29 September 2010


The Feast of St. Michael and All Angels

The Lectionary

Collect of the Day: Everlasting God, you have ordained and constituted in a wonderful order the ministries of angels and mortals: Mercifully grant that, as your holy angels always serve and worship you in heaven, so by your appointment they may help and defend us here on earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


We've got angels. Boy, do we. There are angels of the month, birthstone angels, dashboard charms that say, "Never drive faster than your guardian angel can fly." Bumper stickers that proclaim, "Angels on board." There are gardening angels, Mother's Day angels, Hallmark angels holding everything from Thanksgiving turkeys to St. Patrick's Day shamrocks.

Fat blonde babies with wings cavort on every possible item. Chubby cherubs, swathed in Victorian chintz drapery, halos charmingly askew, look more like spun-sugar dumplings than anything that would cry, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God, the Almighty!" Greeting cards, wallpaper, candy bars, movies like "Angels in America"— feathered wings joined with human fallibilities are just everywhere these days!

>But then there's this:
Rank on rank the host of heaven spreads its vanguard on the way
As the Lord of light descending from the realms of endless day
Comes, the pow'rs of hell to vanquish
As the darkness clears away.
Set them side by side, the post-modern depiction of angels as a pleasant remnant of myth, made in our image, bent to our will, filling desire for spirituality and a crass marketing niche all at once —and then the Scriptural image of the vanguard of the army of heaven, the praises of God in their throats and a two-edged sword in their hands, a choir in battle formation, with captains and princes, standards and banners arrayed around the throne of the Lord of Light.

>Singers with shields, messengers, bringers of the divine Word, some appointed to ceaseless praise, some appointed to help us on earth: these are the angels of the Lord.

The cosmology of the ancient world is not ours—or so we think. We no longer see angels behind every physical force of nature, every unexplained scientific phenomenon. Except for the Left Behind crowd and the devotees of Frank Peretti and those who tend to see the world in terms of Star Wars, anyway—most Christians, and certainly most Lutherans, don't describe our reality with reference to a cosmic battleground between the evenly-matched forces of good and evil. We already know what battle standard the Host of heaven carries, what device is blazoned on every shield and breastplate, in what sign they conquer.

>Whether our modern sensibilities accept it or not, the holy angels are not incidental to, or independent from, the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ. In the might of the Messiah and under the banner of the cross, the host of heaven continues to do God's will and bring his Word despite the death throes of the dragon. The war is over, Satan is finished. Cast down. But still he fights on, mortally wounded, utterly defeated. His time is short.

And that's where we live. In the now and the not yet. Satan defeated but not yet destroyed. In the time where Paul can claim that our struggle is not against blood and flesh but against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Where the reality is that Satan accuses our brothers—and us—day and night, and assails the church of Christ at every opportunity. We can smell the dragon's scaly stink in our denominations and parishes, in our seminaries and colleges—and in the kitchens of our parsonages. The devil dogs us through the holy work God has set our hands to, sin deadens our testimony and witness, unbelief is rampant, apostasy common.
Though with a scornful wonder / the world sees her oppressed;
By schisms rent asunder / by heresies distressed,
Yet saints their watch are keeping / Their cry goes up, "How long?"
And soon the night of weeping / Shall be the morn of song.
How long, O Lord? How long will our cry mingle with that of the saints and angels? Many of you come here year after year, wounded and angry and sick in body and spirit, dried up like a potsherd, shrunken like a leather flask hung in the smoke, weary of putting your hand to the plowshare, desperate to look back. Some of you are tired of taking up the cross, sick to death of the command to follow, exhausted by always being last with no glimmer of first in sight, suspicious that "servant of all" entails a lot more dying than you first thought. Other of you come to weep over the Church and our Lutheran communions, and to rejoice for a brief time with brothers and sisters with whom you do not have to measure your words so carefully. For all of you there is this word: in the middle of the scornful wonder of the world and the laments of saints and angels joined with our night of weeping, a single loud voice sounds forth. Michael, the great prince, whose name is all we need to know: Who Is Like God.

Who is like God? Not you. Not me. Not even the Holy Angels, whose archangel names have the murmur of distant, ceaseless prayer: God is my strength. God is my healer. Who is like God? It is the Lamb alone who conquers, gives strength, brings healing. Sustains the weary with a word. Jesus only.

