Sunday, November 27, 2011

Save Us From Pre-Christmas

[Sermon from Sunday, Nov. 27, 2011]

That sound of the shofar is our wake-up call: Welcome to the first Sunday of Advent. This is the beginning of our four-week season of preparation for the miracle of the Incarnation, the unbelievable reality that God chose to take on our life, the experience of humanity in all its joy and all its hardship. This is the time when we take a breath, and stop, and try to comprehend the incomprehensible: that God loves us enough to enter directly into our broken reality and heal it, coming as the Christ both as a baby in a manger and as our ruler and judge at the end of time.

That’s a lot to get ready for. No wonder we need a season of preparation.

Of course, in our modern lives, we also need a season of preparation because the world around us is giving us very different messages, both about what season we’re in and how we should be preparing for what’s to come. Here in church, we’re lighting candles on the Advent wreath and learning just how slowly we can count to four. But in the stores and on TV, we’ve been charging into Christmastime from the moment we could get the Halloween candy put away.

Now, before we turn our attention to Advent, I’d like to reflect on the holiday we just experienced. And that holiday was…? Well, Black Friday, of course –- our No. 1 shopping day of the year. Actually, that’s not quite right, because now Black Friday has oozed beyond its temporal boundaries and spilled into the day before, a day we soon will know as Black Friday Eve. In a former time, we called this day before Black Friday by another name –- we called it “Thanksgiving,” and we kept it as the holiday. People stayed home with family and friends. They shared time and conversation as everyone worked to prepare the feast. They played football in the yard and watched football on TV. They ate too much and then did stacks and stacks and stacks of dishes together. Finally, blessedly, when all the work was done, they rested –- one of the few moments of Sabbath time left in the calendar of American culture. Well, now that Black Friday has become a two-day feast, we’ve cut to the chase and gone straight to the shopping without having to wait through that pesky time set aside for family, and giving thanks, and rest.

OK, so I’ve now officially become a grumpy old man.

It’s easy to rant about Black Friday, and door-buster sales, and our habit of charging from one disfigured holiday to the next. But I think this is a malady we need to take seriously as people of faith, and the treatment is one we can apply only in each individual heart –- including mine. Even as someone who spends an awful lot of time on churchy stuff, I find it really easy to pay lip service to Advent while I’m actually charging toward Christmas Day. The pre-Christmas season can become consuming, and I don’t mean just in terms of consumerism. There are the cards to send, and the parties to plan, and the events to attend, and the presents to buy, and the kids’ activities to show up for -– not to mention a few pretty big church services to plan. Better get ready, or we might not get everything done before we hit the Christmas finish line.

So I guess this morning I’m trying to convince you that the season of Advent is here to save us from the season of pre-Christmas. Advent is here to turn the rush of the holidays into the blessing of holy-days.

Now, listening to our Gospel reading this morning, you may not have heard a lot of blessing to take home with you. Jesus is talking with his inner circle of disciples, telling them what to expect about very difficult times that lie ahead. Just before this reading, he’s warned them of “wars and rumors of wars” (Mark 13:7), and persecutions of Jesus’ followers, and destruction coming to the holiest of places, even Jerusalem and the Temple itself. False prophets will arise, and Jesus has warned his disciples not to follow them. Most scholars feel these predictions relate to the Jewish revolution against Rome, which happened about 35 years after the Resurrection, when Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed and the Jewish people were scattered.

Well, there’s not a lot there to get us into the holiday spirit. But I think the point of hearing about this chaos is that, like all the trials of our lives, it sets the stage for God to act, which is where today’s reading comes in. When the times we live in seem to spin out of control, when we know our own lives are broken and derailed, when we invest every beat of our hearts just to make it through the craziness of one day to the next –- these are the times, Jesus says, when we need to pay closest attention to what God will do next. Ironically, when we feel like we’re on the edge, that’s when divine power is revealed most vividly –- when Jesus enters into our lives definitively, if we’ll pay close enough attention to see it and hear it.

In the broad scope of salvation history, what Jesus is talking about is the end time, when he will return in power and judgment, as we proclaim in the Nicene Creed each week. When the Son of Man comes on the clouds in glory, he will flick aside petty kings and ungrateful nations and hold each of us accountable for the lives we’ve chosen to live.

But that same revealing of divine power holds true in our own lives right now, too. In the private moments of our anxious hearts, as each of us works out our own salvation, the crazy chaos of our lives is the medium in which Christ works best. When the stars that once guided us seem to be falling and the powers of our heavens seem to be shaken, that’s when Jesus enters in. Remarkably enough, the sovereign Lord of the universe does have the wherewithal to rule even our unruly lives, despite how complicated we imagine them to be.

