Love and Envy

Love is the power that builds up even what envy tries to tear down.

Proper 7b 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Saul was afraid of David, because the Lord was with him but had departed from Saul… But all Israel and Judah loved David.

Today’s reading from the First Book of Samuel is a classic example of the difference between love and envy. Two weeks ago we heard of the prophet Samuel’s warning that having a king is a bad idea; last week we heard of how Saul turned bad, and the spirit of the Lord departed from him, and Samuel set off to find a new king for Israel, the boy David. And today we hear the aftermath of young David’s first military victory — his one on one, mano a mano fight with the Philistine champion Goliath.

Saul can’t help but admire this young man, and David becomes a member of the king’s band of most trusted warriors, and their leader. Saul sends David out to battle again and again, and the young man always returns victorious — so victorious in comparison with Saul that the people come to favor David over Saul — and their cheers and their songs about David’s victories begin to ring discordantly in Saul’s ears. Even the music of the harp that David provides to soothe Saul’s vexed spirit becomes an annoyance — even David’s presence arouses Saul to thoughts and acts of mayhem, tossing a spear at David as he plays.

Here we have the very picture of green-eyed envy at its worst, at its most bitter and soul-destroying. Pride, as sins go, is often classed as the worst, but isn’t envy just a form of wounded pride? Saul has God’s favor for a time, and is proud of it. But as it drains away from him and rests on David, isn’t Saul’s resentment and anger just another form of pride? He is angry that someone else is able to do that of which he is no longer capable — and to do it better and more successfully than ever he did. And he just can’t stand it!

So much for envy! what about love? We see great love in Saul’s family too — in his son Jonathan, who, as soon as he sets eyes on David, feels his heart melt as if — as Scripture puts it — his own soul is bound to the soul of David, and he loves him as his own soul. That is powerful language, so powerful that some are embarrassed by it. It reads this way in the Hebrew Scripture, but when the Greeks got around to translating the Hebrew Scripture into their language, they seem to have been so put off by this passage that they left it out of their version of the Bible entirely.

And the urge to omit this story doesn’t stop with the Greeks. Those who prepared the Scripture reading cycle for the whole church chose to offer this passage, what we heard this morning, only as an option — so there will be many congregations who will never encounter it on a Sunday. Yet there it stands, the beginning of what some have called the greatest love story in the whole Bible.

And envy comes into this, too — for Saul knows full well that his son has taken a liking to David — to put it mildly. In succeeding chapters of First Samuel Saul will curse Jonathan on account of David, and even try to kill his own son. For it seems that Saul and Jonathan, father and son, have become rivals (at least in Saul’s mind) for David’s love and loyalty. Talk about a tragic turn to Fathers’ Day!

Of course, it starts even before David kills Goliath — though we didn’t hear that part of the account today, it tells a bit about what bothers Saul. When David first volunteers to take down Goliath, Saul tries to dress him up in his own armor, and gives him his sword. But they don’t fit — as you recall, Saul is a big fella, a mighty warrior. But David is still a boy, probably no more than fifteen or sixteen. So he rejects Saul’s armor — which doesn’t fit him — and that unwieldy sword, as I’m sure you recall. So what does he do? He uses his trusty sling and a smooth stone from the riverbed to bring down the proud giant Goliath. Then, after David’s victory, as we heard today, Jonathan, Saul’s son — also a young man about David’s age and size — is so taken with David that he strips off his robe his armor, and gives them to David, along with his sword, his bow, and his belt. Imagine how Saul felt at that moment: this David has rejected me, and chosen my son instead — and my son chooses him, and rejects me! And green-eyed envy is stirred up and Saul begins to give in to the Dark Side, even against his own son. And you’ll forgive me, I’m sure, if I say I can’t help but see an overtone of another father-son conflict involving turning from good to evil: the relationship of Star Wars’ Luke Skywalker and his father Darth Vader!

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Such is the dark side of the force of envy: it cannot bear to see others have what one lacks oneself. But while envy is a powerful force — that Dark Side of the Force — it cannot do what love can do. For even in the midst of this envious struggle, love is there, conquering all, as the Roman poet said.

Think for a moment, about how much of the world is driven by these two engines, love and envy. Think how much they resemble so many of the other pairs of joys and pains, of what builds up and what tries to tear down; and how the building-up always seems to triumph in the end. The Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians about some of these conflicting forces, and how love always manages to triumph in the end. Envy may raise obstacles, but love will knock them down, or pass right through them: for all the dark forces of affliction, hardship, calamity, beating, imprisonment, riot, labor, sleepless nights and hunger — all of these are overcome by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness, love, truth, and the power of God. All of this is better armor than a mere sword, bow and belt. These are the triumphant weapons of righteousness for a two-fisted fighter inspired with the love of God. All it takes is opening the doors of the heart — turning away from the dark side of envy and embracing true affection and love.

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For with God, and through the love of God, even the seemingly impossible is possible. With God, as the Apostle testifies, the one treated as an imposter is the one who tells the truth; the one undocumented and unknown is the chief witness; the one threatened with death and even dying is revealed to be alive and well; the one who seems to be in sorrow is lifted up with joy; the one who seems to have nothing is able to provide everything. And, as the Gospel reminds us, the one asleep in the stern of the boat is able to quell the storm and quiet even the winds and the sea.

And all of this is from the power of love, not envy — from the force that builds up and restores. Love opens doors and breaches the barricades that envy builds around a bitter heart. We will hear more of Saul and Jonathan and David in next weeks’ Scriptures — the story ends sadly for all three of them, and David laments the loss — and yet he continues to become a great king; not perfect, by any means — and we’ll hear about that as well — but one devoted to God even when he fails in how he treats others, even when he himself gives in to the envious desire to have what another possesses; even when he stoops to a criminal act worthy of punishment.

But for now, we have the image of young David — this teenager fresh from victory over Goliath, clothed in the garments of another young soldier — one who loves him as he loves his own soul — envied by Saul yet adored by the people. We have the image of the Apostle, shaming the haughtiness and closed hearts of the Corinthians by his own humility and the open-handed offer of forgiveness and love. And we have the image of our Lord himself, one who will also suffer attacks by the envious, but who will triumph in the end, as surely he triumphs over sea and wind, calming the storm and strife — not with a shout — but with a gentle word of peace.

And I will add one more sign of love’s victory over envy that we saw enacted this week, when another young man stood in blank confusion before the families of those he had so heartlessly slaughtered, and those daughters and sons, and sisters and brothers, and mothers and fathers, did not heap curses on his head, as he may have expected and deserved, but poured out a tsunami of forgiveness — a force and a power I can only hope may rend his heart in shame and bring him to repentance.

For the power of envy may stir up, but the power of love will conquer all. Even that dark force of envy itself and all the other evils that beset us, will, in the end, be calmed and quieted, and all our fears relieved; when we too place our trust in the love of God. Even if we do not see him, even if we fear he is asleep in the stern, he is the one who keeps us safe in the storm and the strife through the night; and it is to him, as is most justly due, that we ascribe all might, majesty, power and dominion, henceforth and for ever more.

Surprise Surprise Surprise

God has many surprises in store for us, and don't we love to be surprised!

Proper 6b 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

We heard in last week’s Scripture readings about how the people of Israel rejected God and asked to have a king instead. Samuel agreed, and Saul became king, but as we can see from today’s reading it didn’t take very long for the glow to fade from this particular rosebud. King Saul enjoyed a very short honeymoon, and things quickly went from bad to worse. It got so bad that God had to step in, and even while Saul was still king, set about choosing someone else to take over when the inevitable total collapse of Saul’s leadership would come to pass.

This is one of the few sections of First Samuel that we have heard in our Sunday lessons, but this time around it comes with a different twist, given the other readings that accompany it. And that twist is about the power of God to surprise even a prophet, even a saint, even the church itself.

The big surprise for Samuel — as we’ve heard before when this passage comes up — is that for king number two God doesn’t want another king like Saul. Saul is a kind of Hebrew Hercules, a strong-man military leader; but this time around, God chooses the runt of the litter, the youngest of all of Jesse’s sons; not big tall Eliab, high of stature, but the shepherd boy David — the one even his own father Jesse doesn’t think is a likely candidate to throw his yarmulke into the ring and call him home from keeping the sheep. But when the boy finally comes, God lets Samuel know that this is the one God chooses to be the new king — and Samuel anoints him in the presence of all his brothers and his father.

In addition to perhaps reminding us of the pile-up of presidential candidates we see around this time every four years, this passage should also remind us of another Scripture about younger brothers and older brothers. We read one, and studied in it in Bible Study not too long ago — the one where Joseph’s dreams are realized and he stands before his father and his brothers as Pharaoh’s right-hand man. Does that ring a bell? This is a theme that runs through Scripture — God favoring the younger over the older: Abel over Cain, Jacob over Esau, Joseph over his brothers and David over his, and even, you might note, Jesus over John the Baptist (though they were more distant relatives than brothers. Jesus was younger than John by six months; and as John himself finally had to admit, “He must increase; I must decrease.”)

Still, in spite of how often it happens throughout the Scripture, this seems to come as a constant surprise — that God is not impressed with age or power or strength, but on the willingness to do as God says, and respond to God’s call. That shouldn’t surprise us, and more than that it shouldn’t have surprised Samuel or Jesse. Maybe it’s just that God knows his children, and that deep down we love surprises. And like a child who never tires of peek-a-boo, so too we always respond to God’s surprising grace, no matter how often God bestows it.

In this game of divine peek-a-boo we do, to a large extent, have our eyes closed — walking by faith and not by sight — so that when God does tell us to open our eyes and behold the surprise, we can rejoice like the children of God we are. For if anyone is in Christ — which is what it means to be a child of God — there is a new creation: we are reborn in Christ. Everything old has passed away; and see — peek-a-boo — everything has become new.

Saint Paul, while still known as Saul, experienced this himself on the road to Damascus; he thought he had God in his hip-pocket and was doing what God wanted by arresting the first Christians and sending them off to prison. He was no better than his namesake Saul the king, who thought God wanted sacrifice instead of obedience — Saul the king and Saul who later became Paul just couldn’t understand and couldn’t follow directions! God gave the second Saul a second chance — showing him in a surprising flash, a flash that blinded him for a time, how wrong he had been about his religion and his God. And, peek-a-boo, the scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight — and he saw the whole new-created world with new eyes. And everything looked new. Not just because it was new, but because he was new: he was reborn.

God is always out to surprise us, and Jesus shows us one more way God does so in the parables of the sower and of the mustard seed. The first parable emphasizes the hiddenness of God’s subterranean working. The one who sows the seeds scatters them — but does not know how it is that the seeds sprout and grow. It happens out of sight. He knows when they have grown, however, and he eagerly sets about the work of the harvest. Now that’s not so surprising, though it does emphasize that the one who sows does so in faith and not by sight — that is, much of the sprouting and growth is underground, and it is only when the stalk, the head, and the grain appear that he can truly rejoice in this new creation.

So Jesus follows up with a truly amazing parable — as if you were to take a mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds, and plant it, but instead of a mustard plant growing up — a mustard plant which is a bush a few feet high — up sprouts a mighty tree so big that birds can build nests in it. I mentioned Cinderella in connection with our readings last week — but this week it’s more like Jack and the Beanstalk! You wake up and look out your window and instead of a shrub you see a gigantic tree reaching for the heavens. As Jim Nabors used to say, Surprise, surprise, surprise! The kingdom of heaven is never what you expect, it is always an amazing surprise.

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Do we still have the capacity to be surprised by the grace of God? Have we become blase or accustomed to the same-old same-old and lost the wonder a child experiences when Grandma plays peek-a-boo — or more importantly, when God brings us a personal miracle, whether of healing from disease, or being delivered from an accident, or just being able to wake up in the morning and get out of bed! Isn’t that a miracle enough to give thanks for — that each new day is a new creation, and if we will let it everything will become new for us in that day? For every day is “the day that the Lord hath made” if we will open the eyes of our faith and behold God at work in every instant of our lives — every day in every way: in our journeys and our resting places, in our sitting down and rising up again. If only we can know of God’s presence, not just in the parts where our eyes are open and we can see, but even, and maybe especially, as we sleep and the deep subterranean work of God goes on we know not how, germinating and sprouting underground but preparing to burst forth in an avalanche of blessing at the harvest time? We may have to, from time to time, cry our eyes out when we go out carrying the seed; but Oh! how we can rejoice when we behold the harvest and bring in the sheaves!

Keep that spirit of readiness, my friends, that willingness to be surprised by the grace of God as it fills and forms your life — for without that grace we can do nothing at all. But with it — surprise, surprise, surprise: all that we do can be done to God’s glory, and to the praise of God’s most holy Name, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

King of Shreds and Patches

Proper 5 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
He will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen. He will take the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.

Two hundred thirty-nine years ago this Thursday, Thomas Jefferson sat down to begin working on a document that would come to be known as the Declaration of Independence. Every year on the Fourth of July, National Public Radio broadcasts a recitation of this whole Declaration. It is read by different people, each one reading just a line or two; sometimes it’s all the various announcers from the different NPR programs; one year it was read by a whole class of new American citizens. Most of us probably know the opening line, “When in the course of human events...” We are very likely also familiar with the opening of the second paragraph: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” and we will remember that among those rights are “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Unfortunately, that’s about as much of the Declaration of Independence that most of us know. So on the Fourth of July I commend listening to NPR’s morning show for their annual reading of the whole declaration — it’s shorter than this sermon!

The reason I mention it in this sermon is due to what comes later in that Declaration. It is a list of all of the faults and failings of King George III — all of the things that the English monarch has done to upset and anger the American colonists. And it is quite a laundry list. Let me just mention a few of items, and I quote:

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies... He has combined with others ... to subject us to a jurisdiction ... unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation: For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us: For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent: He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country…

You get the idea. And I hope it also rings a bell of familiarity. For in our first reading today from the First Book of Samuel we heard a portion of a similar list, also concerning a king — but in this case predicting what he will do instead of protesting what he has done. And the irony is that while the American colonists were declaring independence from the domination of a monarch, the people of Israel are clamoring to obtain a king to rule over them in spite of all the terrible things that Samuel warns them that this king will do. So this passage of Scripture is a Declaration of Dependence!

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Or is it? Let’s look more closely. The people say they want to have a king so that they can be like the other nations. And in doing so they are submitting to a form of dependent government — one in which they will be virtual slaves; a king on whom they will depend, will protect them from foreign invaders, but in exchange, they seem to be willing to give up everything: a tenth of their crops, their sons for the army, and all of the rest.

But look more closely: what they really want is a change in the form of government they have had up to that point — which is dependence on God speaking through the prophet Samuel. So they are trying to declare independence from God, even as they accept dependence on a king; they are rejecting God, their true King for someone a little closer to home.

Their God had chosen them out of all the nations, brought them out of the land of slavery. But now they want to be slaves again — not to serve their God but to serve an earthly king, so they can be just like all of the other nations — not special, not chosen — just like everybody else; like other nations each with its human king with all his faults; and believe me, King Saul will have plenty of faults, as will nine out of ten of all the other kings of Israel and Judah to come. And we’ll be soon be hearing more about all of that.

Because today begins a new cycle of Sunday readings from the Hebrew Bible — new to us at St James, but also relatively new to the church as a whole, since the church adopted what’s called the Revised Common Lectionary. In the readings for this liturgical year, we will be hearing readings from what the Hebrew Bible calls “the Writings” — the books of poetry and history. Last year we heard from the Law, and next year we will focus on the Prophets. “Law, Prophets, and Writings” are the three main divisions of The Old Testament. So this year, we hear from the writings; in particular, over the next ten or so weeks we will be hearing passages from what some people call “the Court History” — stories of the kings from Saul to Solomon.

Why do this? I’d say rather, why didn’t we do it sooner? I think we need to hear these parts of Scripture, because they get neglected, and because I believe they still speak to us, and they speak of things we need to hear. Because what the people of Israel did when they rejected God as their true king, choosing an earthly ruler instead, is something we are all tempted to do.

Not literally about choosing a king, but about other aspects of our lives. It’s not about forms of government — monarchy or democracy, or a republic for that matter — but in the ways in which all of us are liable to try to shirk our own responsibilities as citizens, not just of a nation but of God’s kingdom. It is so easy to say, let someone else do it; that’s not my responsibility; I don’t want to have to be the one to make decisions and get to work — and the work goes undone. This is a practical lesson for us as a church, as a congregation. I know of one parish upstate that had a large cardboard cutout made in the outline of a person — and he even has a name tag: his name is “Somebody.” When anyone would notice that there was a job that needed doing, they would say, “Somebody will do it.” And so they go up to Somebody and ask him to do it, and guess what? Somebody doesn’t do it. Nobody does it; and if Nobody does it, it doesn’t get done.

