Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Note: This sermon was preached at a service of Choral Evensong
at St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Berkeley, CA

“The Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God,
and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.”
(2 Cor. 13:13)

Trinity Sunday Jan Robitscher
Exodus 3:1-6 St. Mark’s Church
John 3:1-16 June 11, 2017

In the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

In the calendars of many churches, today is Trinity Sunday. It is, perhaps, the logical conclusion to the celebrations of the the first half of the Church Year we began a journey that began with Advent, through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus —God becoming one with us—to the promised gift of the Holy Spirit which we celebrated last Sunday. But what can we say about this threeness” and “oneness” of God—this mystery we call the Trinity?  Perhaps we can only stand in awe as Moses did before the Burning Bush, or maybe if we’re brave we can ask faltering questions to Jesus and await his patient answers. Or maybe it comes as the stunning anthem we have just heard [Jonathan Dove, Seek Him That Made the Seven Stars] which, to my ears, describes in music what the cosmos must be like. How shall we name this mystery?

There are many ways of trying, in human terms, to explain it. One of my favorites I remember seeing in a stained glass window which was a geometric symbol of the Trinity.  In the middle was a circle “God”. Then there was a triangle: at the top, “Father”; at the bottom left, “Son”; at the bottom right “Holy Spirit”.  On the connecting bars of the triangle were the words (all in Latin) “IS NOT”  On the bars connecting Each part of the trinity to God, the word “IS”.  So, while the Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Spirit, they are all God.  Confused?

The window is essentially correct in it’s theology. The reason why we are confused is that, whatever our religious affiliation, we are all products of good old rugged American individualism. We can’t help but think of the Trinity as three individual beings.  This is where, if we kept going, we would fall into one or other heresy, and, if we struggled at it as individuals, it would surely end in an argument.  But we don’t have to go there.

The fundamental reality of the Trinity is not the individual members, but the community of Persons which is God.  And the nature of this community is that the diversity of Persons: Father, Son and Spirit--dwell in unity.  And it is in this community with God that we hope to dwell for all eternity in heaven.

It is upon this model of community that the Christian Community is made, whether it is two people in a marriage or twenty people in a small church or  a religious community of monks or nuns or hundreds of people in a large congregation-- or this group of worshippers right here.   

St. Paul used the analogy of the body and its members (Romans 12) to speak of this kind of community.  Each member is absolutely necessary and has a specific purpose, and each is valued and fostered. But the diversity of all the members is always drawn together in the Love of God.  Or, as a fellow preacher put it,
The loving mutuality of the Church has its source in the loving
mutuality of the eternal Trinity. 

It is not surprising that at the end of his second letter to the Corinthians, with words we shall say at the end of this service, St. Paul speaks of the “grace” of the Lord Jesus, the “love” of God and the “fellowship”  (communion, community) of the Holy Spirit--all of these, he prays, will dwell with us always.

So let us celebrate the Trinity that draws us here together in the Love of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit—many members from diverse places, backgrounds, families, denominations and perhaps even different faith traditions, together with those who have gone before. To God the Holy Trinity be glory, honor, praise and dominion, now and forever. Amen.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

“As it is, there are many members,
yet one body.”
(1 Cor. 12:20)
Year C: Third Sunday after Epiphany                                                         Jan Robitscher
Nehemiah 8:1-6                                                                                  St. Mark’s Church
Psalm 19                                                                                                    Berkeley, CA
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a                                                                        January 24, 2016
Psalm 133, verse 1
Hineh mah tov, Umah nayim,
  Shevet achim Gam yachad.

Behold how good and pleasant it is
when brethren (kindred, all people)
dwell together in unity.

With these words from Psalm 131, Leonard Bernstein concludes his choral work, Chichester Psalms. The end of this movement is a quiet--almost inaudible--prayer for peace. Is it a wish or a pipedrean? On a global scale, maybe, but on Friday night, the choirs of St Mark’s and Temple Sinai came together at the Temple to sing this work for their Shabbat service, a work that is both startling and moving. Like Ezra reading the Law to the gathered people, we gathered, participated,  listened, sang, praised God and pondered the sense of what we were hearing and praying through music. This afternoon we will sing it again, this time here and in the context of a special Evensong. Again the choirs will come together to sing as one, ending with the quiet but urgent plea for peace. It is an expression of people “dwelling together in unity.”  I hope you will come.

