Sit Down and Eat Your Supper

Jesus give us the real instruments of unity...

SJF • Easter 3a 2014 • Tobias S Haller BSG
Those who welcomed the message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.

Last week we heard part of Saint Peter’s first sermon, delivered on the day of Pentecost, and today we hear the conclusion, and more importantly, the results. What you have here might be described as the first “altar call” — the crowd is cut to the quick by Peter’s ardent testimony, and about three thousand of them are added to the flock in baptism.

But there is more: as the Book of Acts makes clear, this is not the end, but the beginning of the story. The text continues: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” This is literally a “cast of thousands” for the performance that is about to begin, which is the ongoing life of the church as a new body of the faithful. And what is important to note here is that they are not just faithful to God, but to each other. They are no longer simply a crowd of individuals, but a congregation, an assembly, a church. What holds them together, what unifies them, is their one faith in the one Lord through the one baptism. And their unity is strengthened and reinforced by the disciplines they practice as the body of Christ.

These instruments of unity are familiar to us: we use the words that summarize them at every baptism, and when we recite the Baptismal Covenant as we did two weeks ago on Easter. The members of the church not only devote themselves to God, but to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers.

You all know the Christmas carol, that goes, “I saw three ships come sailing in on Christmas day in the morning,” right? Well I’d like to point out that the earliest believers, and believers since, are united by means of three ships: leadership, fellowship, and worship.

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First of all, the believers acknowledge the apostles’ leadership. As Acts records, they turn “to Peter and to the other apostles” with an earnest question; after being told what a mess they are in, they naturally ask, “Brothers, what should we do?” And they heed their advice, their witness, their teaching, the testimony from these eyewitnesses, testimony that has been passed down through the ages. And as I said last week, that testimony is this: Christ is alive! In him we have forgiveness of sins — all our sins, whatever they may be — and we have a new life in the Spirit. That’s it, the short form of the Christian faith, as handed down from the beginning until now, and as it will be handed down until the coming of the Lord in glory, to judge both the living and the dead. Christ is alive.

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Out of this strong leadership and teaching of the apostles, there arises almost at once the second instrument of unity: fellowship. The first thing the people do — those three thousand — is to get baptized — all washed with the same baptismal water, united with Christ in a death like his, in order to live in the life which is his, the life of the church, which is his body. And this fellowship takes surprising forms: these people will go on to share their property with each other, the better-off helping those in need. They spend much more time together than they ever had before. As Peter says in the Epistle, looking back on this newly baptized community: “Now that you have purified your souls by obedience to the truth” — that is, now that you are reborn in Christ — “you have genuine mutual love.” They are a community bound in fellowship.

And then, of course, comes worship. The new community of faith is unified by the instruments of prayer and the breaking of the bread in which Christ is made known and makes himself known from Emmaus onward even to this day. These new believers discover that in giving thanks and praising God and sitting at the table together, they share in this great mystery of Christ’s presence with them, the Holy Communion of his Body and Blood, of his and their — and our — Savior.

This is how the church began, and this is how the church is called to continue, united through these three instruments, sailing the seas of this world in these three ships — the leadership and teaching of the apostles’ and their successors — which is the body of the faithful, lay and ordained; in the fellowship of that gathered community that transcends time and space; and in the worship that offers and shares the broken bread and the cup of wine, with the prayer of thanksgiving.

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These three aspects of leadership, fellowship and worship are summed up in our gospel this morning. When Jesus meets the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, he takes the leadership that is his by right; he teaches them about himself, leading them into an understanding of the Scripture as they walk along, as he relates it to all that has happened. He then stays with them in fellowship, accepting their invitation as the day draws to a close and night comes on, to be with them, to stay with them a little longer; and in doing so he draws them even closer together in fellowship. And finally, as he breaks the bread — in what would ordinarily have been just an act of fellowship but which has been raised by Jesus into an act of worship — he makes himself known to them, even as he vanishes from their sight, perhaps leaving behind his knowing smile, the warmth of his presence, and the knowledge of his love.

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Would it were always so! For there are some who reject this way to unity in Christ; some who don’t book passage on these three ships but try to take another way — and insist on others taking it too! Instead of accepting the imperishable presence of God whom we meet in communion and fellowship with each other, some still want to have their own way, refusing to share in the leadership of the church because of disagreements over one thing or another, refusing the offered hand of fellowship because they don’t approve of the one who offers it, and worst of all refusing to worship together because of these divisions and dissensions.

No doubt you have heard or read of the disagreements that have gone on in the Anglican Communion over the last twenty years. Some go so far as to say that the Communion has fallen apart. Well, I say, Don’t believe everything you hear! While there are some — even a handful of folks here in our own country — angry enough to try to vote others off the island (as if they could!), there are many others, the vast majority of others, who are on record as saying they do not approve of such a movement. More importantly, in the long run, they trust — I hope we all trust — that Christ will prevail. The majority of the leaders of the Anglican Communion will heed Christ’s commandment to be one in him, not seeking unity in manmade political structures or elaborate compromises, but in the comprehensive instruments of unity that Christ himself gave us: shared leadership, committed fellowship, and communal worship.