There are many tasks that we all, as members of and leaders in this congregation can take up to help this church grow and survive and prosper — and it needs all hands on deck. Otherwise this too will be a house divided against itself; and that house will not stand.

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It is also no good just thinking that having a priest or pastor will solve all the problems and do all that needs to be done. That’s a little bit like asking for a king, when God actually has given each and every one of us some gift, some talent, that we could put to use for the good of this place. Why, after all, does God give gifts of skill to all of his people, if not for the good of God’s kingdom, Each of us has gifts which we are not using because we think “Somebody” will do it — either the priest or the deacon, or some other member of the church.

There is plenty of work to do, and you all know the old saying, “Many hands make light work.” It’s true; those hands need to work, though, to get the work done. I mentioned last week about how we were all the adopted members of a family — the church — and how in every family there are chores to do. Well you know there are plenty of chores to keep this church open and worshiping and praising God; God, our true King. Look around you, as Jesus did when he looked around at those who sat with him, listening to him preach and teach, and say and believe what he said about those sitting around him: “Here are my mother and my brothers.” You, my sisters and brothers, you are the family that will make this church what it is. You are also the family that will make this church what it is to be. Do not think this task you can turn over to Somebody else to do it for us. Do not be like the people of Israel who rejected the gifts God gave them, who rejected God himself. Realize instead that we have been endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, and a with wealth of spiritual gifts: not just life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness: but those important gifts: faith, hope, and above all, love. Let us put these things to work, my friends, with all the power God provides, and we will do great things.+

Spirit of Adoption

Trinity B 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.

Most of us learn early on where babies come from. Our parents may have tried to keep us in the dark for a time in our early childhood, with stories of deliveries by stork or finding children under the leaves of the cabbage patch, but soon enough we are ushered into the company of the birds and the bees, if not something more explicit. The long and the short of it, as we ultimately learn, is that babies come from their parents — from their father and mother. This is the most elementary of the “facts of life.”

As far as we know, there are two only exceptions to this rule, and both of them are in the Bible. The first appears in the second chapter of Genesis. It tells us that Eve — whom Adam calls the “Mother of all living” had no mother herself; she came from Adam’s side. You all remember the story: God saw that it was not good for Adam to be alone, and cast him into a deep sleep; then God took that rib from his side and made it into the one designed as Adam’s companion — bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.

The second exception to the general rule about fathers and mothers concerns the second Adam — Jesus Christ. Just as Eve came out of Adam without a mother being involved, so too Jesus was born of the flesh of the Virgin Mary without no earthly father being involved — he was conceived by God, of the flesh of the Virgin Mary, working through the power of the Holy Spirit.

These are, as I said, exceptional instances. Everyone else who has ever lived is born of a father and a mother, and in many cases — perhaps most, but certainly not all — children are also raised by their father and their mother. There are many circumstances in which children are not raised by one or both of their biological parents. Tragedies can happen, leaving the child as an orphan. Other unfortunate events can also take place, and many families experience divorce or separation which often leaves the children in a painful and delicate situation. And in both of these and in many other cases, the concept of adoption comes in. Someone who is not the child’s biological father or mother takes the child as their own — in some cases joining with a remaining biological parent, or in some cases with a new couple replacing both of the child’s original parents — and in each case putting the child under their protection and in their care. This is legally recognized, an action that has existed in many human cultures for thousands of years — for the reality that children are sometimes left without one or both parents has been true for as long as there have been human families.

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But just as there are few exceptions to the rule of parenthood and the facts of life, there is one exceptional human family into which no one is ever born, and in which every single member is adopted — and that is the church, the family of God. Although people will sometimes say, “I was born an Anglican,” that is not literally true. No one is born a Christian of any sort — you become one through baptism. As Jesus says in John’s Gospel, you join that household of God by water and the Holy Spirit; that is the way into this “kingdom of God.” All of us are adopted into God’s family, the church. None of us is here by nature of our birth. (Although it does help if our biological or adoptive parents — your family, your grandparents — are already members of the church, and they, together with the godparents, see to it that you are baptized — brought into the church at an early age; so the earthly family is important in extending the heavenly family.)

Becoming a member of the kingdom of God is not like being born the citizen of a nation — that is more or less automatic. If you are born in the United States of America — with a very few special exceptions, like a diplomat from another country whose wife may have a child here in the US — with those few exceptions you are automatically a United States citizen. But becoming a member of the household of God, the family of God, the kingdom of God, is a process more like that required to become an American citizen if you were born in another country. All us born in this earthly realm have to apply for citizenship in the heavenly one. We need the water and the Holy Spirit to become citizens of the kingdom of God.

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I mentioned that our biological or adopted family, and the already existing family of the church, play a role in this process; the most important role — for it is through this family that the family grows. But supporting this work, the work of God which we could not do on our own — is the work of God working through us, through the power of the Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit: which is one of the reasons that that’s how we baptize — those are the words we use. We baptize in the name of the Holy Trinity, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and the Holy Spirit. For the Holy Trinity is the major worker in this — we’re just the assistants.

That short reading from the Letter of Paul to the Romans sums this up in a few choice words. Notice how all three persons of the Holy Trinity are involved. The Holy Spirit is the primary agent in this work — and I use the word agent as I would to describe someone who assists me in obtaining citizenship or arranging for an adoption. Any of you who have done either of those things knows the amount of paperwork you need to go through, and how helpful and even necessary it is to have an agent working with you, to help you in that process. The Holy Spirit is our great helper: we sing about “God our help in ages past, our hope for years to come...” Well, the Holy Spirit is the primary helper, the Comforter, the one who works through us and with us to help us do all God aks of us. And that begins, right at the start, at Baptism. The Holy Spirit helps guide through the process, to set up all that is needed. The text of Romans uses the term “adoption” specifically — and it is the Holy Spirit that Paul calls “the spirit of adoption,” the one who cries out through us, naming the one whom we desire to be our parent — one who is not our parent by nature but only by choice and adoption — as the Holy Spirit, working in us, gives us the power to call out, “Abba! Father!” to God above — something we would have no right to do on our own, if the Holy Spirit were not working within us. This is a cry that is part of the testimony, the documentation, in order to be adopted by our new Father in heaven, becoming God’s children.

And, so the text tells us, if children, then heirs — heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. Just as an adopted child becomes an inheritor in the estate of her adoptive parents, so too do Christians become inheritors along with their new brother, the only-begotten Son of God, Jesus Christ, who becomes our brother when we are joined into his family through baptism.

So it is that all three — God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit — are involved in this work of adoption, and it is through their action — working through the church, the family of God — that we are added to this great assembled body that is the Body of Christ; the kingdom of God, the family of God.

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And this action of the church, the family of God, through which God acts by means of the Spirit, brings me to my last point. Once you have become a member of this new family, you are expected to take on new responsibilities— there are chores to do in any household, and the household of God is no different.

And it isn’t as if some of us were the natural children and all the others were like the step-children, like Cinderella who got all the dirty jobs and no chance to go to the ball — until she was aided by her fairy godmother (and isn’t it interesting that even in a fairy tale the language of baptism makes its way into this story of a girl who starts out cleaning up the fireplace, but rises to become a princess! The godmother is the crucial figure in that story.) No, in God’s family all of us are stepchildren, but all have also been blessed by the Holy Spirit, the BGE: the Best Godmother Ever, and raised from the cinders to the throne, brought into the family of God, heirs with Christ, joint-heirs, princes and princesses each and every one of us in the kingdom of God.

But we still have work to do — chores in this household, even for the royals, such as us. You’ve seen them on TV: Harry and William have their jobs to do; they’re out there dedicating supermarkets, opening bridges, christening boats — everybody’s got a job no matter how royal they are. And that counts for all of us too, in this royal kingdom of God, in which we are part of the royal family.

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Fortunately the Spirit continues to help us in this work. The Spirit may be like a wind that blows where it chooses, so that we hear the sound but cannot tell its source or destination, but when we are moved by that Spirit we share in its motion, we can sense its direction. You can’t tell where the wind is blowing all by itself; but if you see a leaf flying through the air, you can tell that’s the way the wind is blowing. And so it is with those who are moved by the Spirit — when we are moved by the Spirit we can tell where we are moving, and we can tell where we are going. That’s what God does for us: invisible and yet made seen by the movement of the church itself.

The primary chore of this church, this royal family, is to serve as God’s hands and feet, as each of us, filled with and empowered by the Holy Spirit, spread God’s word and bring others into this household, this royal family, helping the kingdom to grow by acting as agents ourselves, agents of God filling up the number of those to be adopted. Our task is to assist others to be made citizens in God’s kingdom, new princes and princesses in God’s royal family — the one into which no one is born, but where all are welcome.

This is our task, my friends — you and I and all of God’s children by adoption, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ — to spread the word as free and as far as the invisible wind. This is our mission — our assignment and our task, our chore in the household of God. May the Lord find us hard at work when he comes in the glory of his kingdom.+

By the Book

How the Scripture is alive... in us, and for us.

SJF • Easter 7b • Tobias S Haller BSG

In those days Peter stood up among the believers and said, “Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled...

A few weeks ago you heard a Scripture reading from the book of Acts about the role of the Bible in the Christian life. I’m don’t know if Fr Farrell preached on that text the Sunday I was away, but I’m sure you recall the story of that Ethiopian who was reading Isaiah on his way back home, but couldn’t, on his own, understand what the prophet meant. The Holy Spirit put Philip in the right place at the right time to open the scripture for him, and to achieve God’s goal for him: his baptism.

Through wise teachers guided by the Holy Spirit, the scripture performs this task, the task for which it is intended and sufficient: to bring us to Christ. We might call this the proactive side of scripture. It is a map that leads us to the goal we seek, a lamp that lights our way through the dark wood of this world, the cookbook with the recipe for the food that nourishes us unto life. The scripture is our guide, our map, and our recipe. But we need to be careful how we do things “by the book” — and the story of Philip and the Ethiopian reveals that this is best not a solitary task. To understand the scriptures best we need each other, just as the Ethiopian needed Philip.

Taking the scripture in one’s own hand without a guide can be dangerous. You may have heard of the man who, whenever he needed to make a decision, would take his floppy Bible off the shelf, close his eyes, let the book fall open and then plant his finger on a passage — which he would then take as God’s guidance for him in his life. One day he was feeling a little low, and so he went through this exercise to see what God wanted him to do. Well, he lighted on — appropriate given our reading from Acts — was, “Judas went and hanged himself.” Somewhat taken aback he decided to try again. This time he landed in the gospel of Luke: “Go and do likewise.”

Doing things by chance — as in casting lots for a new apostle — is best done as a group, not on your own. One of the many things for which I am grateful is Deacon Bill’s ministry here among us in the Bible Study group that continues to meet week by week. It is in that group that the Spirit speaks, and I know those who have taken part in it are as grateful for it as I am. This is the best way to engage with the Scripture, as the Spirit brings light to the group — through each other as the body of believers. God be praised!

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Today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles shows us another side of how the church makes use of the scripture, and this is what I’m calling the retroactive or reflective side. This is when we take up the scripture not so much to tell us what to do, but so as to tell us the true meaning of what we have done. In addition to being a map showing us where to go, it’s like one of those maps in a shopping mall, with that crucial highlighted spot, clearly marked, “You are here.” As well as a headlight down the road ahead of us, the Scripture is like a streetlight that illuminates where we are. More than a recipe to prepare a dish, it is also the cookbook we go to to find out what ingredient it was in that dish that someone else prepared for us, that we so enjoyed.

In the time prior to our reading from the passage from Acts, the Apostles have gone through a very difficult time. Their Lord was arrested and they were scattered; Peter denied he knew his Lord — and wept; they heard that Judas suffered a terrible fate; they received the good but hard to believe news that the Lord is risen, and finally they have seen him with their own eyes, and then watched as he was taken up into heaven. And for each of these things they have looked to the Scripture retroactively, reflectively — to understand that the things written there have been fulfilled. The Apostles have been, as our Lord himself gently chided them, slow of heart to believe all that had been promised in God’s word — until it happened. Once it happened, then, retroactively, they were able to take up the Scriptures and recognize those Scriptures that had been speaking to them all along but they didn’t understand. Suddenly the light goes on and they understand where they are.

So where do they go from here? They know where they are now: The number of the Apostles is short by one — yet Jesus had promised that the Apostles would sit on thrones to judge the Twelve Tribes of Israel on the last day. Suddenly Peter recognizes that this too has been addressed prophetically in the Psalms: Judas is the one whose homestead has been abandoned, and to which another will succeed as overseer. So the Apostles conduct the first episcopal election, illuminated by Scriptures that before that day none of them thought had a special meaning for them.

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So it is that the Scripture can not only tell us what to do, but show us the true meaning of what has been done: for us, for the world. It tells us where we are so that we can better be prepared to go where we are sent.

As part of my own discipline of Scripture reading, as part of the Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, I have been reading the Scripture, especially the Psalms, every day for about forty years now. You may have noticed in the Book of Common Prayer how the Psalms are divided up with headings that begin with, “First Day: Morning Prayer” and so on through all 150 right up to “Thirtieth Day: Evening Prayer.” That was a way of reading the Psalms over the course of a month that goes back to the very first Book of Common Prayer. Archbishop Cranmer came up with it back in the 1540s. It is far easier way to follow than the complicated systems that the monks had used for many centuries, with the Psalms spread out all over the course of a week. (As Archbishop Cranmer observed, it would take you longer to find what page to use than to read what was there once you found it!) And so he came up with this idea of a monthly system of reading the Psalms, spread out over thirty days. On the first day of each month, and on each day (repeating the 30th in months with 31 days!)

I read the Psalms — together with tens of thousands of others, who have been reading the Psalms this way since 1549.

I commend you do the same, and I think you will find, as I do, that reading these ancient poems — three thousand years old — reading them through, day by day, through the course of a month will illuminate your life as they have illuminated my life. I know by this that the Scripture is a alive: it is constantly renewed in ways I might never understand until some situation or circumstance in my life is suddenly illuminated by one of those Psalms.

I will close with a personal example that happened in a particularly striking way. On 9/11, Saint Paul’s Chapel, the Episcopal church that’s just two blocks from the World Trade Center, survived the devastation with minimal damage. It became in the weeks and months following a refuge of hope and restoration. It was a place where food was distributed, and those doing the horrible work down in the pit of destruction would come up for rest and counseling — to help them deal with the horrors they handled literally day by day emerging from the dust and the rubble. The clergy of New York and New Jersey were called upon to assist as counselors.

My first shift at Saint Paul’s was on the morning on the 16th of October, and I decided to wait to read Morning Prayer until I got to the church. As I came up out of subway and headed down the street towards the St Paul’s Chapel, I was shocked. What I had seen on TV had not prepared me. The whole neighborhood was transformed. The smell of damp concrete was in the air, heavy and thick, masking the scent of corruption and chlorine. Everything was dusted with gray powder. There were piles of rubble swept off the sidewalk in the doorways

of still unopened shops. Then looking ahead down the street, just two short blocks away, just behind St Paul’s Chapel, was the twisted wreckage of one of those two proud towers. Only about two stories were left, a stump rising from the rubble at its base; no longer the gleaming silver columns side-by-side, but only a twisted, rusted remnant the color of dried blood. I passed through the gate in the Chapel’s wrought-iron fence, covered with the images of those still missing, still hoped for, though by that point with hope fading as fast as the photographs; the flowers, dying, were taped to the wrought iron of that fence and that gate, the candles flickering in the cool, damp breeze that carried the odor of the dust to which one day all of us will return.

Inside the church it was dark and quiet. People were sleeping in most of the pews, bundled in blankets. They sought a little rest before heading back into the pit for another shift looking for the bodies, and the parts of bodies, of the victims of this horror. I found a quiet spot, and sat down, and took a red prayer book from the rack and opened it to the Psalms appointed for Morning Prayer on the 16th day. And this is what I read:

O God, the heathen have come into your inheritance;
they have profaned your holy temple;
and have made Jerusalem a heap of rubble.

They have given the bodies of your servants
as food for the birds of the air,
and the flesh of your faithful ones
to the beasts of the field.

They have shed their blood like water
on every side of Jerusalem,
and there was no one to bury them.

