Thursday, August 30, 2007

“...for indeed our God is a consuming fire.”
(Hebrews 12:29)

Year C Proper 16
Isaiah 28: 14-22
Psalm 46
Hebrews 12: 18-19; 22-29
Luke 13:22-30
Trinity Parish
Seattle, WA
August 26, 2007
Jan Robitscher

With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre—
To be redeemed from fire by fire.
(The Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot)
In the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

One of the most interesting and challenging aspects of living in a seminary community (actually I live in two: Church Divinity School and the School for Deacons) is hearing sermons on a daily basis. Over twenty years I have heard many and preached a few. For most, the theme was some nonjudgmental aspect of the love of God, and in a very few the theme was our love of God. They all meant well, I am sure, but somehow God always came off as being too tame. But on a cold January afternoon I sat in Westminster Abbey at Evensong and heard Canon-in-Residence Collin Semper preach on this very text from the Letter to the Hebrews:

For God is a consuming fire.

No, it was not in any way a “fire and Brimstone” sermon. In fact, Canon Semper’s voice was both quiet and emphatic and his sermon touched me to the core.1 And in case you are wondering--no, you won’t hear a “Fire and Brimstone” sermon from me, either--well, at least not ultimately.

For God is a consuming fire.

Why did you come here? Because you wanted to, or because you felt you had to? Did you come because you love God or because you need to experience the love of God? Did you come because you love the beautiful language of Rite I or the Renaissance music we are doing and hearing today? I do. Did you come because you are searching? Perhaps because you are worried about the present divisions in the Church or in the world (I am) or about the future? Did you come in brokenness and wanting healing? Canon Semper made the surprising statement: that it is “precisely why we have come to church--because our God is a consuming fire.”

Yes, we come searching, broken and--if we come in the right way, wanting to present ourselves as we are and as best we can to God. But then we are startled by the ‘Consuming Fire”! We encounter the presence of God in a prayer, a hymn, a reading or even a sermon and hear our name in it! And that’s only the beginning...

For God is a consuming fire.

From Genesis to Revelation, the Scripture has used Fire as denoting the presence of God. Whether that Presence is benign or not depends upon the circumstances, and upon whether those involved intended a closer relationship to God or were fleeing in fear. Consider these examples:

Moses noticed the bush with flame coming from it and
turned toward it and encountered the living God. “Come no
closer!” said God. “Remove your shoes from your feet, for the
place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Moses hid
his face, for he was afraid to look at God. (Exodus 3: 4-6)

From this benign yet terrifying meeting came the story of the Exodus--the very story we hear at the Great Vigil of Easter huddled around the Paschal Candle, lighting the room with our little candles... Or consider these:

In Leviticus, God accepts burnt-offerings and sacrifices, and what is left is to be “consumed by fire”. (Lev. 19:6)

In Advent we hear that God will come

“like a refiner’s fire... and he will purify the descendants
of Levi...until they present offerings to the Lord in
Righteousness.” (Malachi 3: 2ff)

Just last week we heard the words of an impatient Jesus:

I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I
wish it were already kindled!” (Luke 12:49)

We celebrate Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit appeared over the heads of the Apostles as “tongues of fire” (Acts 2:3)

And in the book of Revelation we hear about the seven flaming torches which surround the throne of God... Rev. (Ch. 4) and of how all evil will one day be thrown into the lake of fire (Rev. 21: 8) and there will be new heavens and a new earth--the heavenly Jerusalem, where “the glory of God is its light, and the lamp is the Lamb--the final redeeming of fire. (Rev. 21:23)

And saints down through the centuries have encountered God the consuming fire in the experience of contemplative prayer. A Renaissance saint, Teresa of Avila, wrote this:

“The fire of divine love is more quickly enkindled
when we blow a little with our intellects. Since
we are close to the fire, a little spark will ignite
and set everything ablaze. Because there is
no impediment from outside, the soul is alone
with its God; it is well prepared for this enkindling.
[I would like you to understand clearly this manner
of prayer, which, as I have said, is called recollection.]
(The Interior Castle, Chapter 28)

Now if we admit that we come to Church as we are to encounter the living God, we must move on to a harder question: Why do we stay? In the face of the issues of human sexuality dividing our church, some have decided to leave and for the rest of us it could seem a tempting escape. But that issue is, for some, a cover for other issues. Some, on the conservative end, are still arguing still over the ordination of women and the Prayer Book. Others, on the liberal end, argue over inclusive language or the necessity of baptism or the irrelevance of the parts of the Bible they don’t like--perhaps including today’s lesson from Hebrews! We may have no choice, given the possibility (though not likely) that the Episcopal Church in the United States might be thrown out of the Anglican Communion. In the end, these issues--all of them--pale before God the consuming fire. But let us not panic! How can we find the courage to to stay?

Consider the reasons why folks leave. Either the Church is:

1) too conservative (THEM)
2) too liberal (US) OR
3) our spiritual life has gone flat (ALL OF US)

Which brings us back again to our reading from Hebrews. This letter was written very early--before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D.--to encourage Jewish Christians not to abandon their new-found faith in Jesus. In addition to arguments from the Hebrew Scriptures they knew, St. Paul (or more probably a student of St. Paul) warns them that they do not come to worship “something that can be touched”, but to nothing less than the “heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering...and to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant. ( Hebrews 12: 23-24) The warning continues: See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking to you...

For God is a consuming fire.

The real question is not the whether the Church is too conservative, too liberal, or just not meeting our needs. It is whether we are ready and willing to recognize the presence of God in recollection, as St. Teresa says, and in community. We are in the Church because it is the Body of Christ, and the Word of God is a consuming fire because if we hear it, it either challenges or frightens us. If we don’t hear it, something is blocking it and we need to allow the Holy Spirit’s fire to burn away those things which are blocking it. We must do this because if we flee from it, then the Word of God will indeed consume us in a more destructive way.

But this is not the end of the story. On the other side of for God is a consuming fire, the author of Hebrews goes on to say this:

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality
to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels
without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison...Let
marriage be held in honor... Keep your lives free from the
love of money and be content with what you have... Remember
your leaders... [And finally]-- Jesus Christ is the same
yesterday, today and forever.

