament reading of course reminds us, that the vineyard is a deep and rich Biblical symbol.  Israel as the Vineyard of the Lord.  God’s Nation, God’s Kingdom.

So a father calls his two sons to come work along with him in the Vineyard.  The first son seems to react impulsively in the negative:  he says “no, father, I’ve got better things to do,” but then comes to himself, reconsiders,  repents, rolls up his sleeves, and goes out to join his father.  A pattern that might remind us of the other “Parable of the Two Sons, that we usually call the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  The Son who gets lost, but who finds his way home.  The second Son this morning on the other hand gives a positive answer right off the bat, says all the right words, very enthusiastic, everything you’d expect from a “good son.”  Perhaps we remember the other Son in the Prodigal Son parable as well.  A similar profile.  But in any event, when the appointed hour comes, the Second Son flakes out, goes back on his word, decides he’d rather spend the day at the mall.  He never shows up as he promised, to work with his Father in the Vineyard. 

Jesus asks, “Now, which of these did the will of the Father?”  And the Priests and Pharisees there in the Temple hear how Jesus words the question and concede the obvious point:  “the First son, of course.”  The Second Son was the one who gave the right answer when the Father called, but that’s really beside the point.  Certainly better to say the wrong thing but then to change direction and do the right thing, than to go in the other direction.   What you do in fact matters more in the end than what you say you’re going to do.”  Lots of people know how to “talk a good game.”  But actions speak louder than words.  Kind of reminds me of that sad quotation, that “everybody talks a lot about Christianity; somebody should give it a try.”  The allegory of the parable isn’t hard for anybody in the crowd.  When you want to know who actually is working with the Father in the Vineyard, who is tending God’s people, you don’t go by who was talking a good game, or by superficial markers, like offices and titles and credentials. You don’t listen to promises and formal declarations.   We see politicians all the time after all, even here lately in Western Pennsylvania, who talk the talk and say they stand for something—but when the newspaper gets hold of text messages and e-mails show themselves to be living in another world altogether.   It’s sad to see always, but not really much of a surprise.  You get the feeling that people will say whatever they think they need to say to get ahead, no matter what they really think or intend to do in their real lives.  Which son does the will of the Father?  You look at what actually happens, who actually gets there, who rolls up his sleeves and comes alongside the Father in the heat of the day.  That’s what counts.

The second Vineyard parable follows, our reading this morning, and it pretty much traces  the same pattern, though it gets drawn out a little farther.   Not just about being all talk and no action-- but here about outright, wild, no-holds-barred, active, hostile rebellion.   This parable contrasts not two sons but two groups of tenants.  The first Tenants sign the lease and agree to all the terms of their relationship with the Owner of the Vineyard.  They enter into solemn covenant with him and move onto the property. But then (just like that second Son in the first parable) they break their word and ignore the terms of their agreement and promise—and  they go even further here, way further, and resist even in the most extreme and violent and murderous ways every urgent and sincere effort by the Owner to restore the covenanted relationship.   I love their traditional name, the “unruly” tenants.  Seems kind of an understated term.  Seizing the Landlord’s property.  Attacking and murdering the landlord’s servants when they come to collect the rent.  Even then killing his son.   I guess that’s “unruly.”  They cross every possible line of good relationship in absolute, resolute defiance.   Jesus asks, “What will the Owner of the Vineyard do?”  What are the inevitable consequences of this kind of willful disobedience and rebellion?  The priests and elders of the Temple fill in the rest of the story here also with the obvious reply.   “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their season.”    The Landlord will take the Vineyard from those who have abused his trust, and present it to new Tenants, good and faithful tenants, who will live in right relationship with him. 