Were those words written for me that day? Well, of course not; but yes, they were. God spoke to me that morning. These were words I needed to hear and see. Not to make a foolish equivalence of who the “heathen” might be, and who the servants, and what Jerusalem, but to bind me up in solidarity with all the suffering that has ever been suffered upon this warring earth, all the ancient world of wrong and anger and unrighteousness and injustice; the guilty rage and its innocent victims; and to let me know that I was not alone, either in my grief or in my service that I might do that day, or any other day, to comfort the seekers after the dead. The light went on for me to tell me where I was — words from the Psalmist of 3,000 years ago, resounding down the halls of time into my present through my past, to give me hope for the future.

This is what the Scripture can do for us, my friends. It tells us who, and whose we are; it will comfort us in our terrors, and encourage us in our fears, and strengthen us in our weakness — if we will open those pages and let them do their healing work, in the solitude of personal devotion, but even more when we gather in God’s name. The Scripture not only saves but helps us to make sense of a world gone senseless, to show us that love prevails when all else fails, and that God who created and redeemed us will also send us his Holy Spirit to comfort and to guide. Even so, Lord Jesus, send your Spirit to your people — by your word, and as you promised — that they may know you and themselves, and serve you in this life until they come to rest with you for ever in the new Jerusalem above.+

Withholding the Water

The waters of baptism reach the Gentiles as Peter learns a lesson.

Easter 6b 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”

One of the major issues facing the world today involves changes to weather patterns, known collectively as “climate change.” To a large extent this is about water — too much water in some places, where either the rains have increased or the sea level is rising; and too little water in other places, where the drought seems to be unending. So the problem isn’t with water itself, but with where the water is — or isn’t. There has been a good deal of discussion concerning water in the state of California. Much of that state is very dry even in the wettest of seasons, and when there are several years of drought — as has been true for the last four years — the amount of water available can fall far short of what is needed. The snow in the mountains that used to pile up many feet high — and feed the valleys below as it melted — has been measured in inches instead of feet. And so the valley thirsts.

Many in Los Angeles have been upset to have to withhold water from their lawns so that the people growing fruit and nuts in the central valley can water their orchards — and much is made of the fact that it takes a gallon of water to grow a single almond! The problem is that agriculture is a major contributor to the economic health of the whole state of California — and the produce from California is served in the salad bowls of much of the rest of the country — so the effect of this drought will be felt far and wide.

In short, this issue of water is something that touches everyone. Water is essential to life — not just drinking water, without which one cannot survive for more than a few days — but the water that grows the plants that nourish us: water which is with us literally from soup to nuts.

In our reading from Acts this morning, we hear of another life-giving aspect of water — the water of Baptism. And what might seem strange to our ears is the fact that Peter even suggests not baptizing the Gentiles to whom he has been sent in response to a vision from God. Isn’t baptizing the very thing the church is meant to do?

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Well, this is one of the many things about which the leaders of the early church had to be enlightened and instructed bit by bit. It was a lesson they had to learn. As I said a few weeks ago in one of my sermons, God informs and educates the church, through many means, bit by bit, story by story, in poetry and prose, by vision and revelation, and by the experience of the faithful. What we see in our reading from Acts is one step in that process of enlightenment — as baptism is extended to the Gentiles.

As I’ve reminded us in the past, all of us here are Gentiles by birth, and so the idea that there might have been a time when the water of baptism was withheld from us seems odd. This gives me an opportunity to remind us all once again of the essential Jewishness of Jesus and the earliest church. Jesus was a Jew, and so were all of the apostles. And baptism — a ritual by which water is used in a symbolic way as a cleansing from sin — was and is a particularly Jewish ritual. Now, of course, Jews are not the only people in the world who have given a symbolic meaning to washing with water as a way to cleanse from sin. We are reminded of this forcibly every year in Holy Week as the Gentile Pontius Pilate washes his hands as a way of cleansing himself of any responsibility in the death of Jesus. But for Jews of the time of Jesus, this ritual washing was a central part of the observance of the Law of Moses, which spells out numerous circumstances in which washing with water is required, as a means to restore them to the status of being ritually “clean.”

I remember a couple of years ago, there was a TV special about the Dead Sea community that lived outside of Jerusalem — a Jewish community of just before the time of Jesus. And their concern — being in the desert — was to have enough water so that they could carry out the rituals of what is called the mikvah: the cleansing tank where you would walk down steps into a pool of water and then up the steps on the opposite side. The archaeologists have excavated all of the water-works that were used in that ancient and now abandoned city. Water was central to the understanding of their rituals and their laws.

And for many Jews of the time of Jesus, there would be no point in a Gentile doing these exercises of washing — going down the steps into the pool and then up the other side would mean nothing for a Gentile — Gentiles are unclean by nature; you can wash and scrub and rinse and spin-dry, and from a Levitical standpoint a Gentile will be just as unclean after as before. What’s the old saying? “Beauty is skin deep, but ugly goes to the bone!” Well, from the standpoint of the Jews of Jesus’ time, Gentiles were sin, not just skin deep, but right to the bone. So washing them would make no difference. And this way of seeing things would have been as true of Peter as of any other Jewish man of his time.

Except that Jesus had given Peter some of that “information” I referred to — a lesson, — a revelation that came to him in a dream, also recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. Peter was taking a nap before lunch and in a vision saw

a great sheet lowered from the sky, full of all kinds of animals, clean and unclean, and a heavenly voice had commanded him to kill and eat the unclean with the clean. When he protested that he had always “kept kosher” a voice from heaven chided him by saying, “Don’t call unclean what God has cleansed!” And to strike the message home, this dream was repeated three times. Didn’t I remind us a few weeks ago that God is a patient teacher who will repeat the lesson as often as is needed? Well, Peter needed three “reps” to get the point of this one. And he finally realized it wasn’t about what he was going to have for lunch, but about the mission on which he would soon be sent, to visit a household of Gentiles who had found God’s favor.

Now, these Gentiles — the Roman Cornelius and his household — had also been alerted by a vision, and had been promised that salvation would be coming to their household. Yet they know, as Peter acknowledges, that Jews want to have nothing to do with Gentiles. But Peter also says that he has understood this vision from God to mean — not that he should feel free to eat a ham and cheese sandwich — but that he was no longer to consider any human being as unclean by nature. God is not concerned with food, but with people.

So the stage is set; and when the Holy Spirit ratifies God’s direction in all of this, descending on the gathered Gentiles even before Peter can finish his sermon, he knows that he is called to baptize them — not with the old baptism, the baptism that he had used for most of his life as a Jew, a washing from ritual uncleanness that would have to be repeated again and again the next time he became unclean by touching something he shouldn’t have touched, or doing something he shouldn’t have done. Not the old baptism, but the new baptism in the Name of Jesus, the baptism that Jesus had told them to do (as Matthew records in his Gospel), going to all nations (and the word we translate as “nations” is the word the Jews used for the Gentiles — the goyim — which means the all of us!) the commandment to go to all nations and to baptize them. Even though Jesus had told them this was their missionary task as apostles, it took that additional trio of lessons on the rooftop to get Peter to understand. It took the vision of the great sheet of animals let down from heaven — three times; it took the heavenly voice. Finally it took the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Gentiles as they listened to Peter preach — it took all these lessons to get Peter to understand God’s message that salvation is for all, for every human being who can become a child of God through this wonderful grace — flowing as freely as water itself; whether a tidal wave washing over a continent, or a bare trickle of life-giving water welling up from a spring in the middle of a desert.

This is the water that gives life, the water of baptism that doesn’t just cleanse from sin, but incorporates the believer into the Body of Christ. For it is not just the water alone — as John the Apostle attests — but the water and the blood. It is not the water alone, but the Spirit of truth who testifies to the power of God. God’s power and greatness are at work in unexpected places, among unexpected people, among those from whom the pious might be inclined to withhold their blessing, but among whom the Spirit has shown itself not only pleased to dwell, but to manifest the signs of God’s presence — so that, watered with the nourishing water of baptism, they may bear fruit, fruit that will last, to the everlasting glory of God, and in praise of God’s most holy Name.


Just as he is a shepherd and a lamb, so too we sheep become shepherds to each other as we grow up into his likeness.

Easter 4b 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside the still waters; he restoreth my soul.... You know the rest!

There is no denying that sheep and shepherds play a huge part in the imagery of Scripture. This is natural given the times and places in which the Scriptures were composed — sheep and shepherds were as central to the economies of those times and places as retail sales are to ours. I suppose we can be thankful for that; otherwise we might be stuck with, “The Lord is my supervisor,” or “He maketh me to shop in the bargain basement.” I don’t think we would want to pray, “The Lord is our Walmart and we are his customers.” And when Jesus said he came not to be served but to serve, I don’t think he was thinking about being as a sales clerk!

No, instead of mercantile imagery, we are blessed with a wealth of pastoral images, of sheep and shepherds; and most importantly of a shepherd who is also himself describe as a lamb — the Lamb of God. In fact, John mixes up all sorts of pastoral imagery in his gospel and his epistles, and this imagery is carried forward into the last book of our Bible, that is also attributed to John: Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world; he is the gate of the sheepfold through whom the sheep enter and leave in safety; he is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the flock; and he is, at the end, the Lamb again, with the marks of slaughter upon him, the innocent by whose bloody death the guilty are acquitted and reconciled with God.

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Most of us, I’m willing to guess, have little experience of sheep beyond owning a wool sweater or two — so what are we to make of this flock of images? When we say that the Lord is our shepherd, and when our Lord says that about himself, what do we mean, and what is he getting at.

Well, what we mean is that we belong to him. When we pray the Psalm that says, “We are his people and the sheep of his pasture,” or “The Lord is my shepherd,” we are reaffirming our relationship with God is one of dependence and trust. We belong to God, and if we are wise — or at least as wise as sheep can be, which isn’t much — we will follow our Good Shepherd and put our trust in him.

For that is what we mean when we accept Jesus as our Shepherd — we belong to him and we know that he cares for us. We know his voice, when he calls us each by name. We trust him and we know that he will not lead us astray; or if we do, as sheep will often do, wander off ourselves, we trust that he will seek us out and bring us back, even if it is only one percent of us who wander off and get into trouble — and don’t you wish that only one percent of us were ever in trouble at some point in our lives.

We also know that Jesus is the gate of the sheepfold: our safe passage into the fold for the night, to be kept safely from the wolves and lions of this world; and out through that gate by day to go to those lush, green pastures, to recline beside the still, calm waters, or to be fed on the herbage that nourishes body and soul.

And ultimately, we know that he is the Good Shepherd who will lay down his life to protect us. He doesn’t run away when he sees the wolf coming — even if it means he will die in the process of protecting the sheep from that ravenous danger. For this is no ordinary shepherd — this is one who not only will lay down his life for the sheep. He is one who is able to take it back up again — no one takes it from him, but he lays it down of his own accord, and he receives it back from God his heavenly Father.

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And this is where we leave off our woolgathering and reflecting on sheep and shepherds, and the penny drops and the light-bulb goes on, as we recall, after all, that we are not sheep, and Jesus is not a shepherd. We are human beings, made after God’s image and in God’s likeness, and Jesus is himself that perfect image, the only-begotten Son of God. And yes, even though we are not sheep and he is no shepherd except by way of a parable — still we are his and he is ours: we belong to him, and he did in fact lay down his life for us, and took it up again; he was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, but raised from the dead by the power of God. That is the truth, the truth that we affirm every week as we say those words of the Nicene Creed.

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And this truth impels us to do more than merely to believe, merely to say those words week after week, even more than to believe it and to share it. For we are called not merely to follow our shepherd, but to grow up into him — to become shepherds ourselves, shepherds to each other. John gets into some of that mercantile imagery, after all, when he challenges and chastises “anyone who has the world’s goods and yet sees a brother or sister in need and refuses to help.” We are called to emulate the greatest love one human being can show for another,

to lay down our lives for each other, just as Jesus laid down his life for all of us — each and every one of us both a sheep and a shepherd, bearing one another’s burdens, as the Apostle Paul would also teach.

John teaches us that it is by these loving actions that we will know that we abide in God, and God in us. This is nothing other than the power of God, who is love, love made real, love come down from heaven, love shared among the sheep of God’s pasture — not sheep after all, but children of God, God present among us by the power of the love we share.

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The Apostles knew this power fresh from God. How many people had passed by that crippled man who sat at the Beautiful Gate — how many of the very members of the high-priestly family before whom Peter and John now stand, accused of doing a good work of healing — how many of them, Annas, Caiaphas, John and Alexander and all their kith and kin, had passed by that crippled man and never given him so much as the time of day. And yet, Peter and John with healing him. Peter and John told him they had no money to help him out — but what they had, they gave him, freely and without any conditions: they gave him the name of Jesus, and the power of that name healed him of his infirmity. No wonder the selfish priests are confounded by this act of generosity; they are hired hands, who had no real love for the sheep;

they were ready to sell out the Lamb of God to the Roman wolves so as to keep their precious peace.

Yet, here, even here as Peter and John stand before them, the grace of God is shown forth and even they — Annas and Caiaphas and John and Alexander and all their relatives and colleagues — they are given yet one more chance — and it won’t be the last one! — another chance to repent and believe, as Peter, filled with the boldness of a sheep become a shepherd, confronts them and shames them with the Name of Jesus strong upon his lips.

This, my friends, is what happens when we follow a Good Shepherd, and grow up into his likeness, caring for each other with the sacrificial love that gives and gives and never counts the cost. This is the Paschal mystery, my friends, the mystery of Easter, that it is in giving that we receive, that it is in pardoning that we find pardon, that it is in dying that, behold, we live. Alleluia, Christ is risen; the Lord is risen indeed, alleluia.

The Man at the Gate

God enlightens our ignorance bit by bit, story by story, revelation by revelation.

Easter 3b 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Peter said, “Why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power of piety we had made him walk?”
Our reading from the Acts of the Apostles begins a bit abruptly, including a reference to an “it” and a “him” whom some of us might not recognize. We are fortunate in having a beautiful stained-glass window depicting him and it, right on the southern wall of the sanctuary — take a look at it as you come up to communion because it is hard to see from the nave of the church; it will be on your right as you approach the altar rail. It depicts Peter and John standing before the man at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple. He is the “him” and the “it” is his miraculous healing through the name of Jesus. To refresh all of our memories, let me read a slightly abridged portion from the Acts of the Apostles just prior to our first reading today, as it sets the scene for what follows.

One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer... and a man lame from birth was being carried in. People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask for alms from those entering the temple. When he saw Peter and John... he asked them for alms. Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, “Look at us.” And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. And jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. All the people saw him walking and praising God, and they recognized him as the one who used to sit and ask for alms ... and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him....

That’s the “it” and the “him.” Our reading today continues the tale with Peter’s testimony to the crowd that are amazed at all of this; that it is the power of Jesus’ name that has wrought this miracle. He castigates the people and their rulers for having rejected and killed the author of life, and testifies that he and the apostles are witnesses to the resurrection of God’s chosen and righteous one, in whose name and by whose name this man has been healed. And he calls them to repent, even though, he says, they “acted in ignorance.”
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Ignorance is a theme that runs through all of our readings today, including the bit I added from the first part of chapter three of Acts. But before I go any further I want to clear up a possible misunderstanding, and that revolves around the meaning of the word ignorance. Sometimes people will use the word ignorant as a synonym for an insult, for “stupid.” They’ll say, “Oh, you’re ignorant!” But that is not really what ignorant means. To be ignorant is not to know something — not to be incapable of knowing something, but merely not knowing a particular something or some things. Even the smartest people in the world are ignorant, because no one knows everything. In fact, the smartest people in the world know that they don’t know everything, and they are always willing to learn. It is the people who think they know everything that are usually the most untrustworthy. And the other good news is that ignorance can be remedied: as soon as you learn something that you didn’t know before you are no longer ignorant of that fact. Once you have new information, you are no longer, but informed.