All of today’s readings have to do with community. Fast forward from Ezra to St. Paul. Here is the most familiar analogy of community: The body of Christ. For Paul, the community gathered for worship is one of many members, but guided by the same Spirit. But what is most remarkable is that, for Paul,  its very unity is found in diversity: one body, many members.  No one has all the gifts. Each gift is necessrary to the others. One part cannot say to another, “I have no need of you”. Nor can one part say, 

“Because I am not like you, because I do not have your gifts, I do not belong to this body”.  Here Paul is speaking not of the church as institution (as it would become only a few centuries later) but as something quite literally organic, like a heart.1  The Christian community moves in procession to a heartbeat rhythm. 

Or does it? It is so easy for the Christian community, whether parish or province or denomination to become fractured and filled with what Paul calls in another place, “party spirit”, as opposed to unity in the Holy Spirit. Parts of the Anglican Communion have tried to say to the Episcopal Church, “I have no need of you and your liberal Church”. And we in the Episcopal Church might say to them, “I have no need of you and your conservative theology.” But such divisions do not only happen in the Church on a global level. At the risk of going “from preachin’ to medlin’”, in our own parish, the Altar Guild might be tempted to say to those serving at the Altar, ‘I have no need of you’ or the choir say to the congregation, ‘I have no need of you’, or anyone say, “Because I am not on this or that committee or in any other ministry, or I do not have all the gifts, I do not belong to this community”.  This is not Communion at all, but division.

But what does Paul mean by “unity”? In other letters, he describes it as being “of one mind” or “having the mind of Christ”. By this, he does not mean that everyone thinks alike, or agrees about everything, or that the community must be perfect. Of course not! Rather, all come together for the common good--a phrase and concept that is almost lost in our argumentative and self-centered society and, sadly,  even in the church. But in this passage we are encouraged to look beyond the norms of society (and even of the church) in encouraging membership and discerning ministry. We identify ourselves easily as the Body of Christ, yet it is often very difficult for us to discern the gifts of the Spirit.2  St. Paul turns this prayerful act of discerning gifts in the community on its head:

God has so arranged the body, giving the 
greater honor to the inferior member, that
there may be no dissension within the body,
but the members may have the same care for
one another.”  (1 Cor. 12:24)

Another place we can look to find guidance about living in community is from St. Benedict and his Rule. Here, the monastery becomes the “school for the Lord’s service3  where he admonishes juniors, seniors and children--all living in the community--to treat each other with respect,4 to honor the opinions of old and young members alike and, most famously, to welcome all guests as Christ, himself.5 

Perhaps today’s Gospel lesson is less obvious in what it speaks about community. Jesus is teaching in the synagogue. Once again the community is gathered to hear God’s Word, ponder its meaning and respond in worship. Jesus opens the scroll and reads from the prophet Isaiah and then, to the utter astonishment of his hearers says: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”.  Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophetic words. He came, anointed by the Spirit, to bring good news to the poor, liberty to captives, sight to the blind.... all these and more he did during his earthly ministry. But all of these works didn’t end with his death and resurrection! In the farewell discourses of the Gospel of John, Jesus says:
“Very truly I tell you, the one who believes 
in me will also do the works that I do and,
in fact, will do greater works than these...”
(John 14:12)

So Jesus is telling us that it is not enough to only live as a community unto ourselves. We must look outside these walls. Jesus came to seek and serve the marginalized, the captive, the lost and we must do the same.  Perhaps this is what Paul meant by his list of gifts and ministries: Apostles, prophets, teachers--those who lead and teach both inside and outside the community-- and the gifts of deeds of power, healing, forms of assistance, tongues and their interpretation--ministries of inreach and outreach.  