And who will bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus who died, yes, who was raised who is at the right hand of God who intercedes for us. He did not count equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself and was obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Christ Jesus did not cling to life even in the face of death, giving his back to those who struck him, his cheeks to those who pulled out the beard, and his life as the high priestly sacrifice for sin. Your names are found written in his blood in the book of life

And that is your starting point. Your only foundation. That you have been bought with a price, redeemed from hell, and the one who has begun a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is God's vineyard to tend, God's responsibility. Any authority you have been given, just like that of the angels, is only given by the Lord God. Any triumph over the power of the enemy is through the blood of the Lamb alone.

You are promised that nothing will hurt you. This could also be translated "in nothing will he hurt you." Clearly, you and I can be wounded, downtrodden, despairing. Clearly we bear in our own bodies the effects of sin. Our whole ministry is marked by dying and failing. But God through the cross has defeated the eternal power of the unholy trinity: sin, death and the power of the devil. God continues to guard and protect you, not through the sentimentalized and demythologized angelic spirits, reduced to inane caregivers cast in ceramic—but through the muscular and vivifying power of the cross—the incongruity of life come from death, the slain Lamb victorious, God's power given form in the heavenly host of angels. He shall give his angels charge over you, to keep you in all your ways. All his ways. He forgives all your sins and heals all your infirmities, and causes you to stand, upheld by his righteous, omnipotent hand.

With such strength, even though you are weak, with the knowledge that your angels are always before the face of the Father in heaven, and are given to you for help on earth, you go out of here and back to the tasks at hand, back to the feeding of the flock entrusted to you, back to the struggle against the short-timer Satan, secure, if not settled, in the trust that Jesus is Lord.

And at the last, one more angel there will be for you. Not with sword or shield or choir book—but with the simple white robe of resurrection and the trumpet and the archangel's voice that will call you out of sleep in the dust of the earth for God to redeem your life from the grave, crowning you with mercy and lovingkindness and making you to shine like the brightness of the stars forever. And then, what was proclaimed from the beginning will be at last completely fulfilled: "Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah." And then, we will sing. What else is there left for us but singing?
Weeping, be gone, sorrow be silent,
Death put asunder and Easter is bright.
Cherubim sing, "O grave, be open!"
Clothe us in wonder, adorn us in light.
Jesus is risen and we shall arise, give God the glory! Alleluia!

City of God, Easter forever
Golden Jerusalem, Jesus the Lamb.
River of Life, saints and archangels
Sing with creation to God the I AM.
Jesus is risen and we shall arise, give God the glory! Alleluia!

28 September 2010

Virginia Supreme Court refuses to hear ACNA case

This one slipped by me, folks.

On 24 September, the Supreme Court of Virginia declined a request by the CANA congregations to reargue the decision of June 10, 2010. The Court's original, unanimous ruling in favor of the Diocese stands, and the case will return to the Fairfax Circuit Court.
The Diocese is gratified by the Supreme Court's decision," said Henry D.W. Burt, secretary of the Diocese. "This is another positive step on the path toward preserving Episcopal property for future generations. We are ready to return to the Circuit Court and hope that today's announcement brings us one step closer to concluding this litigation and bringing our faithful Episcopalians back to their church homes."
The Diocese will post scheduling information on the upcoming Fairfax Circuit Court case online at www.thediocese.net as soon as it is made available.

27 September 2010

1785 - 2010

Two hundred, twenty-five years. Celebrate the Journey, friends!

26 September 2010

Pentecost XVIII

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 21

The Lectionary

Collect of the Day: O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

What do you think heaven is?

A man told this story of his experience just before his father died. The man and his sister were taking care of their father who was in the last stages of cancer, the man staying with their bed-ridden father during the day and his sister staying with their father through the night.

It had been a hard day. The man and his father had not always gotten along well, and on this particular day his father was especially irritable and giving him a hard time. The man was impatient, waiting for his sister to come for the night shift. He had his coat and shoes on so he could leave as quickly as possible when she arrived. But he heard his father call to him from the other room. He went in, and his father asked, “What do you think happens to us after this life?”

A big question. A serious question. The man didn’t have many words, but he thought he could show his father his answer. He got into the bed and lay down beside his father. He asked him, “Dad, do you love me?”

“You know I love you,” his father said.

The man touched his own chest and then touched his father’s, right above his heart. The man asked, “How much of our ability to love do you think we use during our lives? Ten percent?”

“Fifteen,” said his father.

“Okay,” said the man. “In heaven,” he said, touching his own chest and then his father’s, “100 percent.”