The surprise is that the author of Hebrews says that the fruits of an encounter with God the consuming fire--for those who intend a closer relationship with God--are not fear and death and destruction, but love, hospitality, intercessory prayer, community life (summarized by, but not limited to marriage)--all the things we do when we come together for worship that prepare us for the moment of Communion--when, as St. Augustine says, in receiving the very life of Jesus, we become who we truly are: the Body of Christ. Here, in the consuming of bread and wine-become-Jesus, is the place where we most closely encounter God the consuming fire.

Where is the Good News in all this? If we come to God honestly, not afraid to bring whatever we have: our searching, our longing, our brokenness, our love--then we can have the courage (by God’s grace) to remain in the presence of God the consuming fire and be transformed by it into the Body of Christ. Therefore, says the Letter to the Hebrews:

... since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot
be shaken, let us give thanks,by which we offer to God
an acceptable worship with reverence and awe;

for indeed our God is a consuming fire.
(Hebrews 12:29)

Let us pray:
Come, Holy Spirit,
fill the hearts of your faithful people
and kindle in us the fire of your love;
Send forth your breath and we shall be created
and you shall renew the face of the earth. Amen.
“Lord, teach us to pray...”
(Luke 11:1)

Year C Proper 12
Genesis 18:20-32
Psalm 85
Col 2:6-15 (17-19)
Luke 11:1-13
St. Andrew’s
Brechin, Scotland
July 29, 2007
Jan Robitscher

Be careful of simple words said often.
“Amen”: We are present. We are open.
We hearken. We understand.
Here we are. We are listening to your word.1
(Barbara Schmich)

First, I would like to thank Ursula for inviting me here to preach. I have just come from singing at Lincoln Cathedral and then at Durham with the choir of St. Mark’s Church, Berkeley, California. Our week (and a bit more) of leading people in sung prayer has been an experience both exhilarating and exhausting. St. Benedict was right--prayer really is the “Work of God”! At home, during term-time, I am an Instructor at the Episcopal School for Deacons, an intensive program for the training of vocational deacons for all of the diocese of northern California and beyond. Ursula suggested that I speak about this, and I think there might be a connection between our readings--especially the Gospel-- and the ministry of deacons, though it may not seem obvious at first.

Our reading from St. Luke’s Gospel speaks to us of prayer. It is notable that Jesus knows how to pray, how to have an intimate conversation, speaking and listening to and with God, his Abba, his Father in the closest sense. But his disciples must ask to learn how to pray, “Lord, teach us to pray as John taught his disciples.” So if, as St. Paul says, we are buried with [Christ] in baptism and raised with him through faith (the Early Church Fathers would say, “Christians are made (through baptism), not born”) then prayer is more taught than caught. It is something we teach our children. One of my earliest memories is of my Presbyterian mother saying bedtime prayers with me, which always included the Lord’s prayer. And we hone our “prayer lessons” over the days and years of our lives, growing in our relationship with God; listening more and speaking less. Sometimes, however, we encounter dry times, or simply take our prayers for granted, or fail to pray at all. Fortunately for us we have little excuse, for there is not a service in the Prayer Book (whether of the Episcopal Church of Scotland of of the Episcopal Church in the United States or anywhere else in the Anglican Communion) that does not have somewhere within it the Lord’s prayer.

Be careful of simple words said often...

Jesus’ prayer reflects his deepest desires: for reverence for God as Father (or loving parent, if you prefer); for the coming of the Kingdom in which God’s will is perfectly reflected from heaven to earth and back again; for everyone to have what they need to feed body and soul each day; for reconciliation with God and each other; and for our safety in times of trial. To pray as Jesus prays is to make Jesus’ deepest longings and desires our own.2 But this is not just a little theological nicety or a pious thought. Jesus’ prayer makes demands upon us that affect the way we live our lives in the world. Which brings us to the second part of our Gospel lesson--and to the School for Deacons.

Perhaps the disciples’ next question after “Teach us to pray” was “And what does this prayer have to do with us”. So Jesus tells this little parable about a persistent friend and what it means to persevere in prayer. That someone would get up in the middle of the night to give his neighbor some bread for his persistent friend--daily bread--this could be called “applied theology”--what it means to pray in the real world.

Each weekend at the School for Deacons students engage in course work which focuses on all the normal seminary subjects, but with an emphasis on the service of deacons to the poor and marginalized, which is the essence of the diaconate and will comprise a large part of their ministry. They apply this knowledge in Field Education, Hospital Ministry, in many ministries around the diocese and in their home parishes, as well as in their secular jobs which they will continue after graduation and ordination. But there is also a regular schedule of worship, in which every student participates and where the liturgical ministry of deacons is modeled. To form deacons, we engage them in a constant conversation between ministry in the church and in the world. We try to teach them, as Gail Ramshaw says, that:

When [the deacon] who works with the poor also
proclaims the Good News, calls on the people for
prayers of compassion and waits on the table and
the people recognize the connection between the
deacon’s ministry without...and within, liturgy forms
the people of God in a life of Christian service.3

The final part of the Gospel reading speaks of the overwhelming desire of God to shower good things upon us--even more than a parent wanting to do good his or her children. This is how God is. God has no need of our prayers, yet desires that we take up Jesus’ own words, and then to shower upon us everything we ask, encompassed in the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Now if you are thinking that there is a large gap between Jesus’ desires and our own, between what we ask of God and what God gives, you are right. We have only to look at a verse in the Psalm for today to see this:

Mercy and truth have met together;*
righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
(Ps. 85:10)

I love this verse and only wish it would come to pass. On one of my previous trips to the U.K. I visited Westminster Abbey, a favorite place. Someone pointed out to me (really too far for me to see) that there are four statues: Mercy, Truth, Justice (Righteousness) and Peace: the Four Virtues. At Evensong, I heard a sermon from the then Sub-Dean which pointed out that the statues of Mercy and Truth actually look away from each other. How far from a perfect alignment with God we are! Yet we persevere in prayer, just as Abraham of our Old Testament reading, or the neighbor of Jesus’ story, or as the disciples who wanted to learn to pray. But we must remember that it is God who gives us the desire to pray in the first place, which makes our prayers a reflection of God’s work in us.
Be careful of simple words said often...