St Teresa of Avila said it another way with her poem which begins:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours....

No one has all the gifts! All are necessary for the life of the community!  All rejoice and suffer together. St. Paul is right when he concludes:
Now you--[that is, we--] are the body of Christ
and individually members of it. 

We are the ones who must continue in the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and in the prayers, as we promise in the baptismal vows.  But how do we do this?

The passage from the 1st letter to the Corinthians ends just before chapter 13 begins--the great chapter on love often read at weddings (the formation of yet another kind of community). St. Paul is clear that we are not alone ever as we strive to live in Community. We are the Body of CHRIST. Jesus is with us, now and always, and gives himself to us especially in the sacrament of Communion we are about to receive so that we become more and more His Body. Community and Communion. It is Love--not only as an emotion  but as  willed act--that will bind us together, especially in this time of transition. It is love--God’s love of us and our responding love of God-- that makes us the Body of Christ. 

The community of which St. Paul speaks may be a wish or a pipedream, but still we strive to live it out in St. Paul’s vision of the Body of Christ. But we remember that it’s roots are deep in the Psalmist’s poetic voice. Hear again the ancient words from Psalm 131 with which I began: 

Psalm 133, verse 1

Behold how good and pleasant it is
when brethren (kindred, all people)
dwell together in unity. Amen

Hineh mah tov, Umah nayim,
  Shevet achim Gam yachad.

“We preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord
and ourselves as your servants, for Jesus’ sake.”
(2 Cor.4:5, RSV)
Installatio n of Fr. Brian Rebholtz
Joshua 1:1-9                                                                                   Jan Robitscher
Psalms 133 and 134                                                             St. Luke’s, Auburn, CA
2 Corinthians 4:1-11                                                                    October 28, 2015
Luke 10:1-11
(Sung) In the silent hours of night,
bless the Lord.
In the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Bishop Beisner, Fr. Brian and your family, dear People of God: It hardly seems possible that it was three and a half years ago that I witnessed Fr. Brian’s ordination to the priesthood. Now, after a time of learning and growing as an Associate for Christian Formatio on the Other Coast, Fr. Brian has been called here to be your Priest-in-Charge; a new ministry with its joys and perils.  

The readings chosen for this service could fill several sermons! I will resist that temptation and follow the admonition I often give my preaching students at the School for Deacons. A closer look will reveal several over-arching themes that I believe are part and parcel of the ministry Fr. Brian is called to do here, with and among you. There is also a word that came to me from each reading. Together, these will form the Good News of this sermon.

All of these readings have to do with God’s call and  the process of responding to it. This is important because we have almost lost the language of “call” from the process of finding and naming those who will lead us, and from the discernment of the ministries we do in Christ’s Name. We say that a Rector or Priest-in-Charge is “elected” or “named” or “chosen” to serve a parish or mission--anything but “call”.  But call is what God does. So before anything is done, that call must be heard.

Joshua was called by God from being an assistant to Moses to being a leader of the People Israel.  No preparation. No asking if he was ready. But God did have things to say to Joshua; specific instructions about how he was to lead the people and what would be the outcome; about claiming the land promised to Moses, but which Moses never lived to see. And words of encouragement: 
As I was with Moses, so I will be with you;
I will not fail you or forsake you. Be strong
and courageous...
God calls, and Joshua listens and obeys. Listen!

St. Paul came to ministry by a very different route, transformed by a profound conversion from persecutor of the earliest Christians to being a leader ranked among the Apostles.  God called out in the voice of Jesus, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Again, God had specific instructions for the now-converted Paul, and he listened and obeyed. But did you notice something unique in this passage? Here, Paul never speaks of himself in the first person singular: I. No, he always refers to himself and his ministry in the plural--a ministry among God’s people; not to or for them.  Here “ourselves” has a double meaning: that of the preachers of the Good News and, more generally, the earliest Christians:
For we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus
as Lord and ourselves as your servants for
Jesus’ sake.
And he goes on to give God all the credit--all the glory--for the Good News he is proclaiming:
For it is the God who said “Let light shine out of darkness,”
who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge
of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

The word from this passage is: Proclaim!