So with that cleared up, let’s look at some of the ignorance laid before us in the Scripture passages we read today, beginning with that passage from Acts. In the part that I read, it is the man at the gate who is ignorant. He is not a disciple. Although he’s lived in Jerusalem for a long time — for the Scripture tells of how people would carry him in every day, and set him in the gate to beg for alms, and after his healing they all recognize him (they’re not ignorant about him; they know him very well!) — but he is ignorant of who Peter and John are. He doesn’t know them from Adam. He is ignorant of them — he doesn’t know who these out-of-towners from Galilee are. He’s lived in Jerusalem his whole life; people from Galilee may come and go, but he doesn’t know who they are. All he is interested in is what he can get out of them, and as soon as Peter addresses him, you can well expect that he stretched out his hand for a coin or two. Peter immediately remedies his ignorance, informing him that he and John have no money to give him; and I can well guess he is disappointed! But then Peter surprises him, and says, I’ve got something better than gold: he reveals the name of Jesus, the best bit of information this world has ever known, at which point Peter takes him by the hand to raise him up, healed of his weakness and able not just to walk, but to leap for joy! More than his ignorance is remedied! His heart is filled with the knowledge of God’s healing power, known in his own healed limbs.
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The next ignorance addressed is that to which Peter refers in what follows. He charges the people for having rejected Jesus, even when Pilate was ready to release him, and they chose a murderer to be released instead. But, as Peter continues, they and their rulers acted in ignorance — an ignorance that helped in its own ironic way to fulfill God’s promise that the Messiah had to suffer. However, now that the suffering is over and Christ is raised from the dead, the school of God is back in session: it is time to learn something new, something of which they were ignorant before. It is time for them to put that ignorance behind them, to become informed by the Gospel, and to embrace the truth of the power of Jesus’ name — not just to heal a disabled man, but to restore all of them to the wholeness that God intends for each and every one, through grace by faith.
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The next ignorance described in our readings — this one from the First Epistle of John — is double: The world is ignorant of God and of us as children of God; but we too are not without our limitations, our own ignorance: As John says, “We are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.” There is still more to learn, more revelation to come, more opening of the eyes of our faith. The good news is that our ignorance is not total: “What we do know,” he writes, “is this: when he is revealed we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” We don’t see him yet, but when we do we will be like him. We will learn something wonderful and new. This is the hope of all who seek Jesus, who number themselves among the company of those who have believed in his name, and are washed with his blood, united with him in a death like so that we may be united with him in a rising from the dead like his. At present, as St Paul would also affirm, our knowledge is partial as if seeing dimly in a mirror. But when Christ is revealed we shall know as we are known, fully informed, fully enlightened by the light of the world, the revelation of the Son of God.
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And so it is fitting that the final ignorance with which we are presented today is that of the apostles themselves. They have heard the testimony of Peter and the disciples who had encountered Jesus on the way to Emmaus. And while they are still arguing and trying to understand all of this, Jesus himself appears among them — to their amazement, and in the case of some, disbelief. And Jesus, ever the good teacher, gently instructs them, relieving their ignorance with the good news, reminding them that this is what he had told them beforehand would happen, before they came to Jerusalem in the first place, before the time that he said he would suffer; and, moreover, that all of this was attested in the Scriptures (in the Law of Moses, in the Prophets, and in the Psalms) — Scriptures they had read their whole lives, Scriptures they knew by heart and yet somehow they had never put two and two together even when those holy promises were being fulfilled before their eyes. Such was the ignorance of the apostles that they needed not only to experience, but to remember, to be reminded that the experience matched the promise. They needed a good teacher to inform them of how the promises of the past become real in the present.

And this is the gentle way in which God continues to enlighten our darkness, to lift our ignorance, to inform our minds and rejoice our hearts. Not suddenly, but bit by bit, story by story, and revelation by revelation. By promise and reminder, by poetry and prose, by repeating the lesson until we understand; by words from on high and hopes uttered in our inmost hearts by the groaning of the Spirit within each of us — so it is that the Good Teacher teaches, and the Great Physician heals.

May we, like the man at the gate, reach out for what we know not, but find that we are grasping the hand of the One who brings us gifts better than we can ask or imagine, even Jesus Christ our Lord.

Full Atonement Made

What it means to be at one with God and our neighbors...

Easter 2b 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

In today’s reading from the First Letter of John, we hear not only of his eyewitness testimony but of the mysterious truth of the atonement: how Jesus Christ the righteous is not only our advocate before God, but is also the “atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not of ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” This concept of atonement is not easy to grasp, and I want to spend a few moments today reflecting on what John — and the church after him — are getting at when they use this term atonement.

First of all, it is a term with a great deal of Old Testament baggage, baggage that served the Jewish people well on all their journeys and in all their resting places even on and up to this present day. For it is the word used to describe one of the holiest days on the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the day on which in ancient Israel the priests made solemn sacrifice to cleanse themselves and the whole people of their sins.

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Secondly, some have packed their own ideas into this already heavy baggage, by giving to the word “atone” a sense of feeling sorry for something you’ve done. But feeling sorry for something you’ve done wrong is really not at the heart of atonement: the heart of atonement lies in making reparations for the wrong that has been done. It’s not enough to feel sorry, or even offer a heartfelt apology; it is not enough to make a tearful confession of a crime — there are reparations to be made, and maybe a fine and court costs to be paid.

The surprising thing — and this goes back to the Day of Atonement — is that this restitution or reparation does not need to be made by the guilty party. On the Day of Atonement in ancient Israel it wasn’t the people who suffered punishment for their sins and failings — it was a bull and a goat who paid the price of sin. They were sacrificed, and their blood was the price, along with another goat on whose head the high priest would place the iniquities of the people — the scapegoat — that would be sent off into the wilderness to only God knows where. This is the bloody image that John develops in his Epistle: that, as he says, “the blood of Jesus… cleanses us from all sins.” Jesus is the “atoning sacrifice” that makes full reparation and reconciliation between humankind and God — for only Jesus Christ, truly human and truly divine, completely free of any sin himself but taking on himself the sin of the whole world, only Jesus Christ could serve as both our advocate before God, and as the atoning sacrifice who reconciles humanity with God.

Reconciliation is at the heart of what atonement means, this in a literal sense: for the word “atone” was created from the two words “at” and “one” — and it used in fact to be pronounce “at-one” instead of “a-tone.” The sacrifice of Yom Kippur “at-oned” the people of Israel with God, restoring what was broken in their relationship, re-joining the two so that they were “at one.”

The problem with this at-oning sacrifice of Yom Kippur was that it was temporary. It reconciled and “at-oned” the people with God only for one year at a time, so the sacrifice was part of the annual round of Temple worship. Every year the Day of Atonement would come around, and the goat and the bull would be sacrificed, and the other goat sent out with the sins on its head into the wilderness. Think of all of those hundreds of bulls and goats, slaughtered or set off into the wilderness as substitutes for the sins of the people, year after year, enough beef to fill a slaughterhouse and goat, Mon, to provide for a curry to end all curries! No shortage of curry there! Yet each and every year the people would accumulate their sins, only to bring them back to the Temple each Day of Atonement.

The sacrifice of Christ is different; it is, as Saint Paul was fond of saying, “once and for all.” We use that phrase casually and so lose how dramatic it is: once — that is, once Christ was crucified, once died and then once on Easter raised triumphant over death; and “for all” — for everyone who, as I reminded us in Lent, would look upon him and put their trust in him. Unlike the High Priest on the Day of Atonement, going through that ritual year after year and only for himself and the people of Israel, Jesus “at-ones” God with all of humanity over that three-day weekend from the cross to the resurrection — once and for all. It is through Jesus — one person, one death, one sacrifice — that, as the hymn puts it, “reconciled are we with God” and that “we” includes all of humanity — as John would say, “the whole world” — made one in him, by him and through him.

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We see the results of this kind of unity, this at-one-ment, in that short passage from the Acts of the Apostles. It describes the behavior of the whole group of believers, who are reported to be “of one heart and soul.” They are “at-one” with God and with each other. And just as atonement for sin isn’t just about feeling sorry (though it includes it), so too this way of life in the newborn church wasn’t just about feeling friendly towards each other (though it included that as well). These disciples took action, and literally put their money where their mouth was. I reminded us in Lent of the truth of the teaching, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Well, we see that principle in action in this short reading from the Acts of the Apostles.

This first community of Christ, this first incarnation of “the church” is of one mind and soul and heart; no one claims private ownership of any possessions, but the community holds everything in common. They have put their money where their mouth is — and there is not a needy person among them, because those with wealth and property liquidate their assets to spread them around for all to benefit. They show that what they truly treasure is each other: that is where their treasure is — in each other. And because of that, you know where their heart is, too: united one to the other and each to all, in a community of faith the like of which is rarely seen on this good, green earth of ours.

And that is the challenge before us, my friends: the challenge of the At-one-ment; to become as filled with love for each other, at-one with each other and with God, that we support each other in good times and in bad, to such an extent that anyone seeing us would be amazed, and say to himself, “Those people at Saint James Fordham must really love God and their neighbors.”

May we so live our commitment, so embrace the at-one-ment purchased for us by Christ our Savior on the cross by his precious blood, so show forth in our lives what we profess with our lips, that our light will shine, as a beacon of hope, to bring others out from the perilous waters of this world, into the safe harbor of Christ’s holy family, the church of God, of which this little building is but one of the many ports. +

The Real Thing

We stand between what we were and what we shall become, when the Risen Christ is revealed.

SJF • Easter 2015 • Tobias S Haller BSG
God raised Jesus on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.

Alleluia, Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia. That, my friends, is the Easter message, short and sweet; the heart of the gospel and the center of our Creed and acclamation. (Don’t get too excited, though; the sermon will be a little longer...) Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. It is why we are here today, and why we are here every time we gather week by week and year by year — some of us, if we are honest about it, tending more to the year-by-year than the week-by-week! But if you can only be here one day a year — or for the first time in your life! — this is the day to be here: Easter Day, the day of resurrection.

It is fashionable in some theological circles to debate and discuss the nature of the resurrection, asking, Did it really happen? or What was it like? At the furthest reaches of skepticism you have those who suggest that Jesus was not really raised from the dead; but rather, that the power of his personality and his teaching were so persuasive that the apostles decided to continue their teaching and preaching as if he had been raised from the dead. In addition to transforming the apostles into either fools or con-men, does this really make any sense at all? Who would risk their lives to preach a gospel based on a fabric as thin and weak as wet tissue paper? Who would be willing to face down the authorities of Rome and the Sanhedrin on the basis of such a dream or a hope? Who would be willing to die — as most of the apostles did — in defense of a pious memory?

And if the apostles were con-men, if indeed they stole the body from the tomb — as the slanderous rumor would have it — then we are, as Saint Paul once said, of all people the most to be pitied, for having been hoodwinked by first-century con-artists — who, if they were con-artists, weren’t very smart themselves: for they got nothing for their scam but persecution, beatings, imprisonment, exile and death! Who is more the fool?!

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But look at what Saint Peter says: “God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.” Peter is testifying as an eye witness; he’s not making this up; he’s not elaborating a pious memory, or engineering a clever scam. He saw the risen Christ with his own eyes; he and the other apostles ate and drank with Jesus over those days before he was taken up into heaven and exalted at the right hand of the Father. Whatever else one wants to say about the resurrection, Saint Peter affirms that it is real.

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Now of course, you might well say, well, what is real? What is reality? Could someone who died really come back to life — not just resuscitated, like Lazarus, but totally transformed into a person who can walk through walls or locked doors to confront his frightened followers — and we will be hearing more about that in the coming weeks. This risen Christ, this Jesus Christ who was raised from the dead by the power of God, was not merely restored to life, but was given a whole new kind of life. When Saint Paul tries to explain this to the Corinthians, he says, “It is sown a physical body, but is raised a spiritual body.”

The problem with this is that we tend to hear the word spiritual as being less real than the physical. But it is the other way around: the spiritual is more real than the physical. For God is Spirit, and God is the most real reality that is, the reality upon which all other things depend, the Creator of all that is. If God is not real, nothing else could be real!

Christ could walk through the closed doors of those fear-filled rooms, not because he was like a ghost, but because he was ever so much more real, solid and substantial than those merely physical barriers. He could walk through those barriers the way we walk through a puff of smoke or a haze of fog. The stone at his tomb was rolled away not so he could get out — he could have walked through that stone like it was tissue paper — the stone was rolled away to let the disciples see that the tomb was empty; that he had been raised. The risen Christ, in the power of the spirit, was more, not less, real than the substantial world he came to save. We, my friends, are the ghosts: dead in our sin. But the Easter message proclaims: He is alive! And if he is alive, then we who live in him are alive as well.

The spirit, you see, gives life — and compared to what is dead (as we all are in our sins) what is alive is more real,more substantial, more solid, and more full of the energy that drives the universe. That cosmos itself is supported and sustained only by the love of God who created it; the nurturing care of God’s Holy Spirit that sustains it — what the poet Dante so beautifully described as “the love that moves the sun and the other stars.” And that same power — the power that moves the universe - is the same power that raised Jesus from the dead.

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Some skeptics will say this is impossible. But I ask you — who of us here is possible? Each and every person sitting here in this church, each and every person who ever walked this earth, at one point didn’t exist, wasn’t real — didn’t exist at all. Yet here we are! Each and every person sitting in this church, young and old, big and small, and the billions of others born upon this earth came into being from the joining of two cells: one of them smaller than a pinhead, and the other smaller still. That’s reality, my friends. Each of us here started out as a speck no bigger than the period at the end of a sentence, a wiggle no bigger than a comma. And yet here we are.

And our present bodies are as miraculous as our beginning. For as we grew from that little point, we drew substance first from our mother’s womb, then when we were born and came forth into the world with a cry as all mortals to, we grew from the food we ate, the air we breathed — yes, we are built up with material gathered from the four corners of the world — and that world itself is compacted of the substance of exploded stars! What a miracle that each of us can sit here in this church, both it and we made up from elements from the four corners of the universe, from literally billions of miles away, gathered here against all odds to this very spot, gathered from the air that God spreads upon this earth, from the water that flows so freely, from the food from far afield.

There are atoms in my body that once were part of other lives, that swam in the fish off the coast of Alaska, that browsed in the herds of the Great Plains of Iowa, that grew in the fruit groves of Florida. What an impossibly unlikely reality I am, that each of us is: that the substance of the universe scattered to its ends should find itself collected and gathered, here and now in you, in me!

Is it real? Can it be? And can God who works this miracle a billion times over in every human being , not work a single miracle in one human being that is a billion times as great? Can the power of God that works to bring life from such a tiny beginning to its present state, to summon the substance of exploded stars to form billions of human lives, can he not continue the amazing transformation one further step in one very special human being? What if our bodies now stand in the same relation to what we shall be in the resurrection, (when we shall be like Christ in our risen spiritual bodies) as the first beginning of our lives, when we were sheltered in our mothers’ wombs no bigger than a period or a comma — not even as big as a question mark — bear to what we are now? We are only in the middle, my friends, we are in-between what once we were as a tiny speck that was almost nothing, and what we shall be in the life of the world to come: and oh, what a sight it will be.

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For we have been given a promise, my friends, a promise passed down for nearly 2,000 years, a promise first given by our Lord himself and repeated by the angel at the tomb, who reassured those fearful, faithful, women who came to find a body. “He he is not here; he has been raised; but he is going ahead to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

“We will see him.” That is the promise. And it is real. We will not see him as we do now, only in the acts of charity and self-sacrifice done in his name. We will not see him only under the forms of bread and wine, as we see him now. We will not see him only in the icons and the paintings and the stained-glass windows, however beautiful they are they are only shadows of the things that are to come, when the glory is revealed, and we will see him as he is, see him with our own eyes — our own new spiritual eyes seeing him in his super-substantial, and spiritual body — raised from the dead, transformed and glorified for our sake and on our behalf, that we might be led into the way of transformation that will change us too, into his likeness and according to his great love and promise.

So if anyone asks you, my friends, “Is it real?” you can assure them it is the most real thing that is: more real than death, more real than life itself — this new life that is raised from the dead in the power and the glory of God, to whom we give, as is most justly due, all might, majesty, power and dominion, henceforth and for evermore.

The Signpost Up Ahead

You don't have to go to any Twilight Zone to find a world where things are not the way they should be...

Lent 5b 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Now is the judgment of this world, now is the ruler of this world to be driven out; and I, when I am lifted from the earth, will draw all people to myself.+

There is a 1960s TV show that has remained in reruns ever since. It’s not I Love Lucy, though I’m sure you would instantly recognize it from the music of the opening credits just as easily. Perhaps you know the opening text that the host recites as well as the music. “There is a land between mystery and imagination...” Do you remember? It ends, “There’s the signpost up ahead...” as the title comes shimmering into view, “The Twilight Zone.”

Strange things happen in the Twilight Zone; things in the Twilight Zone are not as they should be. But what I want to say to you today is that right here in this world things are not as they should be, either.