In a few minutes we will say the Lord’s Prayer--our final act of preparation before receiving the very life of Jesus in Holy Communion. When we place our “Amen” on that prayer, we take upon ourselves Jesus’ desires and we allow him to take our “Common Prayer” and make it holy. We take all of the pain of our lives and of the world, all of the divisions in our Anglican Communion and we offer them to Jesus for healing and reconciliation. We take all of the service of our lives and offer it to Jesus, asking for strength and grace and safety. We take all the thanksgivings of our lives and offer them to Jesus for praise. And to Jesus’ prayer (and returning to the poetry of Barbara Schmich) we say:

“Amen”: We support. We approve.
We are of one mind. We promise.
May this come to pass. So be it.

Amen. Amen.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

“...[H]er sins, though many, are forgiven;
hence, she has shown great love.”
(Luke 7:49)

Year C Proper 6
2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15
Psalm 32:1-8
Galatians 2:11-21
Luke 7:36-50
Jan Robitscher
Trinity Parish
Seattle, WA
June 13, 2004

Said General Oglethorpe to Wesley, “I never forgive.”
“Then I hope sir,” said Wesley, “you never sin.”
(George Eliot, Nineteenth Century)[1]

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

Whatever possessed the creators of our lectionary to place these readings right at the beginning of the long, green season? We might have expected to find them during Lent for--in a rare confluence, they all have to do with sin and forgiveness, with law and grace, with repentance and love. But green is the color representing growth--growth in our life-in-Christ--so maybe there’s a purpose here.

All of the people in these lessons acted in ways that separated them from the truth. King David is in a heap of trouble. He desires Bathsheba, and, after committing adultery with her, he has her husband Uriah killed off in battle. God is not pleased, but David does not “get it” until Nathan comes to him with a parable (a one-point story) about the ewe-lamb, which finally breaks through to David and prompts his confession. God is merciful and David is forgiven, though his sin does have consequences for the child that is born--but that’s another sermon.

Our Gospel reading presents another illustration of God’s forgiveness and how people respond to it. Jesus visits the home of a rabbi, a Pharisee--one who would have prided himself on his ability to keep the whole Law to the letter, and who would have looked down on those who did not. We don’t know why Simon invited Jesus to dinner. Perhaps he admired him or even wanted to entrap him. Probably, he was just curious, as Jesus had become a celebrity. What Simon has not anticipated was the presence of the “woman from the city, who was a sinner”. How could such a notorious person--a woman, considered to be an outcast and at the bottom of society--get into the Pharisee’s house? How could she come right up to Jesus? Then she did the unthinkable and broke open her vial of perfume, something often worn by women, and began to anoint Jesus’ feet and, weeping, to wipe his feet with her hair. This was an incredibly sensuous gesture and the Pharisee was scandalized, though he did not voice it. He didn’t “get it” any more than King David did. So Jesus, reading his thoughts, and seeing through the woman’s acts to a love much deeper than sensuality, tells another parable, the story of the creditor and the two debtors.

At the end of the story, when both of the debts are forgiven, Jesus asks, “Now which of them will love him more?” And he answered, correctly, “The one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” Jesus then explains that this notorious woman has done for him all of the customary things which the Pharasee-host is supposed to do. Then comes the heart of his message:
“Therefore I tell you, her sins, which were many,
have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.”

This is the part that is so hard for us to understand. We often remember that other verse of Scripture, “Love covereth a multitude of sins.” (I Peter 2:8) And it does. But what we think that means is that we can earn God’s forgiveness with our love, by our own efforts. In this lesson, we think that Jesus said that those who love much are forgiven much. But listen carefully. What Jesus says of the woman is that her response to being forgiven overflows into acts of love. This is what St. Paul is trying so hard to say in our second reading--that we must act consistently with the truth of the Gospel because “we are justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing works of the Law.”

Now what does all of this have to do with us? In an age where many folks are saying that they can’t find God anywhere, it is important to remember that, in order to begin to find God, we must first be willing to admit our personal and corporate sinfulness. This is not easy. Look at the headlines and see how hard we try to justify (and we even lie to do it) all sorts of things. Take the reasons for going to war in Iraq. Most were exaggerated at best and fabricated at worst. And, according to one commentator, talk show host Phil Donahue was the lone voice raising questions about this, and for his efforts, his show got canceled. Or how about the greed of multi-national corporations like Enron. While California burned, the corporate execs laughed--all the way to the bank. Add to these the pollution of our earth; and all the various forms of discrimination which still pervade our society...

But if we think the Church is exempt, we would be quite wrong. One only has to see the split over the issue of homosexuality, for example. On one side are extreme conservatives who are trying to exclude anyone unlike themselves. On the other are extreme liberals who are advocating a hedonistic society in which anything goes and there is no sin. This is not the only issue, and we are not alone. Our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters continue to struggle through a sexual abuse scandal of monumental proportions.

On a more personal level--perhaps the hardest to see--we might ask: What do we lie about? What separates us from the truth? What angers or resentments or jealousies keep us from loving God and one another?

Now lest we fall into despair over all of these kinds of corporate and personal sin, we have only to look at our Psalm to find help:
While I held my tongue, my bones withered away,*
because of my groaning all the day long.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you,*
and did not conceal my guilt.
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.”*
Then you forgave me the guilt of my sin.

Our liturgy provides us with a way to do just this. In a few minutes, after we have professed our faith and prayed for the Church and the world (Heaven knows they need it!) we will say the General Confession. Here is our best opportunity to confess not only our own personal sins, but also the sins we commit corporately: as a parish, as Christ’s Body, the Church, and as a society.

The truth is, as St. Paul has said,
For there is no distinction, since All have sinned
and fall short of the glory of God...
(Romans 3:23)
But he goes on to say:
...they [and we] are now justified by...
grace as a gift, through the redemption
that is in Christ Jesus...