In our Gospel reading Jesus sends out the seventy ahead of him--about as many as this little parish!  And he sent them in pairs and, like the other two readings, with specific instructions. This is not accidental. We think of ministry as a solitary endeavor, something we figure out and do as individuals. This is especially true of clergy, who often find themselves isolated and lonely. Jesus will have no such thing! Notice that he sends out the seventy by twos, and ahead of him to proclaim the Kingdom of God. He is the Good Shepherd, who, like ordinary shepherds, watches the flock from behind, always guarding and guiding them. So it should be in the Church. YOU are the ministers of the Church! Fr. Brian is here to help show you how and where your gifts are needed, and to send you out.  Serve!

Now what might all of this really have to do with Fr. Brian’s call to be Priest-in-Charge here at St. Luke’s? These readings show a pattern of God’s call: Listen, Proclaim, Serve. Hearing God’s voice,  then acting on the call that God has made, serving each other and the wider community. This is not only the way that Fr. Brian came to you, it is the pattern I hope you will take up as a way of being Church. 

Listen. Proclaim. Serve. If this sounds at all familiar it is because I have taken a page from Anne Lamott’s popular book on prayer, Help, Thanks, Wow.  I think she is onto something here, and it brings me to the one reading we have not mentioned yet, the Psalm, and to the charge that I have for Fr. Brian.
(Sung) In the silent hours of night,
    bless the Lord.

The final word from the readings tonight is: Pray.  Psalm 134 is one of those that monks use at the end of the day, at the Office of Compline. It is very short, only two verses. But it speaks an invitation to “Bless the Lord... you that stand by night in the house of the Lord”; to lift holy hands in prayer always, even, at times, in the dark through the night. It is an invitation for all of us to a very different kind of prayer. We think of receiving God’s blessing, and it is wonderful to hear ourselves pronounced good in God’s sight. But this Psalm asks us to bless God. To bless God is to give thanks, to call God good--what we are about to do in the Eucharist--and in turn, the Psalmist prays that God will bless us; the Lord who made both heaven and earth.

Most clergy can’t remember the charge given to them at their ordination. So I will offer a new one, first to the congregation assembled (I won’t make you stand!) and then to Fr. Brian. 

Now I say to the church: Rejoice and give thanks that God’s Grace calls us all to a wide variety of ministries, yet brings us to unity in Christ through the Spirit. Be willing to look beyond your walls for these ministries, and invite those outside to come and see this community. Always remember that Fr. Brian (or any priest, deacon or anyone leading worship) does not do this in a vacuum. We--all of us--are necessary to complete the prayer. And rejoice that God has called Fr. Brian here to listen, proclaim, serve and pray with and for you. 
Now to Fr. Brian: It has been (and continues to be) an honor to watch  you learn and grow in your faith and in the vocation God has given you. From your first days in seminary I have seen you move from studying theology to developing a deep prayer life, falling in love and starting a family, ordination and now to applying in your ministry the theology you have studied. 

I want to paraphrase some words of Archbishop Ramsey and add a few verses from the Second Letter to Timothy, which contains perhaps the earliest charge we have:

As a priest, you have bound yourself to “the strong name
of the Trinity” and asked Jesus to be with you all ways. And you have been called to display in your person the the total response
to Christ=--to be a beacon of the Church’s pastoral,
prophetic and priestly concern, to which we are all pledged
at Baptism. I solemnly urge you: Proclaim the message
[in season and out of season]; convince, rebuke and 
encourage with all patience in teaching... Always be sober, 
endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, 
carry out your ministry fully.
...The Lord be with your spirit. Grace be with you.1 

Listen. Proclaim. Serve and pray! And be among us in all the ways
that we are about to hear in the Induction, but especially 
as a person of prayer.    

(Sung) In the silent hours of night
bless the Lord.
May God bless this New Ministry, of Fr. Brian and of this congregation, now and always.  Amen.