Jesus isn’t exactly being subtle here, obviously.  What happens when those who are supposed to be God’s chosen ones, his stewards, caring for his Vineyard Israel—when they turn away from him, even become his enemies?  Thinking about this setting here in the Temple, really a breathtaking moment-- the language of the Vineyard, the verbal sparring with the religious authorities, the cheering of the crowds, who were probably pretty much the same folks who had welcomed Jesus the day before with palm branches and cries of “Hosanna to the Son of David.”  Crisis and confrontation.  And so, verse 45: “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was talking about them.”    Who are the sons who go through the motions of obedience, who dress the part and mouth the words, but who in their heart choose to walk their own way rather than in the way of the Father?  Who are the Tenants,  betraying their covenant of stewardship and taking what was not theirs to serve their own desires?     If such people imagine in their profound denial of reality that they are going to be able to get away with this, if they think the Father is asleep, if they think he won’t act to set things right—well, they’d better think again.    “When the chief priests and the Pharisees head his parables, they perceive that he was talking about them.”

The scene hangs there in Holy Week, as the clouds gather, tensions rise.

To stand near Jesus is always and inevitably to enter a space where things that have been hidden are made plain.  Our prayer every time we come near him in the Holy Communion: “to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, from whom no secrets are hid.”  It may be possible to skate along in denial for a season.  It may be possible to pretend that God doesn’t see us, doesn’t know what’s in our hearts.  But to stand in the presence of the Son, in the face of his Cross, is to come to a place of inevitable clarity. The lights come on.   A place where costumes and scripts and outward show are all stripped away, and where we are able to see for ourselves what is true.   About ourselves and about the world around us.  What is going to last, what is passing away. 

That was true on Monday in Holy Week, as it became pretty easy to tell who the friends of Jesus really were.   And who would stand with his enemies.   We know that story more or less by heart.  People were going to be showing their true colors.  A lot of the folks in the crowd here at the Temple are cheering Jesus, the great hero whom they greeted with Palm Branches and cries of “Hosanna” yesterday.  But by the end of the week they’re going to be shouting “Crucify him, crucify him.”  And in reality it is I suppose always true, in any time, in any generation, to figure out where we are in relationship to him.   

Back in the 15th chapter of Matthew, before this last journey had begun-- when some Scribes and Pharisees from Jerusalem had journeyed out to the Galilee in an effort to discredit him—perhaps some of the same people who are at the Temple with him in this scene--Jesus challenged them by quoting Isaiah 29, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”   

And it is our heart that he cares about, first, last, and always.   First Century, or Twenty-first Century.  That really is the point of these two Holy Week parables.   And it’s what’s on the line this morning.  That makes us uncomfortable, but pretty much we knew what we were getting into when we came in through those doors on Hampton Street this morning.  In the 18th chapter of Luke Jesus asks, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”  The question Jesus is asking in these parables. It’s about the relationship—about seeing in, past the curated surface, the right words—about where our hearts are, whose our hearts are.  Where we are in our relationship to him. 

O God our Father, open our eyes and our ears, by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may hear you when you call us each by name, that we may hear your call and invitation to come beside you in your Vineyard, as your children, your sons and daughters, and that we may answer  with all our heart and mind and strength, not only with our lips but in our lives--and that we may as worthy tenants and good stewards of your bounty attend to your word and know and welcome with joy and love the One you send to us, your own son our savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

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

Monday, October 2, 2017

Seventeenth after Pentecost

Dan Isadore, on Philippians 2: 1-13

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Sixteenth after Pentecost

(Proper 20A2   Matthew 20: 1-16

Since the death of John the Baptist crowds and controversy have been pressing in on every side, and now Jesus and his disciples are heading straight into the storm--traveling from the Galilee toward Jerusalem to spend the Passover there with the thousands of Jewish pilgrims who will gather for the festival from around the known world.  Along the way Jesus seems quite clear in his teaching that his remaining time with his disciples is growing short—although they have a hard time understanding or accepting that.  As they pass Caesarea Philippi  after Peter’s Confession of faith Jesus promises his disciples that he will make something new out of them, that he will make them his church, a supernatural body of spiritual character and power so strong that even the Gates of Hell would fall before it. 