After the General Confession, we exchange the Peace. This is an ancient act of reconciliation and a sign that those who desire it are now ready to participate in the Holy Communion. No one is worthy and, as your rector, Paul likes to say, all are welcome. And Jesus is there, willing to accept us, just as he was willing to accept that notorious woman, who knew that her many sins were forgiven, and whose gratitude overflowed in love.[2]

So maybe the lectionary writers weren’t wrong after all. Maybe, in order to find God, to grow in our life-in-Christ during this long, green season, we must begin by first recognizing our own sinfulness--and that of our parish and our society. Then, thankful for God’s unfailing mercy, we can, like the woman of our Gospel story, be overflowing with acts of love.

[1] From A Reconciliation Sourcebook, LTP, p. 53
[2] Some ideas for this sermon came from the Rev. Nicholas R.D.Dyke’s sermon on the website, Worship that Works.
“...Son of David, have mercy on me!”
(Mark 10:47)

Year B Proper 25 (Special Healing Service)
Job 42:1-6, 10-17
Psalm 34:1-8
Hebrews 7:23-28
Mark 10:46-52

Jan Robitscher

St. Mark’s Church

Berkeley, CA

October 29, 2006

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

O lead my blindness by the hand,
Lead me to thy familiar feast,
Not here or now to understand,
Yet even here and now to taste,
How the eternal Word of heaven
On earth in broken bread is given.
(William Ewart Gladstone, 19th century)[1]

What an irritating soul was Bartimaeus! Sitting by the side of the road, calling out at the top of his voice, “Son of God, have mercy on me!” Little wonder they tried to shush him up. Although he seemed to be yelling at the air, he knew that Jesus was close by, and, though he may not have known much about Jesus, where Jesus was, there was God’s help. So he cried out all the louder, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

I can relate to Bartimaeus at lots of levels. I, too, have received my sight--but that’s another sermon. I also know something of what it is to cry out for mercy. In second grade, we had to copy long outlines and assignments from the blackboard. Even sitting in the front row, this was a daunting task. One day, I got completely overwhelmed and yelled out a 7 yr. old’s equivalent of “Son of David, have mercy on me!” The teacher, using methods we would now call abusive, silenced me and segregated me to the back of the room. Healing of the memory and forgiveness (renouncing revenge) came later when I understood more about this teacher and her problems. I can remember other times. In Junior High the children made a circle around me and began to taunt... Again, healing and forgiveness came later. But these and other such experiences only made me want to spend the rest of my life speaking and writing and working to improve the treatment of all persons--especially persons with disabilities--both within and without the Church, and cry out all the louder, “Son of David, have mercy!” Each time, in some way, I have been told “Oh Jan, sit down. Be quiet.” Still, I persist...

Back to our Gospel reading. What happened next was--really--a miracle. First, Jesus stood still long enough to hear Bartimaeus’ cry. Then, ignoring the crowd trying to hush Bartimaeus, he said “Call him here.” The fickle crowd then changes its attitude toward the blind man, saying, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” Then Bartimaeus does something remarkable: he throws off his cloak--his dearest possession--and runs to Jesus, who asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” And Bartimaeus, no longer shouting to the air for help or harassed by the crowd, asks simply, “My teacher, let me see again.”

Now, Bartimaeus could have asked for anything: fame, fortune, maybe for a less dysfunctional family or a better place in society. But he says, “My teacher, let me see again.” Perhaps he has had sight before. Yet, does he really know what he is asking? Does he really want to see the world that is both beautiful and, at times, brutal? He does not hesitate: “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus, the Son of David had mercy on him, and he was healed.

But it does not end there. For, in Mark’s good style, it says that “Immediately, he followed him on the way.” In early Christianity, “The Way” meant to follow Jesus. So he went on his way, and most likely told anyone who would listen the story of his healing encounter with Jesus.

I could stop right here and tell you (and it’s true) that Jesus cares about each of us and wants to heal us, to give us what we need to be whole and sound. In return, we thank him and follow him on the way. But I believe there is more for us--yes, US. This story is not only about an encounter between Bartimaeus and Jesus. It is about the crowd, too. It is not just a “me and Jesus” story. It is an “US and Jesus” story.

What if we, as a parish, were to live out this story? What if this story is really a story about Healing, Stewardship and Evangelism? How would it look? First, we must admit that we are sometimes like blind Bartimaeus. We can’t see what is going on, but we can admit before God that we need healing and keep crying out until God’s help comes. What if we lifted our parish up to God in this way? Oh, we know some things: that our long and wonderful history includes the collective memory (an actual memory for some who have been here that long) of the tragic death of our former Rector George Tittmann; our present budget problems; all the buildings, programs and personnel we wish we could add to what we have; perhaps a few forgotten “skeletons” in our parish closet? And beyond us, what about the divisions that threaten the Anglican Communion? What if we just lifted it all up to God? What if we took a lesson from our Amish brothers and sisters who have endured such unspeakable violence and made the choice to pray and to forgive? Or we could learn from the courageous and articulate response of Michael J. Fox to the unkind remarks of Rush Limbaugh. Can we lift up our society to God? Or our war-torn, global-warmed-out world? That’s the Healing part.

Sometimes we are like the crowd. One moment we try to hush up those crying out for help, the next we are encouraging them to come. It might be a parishioner, a committee, a clergy or staff person, or maybe a homeless person who come to us for Hot Meals. We are often impatient, unwilling to stand still long enough to hear their cry. Or sometimes no one is patient enough to hear ours. How would it be if, like Jesus, we did stand still long enough to hear our own cry, our collective community cry? What if we then took that cry to Jesus for help and healing?

From Bartimaeus, we have learned that healing is costly. Are we willing, as Bartimaeus was, to let go of our collective cloak--our dearest possession? What if we gave of ourselves--all of us in as many ways as we are able--and ask God’s help to build up this parish? To build up the larger Church? To build up our society and our world? That’s the Stewardship part.

Yet we dare not stop there! For when we receive healing or any kind of help, we must return thanks to God and then, like Bartimaeus, follow Jesus on the way. That’s the Evangelism part. We must tell the story of God’s creation, of Jesus, “God-with-us”, of the Holy Spirit blowing its healing power where it will--gently and lovingly--to anyone who will listen and even to those who don’t seem to hear. We must tell them how God is active in our lives, tell them what it really means to be an inclusive community not just in word but in action, invite them to “come and see”, as I often do to those whom I meet walking across the Cal campus to St. Mark’s each Sunday.