But here’s the thing: We -– and definitely I –- have to pay attention, especially when the chaos of our culture and the chaos of our hearts tell us we don’t have time to pay attention, even to one more thing. When we least expect it, when we’re focused on everything else, that’s when the Master decides to come home and set the household to rights. When life backs us up against the wall, Jesus comes to us and says, “So, how’s that working for you?” And I don’t think we’ll find it very helpful in that moment to tell him, “Hang on just a minute while I finish up one last thing on my list.”

There’s a better way to greet Christ when he comes to dwell within us and among us. As today’s Gospel reading says, “keep alert”; “keep awake”; for “he is near, at the very gates.” (Mark 13:29,33,37). To receive such a guest, we need to ready our hearts with at least a fraction of the time and attention we would devote to readying our homes for a Christmas party.

So here’s my Advent challenge to you, and to me: Stop. Say “no” to something you can’t imagine not doing. And instead of doing it, take some time -– however much you feel you need –- and do nothing productive in the eyes of the world. Drive into the country, and park by a lake, and watch the wind move on the water. Take the hymnal and read the lyrics to the hymns in the Advent section – they’re fantastic. Come to the TaizĂ© Eucharist and don’t make a sound -– really enter into the silence and the sounds of others singing. Take home a copy of Forward Day by Day, and read a lesson each morning, and marvel at what God might have to say. Or, just sit in silence in your favorite chair, and stare out the window at the trees and the birds, and wait to hear what Jesus might whisper to you. Accomplish nothing. Let the brakes of Advent slow down the headlong rush toward Christmas. And then just see what holy days the holidays can be.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Unlikely People of Missionary Zeal

[Sermon from Sunday, Nov. 20, 2011]

The room’s awash in red and plaid; the sound of bagpipes echoes through the church and out into the neighborhood. It can only mean one thing: It’s St. Andrew’s Sunday. It’s a feast we’ve been keeping here for as long as anyone remembers, one of our parish family’s very best traditions.

So why do we do it? What does St. Andrew have to do with Scotland and bagpipes? I’m no biblical scholar, but I’m pretty sure St. Andrew never wore a plaid kilt. How did we get to this celebration from the life of a first-century Jewish fisherman?

Well, let’s look at what we know about Andrew from Scripture. The short answer is, not much. Andrew is mentioned a grand total of 12 times in the Bible, and four of those are just listings of the disciples’ names. As we heard in the Gospel reading, he and his brother, Peter, were among the very first who turned from the lives they knew to follow this teacher and “fish for people” (Matthew 4:19). In John’s Gospel, Andrew plays a slightly larger role. There, he’s the first disciple to follow Jesus, and he immediately takes on the role of evangelist simply by telling his brother that he’s found the messiah. Andrew has a small role in the feeding of the 5,000, telling Jesus there’s this little boy with some bread and a few fish, but so what? And Andrew helps bring outsiders to know Jesus by introducing some Greeks to him. But that’s about it – not exactly a starring role. And no kilts or bagpipes, either.

After these mentions in the Bible, Andrew’s biography gets pretty sketchy. The most reliable tradition says he journeyed to Greece after the Resurrection, telling people about Jesus and paying the ultimate price, being crucified by the sea. Later tradition puts Andrew in Constantinople, in the sense that some of his relics were brought there from Greece centuries after he died so Constantinople could claim an important patron saint. Andrew is also a patron saint of Russia based on a tradition that he visited tribes by the Black Sea and supposedly preached as far north as Kiev.1

And then there’s Scotland. Now, there’s not a snowball’s chance that Andrew ever went to Scotland. But the tradition there is that a Celtic saint in the 300s named Regulus took Andrew’s arm from its resting place in Greece to Scotland, to the site we now know as St. Andrews. St. Andrews became a center for teaching about the faith and sharing the Good News in Scotland … and I hear they play some golf there now, too. Anyway, the tradition about St. Regulus taking that holy arm to Scotland has made Andrew the patron saint of that land.2,3

And so, since Andrew is our patron saint, too, this parish has adopted a link with Scotland much as Scotland adopted a link with Andrew. Now, if you’re a cynic, you can see this as nothing more than creative history. Or you can see it as a holy thing, and here’s why: As Christians, we’re linked with the saints across time and space, bound together into the spiritual body of Christ, not limited by temporal boundaries like century or nationality.