Things are not as they should be when people with mental illness wander the streets because hospitals have been shut down, and the small apartments they could afford to live in have been converted into condos for the one percent. Things are not as they should be where people have to live in cardboard boxes over sidewalk grates to get warm. Things are not as they should be where children go without food — not just in famine-stricken deserts or countries in the midst of war — but right here in this city, one of the wealthiest in the world. Things are not as they should be where the government cuts support for food for the poor because some think they might make a habit of eating. Things are not as they should be where corporations are treated like people, and people like commodities; where politicians of both parties sell their favors to the highest bidder, and are more interested in the next election than in doing the job they were elected for in the first place. Things are not as they should be where people are killed by those who are meant to protect their lives. Things are not as they should be where people are beheaded and burned alive, and raped and murdered and all in the name of religion.

No, my brothers and sisters, things are not as they should be right here amongst the swift and varied chances of this world of ours. You don’t have to go to any Twilight Zone to find a world where things are not as they should be. Things are not as they should be right here and now, and many of us are looking for a signpost up ahead to lead us to a better place.

Sometimes people will look backwards, back to that they like to think of as the “good old days.” But when we look to the past with a careful eye, we will find there’s nothing new in any of the problems we suffer today. Homelessness, hunger, violence, crime and crooked politicians, have been a part of human life almost from the beginning. This world of ours never has been what it should be — except maybe during that first afternoon, in those few precious hours in before Adam and Eve decided on an apple for dinner. Ever since God strolled by in the cool of that first human evening, and asked a terrible question, “Where are you?” — ever since, humanity has been a stranger in a strange land, where things are no longer as they should be. So there is nothing new in homelessness: Adam and Eve were the first homeless to walk the earth, when God kicked them out of Eden.

There is nothing new in hunger. When God led the people out of Egypt’s land, and through the Red Sea, were they grateful? No, they grumbled about the pickles they’d left behind, the delicacies of the Egyptian fleshpots. They complained, when God gave them bread from heaven, they grumbled and asked him, “Where’s the beef?” And so instead of leading them into a promised land, God kept that generation of ungrateful people marching in circles for forty years, until all the grumblers were dead.

There is nothing new in political deceit. Prophets tried and tried again through the history of those naughty sisters Israel and Judah, tried to warn the idolatrous rulers of the error of their ways. But did they listen? One or two, maybe, but the rest just tried to shut the prophets up — burning Jeremiah’s scroll and even tossing him down a well. There is nothing new in political corruption and cover ups — why, one ancient politician just tried to wash his hands of the whole sorry business; and you can find a picture from the photo op right over there in the First Station of the Cross: Pilate washing his hands: “It’s not about me!”

And, Lord knows, there is nothing new in violence. Jesus himself came into the world amidst violence and he left it amidst violence. After his birth, the boys of Bethlehem were massacred, as Herod tried to wipe out the rival child king, in one of the great crimes against humanity. And some thirty years later, we need look no further than to the cross itself to see the horror of human violence done upon another human being.

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But do that: look a week and a half ahead for a moment; look to Good Friday in your mind’s eye, look to the cross where the Savior hangs dying. Could it be that this is — after all — the signpost we’ve been looking for? I mentioned last week that the byway sign on the highway of our Lenten journey — on our “lighten up” Sunday in mid-Lent — pointed us towards Good Friday. The sign at the middle is the same as the sign at the end. The Good Friday cross stands as it has ever has, since that gloomy afternoon of pain and sorrow. Could it be that this is the signpost up ahead that shows us the way to the world where things are the way they should be? Could it be that this is the signpost up ahead that shows us the One who takes this world that God made, this world that started well but fell, and by the power of God begins to make it right? Could that be it?

It is at the heart of our faith to affirm, Yes, it is! The cross is the signpost where the world turns around and the new creation begins, as the world begins to become what it is meant to be. This is no easy transformation. It took the sacrifice of Christ once offered for the sake of the whole world. For that world to be set right, for that world to turn the corner and become what it should have been all along, the world itself would have to perish. Just as a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies and is reborn in the fruit it bears, so this earth would have to suffer judgment. We are still living in the last days of that judgment, the birth pangs of the new world as the old world dies and is reborn. And let me tell you, it doesn’t want to die; it’s a hard death before rebirth comes — as hard as the death of the cross. Jesus told us, “Now is the judgment of this world, now the ruler of this world will be cast out; and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

He, the homeless one with no place to lay his head, is the signpost up ahead that points the way from homelessness. He leads us to an eternal home with many mansions; but he also teaches us to open our doors to welcome the stranger and the refugee. He challenges us to work and pray and give so that all of God’s children may have decent homes in which to live, in God’s world where things are the way they should be.

Jesus, who fasted in the wilderness, who thirsted on the cross, is the signpost up ahead that leads away from hunger. Not only does he give us his Body and Blood, as spiritual food and drink, but he gives us every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God to nourish us as can no earthly food. And he challenges us to share our abundance — for abundant it is even when we think it isn’t, even when all we’ve got is five loaves and two fish — he challenges us to share our rations with those who have less, or nothing at all, so that all may be filled, in God’s world where things are the way they should be.

Jesus, whom the rulers of this world connived to defeat, to find guilty before a crooked court, this Jesus is the signpost up ahead that points the way to justice. He engraves the new covenant on our hearts, the new covenant that asks that we do justice, love righteousness, and walk humbly with our God, following in the way of the cross into God’s world where things are the way they should be.

Jesus, the one born amidst violence and dying amidst violence — he is the signpost up ahead that transforms violence into peace, by taking the very instrument of violence, the cross, and fooling everyone — including our ancient enemy Satan — as he turns that instrument of death into the instrument of peace and life. This was the reason he came to us, this was the hour for which he was born, this was the judgment of the world, the casting out and the casting down of the ruler of this world; this was the hour when Jesus was glorified, lifted up, to draw the whole world to himself, so that it might become at last God’s world of peace where things are the way they should be.

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Good Friday is just a little over a week away. Keep your eyes on the old rugged cross. It is the signpost that leads the way to life everlasting in the kingdom of God, but also to more abundant life here and now, as each of us disciples of Christ takes up our own cross, day by day, to share what seems to be small and weak and little, but which the grace of God can magnify. Keep your eyes on that cross in the midst of homelessness and hunger and injustice and violence — but also, put our hands to work, right here, right now, to help to make it right. Keep your eyes on that cross and God will give you strength to endure and to do your part in turning those wrongs around, to do your part in the redemption of this world. Keep your eyes on that cross, the instrument of death that is become for us the means of life; keep your eyes on the signpost up ahead, glad to suffer shame and loss, if shamed we must be, but willing to lose all for the one thing of worth: the inestimable love of God; revealed to us in and through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Lift High the Cross

The cross he bore is life and health -- to us -- though shame and death to him.

Lent 4b 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

Today we reach the midpoint of our Lenten journey. It marks a turning point and a resting place. I’m sure we’ve all seen the signs on the turnpikes or superhighways alerting us to the service area coming up, or those spots that are set aside for the long-distance truckers to pull off the road when they find themselves getting drowsy. We are also familiar with the sign announcing a scenic view — a spot off the road set aside for people to pull over and appreciate the countryside, the lake, or the mountain view. All of these special spots are indicated by a sign of some kind.

One of the signs that marks this Sunday as special is the color code — we switch from purple to rose for this Fourth Sunday in Lent. We might think of it as the color of a rosy sunset, before we plunge into the deeper evening darkness of the last half of the Lenten season leading up to the terrible events we commemorate on Good Friday, when the sky grows dark and the Son of God breathes his last.

But what points us towards Good Friday is the very sign we are reminded of today: and that is the cross itself. Jesus tells the crowds that just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so too the Son of Man will be lifted up. To fill in the background we are treated today to the passage from the Book of Numbers. This passage that gives us the backstory about this serpent that Moses lifts up. The wandering Israelites become inpatient, and complain about the quality of the food that God has provided (notice how foolishly ungrateful and inconsistent they are when they say there is no food — and we hate this food!). God punishes them by sending poisonous serpents to bite them, and when Moses intercedes, God instructs him to make a bronze replica of a poisonous serpent and set it on a pole. And when anyone who has been bitten by one of the real serpents looks at this bronze replica they will be healed and live.

Jesus applies this incident to himself — he promises that the Son of Man will be lifted up, so that whoever believes in him will be saved and have eternal life. He is referring, of course, to the cross upon which he will offer the supreme sacrifice of himself for the sake of the whole world. Why? Because, as probably the most quoted verse of Scripture puts it, “because God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved through him.” This is what Jesus came for, this is what Jesus was born for, and this is why he will die — not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. The world has rejected God’s gifts and been stung by the poisonous serpent of ingratitude, and it is only by looking upon the Son of God, given for us as the greatest gift, that we can be healed. And the sign that marks this gift, this saving gift for the good of the whole world, is the cross.

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Sometimes a sign indicates ownership or possession. Along many a country road you will see signs on the trees saying, “no trespassing.” And you might well wonder, what are they so worried about out here in the middle of nowhere. Sometimes the sign of ownership or possession is symbolic and consists in planting a flag — why, there’s even a flag up on the moon; and I can guarantee you there will probably be no more trespassers there than there are in most of those remote country woods.

The sign of the cross fulfills a similar function — especially when we use it in baptism. Every time I baptize a child, I also mark their forehead with holy oil, making the sign of the cross and saying, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.” I like to think that when I make that same sign of the cross on people’s foreheads on Ash Wednesday that I am dusting for God’s fingerprint — the cross is already there and those ashes only make it show up so that it can be seen: truly a sign that tells you something about the one who bears it. It tells us who we belong to — the one who bought us with his own precious blood; the one who gave us life by his death, who healed us by his wounds.

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As the old hymn says, “The cross he bore is life and health” — to us — “though shame and death to him.” We were worse than just snake-bitten — and I can tell you from personal experience, a lot worse than cat-bitten! — we were, as Paul told the Ephesians, dead through our trespasses. We had not just pouted and frowned and complained about the food. We were Gentile sinners — by nature children of wrath, as Saint Paul puts it. We were not just occasional lawbreakers but renegades and outlaws, without any hope of salvation or even all that much interest in it.

Yet God, “who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.” And this is all by grace, all by a free gift from God to us; not because of anything we did or anything we deserved, but just because God loved us, so loved us that he gave his only son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. And God set up the sign for all who choose to turn towards it to see and behold — — that Good Friday two millennia ago when the Son of Man was lifted from the earth, so that any and all people could behold him in his sorrow and his glory.

Signs do many things. I’m old enough to remember the signs for the fallout shelters when everyone was worried an atomic war might break out any day. There are signs that tell you to stop and there are signs that tell you to yield. There are signs that tell you where to get a good deal on a used car, and there are signs that warn you not to drink the water in the pond because it is deadly poison. A sign can save your life.

The cross is such a sign. It is a shelter from the stormy blast, whether that blast is an atomic bomb or a frigid wind. It is a sign that tells you to stop — to stop your foolishness and look and listen and see and hear that the train is bearing down on you and will wreck you if you don’t get off the tracks. It is a sign that tells you to yield to the one to whom all obedience is due. It is a sign that points you to the best deal you will ever get in your life — salvation for free, without a price to be paid by you because someone else has paid it for you, with his own shame and death.

It is the cross, upon which the Son of Man was lifted up. May we who bear his name as Christians never fear to bear that cross, and trust in it, as the emblem and sign of our redemption and salvation. Lift high the Cross, my friends, lift it high, every day of your life, every way that you can — for in doing so you may call others to this banner, where they too may find shelter, peace, and life.+

A Fair Exchange

God gives it all and wants it all back.

SJF • Lent 2b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
What will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?+

God often goes to extremes to make a point. But when we read the Bible or hear a Scripture passage in church on Sunday morning, we often miss just how extreme God is, because we know the end of the story. We know that after Christ is betrayed, tried, tortured and crucified — that he will be raised from the dead. We know the happy ending, so we don’t experience this whole story as quite so suspenseful.

In order to get the full impact of the Scripture, put yourself for a moment in the shoes of the Big Fisherman, Peter, so put off by the whole idea, when Jesus says he is going to Jerusalem and will suffer and die there that Peter doesn’t even hear the part about being raised. He is not afraid to rebuke his own Lord; he isn’t about to let him put himself in danger, no siree!

This Gospel carries an almost unbearable message. Not only does Jesus prophesy his own death, but he says that any who choose to follow him must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him. Does the misery of Jesus so crave company that he wants the disciples to be crucified too? Does he want us to be crucified?

The answer, of course, is No. What Jesus is doing to the disciples, and to us, is daring them and us to risk what we love most — those “dearest idols” we sang about in the hymn. Jesus challenges them — and us — to weigh our most precious possessions

against our hope and faith in God. Jesus is defying us to put our money where their mouth is.

We are not quite so dramatically challenged as the disciples were, at least not usually. But there are still places in the world where being a Christian can bring you into serious danger and even death. All you have to do is listen to the news reports of churches burned with worshipers inside, of Christians being beheaded, children kidnapped and murdered. Extremists acting in the name of Islam, from Isis to Boko Haram, will maim, torture and kill anyone who stands up for Jesus against their ferocious and intolerant zeal.

For most of us, in what we like to think of as a more civilized country, we do not usually face attacks for being Christian. But I’m sure the people in London and Paris thought the same, when they were attacked and killed on the streets of their own cities. Most of us, we hope, in our everyday lives will not face such lethal threats or assaults.

But we will find challenges in having to choose between what we know in our hearts God wants for us, and what we feel in our bones we’ve just got to have for ourselves. Maybe it’s the new car; or the new PlayStation or XBox, or that shiny new Blu-Ray player.

Or maybe it’s something less physical? We know God wants us to be faithful in our relationships; to treat others as we know we would ourselves be treated — but then there are those temptations to cheat; and the wandering eye can lead you astray. We know God wants us to be loving parents; but then sometimes the kids are such a chore, such a pain in the you know what — it’s easier to send them out to spend time on their own, to send them out into the streets rather than to spend time with them. We know God wants us to be honest; but it’s so tempting to pad the expense account, or fail to report that little under-the-table cash that comes in on form 1040 that comes around this time of year.

What does God ask of us? Our deaths? No. Not really; does he? No, I think God asks for something simpler, and maybe, like many simple things, harder in the long run. God does not ask for our deaths, but our lives. God asks us for our love — love for him and for each other. It seems simple; but like many simple things it’s hard, really hard. Because we all experience the forces pulling us the other way: possessions, relationships, and the four P’s: position, power, prominence and pride.

Saint Paul knew all about it. He knew from personal experience how these things work in our lives, pulling us away from God. Remember how he said, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do...” Paul knew how hard it was; he knew the downside; he knew the temptation, he knew about the powerlessness in the face of temptation: the wretchedness of knowing what is right but not being able to do it. But Paul also knew the upside! He knew that even if he couldn’t fight it on his own, God could. God could empty him of his sin, and fill him right back up to the brim with grace.

Paul knew that God could raise him up, even if it was God knocked him down in the first place. (Sometimes God puts those he loves through the wringer. Who did he love more than his Son?) And yet Paul laid it out in black and white: Jesus “was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.” “Handed over to death” — not just the cross, which is bad enough — but death upon it: that slow, painful death of hanging, nailed to a tree, for a tired, painful afternoon. Think of that: to die that way, hanging there, bleeding to death and suffocating — not an easy death. And God didn’t do any kind of last minute rescue on Jesus, as had happened with Isaac, when God stopped Abraham’s hand and let him spare Isaac’s life. He was the one promised in God’s covenant, the promise that Abraham would be the father of many nations, and Sarah would be the mother. Now, as you know, the only child this aged couple had was Isaac — yet God challenged Abraham to give up that child of the promise, testing his faithfulness, offering him up to death; testing him, but then rescuing Isaac at the last minute, and stopping Abraham’s hand — and that proved how faithful Abraham was: because he was willing to risk the promise.

But there was no rescue for Jesus, for God’s own Son. There was no army of angels to fly in and knock down the Romans, there was no one to deliver him from the cross. Instead there was that painful death, then after the death prying at the nails — think about that: pulling nails out of someone’s flesh to take him down from the cross, the clumsy lowering down to the ground, and the waiting, weeping mother raising a cry to split the heavens.

And yet, Paul assures us that even if this is how God treated his own son for our sake will he not do more for us, now that the cost has been paid? Yes, Jesus died. But Paul also assures us that he was raised from the dead — why? For us; for our justification. And with Jesus on our side, the risen Jesus who lives for ever, with him on our side who — or what— can keep us from God? That is Paul’s good news, that is his Gospel.