Now let me tell you a positive story: One Sunday over the summer, while visiting my family in Atlanta, I attended the Cathedral of St. Philip, where my brother and sister-in-law and their son are members. At Communion, I approached the Altar, led by my (now retired) guide dog, “Christmas”. An usher showed me the stairs and which way to go to receive Communion, and I did. Then, coming around and through the ambulatory, I encountered another usher who asked earnestly, “May I help you down the stairs?” Everything in me wanted to say, “No, thank you, my dog and I can do this together.” but I resisted the temptation in mid-sentence, put down the harness handle and allowed him to take my arm and help me. He told me, in so many words, that he had always wanted to do this, to help someone with a guide dog, someone who could not see, so that he or she could have a good experience of God, of church, of the Cathedral. For that moment, even though I could see, he was my eyes. For that moment, the healing presence of Jesus was there, in the midst of us. I got safely back to my place and he went away happy, his prayer finally having been answered.

O lead my blindness by the hand,
Lead me to thy familiar feast,
Not here or now to understand,
Yet even here and now to taste,
How the eternal Word of heaven
On earth in broken bread is given.

So come forward for prayer and anointing for healing. Come ready to give over your private hurts and illnesses, but also the hurts and illnesses of the Body of Christ in this parish, in the Church, in our world. Come and ask Jesus our Great High Priest who continually makes intercession for us. Ask for healing or whatever else you want and need. Come to give thanks for healing already given or some other special occasion. Come, loved ones and caregivers and stand with us. [Whether you come forward or remain quietly in prayer, listen to the music the choir has lovingly prepared, for music can be a way that God heals us, too.][2] Then, at the time of Communion, come to this Altar, the Lord’s Table, to the Healing Feast that brings forgiveness and the gift of eternal life. Finally, filled with the very life of Jesus, go into the world, ready to tell the Good News of how healing has come to this place.

[1] A Eucharist Sourcebook, p. 25
[2] Omit at 8 a.m. service.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

“The bread that I shall give for he life of the world
is my flesh.”
(Jn. 6:51)

Year B Proper 14
Deut. 8:1-10
Psalm 34:1-8
Eph. 4: (25-29) 30-5:2
John 6:37-51ff

Jan Robitscher
Church of the Redeemer
San Rafael, CA
August 13, 2006

O lead my blindness by the hand
Lead me to my familiar Feast
Not here or now to understand,
Yet even here and now to taste,
How the eternal Word of heaven
On earth in broken bread is given.[2]
William Ewart Gladstone
Nineteenth Century

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

Every preacher has a sermon with a capital “S”--a theme which returns again and again, though in different ways, like facets in a prism. While the Sermon (capital S) might be a passionately favorite topic of the preacher, it is not always easy. So today, God has given it to me to preach on one of the most difficult passages of Scripture. You see, it’s easy to preach on a lesson that tells a story or sings a Psalm. But when we enter the scene right at the climax of Jesus’ “sermon” on the day after the feeding of the five thousand, and hear him saying “The bread that I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh”[3] we suddenly wonder if the Gospel writer got it right--or even whether Jesus has taken leave of his senses! Today I hope to leave you with the assurance that John indeed got it right and that Jesus meant what he said in this passage and in the even harder verses which follows it.
For the bread that I shall give for the life
of the world is my flesh.

It starts small. I’ve been thinking about friendship--how it forms and what things sustain it. Suddenly I realized that, at one time or another, I have shared a meal with every close friend I have. Your vicar, Carol can attest to this. We first met briefly while she was working at Guide Dogs (where, indecently, she probably knew “Christmas” as a puppy). When she came to seminary, near where I live, we became friends and often shared cup of coffee or hot chocolate at Brewed Awakening. Then lunch and conversation in the Refectory. Then I invited her to tea at my home. And, of course, we attended seminary Chapel almost daily together. Always, there was bread of one kind or another. We literally became companions--ones who share the bread.

Just after I met Carol, I began to teach at the School for Deacons. Because the diaconal call and ministry are bound up in proclaiming the Good News to, praying for and serving the marginalized, not a class session weekend would go by without being at a Eucharist and hearing of and praying for the needs of the world: “For the poor, the sick, the hungry and those who suffer...for prisoners, captives and all who are in danger...”[4] And about this same time, I began to help with Hot Meals for the Homeless at St. Mark’s in Berkeley. “Friend” became “Friends” in a larger way, and I began to understand what Jesus meant when he said:
The bread that I shall give for the life
of the world is my flesh.

Receiving Communion is more than just the “me and Jesus” experience most of us had in our childhood when we went to church. We don’t have to read far in the headlines to see a world so badly in need of the life for which Jesus died: the tragic fighting in the Middle East, starvation and AIDS in Africa and here, poverty, homelessness, crime, global warming and the Anglican Communion, so badly divided. And we don’t have to look far in this room to be aware of each other and know each others’ needs. Communion and Community come from the same root. When Jesus gives himself to us, we become his Body, and we are expected to give ourselves to others--friends and enemies, near and far--in his Name.

Now if only I could stop here! If only I could wind up this nice Social Gospel sermon to and sit down. But it goes on and gets harder. Jesus’ identification of himself with the bread must have shocked his hearers. After all, Jewish law forbade the eating of food not completely drained of blood and, though there were some abuses of the sacrificial system, cannibalism was unthinkable. Even so, Jesus’ hearers would have understood his words literally--and they would have heard in them deeper meanings that our English translations can impart. For to Jewish and early Christian ears, the words “flesh” and “blood” meant far more than the physical (and separate) parts of the body we know. “Flesh” meant one’s whole person: body, soul, mind and spirit. “Blood” meant the very essence of life itself.