We recall in our readings from the last couple of weeks that Jesus spends a lot of this time talking with the disciples about their way of relating to each other, speaking to them about a new way of “life in community.”  That long section on dealing with differences and conflict resolution within the fellowship that we heard a couple of weeks ago.  And then last week the discussion about forgiveness.  About how the abundance of forgiveness, the sense of being a fellowship built on a spirit of humility, mutual deference, interdependence, overflowing mercy, was to be of the very essence of this church.  The Gospel of God’s Grace, the Good News of the Cross, forgiveness of sin, not “times 7” but “70 times 7,” the triumph over the powers of evil and death, to be presented not simply through theological concepts and words on a page, but most importantly through the visible culture and character of his Church.  How they live with each other. Repentance, forgiveness, amendment of life, mercy and peace and confidence in God’s victory to be so visible in how this new converted, redeemed, justified, sanctified people of God live together that the world will stand amazed.  There will be nobody like you anywhere!  You will be a  living sermon.  What difference does Jesus make in peoples’ lives?  Why should I listen to what these Christians are saying?  You don’t have to read a book to figure it out.  Just look at his church.  How they live together.  In their families.  In their congregations.  As they worship and pray and work and play together.  “See these Christians, how they live together, how they love one another.  These Christians, the gospel proclaimed not only with their lips, but in their lives.   Who wouldn’t want to be a part of their world?

To step back for a moment: I like to say that our daughter Linnea is not the only member of our family to have spent time in Mongolia.  She of course lived there for a couple of years, as many of you will remember.  But one Tuesday morning before she left on that adventure she and I took a long drive down to Washington D.C., parked the car in what would ordinarily have been an exceptionally expensive parking spot a block or two from Georgetown University, and stepped onto the grounds of the Mongolian embassy.  She had some paperwork to take care of related to her student visa and work permit.  I simply sat in the lobby, chatted with the Mongolian receptionist,  and enjoyed a little interval of rest in my global travel.  The embassy is of course just this very interesting concept.  At once here in the United States, just down the block from a great little Pizzaria Uno, where we would have lunch--but also at the same time in a legal and conceptual sense truly another country.  The reason the parking space would ordinarily have been exceptionally expensive, but was free for us on that particular day, was that it was October 11, and in Washington, D.C. -- Columbus Day.   A federal holiday.  But the visa office in the embassy was open, because Columbus Day isn’t a holiday in Mongolia . . . .  And that’s where we were.  Not Washington D.C., but Mongolia.

So something like this is what Jesus was talking about when he said he was building his church.  An analogy.  The frame for us to think about as we consider what it means to be members of the Church.  The Kingdom of God not yet realized in its fullness, for sure—but with an embassy here already, an outpost in this world dedicated as a real presence here and now and a foretaste of the life of the world to come.   Operating according to the Kingdom calendar, not the calendar of this world.  And that was going to be and continues to be the challenge for the church, for his disciples.  To be living supernaturally, as the Kingdom, even as we for a season continue in a world that was and would be foreign territory, even at times truly hostile territory.  A world that operates by different rules.   

So as they travel one of the things Jesus does is tell these stories, paint these pictures, the “Parables of the Kingdom.”  Which is to say, parables about what God is going to do in the future, and at the same time about what is already happening, we might say, on the grounds of his embassy.    Images, situations, to engage their thoughts, their imaginations, to guide his disciples in their thinking and their feeling, to stretch them in their assumptions, in their emerging and transforming identities and relationships, with ways to provoke questions about values and meanings, about how to get their heads around the idea that they are to be really and truly in Mongolia while still also in Washington D.C., about how to be God’s Kingdom and to communicate God’s kingdom message here and now-- in Jerusalem and Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