Yes, we suffer temptations; yes, we have desires we can’t control; yes, we fall and we fail. But the grace of God can restore us, can lift us back up again, can raise us up, even as he raised up Christ — “who was handed over to death for our trespasses and yet was raised for our justification.” God took an old man and woman, childless and comfortless, and made of them a multitude of nations, the parents of kings of peoples. God took the lifeless body of his own Son and worked upon it in the silence of the tomb, bringing life from the dead. And so too God will work on us, dead in our sins, or dead in the grave. Gaining the whole world will profit us nothing if we lose eternal life. But if we risk our lives — our lives in the here and now, and lose them for the sake of the gospel, not ashamed to name Jesus as Lord and savior, he will indeed save us, and raise us up on the last day. Nothing can stop the power of God at work in Christ, and in us, through him.

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Though we will never likely face death for our Lord, we will undergo those prosaic trials, those day-to-day temptations, but even — especially in them because that is what is before us — we can call upon the same faith and hope that raised the hearts of Abraham and Paul. That faith included several basic truths of which we sometimes lose sight.

First, everything we are, everything we have comes from God. When God asks for something back, he is only asking us to return something we have received from him. We say “All things come of thee, O God, and of thine own have we given thee” perhaps so often we forget how true it is! All things come from God and it is out of that we give back. And what a radical statement it is! Everything belongs to God! You, the clothes you are wearing now, your car, your Blu-Ray, even your Xbox, your shoes! Everything belongs to God.

Second, God doesn’t ask for everything back right now. He lets you keep the car, he lets you keep the XBox, keep the Blu-Ray. You can keep your shoes on. God doesn’t take it all back — until we die, and as the saying goes, you can’t take it with you. But in the meantime God accepts the part that we offer, even though God could ask for it all right now. Right now, the earth could open up and swallow this church and we’d all be dead and buried. That hasn’t happened in 150-some years; let’s hope it doesn’t happen in another 150! God could do that, right now. But God doesn’t. Instead God asks us to offer something, some part of what we have been given. What God wants is for our hearts to be free so that if we were asked to give everything we would be willing to give it; so that at the end, when in fact it all will fall away and we pass into death, we will be ready to let it all go — returning everything to God, including our selves, our souls and bodies as a reasonable and holy sacrifice given completely to him. What a wonderful feeling that will be, if we’ve learned in the meantime how to let go. This is like training wheels, my friends: learning to let go of part of things as we live, so that at the end, when we die, we will be ready to let go of all of it.

Remember those words from the hymn we sang at the Gospel: “The dearest idol I have known, whate’er that idol be: help me to tear it from thy throne and worship only thee.” When we put something else on God’s throne, we have lost sight of God. When we treasure anything more than God, well: he told us where you treasure is, there your heart will be also. And so God asks us for something back, some part of our treasure, just to show that we can let go, and give up, for him — for him, the one who gave us everything.

That is how God lets us see where our hearts are. For if we treasure anything more than God, the pain when we let go of it will let us know. Just as pain is the body’s way of letting us know something is wrong, so too that pinch, that regret when we let go of what we offer lets us know our heart-strings are still tied to it and we haven’t yet learned how to “let go and let God.” God wants us to be free, my friends, free from everything, even everything that he gave us, including our lives. And if we can learn to give up those somethings in the here and now, we will be ready to give up everything when the time comes for us to do so, at the end of our lives.

Everything belongs to God; and God wants it all, but in the mean time we honor God with what we give, when we offer the portion of our gift here at the altar, giving thanks to Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom we know, one day, we shall have to render a full account.+

Through What Door?

Each of us has come on board this ark of salvation, sometimes kicking and screaming, sometimes in search of answers.

SJF • Lent 1b • Tobias S Haller BSG
God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you.

My friend Peter — named for the saint, of course — entered into Christ through a little blue door. He came to Columbia University in the late sixties as a graduate student, with the usual doubts and hopes of young men of that age, and that time and that place. People were saying that God was dead — yet the church still seemed to have some utility. The civil rights struggle showed the church was still one of the few things still alive and kicking against a world whose heart it seems had grown cold.

Peter was an intelligent young man, with a passion for justice and civil rights, and a cultured taste in art and music — he was studying medieval literature. But he wanted to learn more about the church before he got too involved with this whole “religion” thing.

And so he called on his neighborhood parish church, which, if you know Columbia will know just happens to be the Cathedral Church of St John the Divine. Given his intellect, passion for civil rights, and his taste for art, the choice was natural: the Episcopal Church was considered “the thinking person’s church” and the Cathedral leaders had taken a strong stand for civil rights, at the cost of a few wealthy donors. And there was no denying the beauty of that building, even in its unfinished state — and it’s still unfinished fifty years later!

Peter called the and they connected him with Canon West, who, the receptionist thought, would be the best person to talk with him about religion. Peter found Canon West much too busy to see him that week, but West told him that if he would come to the little blue door he would find half-way up the cathedral on the southern side at about 10:45 next Sunday morning he might have some time to talk with him about religion.

Peter had come of age in a culture that had forgotten what it is that goes on in cathedrals on Sundays at about 10:45, so he was caught short went through that little blue door into that cavernous space and asked for Canon West. Before he knew what was happening, he was whisked into the sacristy; many helping hands vested and girded him and dressed him up in an acolyte’s outfit, then handed him a one of the massive crucifixes that they use there at the Cathedral — and they weigh about 70 pounds! — and pushed him towards the head of a procession, maintained in place by Canon West’s stern eye and finger-snaps, and the nods, gestures and elbows of more experienced servers at the altar.

Peter was confused, but also furious, but he dared not challenge the imposing Canon West — with his bald head, black goatee and long black cape, who knows what powers might be at his disposal? Even had he dared, before he could protest, he was swept up in the worship — right at the head of the procession, along with at least three more crosses behind him, along with the embroidered banners that emerged from clouds of incense, floating like the masts and sails of ancient dream-ships navigating the valleys of those towering rough-hewn rock columns and walls. The roar of the organ resounded in the caverns of that space, the waves and wash of breakers of sound resounded and echoed back and forth — after all, the Cathedral is an eighth of a mile long; ranks of choristers and clergy in vestments ancient and modern, gloriously colorful, gold and scarlet; and there was Peter right in front — just behind the man with the incense-pot swinging and twirling the prayers of the saints up and up into that now invisible dome — and the congregation bowing in waves as he passed with that cross, as if pressed down by the weight of glory he was carrying.

And all the while all he could think was, “I’ll kill him!”

When the worship ended, as he was hanging up the borrowed vestment, still quivering with rage and disorientation, Canon West came up behind him, and laid a bony hand on his shoulder. The old priest spun him around, fixed him with a stern look, out from underneath those bushy eyebrows, and said, “Now, my boy, I’m prepared to talk to you about our religion.”

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Lent is upon us, a time in the church year when we raise the intensity a notch in our efforts to think about our religion. I’m sure all of us here could tell a tale about how we got here — through what little blue door each of us passed to enter the ark of salvation. That’s what it is, you know, this church of ours. It was prefigured, as Saint Peter tells us, in the ark in which Noah and his family were kept safe amidst the waters of the flood. Our church is an ark. As I have pointed out before, churches are often built like upside-down boats: if you look up to our ceiling there, in that part of the church called the “nave” — which also betrays its naval origins — you’ll see that the ribs of a boat’s hull have become the ribs that hold up our roof.

Each of us could tell how we boarded this upside-down boat, through what little blue — or red — door — even if we were carried in kicking and screaming when we were just a few weeks old. And yet here we are, the company of the baptized, some of you baptized right here in this font — I know, because I was the one that did it! We are gathered here together in this boat, a boat that has no first or second class passengers, no steerage for the poor, nor staterooms for the rich — but just one big lifeboat!

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It may seem strange to start the season of Lent with Scriptures all of which refer to baptism either directly or figuratively — since by tradition Lent is the one time of the year during which baptisms are not performed! But Lent anciently was the time when people were prepared for baptism at Easter; it was during these weeks that they studied, and fasted, and prayed to be ready to be baptized at the Great Vigil of Easter. And so we begin our Lent reminded of baptism, and of the fact that the church — this church, not just the building, not just the upside-down boat, but we the people are the company of the baptized, and it is worth reflecting on what it means to be on board this boat — and to reflect on where this boat is heading.

So this year, I want to use our Lent together to focus on what it means to be the church — this gathering of people who have been through the little blue door, a little red door, who have been washed in the waters of baptism, and fed with the bread of heaven. For this is how it begins, my friends — in the church as the ark of salvation. Now, some might be tempted to ask, “Isn’t there salvation outside the church?” well, it is not for me to speculate on God’s grace, or to place limits upon it. God can and will save whomever and however God pleases to do so. Is there salvation outside the ark of the church, outside the lifeboat? I hope so — there may be some good swimmers out there! But I know that there is salvation inside the ark of the church, inside the lifeboat; and it is my calling and my task — as it is yours, my friends — to gather up people floating out there in life jackets before they freeze to death!

We will not do this merely by talking to them about religion — there is plenty of talk about religion out there, my friends, and much of it probably keeps people away from church rather than bringing them to it. No, the answer is to invite them here, through our little red door, into this lifeboat, the one we know, where we can hear words about religion — but more importantly be dressed in a new garment, given a cross to bear, hear the music and the song and join in it too, and be fed with the bread and nourished with the wine, and not just hear words about God but give thanks to the Word of God — Jesus the Christ.

This is the Gospel Cruise my friends: the ark of salvation right on the corner of Jerome Avenue and 190th St in the Beautiful Bronx — as unbelievable and specific as God being born in a stable, and as wonderful and as gracious as being pulled from freezing water into a lifeboat.

This is where it all starts my friends — there will be time to talk about it later; but those who want assurance of salvation will first come on board.

When they have gone through the little door, blue or red, been clothed anew with the garment of baptism, and have carried the cross while rows of their sisters and brothers bow in reverence to the powerful symbol of the unspoken and unspeakable Word above all words and worlds — then, as Canon West said, there will be time to talk about our religion.+

General Practitioner

Paul wanted to be everything to everybody so he could lead them to the One for all.

SJF • Epiphany 5b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.+

When I was in college, I worked on a play by German author Bertolt Brecht. You may know the hit song, “Mack the Knife,” from his musical Threepenny Opera, which had a successful run on Broadway years ago, and was made into a film. The play I worked on, The Measures Taken, will never appear on Broadway, however, because it is about a group of communist agitators working in China prior to the communist revolution. It concerns a young agitator who doesn’t grasp the purpose of the Communist mission. In each scene, whether a factory where the workers are beaten, or by a canal by which the workers slip in the mud as they try to pull barges, the young agitator tries to help individuals: individual factory workers or individual barge-pullers; he binds the wounds of the wounded factory workers, and puts rocks in the mud so the barge-pullers can gain traction. He soon discovers he cannot bind up all of the individual wounds, and that he can’t move enough rocks to give all the barge-pullers a solid footing, and eventually the workers and barge-pullers turn on him and expose him as an agitator. His efforts are misguided from the standpoint of the communist party — they are interested in class warfare, not individual welfare; and this leads to his undoing.

What surprised me most about this was the way the play was received. I mean, this was a touchy stuff in the 60s! But because it is such an honest portrayal of the nature of the communist movement — that in the communist theory the good of the whole is more important than the good of the individual — people who favored socialism could look at the play and say, “See how noble it is!” while those who were opposed to it could say, “See how terrible communism is” — because the play told the truth. You can tell when something is challenging and true, because it often gets angry people from both sides. It is also fairly true about the dilemma that we all face about of how do we do good in the world.

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For there is a tension between works of charity — feeding the hungry, clothing the naked — and the works of justice — seeking to transform society by reforming the causes of hunger and poverty. The one thing of which I am certain is that this is a “both / and” situation. We are called to help those who come across our path: with food, clothing, and care — as did the Good Samaritan. But we are also called to work for the good of the whole society in which we live, to help fight the causes of hunger and poverty.

This is not an original approach, of course. Jesus, in his own ministry, does both — he heals those who come before him, but also — on the cross, and through his blood — heals and saves the whole world.

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Our gospel today is a good example. Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law. Word spreads and the sick gather at the doorstep come sundown, and he cures many of them. Even Peter sees Jesus as a great healer, and chases after him when he leaves in the early morning, to bring him back to the village to continue working.

What Peter fails to understand is that Jesus does not see himself primarily as a healer of the sick, but as the proclamation of a message. Jesus does do the exhausting work of healing in response to the crowds who seek his touch, and we know it was exhausting from that story of the woman with the hemorrhage: You remember that. She secretly touched the hem of his garment and was healed. But as she did so, Jesus felt the power drain out of him. So we know that healing these many people crowded about the door, must have been exhausting.

When morning comes he slips away in the pre-dawn darkness, he does so so he can rest and collect himself, and most importantly, pray. And when Peter comes after him, to drag him back because “everyone is searching” for him, Jesus tells him it is time to move on to other towns, time to move on to proclaim the message, for that is what he came to do.

Jesus did not come to earth to set up a clinic as a Galilean country doctor, but to spread the good news of salvation — which is the healing of the whole person, body and soul, from the deadly effects of this fallen world of ours. He came to save that world itself. He is not a general practitioner, but the universal healer for the life of the world. Jesus came to reveal himself not as everything to everybody but as One for all. He is even more than the bearer of a message — he the message itself: he is the Word of God. Jesus only had to be himself to be the living presence of God — the Word of God made flesh — for that is what he was. After all, there were dozens of preachers and teachers and healers in first century Israel. But there was only one Son of God.

Ultimately, the Gospel of Christ isn’t about all his good deeds as teacher or healer, but about who he was, and who he is: the Son of God, the savior of the world. This is the heart of the gospel truth.

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Saint Paul, on the other hand, knew very well that he was not the message, he was not the Word of God, but a messenger charged to deliver the Word of God. Preaching the gospel was no source of pride or boasting, it was his duty. In his preaching Paul worked every angle, taking every opportunity to make the gospel reach as many different people as he could, to win them to Christ, to bring them to salvation.

Because Paul was the messenger, he knew how important it was that his message be understood. And so he took on many roles to reach many people, to meet people “where they were” and to speak to them in a language they could understand. To his fellow Jews Paul emphasized his own background in Judaism, as a disciple of Rabbi Gamaliel, whose teachings are recorded in the Talmud and studied by rabbinical students to this day. Paul would argue the Torah with the best of them, as well as making use of different traditions within Judaism.

To Gentiles outside the Jewish covenant, Paul moved with ease and liberty as a Roman citizen of no mean city, a man acquainted with the latest trends in Greek philosophy, able to quote pagan poets to Greeks and Romans as well as he was to quote Moses to fellow Jews. Paul did want to be everything to everybody, but only so that he could lead them to the One for all, Jesus Christ.

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So where does the church find itself today? Are we everything to everybody? One for all? Some experts on church growth point to the huge megachurches of the South and the West. These are huge building complexes with worship auditoriums ranged with rows of reclining padded seats. Instead of hymnals and prayer books, the texts are projected on giant screens, accompanied by orchestras, and you won’t find a child in the congregation, because the have full nursery service in a separate space; breakfast and lunch are served before and after worship, there’s a Starbucks in the lobby, you can pay your pledge with a credit card, and during the week you can attend not just Bible Study but weight-loss classes and aerobics. These are the churches of one-stop-shopping; and if Saint James Fordham is a boutique, they are Walmart; and they appear at first glance to be very successful. But you know what — the Crystal Cathedral had to close its doors a few years ago, and be sold. The question is, is this the gospel: do they have members or customers? What has happened to the gospel that Paul wanted to make “free of charge.” In the effort to be everything to everybody, is proclaiming the gospel taking second place to targeting a consumer market?

Saint Paul always had a very clear sense about why he was so flexible in accommodating those he met — so that he might by all means save some. “By all means” — in whatever way he could: the goal was to save: to proclaim the gospel.

Certainly a church needs to be willing to be open and flexible, ready to welcome all regardless of nationality or background, their culture or class. And the church also does cost money to maintain: I wish I could say, “The church is free of charge.” But we all know what it is to pay insurance, and electric bills, and snow removal, and all of the other things that come in our own lives - and the church is no different. The church also is charged to provide, out of what people give. Not just to be a place where people can gather but to be a place that can serve human need. I think we do a good job of that here at Saint James, and I trust we will do even better in months to come, as the Elijah Project grows and expands, and we welcome Kairos gatherings, as we welcome members of our families, and our friends, and our co-workers, to come here.

But we are called to be more than welcoming. We are called to provide those we welcome with the Gospel, not just with comfortable seats and nice music, with child care or yoga classes — even with food and clothing itself — but with the message that doesn’t just reassure but challenges; not something that merely entertains, but transforms.

We can learn from Paul and his willingness to be everything to everybody, learn to be open and welcoming, and flexible and ready to adapt to the needs of a changing world. But we can also learn from Paul and from our Lord how important it is to concentrate on the message of salvation offered in Jesus Christ.