But knowing this did not keep Jesus hearers from disputing among themselves saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” For centuries to come, the Church debated the question in an attempt to explain this bread-become-the Body of Christ. Actually, those Medieval theologians got a bad press, but perhaps it was Queen Elizabeth I who said it best when she came up with an Anglican “Middle Way” of explaining the mystery:
It was the Word that spake it.
He took the bread and brake it,
And what his word doth make it,
That I believe and take it.[5]

And the debate goes on today. Only now scholars don’t debate HOW the bread becomes the Body of Christ, but WHETHER it does. They spiritualize the passage and say that Jesus didn’t really mean those words. Jesus answered the dispute not by explaining HOW his flesh and blood would “get into” the bread and cup, nor did he brush the whole thing aside as an empty symbol. Rather, he impressed upon them that if they wanted life at all--life with any meaning--life for the world--they would have to partake of the Lord of Life, himself. And he speaks to us too. He promised that whoever gathered in his Name to celebrate the mystery of his death and resurrection would find him--all of him-- present in bread and wine. To receive Communion (or, as the Gospel says, when we partake of Jesus’ flesh and blood) is literally to become one with Jesus and to have Jesus become one with us. And it is to become companions in the deepest sense--those who share the Bread that Jesus gives.

What difference should this make in our lives? Communion gives us strength for our individual journeys. It will help me entrust my beloved “Christmas” to Carol today and it will help her entrust me to receive a new dog tomorrow and train with it for the next three weeks and then to let us loose on the world beyond. And I’m sure each of you needs Jesus’ strength for your journey, too.

But it also gives us a different world-view. It helps us pray “for the life of the world” and enlarge our definition of “Friend”. It helps us see where help is needed and energizes us to (as St. Teresa puts it, “Be Christ’s eyes and hands and feet in the world”. It helps us grow as a community, both in our love for one another and in our desire to bring more people here. In receiving Communion, we ask to see everything through Jesus’ eyes. But that’s not all. In a world filled with terrorism and war and the rumors of war, Jesus gives himeslf to us so that we can know that our ultimate safety is found only in God. This is what the Prayer Book Catechism means when it says:
The benefits we receive [from the Eucharist] are
the forgiveness of our sins, the strengthening of
our union with Christ and one another, and the
foretaste of the heavenly banquet which is our
nourishment in eternal life.[6]

In the end, though, the Eucharist is larger than our individual or even our corporate journeys. Eucharist means “thanksgiving” and is the way Jesus gave us of remembering--literally re-membering--in thanksgiving his life, death and resurrection--his supreme act of love for us.

So I invite you to come to this Table. Come prepared by reconciling yourself to God and your neighbors. Come longing to receive the whole Person of Jesus. Most of all, come in thanksgiving for his love. Then be willing to carry Jesus from this place into the world for which he gave his life and for which he rose again. Perhaps the great liturgist Balthazar Fischer said it best:

The table awaits us at which our baptismal life is fed
over and over again. We have every reason to cry out
in gratitude: Alleluia, alleluia![7]

[1] This sermon is adapted from one I preached in September, 1985.
[2] A Eucharist Sourcebook, p. 25
[3] Italics mine.
[4] Compiled from Prayers of the People, Book of Common Prayer.
[5] Norman Fox, Christ in the Daily Bread <> Quatrain attributed to Queen Elizabeth I.
[6] An Outline of the Faith, Book of Common Prayer, pp. 859-860.
[7] Balthasar Fischer, from A Eucharist Sourcebook, p. 39.
"This is none other than the house of God,
and this the gate of heaven."
(Gen. 28:17)

St. Michael and All Angels
Gen. 28:10-17
Rev. 12:7-12
Jn. 1:47-51
Jan Robitscher
Sept 29, 2006
All Saints Chapel

Note: It is rare for a preacher to admit to pulling a sermon
out of the file, but this one has a story: Nineteen years ago
and a newly-arrived doctoral student (that didn’t last long),
I was asked to preach on this Feast on short notice.[1] Well, it
happened again! Fortunately, neither angels nor the essentials
of the Gospel message have changed much in nineteen years.
Here, slightly revised, is what I said:
Visit this place, O Lord, and drive far from it
all snares of the enemy; let your holy angels
dwell with us to preserve us in peace; and let
your blessing be upon us always; through Jesus
Christ our Lord. Amen.

That ancient collect, from the Office of Compline, is among my favorite in all the Prayer Book--and so is this Feast of St. Michael and All Angels. But it is a curious Feast, dating from the foundation of a church dedicated to St. Michael in the fifth century and expanded to include ALL angels in the 1549 Prayer Book. But what are we really celebrating? After all, we don't think of angels as a part of our every-day experience. Yet we encounter them often in our prayers and our liturgical life, and they come up at regular intervals in our lectionary readings. So we must deal with them... But how?

Most of you are probably familiar with The Screwtape Letters of C.S. Lewis. You remember, the chronicle of demon Screwtape's replies to his nephew Wormwood who is trying very hard to defeat the new-found Christian life of his human subject. (He fails, thank God!) Well, I have unearthed one of the unpublished letters of nephew Wormwood, who sees this Feast from what might be called a "Via Negativa" point of view. I share it now, with his permission. Only remember that the Devil is a liar, and Uncle Screwtape taught Wormwood very well...

My dearest Uncle Screwtape,

Well, it's THEIR day again! Oh, they call it "St. Michael and ALL Angels, but we deceivers are not deceived. They can't describe them. Even the Sacred Writings are quite vague. But, put simply, angels (as they're called) are messengers--a special order of beings (says the collect for this day) which, when they are not (dare I say it?) singing the praises of God, are intermediaries between God and humankind.

We have tried for so long to confuse the description of these beings: Medieval creations with peaceful (if somber) expressions; chubby cherubs of Baroque art; even human beings (a bishop once asked me, “Are you an angel?”. But alas! those familiar with the Sacred Writings know better. THEY are really such fierce and awesome figures that the recipients of their messages must first be calmed with the words, "Be not afraid".

Though only four of them are named: Michael, Rafael, Gabriel and Uriel, their presence has been felt throughout Salvation History: in Jacob's dream of today's lesson, or his wrestling match with an angel a few chapters later; at the vision which accompanied Isaiah's calling; ministering to Elijah in his moment of despair; announcing the Incarnation to Mary and Jesus' birth to the shepherds; with Jesus at His baptism, His temptation in the desert, His agony in the garden, and as the very first witnesses of the resurrection; finally as the victors-in-Christ over our Leader and us his fallen angels as so--er--beautifully depicted in the lesson from Revelation.