The next day the man got a call from his sister, telling him his father had died, quite peacefully. But before he died, he made a gesture she didn’t understand. Just before he died, he looked at her, and he touched his chest – his heart – and then reached up and touched hers.

In heaven, 100 percent: true connectedness, true love, right relationship, no chasms between us.

We were made for relationship. We were made to be in right relationship with God and one another, 100 percent. But we don’t live that way. We always have a relationship with something else, something that takes up part of that heart space so we don’t use all 100 percent for loving God and loving our neighbor. Sometimes that something is money or seeking our own comfort over the needs of others.

In our reading today from 1 Timothy, Paul exhorts the faithful not to get too close to the uncertainty of riches, but instead draw close to “God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” If you live in right relationship with God, it will show in this way, says Paul: doing good, being rich in good works, being generous and ready to share. And living this way will allow us to “take hold of the life that really is life.” Not the appearance of life – what this world trumpets as the good life – material comforts – but the life that really is life, the abundance that comes from living heart to heart, 100 percent now.

The story Jesus tells in the gospel could be an elaboration on this reading. It is easy to talk about righteousness in general, as a concept, in the abstract. It is quite another matter to deal with it in the particular.

“Poverty” doesn’t lie outside the rich man’s gate; a poor, starving human being does. He is covered with sores, willing to eat scraps; a man, with a name: Lazarus.

The rich man, although his sumptuous lifestyle would have him deny it, has a need too. The rich man needs to serve Lazarus as a brother. Together they could help each other experience “the life that really is life.” But during this life, the rich man does not notice Lazarus, much less care for him. It’s as if Lazarus doesn’t exist for him. A great chasm separates the two men, a chasm of the rich man’s making.

The scene shifts to heaven. All is reversed. Lazarus is content. The rich man is in torment. The rich man longs for even a drop of water to cool the tongue that had tasted so many pleasing foods during his life.

And yet, the rich man still does not care about Lazarus. In his torment, he wants to use Lazarus as a servant. “Send him to put a drop of water to cool my tongue,” he asks.

“No,” says Abraham. The chasm between you that you dug during your life has become impassable. The gulf by which you were comforted in life has become un-crossable.

The truth of this parable is that the rich man needs Lazarus as much as Lazarus needs the rich man. The independence that riches seem to bring is only an illusion. The rich man thinks he can afford not to see Lazarus lying outside his gate. The rich man lives under the illusion that we are islands, contrary to John Donne’s wisdom, entire of ourselves. We are separated by gulfs, and we can only build so many bridges. The rich man lives with the illusion that we are intrinsically separate beings, our own possessions, and that to be responsible only for ourselves is enough.

Like Cain in Genesis, the rich man shrugs, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” assuming it is a rhetorical question, not dreaming that the answer may be “yes.” Yes, you are responsible, and your choices – to see, to notice, to serve, to love, or not – matter.

Perhaps for the rich man the gulf between himself and the beggar with his sores brings him a sense of safety. Perhaps he feels there is little he can do, little difference he can make. Perhaps he sees the gulf as a necessary evil. Perhaps the rich man is afraid of really being seen – of being revealed as inept or powerless or empty despite his material success.

Jesus’ parable points to something better for us, something better and more real – the reality that we were created not to be alone, but to be loved; not to be users of one another, but to be partners in the world. We were created not to dig chasms and let gulfs separate us, but to build bridges.

Who are we in this parable? We are not Lazarus, although we may be longing for something. We are not the rich man, although we may have more than we need of material possessions. We are the five brothers, the brothers and sisters of the rich man, still living, whom the rich man wishes to warn, to save from the torment of being on one side of a chasm; the torment of being separated from God; the torment of being able to envision only using people, not loving them, and ignoring the poor, not serving them. We are the five brothers, in danger of waiting for some spectacular sign from God before we will take the message seriously.

No, says Abraham, you have all the sign you need.

And we do. We have the Word, we have the prophets, we even have a man risen from the dead.

All of us have someone sitting by our gates – someone who gives us the opportunity to fulfill the promises of our baptismal covenant, promises to seek and serve Christ in all people, to respect the dignity of every person. We have a choice: to build bridges or dig chasms. And we can choose to use 100 percent of our capacity to love now and not wait for heaven.

-- The Rev. Dr. Amy Richter serves as rector of St. Anne's Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Maryland, along with her husband, associate, and fellow Sermons That Work contributing writer, the Rev. Dr. Joseph Pagano.