Jesus healed, but then he moved on to proclaim the message, and finally to Jerusalem and Calvary, to the cross and the tomb, and then on to glory. The church gathers here to meet that same Jesus, the Jesus who healed, but also the Jesus who died for us and rose again; the Jesus who shed his blood upon the cross for our salvation: which is not merely the healing of our bodies but of our souls and spirits — he is the “One for all” to whom all of our “everything to everybody” evangelism leads.

May we never tire of the daily tasks of charity, but also let us not be wearied that we fail in the tasks of justice. May we welcome all, to guide them to the One. May we be strengthened to remain true to the commission we share with Saint Paul, to proclaim the gospel, so that by all means — in every way we can — we might save some.+

Insufficient Knowledge

Knowledge without love makes no music.

Epiphany 4b 2014 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Saint Paul wrote to the Corinthians, Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.

No pastor before or since had to deal with any congregation more difficult than that of the people of Corinth to whom Saint Paul ministered, and to whom he wrote the letter from which we heard a portion this morning. He had enough bones to pick with them to assemble an entire skeleton, but I’d like today to focus on the issue that came to light in this short passage: while there are many false so-called gods, there is one Lord Jesus Christ above all lords, one God and Father above all gods. Moreover, he presses the same point that had been made for 600 years by the prophets before him, that idols are not gods. Long before Paul set pen to paper (or stylus to tablet — and I don’t mean an iPad!) prophets had ridiculed and condemned those who put their trust in inanimate objects of wood and stone and metal: so-called gods that could not speak or move or even smell, since they had no breath in their nostrils. You may recall that Winston Churchill once replied to a grande dame to told him, “Sir, you smell.” He replied, “No, Madam. I stink; you smell.” So it is that these idols could stink even if they could not smell — having no breath in their nostrils — when their wood caught fire and they went up in smoke, powerless to defend themselves.

And Saint Paul continues the message: we know that there are many so-called gods, but we Christians know better: That Jesus Christ is the one Lord through whom all things are and through whom we exist; and there is one God who is God the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist.

So far, so good, you might well say, because, of course, that is what we believe. But in Saint Paul’s day, Judaism, with its belief in the proclamation of one God, was a tiny fraction of the population, and Christians formed a smaller fraction still. The bulk of people living around the Mediterranean — Arabs, Greeks, Romans and Egyptians — most of them believed in many gods if they believed in gods at all. Not too many still worshiped idols as if a god could actually be made of wood or metal, though a few still did — and Christians got in trouble with them in Ephesus, as they threatened to put the carvers and casters of idols in wood and metal out of business.

But many sophisticated Greeks had long given up believing in idols, or even in the gods themselves. They would still observe the convention of tipping a few drops of wine out of their wineglass at a banquet to honor the gods, but this was purely “the thing to do,” social convention; they did not believe the gods were real. These were the first atheists — and as far as most of the religious people of the Mediterranean were concerned, the Christians - who denied that idols were gods, and who affirmed that there is only one true Lord and God — were numbered among them. The basic rule was, “If you deny my god, you are an atheist!”

This in the context in which arose the problem with which Paul had to deal. Some of the Christians in Corinth were proud of their knowledge that there is but one Lord and God, and felt so proud that they had no compunction about eating food that had been offered to an idol in a pagan temple, since they knew that the idol was just a block of wood or stone, or a slab of metal. The problem, as Saint Paul sees it, is that this sophistication might lead a less sophisticated person astray into thinking that the idols might really be gods. If they see a member of the congregation who is accounted to be “in the know” eating food offered to idols they might think, “Gee, if Mr. Metropolous eats food offered to idols then maybe there’s something to this idol business after all...” And that, Saint Paul says, would damage the faith no end.

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More importantly, and more relevant to us, since we are very unlikely ever to encounter food offered to idols, is the larger issue of the extent to which the knowledge of God falls short. Knowledge that there is one Lord and one God, is not enough on its own. As the Epistle of James puts it, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe — and shudder.” The demons know that Jesus is the Holy One of God, as attested in our gospel passage today, and in many other places in Mark’s Gospel. In short, it is not enough simply to know God, or who God is, not enough even to believe in God as Father and Jesus Christ as Lord — even the devils know God, perhaps better than any human being ever could, for, like the angels, they come from the spiritual realm.

But their knowledge of God does them no good, for they lack the one crucial element that makes salvation secure. And that is love. As Saint Paul tells the Corinthians, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.” Knowing God gets you nowhere without loving God and your neighbor. And if knowledge is misapplied, it will get in your way and be of no service either to you or to your neighbor. It might even do them harm. The devils know God, but have no love in them, so their knowledge does them no good at all.

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There was once a little boy who showed a remarkable talent for playing the violin. At the age of four he happened to come upon his uncle’s violin left unattended for a moment when he stepped out of the room. The toddler picked up the instrument and imitating the actions he had seen his uncle perform, began to play. It wasn’t a virtuoso performance, but his uncle was so astounded — hearing this music from down the hall — when he came back into the room and saw this child making music, he decided that the boy had to get his own violin and learn to play it. And play it he did — beautifully, and without instruction. He simply listened to recordings of the great violinists of the day, and imitated the sound with the instrument in his hands. He was soon giving concerts and even made a few recordings himself.

By the age of twelve it was decided he needed some proper instruction from a real violin master. And that master discovered that the boy was playing the violin all wrong. Although it sounded wonderful he was using the wrong fingering and bowing to produce the sound. So the teacher set to work correcting all of these bad habits so that he could play even more beautifully. The trouble is, all of this new instruction spoiled his ability to play at all. The habits formed over those eight years were too set to be unlearned. Fortunately, before all was lost, it was decided to let the boy alone and continue to play in his peculiar manner — after all, if you weren’t watching him you couldn’t tell how he was playing; all you could hear was that beautiful music. The love of music that inspired this child won out over the so-called knowledge of the right way to play. Knowledge is not the point; music is. You can have all the knowledge of technique in the world, but if you have no love of music, your performance will be empty.

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And when it comes to God, it is the same: knowledge is not the point; love is. This is why Jesus rebukes the unclean spirits who recognize him as the holy one of God, but warns those who believe in him that they must come to him as a child — just as he came to us as a child. It is not sophisticated knowledge or technique that saves us, but the innocent love of a child.

Our worship often ends with a blessing and I hope you will listen to it carefully today. For it affirms that the peace of God passes understanding — that is, it is something beyond the capacity of our minds to understand — but not of our hearts to receive. And the blessing continues by asking that the knowledge and the love of God be upon us. The knowledge alone will do us no good, it might even spoil our efforts to make the music God wants us to make, in our service for and to and with each other. Knowledge, without love, as Saint Paul would assure those same troublesome Corinthians, doesn’t make beautiful music — it is a clanging gong or noisy cymbal, if it comes without love. But with love, love that endures all things, bears all things, and ultimately believes all things with a believing heart — with love we are perfected and blessed as children of God our Father, who with Christ our Lord and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns for ever and ever.

God's Transforming Call

God calls us... do we follow?

SJF • Epiphany 3b 2015 • Tobias S Haller BSG
Jesus said, Follow me, and I will make you fish for people

Our scripture readings today present us with variations on a theme, and the theme is “Transformation.” The transformation takes three different forms, but all three forms have God as their author. And these three forms of transformation have the advantage of being a version of the “three R’s” — in this case Repentance, Renunciation, and Renewal.

We hear the middle movement of the “Jonah Symphony” this morning. You recall the first movement: Jonah rejected God’s transforming call — to him! He ran away from God and ended up repenting in the belly of a fish. In today’s passage we see him finally doing as God instructed him, and preaching the message of repentance — one which he himself has learned so well, up close and personal, and under water. The great and the small, the folk of Nineveh, respond to the call of God, and repent, turning, each of them, from their evil ways. But notice this: God calls through Jonah, himself called, and himself knowing in himself the need for repentance; and perhaps that is what makes his preaching so persuasive: and the people respond and repent.

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Saint Paul delivers a different form of God’s call to the people of Corinth. He wants people to detach from the normal courses of life because all of life is about to be transformed — the present form of this world, he says, is passing away. So Paul commends a kind of transforming renunciation — acting in a way that takes no mind of the situation in which one finds oneself, whether married, or mourning, or rejoicing, engaging in commerce or worldly matters: because the world itself is about to be transformed, and radically so!

What I’d like to note is that this too reflects some of the backstory about Paul, just as Jonah’s preaching had some relation with his own earlier life. He also had himself gone through a tremendous transformation when God called him out — literally knocked him down and senseless. His old world passed away on that road to Damascus, when God made him realize that all the things he was so sure of, all of the things he believed with all his heart, all his reputation and even all of his religion, were to be regarded as so much rubbish. Next to the call from God, nothing else in this world mattered. He no longer needed to lay claim to being a Jew born of Jews, a Pharisee among Pharisees, a star pupil of a great Rabbi — for the greatest Rabbi of all, Jesus himself, had taught him a lesson, had turned his whole world upside down, leading him in the end to renounce all that was past and to reach out to what was promised.

And so Paul too passes on what had been delivered to him: the transforming power of God to renounce all worldly expectations and values that could stand in the way of proclaiming the Gospel and leading a Gospel life.

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Finally, we come to the gospel itself, which portrays the calling of the first disciples. Jesus passes along the Sea of Galilee and finds four fishermen — he tells them literally to drop everything and follow him. He calls on them to change their livelihoods and their lives — to leave behind the boats and the nets and even their family in order to follow him. And in this call, they will be transformed by being renewed. What was there in them will somehow remain, but be transformed and renewed. Their catch may change but not their way of life: now they are going to catch people instead of fish.

Their catch may change, but not their way of life: and in doing so they will still be sailing out — metaphorically — into dangerous waters, risking their lives and taking a chance. Their fishermen’s skills will be called upon and put to use, but in new ways. They will still need the keen eye that can read the signs of sunset and sunrise, and the sharp nose that can smell a change in the wind. They will rely on the sense of balance that can feel from the movement of the boat where the next big wave is coming from. And above all they will need the patience to wait wait wait in quiet, and then the strength to pull pull pull to haul in the catch. Jesus is calling to these fishermen to go with him in search of the greatest catch the world had ever seen — they are going to cast their nets abroad and catch the whole world itself with the message of the gospel.

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It is the call, my friends, that is important; the call and our response to it, whether it is a call to repent, renounce or renew: God’s transforming call. When we hear God’s call, does it lift our hearts and move us forward to do the work that God assigns? Does it empower us to change our direction if we are heading the wrong way, or to free ourselves from the world’s distractions, and renew our energies? Does God’s voice sounding in our heart, his call and command echoing in our ears, fill us with inspiration and move us to leave behind the safe and the familiar and to follow him, bringing with us nothing but the skills that God has given us in the first place? Or do we allow the complacency and comfort of our condition, or the cares of this world, to limit the scope of our response to God’s call?

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Roland Meredith tells of an experience he once had one night early in the spring out in the country when he was young: In the midst of the quiet night, suddenly he heard the sound of wild geese in their seasonal flight back home. He ran up onto the porch to call everyone out to see them, because the sight of wild geese flying in the moonlight, is one of the great beauties of nature, singing their peculiar song as they fly the night sky. As he was enjoying this beautiful, wonderful sight, he noticed the tame mallard ducks that lived on the family pond. They too had heard the wild call, the honking of the geese, and it stirred up something in their little breasts. Their wings fluttered a bit in a feeble response. The urge to fly, to take up their place in the sky for which God had made them, with the wings God had given them to do so, was filling their little breasts — but they never rose from the water. They had made a choice, you see, long ago; the corn from the barnyard was too secure and satisfying — and fattening — to risk a flight to who knows where. The security and safety of that little pond kept them from fulfilling the call of the wild to that wild and exciting life for which they had been made.

My friends, God is calling us to a wild and exciting life — the mission of his church to the ends of the world. He is calling on us repent our sins, renounce our worldly attachments, and renew our lives; to spread our wings — the wings he gave us; to leave behind whatever might hold us back, and yet to bring with us all the gifts and skills with which he has equipped us all along — the steady hand and the patient heart, the ready will and joy in the spirit; and above all the good news itself which we have received and are called upon to share. This is his rule in all the churches. It doesn’t matter if we are wage-earners or executives, working or retired, single or married, buyers or sellers, rich or poor — whatever our condition God can make use of it through his call.

So will you join me on this quest? God is sending us out from this place to fish for people — to spread the word and to bring in the catch of friends and family, of coworkers and associates, of strangers we meet on the street and the companions of our breakfast table, here, here to the banquet, where we feast upon the word of God in Scripture and in broken bread. It is a high calling my friends — high as the sky and as broad as God’s good, green earth. But God has called us, and his call is transforming, as we repent, renounce, and are renewed: so let each of us resolve to lead the life that the Lord has transformed and fitted us for, and to which we have been called. The one who has called us will not take No for an answer.+

God's Messengers

How often have God's messages been missed because we didn't like the messenger...

SJF • Epiphany 2b 2015 • Tobias S Haller BSG
The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, Here I am, for you called me. Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy.

A few weeks ago I referred to the difference between hearing and listening. This is not just true of human dialogue, but of the way God speaks to us. The problem is that however God speaks, whether through nature or in the words of Scripture, through a prophet or as Christ himself, people often seem to be unable to listen, or sometimes even hear.

One of the reasons for this, as we see in our reading from the First Book of Samuel, is the inability to accept God’s message when it comes through a child. This shouldn’t be, of course: especially for us Christians. After all, we believe that God himself came to us as a child and he has told us that we cannot come to him unless we come as a child. Nor should this be a problem for old Eli, — for he knows that wisdom often comes “out of the mouths of babes.” Yet it takes three times for God’s call to Samuel to sink in for old Eli, to realize that God has chosen this child and wishes to speak to him and through him.

It is hard sometimes to hear God speaking through a child — but you can learn a lot if you listen. There was once a priest who had a framed print hanging in his office. It was a parishioner’s gift to a former rector, so even though this priest wasn’t particularly fond of the painting, there it stayed. It was a framed print of a painting by the Dutch modern artist Piet Mondrian: just horizontal and vertical black lines, with a few little squares of color to brighten it a bit; framed, under glass. Not unattractive as the such things go, but not terribly interesting. So it hung there, behind him, and the priest didn’t even look at it all that often.

One day a little boy about four years old came into the office with his mother who taught Sunday School. As soon as the little boy stopped at the doorway, he stopped short, and pointed up at the print over the priest’s head, and said, “Look, Mommy!” The priest turned to see what the child could find so interesting, but all that he could see was the framed geometric print. The priest looked over at the child and asked, “What is it, Johnny?” And the little child said, “It’s Jesus!” The priest was even more surprised, so he got up and came over to the child and his mother and looked back at the print, and said, it’s just colors and lines. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I don’t see him.” The child continued to say, “Look, look at Jesus.” The mother shrugged nervously, because she too had no idea what the child was talking about. So the priest bent down on one knee beside the boy and began to explain, “Now, Johnny, sometimes we see things that aren’t really there, and that can be our imagination; or it could be....” And then he looked up into the picture there, framed behind his desk. and there, sure enough, reflected in the glass over the print was the image of Christ from the crucifix from the wall opposite his desk, perfectly reflected on those black lines, his arms outstretched to embrace the whole world, there on that black cross of lines, and spots of color. It took a change in the priest’s perspective to see Jesus where he wasn’t supposed to be, and to understand the authoritative testimony of a child.

What was it Jesus told us?— unless you become like a child you cannot come to me? Perhaps if we adults were on our knees more often with the children, we would have a better appreciation of God’s messages for us.

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Now it isn’t only age prejudice that can lead us to reject or misunderstand God’s message. In our gospel today we see an example of how regional prejudice can also get in the way of hearing God’s voice. And in this case it is the voice of Jesus himself. What I’m referring to is Nathanael’s famous putdown of Jesus before he even meets him. When he’s told by Philip that they have found the one about whom Moses and the prophets wrote, Jesus the son of Joseph from Nazareth, Nathanael responds with a classic putdown, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Fortunately for Nathanael, Philip doesn’t give up and continues to extend the invitation to “come and to see.”