We angels here Below want so much to get those humans on earth to dismiss THEM (and us) as figments of their (or some ancient writer's) worst fantasies! Origen said that angels belong to the proclamation of the Church. We had more success with Gregory of Nazianzus who said that "it is difficult to find the right words in which to speak of angels". Yet even Karl Barth could not entirely demythologize angels, pointing out that, whereas WE (fallen angels) exist for ourselves here Below, THEY, in that horribly beautiful place called heaven,
"...are not independent and autonomous subjects...
merging as it were into their function, which is
wholly and exemplary that of SERVICE." (Church Dogmatics)

And C.S. Lewis (by whose hand your letters, Uncle Screwtape, were published) has this to say:
The commonest question is whether I really "believe
in the Devil". The proper question is whether I believe
in devils. I do. That is to say, I believe in angels, and
I believe that some of these, by the abuse of their
free will, have become enemies to God...and to us.
Satan, the leader...of devils, is not the opposite of
God, but of Michael... (whose name, incidentally,
means "who can compare with God?") (Screwtape Letters)

Or, if these humans who call themselves “Christians” find angels unavoidable, they take them for granted. They confuse them for human messengers--important and even necessary at times, but not angels. I have stumbled upon these Christians' celebrations of this day. In a few moments the familiar words of the Preface will sound again which, in every Eucharist, leads them into the hymn of Isaiah's vision:
Therefore we praise you, joining our voices with
Angels and Archangels (no, not “dark angels”!),
and with all the company of heaven, who forever
sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your Name...

And their hymns! (Sung:) Angels from the Realms of Glory; Angels, we have heard on high; The angel Gabriel from heaven came; Ye holy angels bright; Christ the fair glory of the holy angels...(or if you prefer the chant version...) I could go on and on--but this angelic music hurts my demonic ears!

I cannot stay in church much longer! For (in Jacob's words) "This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven."

Dear Uncle Screwtape, I tried my best to stifle the joy of these Christians and their "St. Michael and THEIR Angels" celebrations. But I'm afraid it's hopeless. You see, the (dare I say it) Good News is that they keep asking God to send angels to “defend them here on earth” and they keep striving, with God’s help, to make the example of the Angels' reflected glory and service their own. Once that's done, nothing here Below can overcome it. But maybe someday, at the Consummation of All Things, we will give in and surrender ourselves to Jesus the Christ. Then it really will be the Feast of St. Michael and ALL angels.

Meanwhile, Uncle Screwtape, I await your learned response.

Your affectionate nephew,


[1] I owe a great debt to my friend the Rev. Dr. Tina Pippin, who was here on sabbatical at the time and helped me do the research for this sermon.
“On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples.. and his dwelling shall be glorious”
(Isaiah 11:10)

Year A Advent II
Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalm 72
Matthew :1-12
Jan Robitscher
St. Mark’s Church
Berkeley, CA
December 10, 2006

Creator of the stars of light
Your peoples’ everlasting light;
O Christ, redeemer of us all,
We pray you hear us when we call.

We have entered the season of Advent, that time of preparation for the comings of Christ, yes, comings: past, present and future. But the image I had again as Advent began a week ago goes back long before Jesus’ birth. It goes back, back to the creation of the cosmos. Perhaps it is what the astronauts on the Shuttle see, or pictures from the Hubble Telescope. It is at once beautiful and terrifying. That’s why Advent would not really be Advent (at least for me) without singing “Creator of the stars of night”.[1] In order to prepare for our celebrations of Christmas we must hear the whole story from the very beginning if it is all going to make sense. That really happens only two times each Church Year: at our annual Festival of Lessons and Carols (next Sunday) and at the Great Vigil of Easter. In the meantime, this little evening hymn which dates from the ninth century[2], Conditor alme siderum, helps us do just that.

We don’t know much about darkness these days. Night is lit up like the day. We can’t even see the stars for the street lights. Even the candles of our Altar and Advent wreath are drowned by the electricity that lights this sacred space. And our nights are turned into days with the noise of Christmas commerce and days are turned to nights in the horrors of sickness, crime and war. So we have to imagine the real, silent darkness--of winter--of the cosmos.

What comes next in our hymn is the whole story of Salvation history in a verse:
In sorrow that the ancient curse
Should doom to death a universe,
You came, O Savior, to set free
Your own in glorious liberty.

A pristine universe and an earth with its creatures and people created in quiet harmony with God soon became a place of disobedience, shame and destruction--the story of Adam and Eve. And God, who called (and still calls) it all good, tried again and again to call God’s chosen people Israel back, producing kings, judges and prophets, great signs and miracles, love songs--anything to woo people back to life in God. Finally, God sent John the Baptist to announce the coming Kingdom and Jesus’ place in it:
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven
has come near.” (Matt. 3:2)

God decided to risk taking on human flesh, to be born into our world, and so Jesus came to live and die to redeem us. All along, God knew that we needed a Savior.

Of course, we know the end of the story. We know that Advent, is about “Jesus’ glorious coming to complete his Easter work.”[3] So we celebrate not only Jesus’ birth but his earthly ministry, redeeming death and resurrection. As Martin Luther said, “The wood of the crib is the wood of the cross.” But we also celebrate his presence here. And we look for his second coming, which, says John the Baptist, does involve judgment:
“His winnowing fork is in his hand and he
will clear the threshing floor...” (Matt 3: 12)

Though, as Isaiah says,
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear:
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.

Not much has changed. We have ravaged our beautiful earth--our “fragile island home”[4] in the cosmos. We still long for what we already have--a Savior. Yet we live in hope for a time, the time Isaiah describes, when all creatures will again live in harmony with God. And we believe that when Jesus comes again he will bring the final restoration of all things. So our hymn says:
At your great Name, O Jesus, now
All knees must bend, all hearts must bow;
All things on earth with one accord,
Like those in heaven, shall call you Lord.