But even the creative traditions about Andrew’s life tell us nothing about what kind of a person he was. We know he was Peter’s brother, and we know a fair amount about Peter from Scripture: that he was a man of action, bold to the point of being offensive, often speaking before he thought and putting his foot in his mouth more often than not. He was the kind of guy who would earn the nickname Jesus gave him: Peter, which means “Rocky.”

And Andrew? As I said, Scripture gives him a minor role. We don’t hear about him preaching to huge crowds or healing people, like Peter and John do in the Book of Acts. In fact, Andrew is a person of small acts. He tells one guy about Jesus. Faced with a hungry crowd of thousands, all he can find is a kid with five loaves and two fish. Now, the rest of this is complete conjecture on my part, but I imagine Andrew as sort of the anti-Peter, like siblings sometimes are. Peter is big and out-there; Andrew is quiet and more reserved. When he speaks, it’s analysis, not bold proclamation. When he acts, it’s through personal relationships, using connections he already has to share the great truth he’s witnessed. He’s a supporting character, literally: He’s there to support Jesus’ mission.

The other thing about Andrew that we never really hear about, but must have been true, is the effect that his second family had on him. Of course, Andrew had his first family, with Peter and their parents and siblings. But Andrew quickly left all that behind to follow Jesus. And the band of disciples Andrew joined became his second family – traveling across Israel for three years proclaiming the kingdom of God, learning from their master, and learning how to live together.

With those spiritual brothers and sisters, Andrew was formed into the person God needed him to be. Think about it: How could this reserved, quiet, analytical young man take that show on the road after the Resurrection and have any success? If the Andrew who first met Jesus had been the same Andrew who went to Greece as a missionary, we’d have never heard another word about him. But the stories that come down to us tell of an apostle who rescued another apostle, Matthias, from cannibals. They tell of an apostle who cast out demons, and converted pagans, and healed the sick, and raised the dead.4 Something happened to Andrew in his three years as part of that family of disciples. His faith community shaped him into an unlikely apostle – and remember, “apostle” means one who is sent. This quiet, reserved, hard-working, regular guy became a man with a mission.

We are the spiritual descendants of that missionary and the faith community that formed him. St. Andrew’s Church has been here for nearly 100 years. In some people’s eyes, we’ve been simply a very nice place made up of very nice people being very nice to each other – as I heard once, “the country club at prayer.” We are good at being nice, I have to say. But we are more than that. We’re a church that grew a community garden behind the youth center long before community gardens became trendy. We’re a church that, when we put in a parking lot, literally moved houses across town to provide homes for people in poverty. We’re a church that’s fed thousands and thousands of hungry people downtown over the years. We’re a church that’s invested more than 20 years’ work to create a school on a mountain in Haiti with the highest graduation rate in town. We’re a church that welcomes the stranger and really means it.

And we’ve done those things because of the formation we receive from being members of this family. As Brad Honnold said at the vestry meeting this past Tuesday, “We are constantly being chiseled and shaped in our faith.” It happens as we worship, when we’re stirred by a lector’s inspiring reading or served the blood of Christ by a friend. It happens when a minister of the Order of St. Luke prays for us in the chapel after Communion. It happens when we learn from each other in a class or a group or a Bible study. It happens when parishioners go through Cursillo and learn to live their faith “out loud.” It happens when you get to know people by being in choir, or the Altar Guild, or the quilting group, or at Men’s Breakfast, or at Holy Happy Hour – and you find yourself inspired or challenged by what you learn from them. Like Andrew with the other followers of Jesus, you are made into a disciple when the good and holy people sitting around you this morning help you become more than you could ever be on your own.

All that formation is a part of mission. All that we do together, as God’s family in this place, is forming and shaping us to become the people God longs for us to be – people who change the world one interaction and one relationship at a time. All that we do together as the family of St. Andrew’s is preparing us to be sent out beyond ourselves.

What I’m talking about is nothing new for this parish. It’s amazing what you can pick up by walking around this place and reading things on the walls. On the wall in the columbarium, just on the other side of the pulpit, there’s a plaque I’d encourage you to stop by and read sometime. Here’s what it says: “The grateful people of St. Peter’s Church [in Red Bridge], upon the occasion of becoming a parish church on January 1, 1969, give thanks to Almighty God for the missionary zeal of our mother church, St. Andrew’s, who established [St. Peter’s] chapel, Eastertide, 1958.” Missionary zeal, huh? In the country club at prayer? Who’d have thought it?