But how many opportunities to hear God’s voice and to enter into God’s presence have been missed down the years by people who stopped at the stage of the putdown and didn’t get beyond their prejudice. How many times have people failed to hear the voice of God speaking through the person who came from the wrong side of the tracks, or, in Nathanael’s case in view of Jesus, from the other side of Lake Galilee; or the one who was too old, or too young, or who had a funny accent? How many people have missed the opportunity to be in God’s presence because they thought the one inviting them was the wrong color or the wrong sex? How many times in human history have the simple words of truth been missed because the person speaking them didn’t have the right kind of education, or go to the right school, or belong to the right club? In short, how much of God has the world missed because we have let our worldly standards stand in the way of God’s messengers?

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Tomorrow, of course, is the annual celebration of one such messenger’s birthday: Martin Luther King Jr. There will be a Bronx-wide celebration up at Holy Nativity in Norwood at 10 am, and I hope some of you will be able to attend. The bishop will be celebrating, and the bishop suffragan preaching. As I reminded everyone last week we’ll also take up a collection for the Martin Luther King Jr Scholarship Fund. This fund continues to help young people from the Bronx as they begin their college careers, helping to equip them as the next generation of young messengers to help build up the world.

Martin Luther King suffered the rejection that prejudice often inflicts upon God’s messengers. Certainly there were plenty of people who didn’t want to hear the message he brought. There were many who put him down because of his race, even though they could hardly slight him on the basis of his academic credentials or his powerful preaching. As his work progressed it became harder and harder to deny that God was working through him — until he finally was stopped not by a verbal putdown by an assassin’s bullet.

But I would like today more especially to remember another witness to the power of God: a much more humble witness. This is someone who was much more easily put down by the people of her time and place. Not only was she black, but she was a woman. Not only was she a woman, but she came from simple folks — like her Lord her father was a carpenter. And though she went to a trade school in her youth, beyond the studies she did at Teachers College she lacked any kind of advanced degree, or personal wealth, or anything else that might have given her prestige and prominence in any time or place, but especially that time and place — and yet, as poet Rita Dove put it: “How she sat there, the time right in a place so wrong it was ready!”

I hope you know who I’m talking about: Miss Rosa Parks. She was the little lady whose refusal to give up her seat on a bus one day was the spark that helped ignite the torch that would light the way for Martin Luther King’s crusade for civil rights. And isn’t it the highest of ironies that this woman to whom few would have given even the time of day back then in 1955, the woman who was told to give up her seat on the bus, received in her passing from us fifty years later an honor reserved primarily for the Presidents of the United States: to be the first — and so far the only — woman ever to lie in state under the great dome of the Capitol Building in Washington DC.

And I hope you’ll pardon my imagination if I cannot help but picture that as this brave woman walks through the gates of heaven, that Martin Luther King himself rises from the seat he justly received when he was struck down by an assassin’s bullet, and says to her, “Miss Rosa Parks, please take my seat.”

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The tragedy in all of this, is how many of God’s messages are missed in this hateful and judgmental and prejudicial world of ours; how many young voices go unheard, how many old ignored; how many foreign tongues that praise God are dismissed as uncouth or unskilled; how many turned aside by the pride and prejudice that judges people on the color of the skin rather than the content of their character?

Were it not better, my brothers and sisters, to bend our knees and listen to the child who points us to the Christ? Were it not better to set aside all prejudicial judgments and preconceptions about who people are or where they come from or what they do — and listen to their voices instead — to hear God’s truth regardless of who speaks it? This is a challenge my friends, a challenge set before us by the man from Nazareth, the town from which they said no good could come, the son of a carpenter. He has words to speak to us, and we dare not turn aside simply because of the one who bears his message. May we, rather, like young Samuel, be ready always to respond, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”+

Jerusalem Snapshot

Getting the most from the glimpse we have of Jesus as a child...

SJF • Christmas 2 2015 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
When his parents did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him.+

A few Christmases ago my youngest sister gave all of us siblings a very thoughtful gift. She went through the shoe boxes of old family photographs to find a portraits of our four grandparents, and then she had professional copies made, and matted and framed them as gifts to each of us five other grandchildren. None of us knew our grandfathers — my father’s father died when my dad was twelve, and my mother’s father was long separated from my grandmother, and not spoken of. But we knew — all of us — our “grans” Mary and Naomi, and loved them both. We knew them, however, as people who had always been old; so much older than us. So my sister hoped her gift would remind us this hadn’t always been the case. They had once been young. They hadn’t always been old. The photographs she chose were of our grandparents in their own younger days, in their twenties or thirties.

However, she was unable to find a portrait of my grandmother Mary at that age. All pictures of her youth included others; so for this gift my sister chose a picture of Mary, my grandmother, with her husband and their daughter — our mother (Mary also) as a little girl. That made it, in its own way, a wonderful contribution to a wonderful gift, to see our own mother as a child. I know we all treasure this gift — I’ve got my copy of it up in the hall of the rectory — especially since we know this snapshot of our my grandmother with my mother and her husband is one of the few surviving pictures of my grandmother when she was young, and of our own mother when she was a child.

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Our Gospel reading from Saint Luke today is rather like that solitary photograph. As you know, the evangelists Mark and John in their gospels tell us absolutely nothing about our Lord’s infancy or childhood, and Matthew jumps right from the flight to Egypt and the return to Nazareth to the preaching of John the Baptist, skipping over all of those intervening 30-some years. Only Luke gives us a solitary glimpse of Jesus in the time between his miraculous birth and his adult ministry.

It is true that there are a number of what are called apocryphal gospel stories in old manuscripts, some of them very ancient. But these accounts never made it into our Bible, these stories that tell of Jesus as a child in his father Joseph’s carpenter shop, or of Jesus playing with making mud animals out of clay by the side of the pool in the village, and the little animals coming to life, to the amazement of all of the other children, or the story about the childhood friend of Jesus who fell from the roof of the house and died, and Jesus brought him back to life. All of those stories appear in those other manuscripts, but none of them made it into our Bible. The church judged these stories to be imaginative tales meant to feed the hunger for knowing more about Jesus during those mysterious hidden years from his birth to his ministry.

Instead, the church chose to preserve only Luke’s snapshot from Jerusalem, that image of Jesus left behind in the Temple where he questions and responds to the teachers, this snapshot of Mary’s and Joseph’s anxiety, of the child’s faithful and provocative awareness of who his Father really was, and of his subsequent obedience to his mother and foster father, and his return home to Nazareth, where he grew in grace.

And so, the church has preserved this solitary snapshot for us, so it must be important; so let us look at it carefully, as something to treasure, to see if we can learn something of this child who would later grow to be the man whom we acknowledge as Lord and God. We will find that in doing so we will also learn a little bit about ourselves, and what it means to be the church.

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The first thing to note in this snapshot is that Jesus is among the elders and teachers, listening to them and asking them questions, understand them and answering wisely. This reveals a very important truth about our God: not only that God is wise and understanding, but that God listens. Our God, the God whom we worship, God whom Jesus shows forth as his perfect reflection and image “in human flesh appearing” as the hymn says — God does not just speak to us, through Scripture and through the inner voice of conscience. God not only speaks to us, God listens to us. God understands us.

God is not simply a powerful being sitting in a remote heaven running the universe. But our God also listens to us when we pour out our hearts, when we gather here to worship and to pray and to praise. What this snapshot from Jerusalem shows us, what this image of the twelve-year-old Jesus listening to his teachers reveals to us, is that God not only hears us, but that God listens to us. And if you don’t know the difference between hearing and listening, just ask your spouse or your parents! So the first thing we learn about Jesus as God from this Jerusalem snapshot is that our Lord not only hears our prayers, but that he listens to our prayers, and responds to our prayers — and the response will be amazing.

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The second thing this incident reveals to us is Jesus’ sense of who he is and where he is: who his true Father is, and where he needs to be to be about his Father’s business. No doubt by the time Jesus was twelve he had seen the winks and nods and nudges in Nazareth — you know, the ones concerning his parents’ marital status. Perhaps he’d heard the rumors and the gossip from those who could count to nine and knew when the wedding had been, and when he was born. Perhaps he’d been called names in the schoolyard, as he would be when he grew up, and as the gospel records, when the crowds say to him, “We are not illegitimate children!” Whatever the source, whether the wagging tongues of townsfolk with too much time on their hands and too little charity in their hearts, or more likely the insight of the Holy Spirit, Jesus knows not only who his father isn’t, but more importantly who his true Father is, and he knows where his Father’s house is: the Temple. And so on this trip to Jerusalem, he returns to the Temple where Mary and Joseph had presented him and redeemed him with a thank-offering when he was just a few weeks old.

This tells us something very important about our identity as Christians: for since Jesus taught us to call God our Father in that prayer every day, we too know that whoever our earthly fathers are we also have a Father in heaven, a Father through whom we are “called to a glorious inheritance among the saints.” This snapshot, then, is like an identity photo, it tells us who we are: we are Christians, brothers and sisters of Jesus, “adopted as children of God through Jesus Christ.”

And this snapshot from Jerusalem also tells us something about what we Christians do: we worship. For while we can and should pray when we are alone, wherever we may be, we can only truly worship when gathered as the church, in the church. This is why we work so hard to preserve and restore this special place; not because we think we can only find God here, but because we know that we have found God here, in God’s house. Jesus knows, as well as we know, what his ancestor in the line of David, King Solomon, had said: that “the Temple could not contain God.” Still Jesus knows that the Temple is a special place of focus, not for God’s attention on us, but for our attention on God. It is a place, as Lincoln said of government, of God’s people, by God’s people and for God’s people, so that, as Jeremiah said, “what was scattered could be gathered home again,” so that the remnant could return, gathered from the farthest corners of the earth, to come and sing aloud on the heights of Zion, to be radiant over the goodness of the Lord, to be filled with gladness instead of sorrow. And don’t we find that here too, on our little church? A place where we can gather, and be filled with the knowledge of God? So it is that our church, our gathering in it — our “congregating” — is a vitally important part of our life as people of God. It allows us both to worship gathered together, but also to find the intrinsic value of what it means to be gathered together as God’s family.

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Finally — and I say “finally” in the knowledge that Dean Baxter of the Washington Cathedral once defined an optimist as a man who starts to put on his shoes when he hears the preacher say “Finally”! — finally, I say, (there is a little more) our snapshot shows the young Jesus returning to Nazareth with his parents, where he was obedient to them. He leaves the place he knows to be his true Father’s home, the place where God is worshiped and adored, the place where prayer is offered, the place where the people of God gather to hear instruction and wisdom, but he leaves that place to go out into the world, out to the far reaches of Galilee. He leaves the Temple to live a life of preparation, that life of which we know nothing until he bursts upon the scene 20 years later, ushered in by John the Baptist to begin his ministry, ultimately to return to Jerusalem again, to witness, to suffer, to die and to rise again for our salvation.

Jesus left the Temple, and so must we. This holy place that nourishes and comforts us is not our dwelling place; though “the sparrow may find her a house, and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young” even at the side of God’s altar, we human creatures of God, we the ones whom God chose to bear his image in this world must also bear his message to this world. And that means going out the door, out to the world in need of God’s word, God’s message. As lovely as this church is, it is not our dwelling place — it is more like our filling station: the place we are fed the bread from heaven so that we may be strengthened to do God’s work on earth, out there, out there where the world is hungry and cold, but doesn’t have the sense to come in out of the cold and be fed.

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Luke left us a snapshot from Jerusalem to show us what we must do, as Jesus did. Through our dedicated time apart with God in this beautiful and holy place, instructed in God’s wisdom and ways, as we hear his voice in Scripture and in song, comforted in the knowledge that our God hears our voice and listens to our prayer, and will respond to us for our best end, strengthened by our communion with one another and in our worship, and fed with the food of salvation, the Body and the Blood of the Holy One of God, we can then go forth in obedience to the call of God, our true Father in heaven, to do his work and to proclaim his word to the ends of the world. The One whom we come to adore also sends us on our way rejoicing. To him be the glory, henceforth and forever more.+

About to Lose Control

The light shines in the darkness, and we cannot control it... nor should we!

Christmas 1 B 2014 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.+

The Pointer Sisters famously sang, “I’m so excited, I just can’t hide it. I’m about to lose control and I think I like it.” That’s a bit how the Scripture readings make me feel about this Christmas season in which we are now gathered, here on the fourth day of Christmas. The halls are decked with boughs of holly, the trees and windows with sparkling strings of lights. Good will bubbles in many hearts and the recent giving of gifts and the celebration of holiday meals has gladdened many. The church has done its duty and hailed the coming of the newborn king, and gathers again today on this First Sunday of Christmas to continue to give thanks.

Isaiah’s song is as infectious as that of the Pointer Sisters, full of joy. And Saint Paul rejoices with God’s Spirit in a song of joy about the liberating power of the incarnation. And John the Divine sums it all up in his glorious hymn that celebrates the new creation that came about when God’s holy Word — which was from the beginning with God and was God — came to what was his own, the world God created and the people whom God chose.

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Ah, yes. Come he did. But then John give us a harsh reminder. It is harsh reminder from John to us, echoing down even to this day: “He came to what was own, and his own people did not receive him.” The light of God shines forth, but it does so in the darkness; and even though the darkness does not overcome it, the darkness remains dark to all who do not heed that light and word and believe.

And the situation is the same for Isaiah and Paul. That wonderful wedding song that Isaiah sings, the great rejoicing that is so exciting he just can’t hide it, like a bride or a groom on their wedding day — this joyful song is proclaimed in the midst of a low point in Israel’s history, the aftermath of their captivity in Babylon. Zion is yet to be raised from the dust and restored to its place of vindication, and Isaiah’s prophecy is just that: a fervent and poignant hope and promise for the future.

As is Saint Paul’s encouragement to the Galatians. It is true the faith has come and been revealed in Christ, and that they have eagerly accepted this good news, but their congregation is still being troubled by nay-sayers who are telling them they can’t really be saved unless they submit themselves to the controlling disciplines of the Law. Saint Paul reassures them in this controversy that the discipline of the Law has had its day, and its day is done; for in the fullness of time, Christ has come, born to redeem those under the law, and “redeem” here means literally posting bond to get them out of jail! These Galatians have been rescued, adopted into the household of God not because their obedience to the law, but by the price of the blood of Christ. It was a costly redemption, made good on the cross.

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So it is that all this excitement and joy from all three Scripture passages emerge from times of suffering and struggle. And is it any different for us? Are our Christmas celebrations taking place in a time more blessed than the end of the Babylonian Captivity, or the first century domination of the world by Roman legions, or the cantankerous and contentious early days of the church?

When we look closely at our own time, what do we see? The boughs of imitation holly and the sparkling Christmas lights are in all likelihood produced by underpaid workers toiling in unsafe conditions in Bangladesh or Shanghai. Talk of things being infectious is likely not about the Christmas spirit or the upbeat songs of pop and rock, but of Ebola, or Dengue Fever, or those old standbys: influenza and HIV. War rages on in the Middle East, and in the hearts of our own cities unarmed men are strangled or shot by the very people charged with protecting the populace from danger.

But I will tell you something. I am excited. I just can’t hide it. I’m not sure I’m about to lose control, but I will be so bold as to echo Isaiah, and Saint Paul and Saint John and say: As dark as the days may seem, as awful as they no doubt are, still the light shines in that darkness, and that darkness will never overcome it. For God in Christ has come to his own and we — his own by adoption — have received him. We have been released from prison and entered into God’s own transition plan

to get us back into life — but not just the old life that got us into trouble, when we were put upon by disciplinarians and lawyers, and were judged by our foes and abandoned by our friends. We are transitioning into the new life, the life of a child of God, redeemed by God and adopted by God. It is time to dress for the occasion with jewels and garlands, to rejoice like a garden in spring, to shine forth in the blazing light of dawn, to cry out to our God, “Abba! Father!” For we are no longer in slavery but, free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, free at last!

And this, my friends, is the message of Christmas. No matter how dark the day or night may be, there is a beacon of joy to be found in the light of Christ. This is something to be excited about, so excited that we just can’t hide it. Nor should we hide it, for this is a message too great to hide, news too good not to share.

We really do need to lose control — and I think I like that: for the message does not belong to us. The message of salvation has been given to us to share, to spread, to sing and tell of this great joy and freedom that we now celebrate in Christ. For our own sake we had best not keep silent, had best not hide this light under a bushel or put it under the bedstead. This light is greater than we can control; it is a light to lighten all peoples, a light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness shall not ever overcome it.

So let us, not just today or for the remaining eight days of Christmas, continue to sing of the joy and excitement that we know in our hearts. Let us give thanks through the gift of God’s Holy Spirit poured out upon us, in the knowledge of the birth of our Savior in Bethlehem of long ago, and born anew each day in our hearts. “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God!” And I’m so excited that I just can’t hide it. I’m about to lose control — and I think I like it!+