Which leaves us where we are: right here, at Evensong, at night, in approaching winter, at prayer. We are here to prepare ourselves--no, to ask God to help prepare us--for the celebration of the comings of Jesus.

And when we give each other Christmas gifts in His name,
let us remember that He has given us the sun and the moon
and the stars, and the Earth with its forests and mountains
and oceans--and all that lives and moves upon them... and all
that we quarrel about and all that we have misused--and to
save us from our own foolishness, from all our sins, He came
down to Earth and gave us himself.[5]

The Good News is that the comings of Jesus--all of them--tell us that we need no longer fear the darkness. The vision of the beautiful and terrifying, dark and silent cosmos with which I started is both the beginning and the end of the story of our salvation. Jesus came to free us from sickness, evil and death, and will bring us to that day where there will be no more cancer, crime or war, and no more darkness, but a restored world in a universe at peace in the glorious light of the Reign of God where the stars sing for joy. For this greatest gift of God’s redeeming love, we cannot help but sing:

To God the Father, God the Son
And God the Spirit, Three in One,
Praise, honor, might and glory be
From age to age eternally. Amen.

[1] from a quote of Chrysogonus Waddell, from An Advent Sourcebook, pp 2-3.
[2] The Hymnal 1982 Companion, Vol. Three A, pp. 113-115,
[3] from a quote of Charles K. Riepe, An Advent Sourcebook, p. 12.
[4] Eucharistic Prayer C, BCP, p. 369ff.
[5] Sigrid Undset

Friday, June 22, 2007

“Jesus said to [the Samaritan woman],
‘Give me a drink.’”

(Jn. 4:5)
Yr. A Lent 3
Exodus 17:1-7 Ps. 95
Jn. 4:5-26 (27-38) 39-42
St. Mark’s Church
March 11, 2007

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

Water. It covers most of the earth. It comprises most of our bodies. It is the essence of life, itself. While we could go for many days without food, it would take only about 3 days for us to die without water. The Israelites were keenly aware of this as they traversed the desert. Our reading says they quarreled with Moses and said “Give us water to drink.” Eventually, Moses went to God with the request and God granted it, though not without consequences because they doubted God’s presence and ability to sustain them on their journey. This is only one of many references to water we hear in the Hebrew Scriptures, perhaps the most dramatic being the deliverance of Israel at the Red Sea, which we will hear at the Great Vigil of Easter.

Then there was the well. It was a hot, sultry day. Jacob’s well had been a place of meeting and of conversation among the women who had gathered there early in the morning. Now it was an empty, lonely place. Jesus came and sat down by the well. A Samaritan woman came, alone, to draw water. She was, by every standard, an outcast of her society. Alone, in a foreign country, of “ill repute”. There she was, trying not to be seen when she encounters a man. And not just a man--a Jewish man. For his part, Jesus did the unthinkable: he spoke to her. “Give me a drink”, he asked. And this prompted a conversation of gentle listening and honest questions which would lead her to encounter Jesus as Messiah, and to leave her precious water jar to go and tell the townspeople what she had heard and seen. Through her words, they, in turn, came to see and believe for themselves.

“Give me a drink”, said Jesus. Of the many surprises in this story, perhaps the most startling is that it was Jesus who asked for a drink of water.[1] An antiphon from Orthodox vespers captures this well:

Jesus met the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well.
The One who covers the earth with clouds
asks water of her.
Oh! What a wonder!...

Jesus was willing to become vulnerable and to break every taboo so that a conversation with this woman could happen. But it quickly turns as Jesus speaks of giving her “living water”:
“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again,
but those who drink of the water that I will give will never
be thirsty...”

Now Jesus and the woman have found common ground. They are both thirsty. Jesus’ human thirst would echo again from the cross with the words, “I thirst”. But his thirst goes deeper. It is a thirst for peace--shalom. The woman also thirsts--for dignity, for respect, for a purpose in life. Suddenly there is something she can do for him. This, too, reminds us of Jesus’ words,
“And whoever gives a cup of cold water to one of
these little ones in the name of a disciple--truly I
tell you none of these will lose their reward.” (Matt. 10:42)

Here is a wonderful exchange! The woman gives Jesus a cup of cold water and he offers the “living water” of eternal life.

When the disciples returned, they must have been scandalized to see Jesus speaking with a Samaritan woman. Yet, this is the example he is giving them of the very ministry to which he is calling them: to listen across all boundaries and taboos, and to allow others--perhaps the least likely others--to minister to them, too. The woman runs away, leaving her water jar behind. She doesn’t need it any more, for the spring of living water is welling up inside her, just as Jesus said.

We, too, thirst for “living water”. Not the water of the grumbling Israelites in the desert, but the “living water” which we find in Jesus. This story was used by the Early Church to prepare candidates for baptism--and for good reason. Baptisms were done in “living water”--running water. In baptism we are reborn to new life in Christ. But it does not stop there! It is the water of Jesus’ gift of eternal life. But what does this encounter at the well--and Jesus’ gift of “living water” have for us?

Perhaps if we were to approach others as Jesus did we would find the world and the Church less divided. Perhaps we could find the common ground of our thirst--our real thirst--and then ask Jesus to give us the “living water” that wells up inside us.

As we continue toward Holy Week, let us remember that this story moves us, with those preparing for baptism, toward the “living water”. It also moves us to remember Jesus’ death and resurrection. Let us remember that Jesus still thirsts today, and let us see ourselves as that Samaritan woman. For we come here to Evensong month after month to drink of this well.

But Jesus comes here, too, and asks us for a drink.
Are we ready to give Jesus a cup of cold water?
To talk with him?
To listen to him?
To reveal our brokenness to him?
To make our full commitment to him?
To go and tell others about him so that they, too, might believe that
“[Jesus] is truly the Savior of the world”? (Jn. 4:42)

If we are, then we will be ready to hear the invitation from the Revelation to John:
The Spirit and the bride say,
And let everyone who hears say,
And let everyone who is
thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes
take the water of life as a gift. (Rev. 22:17)

Receive a drink from Jesus--the “living water that...will become.. a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (Jn. 4:14)

[1] the Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek, sermon for Yr. A Lent 3 found on the website Used with permission.