Well, you would. I would. We would, when we remember who we are. We are the adopted descendants of St. Andrew, an unassuming man who found his mission. This word, this commandment of being sent beyond ourselves – it is not too hard for you or too far away, that someone else should go and do it for you. No, this word is very near you, on your lips and in your heart for you to follow. It’s who we’ve been. It’s who we are. And it’s who this family will be: God’s unlikely people of missionary zeal.

1. MacDonald, Dennis R. “Andrew.” In: The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 1. New York: Doubleday, 1992. 243.

2. MacDonald, 243.

3. Farmer, David Hugh. The Oxford Dictionary of Saints. Oxford: Clarendon, 1978. 17.

4. MacDonald, 243.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Report from Haiti mission trip, day 1

A group of missionaries from St. Andrew's is in Haiti now, presenting a workshop on early childhood education and visiting our partner school in Maniche. I've just received an update from the group about their first day in Haiti (dated Thursday but just arrived in my in-box). It's from Dr. Kathy Shaffer, the leader of our Haiti educational mission. She writes:

Nov. 10:

"The trip from Miami was without a hitch. Both the new terminal at MIA and the new jetway on our arrival in Port-au-Prince set the stage for a seamless journey. Zo [the driver] was at the airport. All 18 bags made it through customs. We were met by Pere Colbert [the priest at our partner church and school] as well; and he escorted us to the Christian bookstore, where were able to purchase a Bible for each grade (some very nicely illustrated ones for the little guys), as well as for our graduates from last spring.

"The rubble from the earthquake has been cleared to the point that traffic moves well (better than last year), but now the tents feel imbedded in the community. Where the tent people from the middle of the medians were put is a sad mystery.

"Now we are on are way to Les Cayes and 1 hour outside of Cayes, we encounter a 'manifestation' [a demonstration]. Someone was arrested, and a group of townsfolk have blocked the road in protest. We have been here over an hour, without a lot of change in the situation. Obviously, God wanted us to slow down and 'be' instead of 'do.' By chance, we were stopped at the driveway of the head of the Rotary Club of this village. Colbert is a member of Rotary in Cayes, so we were invited to wait this out in his drive.

"Chris Nazar [one of the other missionaries] says to tell you that we may still be barreling down the highway after dark, even after getting up a 4 a.m. The group is functioning well." -- Kathy

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Family of Insufficient Saints

(I'm not sure why I haven't been posting sermons here, as well as on the St. Andrew's website, but better late than never.... Here's the sermon from All Saints' Sunday, Nov. 6.)

Over the past several weeks, different parishioners have shared how they hear God’s call as stewards and how that call is being answered in the life of this congregation. Steve Rock, our senior warden, spoke about the contrast between seeing this church as a club and seeing it as a family. Dan Spicer spoke about the value of kids and youth as full members of our parish family. Chris Nazar spoke about using our time, talent, and treasure to take this family’s love into the world through outreach ministry.

Today, our witnesses are a little young to get up and talk in church. In fact, they aren’t yet old enough to talk at all. They’re the six babies we’ll baptize in just a few minutes.

You may wonder what kind of witness these babies might have to offer, other than witnessing vigorously against strangers pouring water on their heads. Well, I think they have a lot to teach us about stewarding the blessings God gives us, especially in the light of this morning’s Gospel reading.

Today is All Saints’ Sunday; and in this year of the lectionary cycle, we hear the Beatitudes –- the opening of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount from Matthew’s Gospel. “Beatitude” means ultimate blessing, and that’s what Jesus is describing here –- what it means to be one of the most fortunate, one of the truly blessed in God’s eyes –- what it means, in fact, to be one of the saints of God.

Now, if someone asked us, “What does it look like to be blessed?” –- our first answers probably wouldn’t sound much like what we just heard Jesus say. As we usually think about these things, we might say someone’s blessed if she has a spacious home in a gorgeous neighborhood. We might say someone’s blessed if her kids go to excellent schools, being shaped for successful lives. We might say someone’s blessed if she has a talent like art or music, something that clearly sets her apart from those of us who wish we could just draw or sing on pitch. Those are the kinds of blessings we usually think about –- blessings about what we possess, or what we’ve achieved, or what we can do.

When Jesus starts talking about blessedness, we can bet he’s going down a different path. For Jesus, the blessed are those who are poor and broken in spirit, those who mourn a deep emptiness in their hearts, those who’ve been humbled by what life dishes out, those who manage to show mercy despite their own injuries, those who are persecuted for their faithfulness to God’s ways. Blessed and fortunate are those who find themselves powerless in the world’s eyes, Jesus says.