So here at Matthew 20, a Parable of the Kingdom.  The Householder has a lot of work to be done in his vineyard.  He hires a crew in the morning, adds new workers midmorning, more at noon, then again late in the afternoon, and finally just a few minutes before the end of the day.  And when the sun sets and the laborers gather to receive their pay envelopes they all receive the standard wage for a full day’s work.  Confusion follows.  We certainly might imagine that the workers who got hired on at 4:45 and then who collected their pay at 5 were surprised and delighted at the unexpected generosity of their employer.   A whole day’s wage!  And we see and we understand and sympathize, that those who actually put in the full day in the vineyard suddenly feel aggrieved.  While it’s true they are receiving the wage they agreed would be fair and appropriate at the beginning of the day, it somehow seems unfair now in light of the exceptional generosity that has been shown by the Householder to those who worked fewer hours.   What kind of a world is this, that this makes sense? 

Hard for us Bible readers not to connect back to the Book of Job here, the great Old Testament essay of wisdom on the topic of the contrast between our human ideas of how God should act and God’s free and supernatural sovereignty.   There God’s answer to Job’s question of “why bad things happen to good people” goes like this:  “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?  Tell me, if you have understanding.”  Or as the Householder of Matthew 20 says to the perplexed Laborers, simply, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?”

The theme and message of God’s sovereignty is the persistent note of the Bible, of course, but we still take a breath and shake our heads in amazement.  The first and most important thing to remember when we think about the life in the Kingdom of God is that in the Kingdom of God, God is King, and we aren’t.  We have our priorities and plans, our agendas, our ways of making our way through life, but in the Kingdom of God, God is in charge, not us.  And when he is in charge, things are going to be different.   “My ways are not your ways, says the Lord, nor my thoughts your thoughts.” 

Yesterday at our annual Fall Vestry Day I was reminded of this again.  And in a good way.  Really a great way.  The agenda ahead of time looked pretty serious.  Conversations about parish culture, patterns of attendance and participation, which have been kind of a struggle for us lately on a number of fronts--the inevitable concern and conversation about how to gather and deploy financial resources to do everything or even most of what we have been doing around this place.  But I’m just going to say here without getting down into the weeds that I was surprised a little, and wonderfully surprised, that the spirit of the day shifted pretty quickly from questions about management and programs and administration to a really energetic and sincere time of sharing about discerning God’s hand, God’s will, God’s presence-- learning to listen for his voice, seeking together a space for growing faith and maturity and for affectionate and meaningful  Christian life together.   So not just business as usual, not just an effort to shore up the status quo for another year and then go home.  But I think the beginning of a conversation to cultivate openness and with humility to seeing what God may really and truly be doing in our lives here at St. Andrew’s.  No tidy answers at the end of the afternoon, which would actually be a bad sign:  but a commitment to having open eyes and open ears, to ask questions, and to expect the unexpected.  To take the word “should” out of our vocabularies for a while.  What we think “should happen,” how we think things “should be.”    God has his own ways, and if we think we know for sure from the start what that’s supposed to look like, we most of the time have another “think” coming.  “Am I not allowed to do what I choose to what belongs to me?”  So we just remember that he is.  He is.  And we remember that this place, and all of us, this is his place, and we are his.  It’s not about him getting on board with our program, but about our figuring out how to get board with his.  Take a look at the list of the vestry members on the back of the leaflet, if you want, and maybe over a cup of coffee ask them for their take on the day.  If you’re not sure about the names, their snapshots are on the bulletin board right inside the Parish House entrance.  One of the things we did take away from the table was to say that it would be good to open wide the conversation, to keep it going, to expand the circle, to listen to each other.  Informally, wherever coffee is served—but formally as well, as we invite over the next few months some opportunities to talk together, and more importantly to listen together.    Who knows what we might find?  Thinking about those workers who came late in the day, which is really all of us, and then to say with confidence, as they opened their pay envelopes,  that he has better things in mind for all of us than we can ask for or imagine.

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