What kind of blessing is that? Well, it’s the surprising blessing of having our expectations turned on their heads -– expectations about ourselves and expectations about those with whom we share our lives.

The culture around us says that what we have, or what we don’t have, is a function of our own capacity. We succeed in school –- or not -– based on the hard work and commitment we put into our studies. We succeed in our professional lives –- or not -- based on our insightful analysis, strong leadership, and excellent performance. We succeed in our marriages and child-rearing –- or not -– by reading books, learning from experts, and becoming skilled in managing our closest relationships. Viewed through the eyes of the culture, we are blessed –- or not -– largely by virtue of ... our own virtues. If we’re good enough, our lives will be good, too.

There’s a lot of truth in how the culture defines success. But success and blessedness aren’t necessarily the same thing. To see blessedness, we need look no farther than to the children in our front pews this morning. These babies have done nothing to earn their parents’ love. They’ve done nothing to earn the embrace of their blankets and the comfort of their cribs. They’ve done nothing to earn the welcome they’re receiving today into the fellowship of the saints; no heroic service for the kingdom of God places them in the same ranks as Mary and Peter and Andrew. But here they are anyway, loved by their families and welcomed into the family of God.

Those who aren’t “good enough,” those who haven’t proven themselves –- these are the inheritors of God’s richest blessing, Jesus says, the kingdom of heaven itself.

There’s a reason we proclaim, every All Saints’ Day, that all of us are saints of God. And the reason why isn’t because we’re all great. Frankly, it’s because we’re all not that great. And neither are the saints. True saints are those who come to situations of conflict looking not to be victors but peacemakers. True saints are those who come to the table not to put on a sumptuous feast themselves but with empty hands, eager for God to fill them. True saints are those who come to church on a Sunday morning admitting that life has left their spirits battered and bruised and that they need God’s healing love, freely given.

The babies in our front pews this morning are completely insufficient, as functional human beings go. They can’t take care of themselves or provide for themselves -– left on their own, they can’t even survive. They must have family, they must have community, simply to live from one day to the next.

So they may be our best example of the saints of God, models for us to emulate. Blessed are those, Jesus says, who can see their own insufficiency and who are humble enough to rely on God instead of relying solely on themselves. Blessed are these, Jesus says, for they shall be truly satisfied by knowing the kingdom of heaven –- and not just in the sense of eternal life in the sweet by and by. These insufficient saints will know the kingdom of heaven in the here and now.

You don’t have to look far to see it. In fact, just look around. The kingdom of heaven is among you.

This is the family of God, the nursery in which God’s children of all ages grow into spiritual adulthood. This is our parish family, the place where we can admit that we aren’t –- and can never be –- the autonomous overachievers the world tells us to be. When, like little kids, we try to carry burdens too heavy for us to bear on our own, our family is there, saying, “Wait, let me help you with that.” In this family, there is no shame in needing someone’s help. In this family, we find our connection with God made real and active in our connections with each other. When we come together for a meeting or a picnic or party or a dinner or a class, we see that we are truly not alone on this journey -– because our brothers and sisters are there.

In the relationships of this family, we live out the fundamental truth of stewardship, the real bottom line that relates to so much more than money. That fundamental truth is this: we are dependent on God for everything that comes to us, and ultimately we can’t make it on our own. We need a family of faith to feed our spirits, satisfy our hunger, heal our hearts, and wipe away the tears from our eyes.

If you understand that, then you’ve probably already noticed something I’m going to ask you to notice now: that some of the members of our family haven’t been here for one of our Sunday-morning reunions in quite some time. There are many reasons why, I’m sure –- probably a different reason for each missing brother or sister. But whatever the reason, their absence diminishes us as the family of God in this place. And it’s equally true that their absence diminishes them. Without this family bearing us up, we’re left to sink or swim on our own in the waters of this world. And you can’t swim on your own forever.

So as you’re here this morning, looking at all these familiar faces and welcoming new children into God’s family, think for a moment about the saints who aren’t here. At our parish meeting downstairs after this service, we’ll talk more about how we might reach out to these family members we’ve been missing. But for now, just do this: pray for them, and pray for us. Pray that God’s love might so move the saints in this room that we would reach out in that love to invite our brothers and sisters back to this table -– the banquet table of the kingdom of heaven, present among us right now.