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Some people, even at the level of a parish, refuse to share in prayer and fellowship with those with whom they disagree. What would Jesus do in a case like this? A number of things spring to mind. I can well imagine him saying, as he said long ago, “Who are you to judge your brother? Who are you to place heavy loads on others that you are not willing to bear? Who are you to bar the way to the kingdom of heaven even though you do not enter yourself?” But I can also imagine Jesus saying something that many an irrate parent has said to his or her unruly children: “Sit down and eat your supper!”

For in this case the supper is not mere earthly food. Nor is it our supper — it is his, the Lord’s Supper. This is the supper of Christ’s death, the meal which it took his death to feed us, his Body given for us, his Blood shed for us, by which we are not merely nourished, but saved. Through him we have come, as Peter wrote, to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that our faith and hope might be set on God, not on our poor efforts, but on his gift. His sacrificial leadership has led us to this table. His willing to be with us ensures his presence with us in fellowship. And his gift of himself has blessed us with the opportunity to worship. The three ships have come to this safe harbor, to this destination: here where we gather. Here at this table he makes himself known to us in the breaking of the bread. He has told us to cease our strife — to take and eat, to take and drink, together; to sit down and have our supper.

To reject each other here, my friends, is to reject him. To reject each other, to judge each other, is to dismantle the church for which he died, for which he was raised from the dead. To reject each other is to undo Easter, to rob the Last Supper of its power, to put Jesus back in the tomb, to seal it with the stone of judgment, and earn thereby our own justified condemnation.

How much better, to do as Christ commands: to take and eat, to take and drink, to love each other as he loved us, serving one another rather than judging one another.

How much better to remain united in him through the three ships whose sails, when filled with the wind of the Holy Spirit, can bear us to the safe harbor of his peace. Pray, my sisters and brothers, that we and all the faithful throughout the world, may set aside our disagreements, our judgments, our divisions, and remain united in him, who has committed to us this task of leadership, this community of fellowship, and this call to worship him, who is the savior and redeemer of the world, even Jesus Christ our Lord.

Not What It Seems

Jesus comes to us in the humble form of bread and wine, as he came to his village in the humble form of flesh and blood. A sermon for Proper 14b.

Proper 14b • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
They began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?”

Two great mysteries confront us today. The first is in the Gospel of John, concerning Jesus Christ and who he claims to be — and is. And the second, like unto it, and alluded to in the Gospel passage, concerns the bread that we break and share in the Holy Eucharist, how it becomes — and is — the Body of Christ, the bread from heaven, given for us.

The problem for us, as for the people who surrounded Jesus and pressed him for answers, is that things are not always as they seem. We’ve all heard stories, or perhaps even had the experience, of mistaken identity. Perhaps the most cautionary tale is that of the man at a cocktail party chatting with a stranger and commenting about a woman across the room. “Will you look at the outfit that woman has on! I guess there aren’t any mirrors in her house... heh heh heh. Some people just don’t know how to dress, I guess.” At which point the other man finally says, “That would be my wife you’re talking about.” Oops!

The people in our Gospel passage are in a somewhat different position, in that they think they know just who Jesus is, but they’ve allowed what they know to limit what they think could be. It is because they know he is the son of Joseph that they think it is impossible for him to be “the bread of life” or “the bread that came down from heaven.” Like Nicodemus, about whom we spoke some weeks back, these folks can’t seem to understand the difference between earthly birth and heavenly birth — the difference between being born as a son of Joseph and being born from above — from heaven. The earthly part — they’re sure about that. But this heavenly bit — that makes no sense to them, because their minds are fixed on what seems to be rather than upon what is; on what Jesus seems to be, rather than upon who he is.

I’m reminded of the story of the Bishop who was asked about believing that the bread of the Holy Eucharist was the Body of Christ. Referring to those dry, flat little rounds of communion hosts, he said, “I have no trouble at all believing it is the Body of Christ; I do have some difficulty believing it is bread!” Of course, for most of us it isn’t ordinary bread, because for us bread is not a thin round wafer but a larger piece, fluffy and cut from a larger loaf, something with a crust. The bread we use in the Holy Communion is not like ordinary bread in any sense of the word.

The problem for the people confronting Jesus is the reverse. The problem for them is that he does not seem to be extraordinary at all. He is all too ordinary for them to see him as anything else. He seems to be just a very ordinary man, a son of the Joseph, whose father and mother they know. But who Jesus is — that is another reality, another matter entirely. They can not easily believe that while he is a man of flesh and blood, flesh and blood as real as any of them, he is also the Son of God come down from heaven for the life of the world. Nothing visible about him, nothing they can know on the basis of the five senses, or of knowing his family, can help them to see that he is on a mission from God: to be the salvation of the world that God loved so much that he sent his Son into it for that very reason, so that they might believe in him and believing hin hm might be saved and have everlasting life. And Jesus puts this truth into the language of bread, which nourishes our earthly life, promising that he is heavenly bread that nourishes unto eternal life. And the bread that he will give for the life of the world is his flesh.

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Which brings us to that second mystery to which I alluded before: the bread we break and share week by week here at this altar. A skeptic or an unbeliever might well say, taking a leaf from that bishop, “It is only bread — a little different from the kind I use to make a sandwich — more like a cracker, flour and water rolled thin and baked crisp.” Bread is bread, the objective observer might well observe — and so it seems to those who stop short of belief, abiding only in what they can see with the eye of the flesh.

But to the eye of faith, the bread is not just what it seems to be. It looks to the earthly eye the same before as after it is prayed over and blessed and consecrated — there is no visible difference between the bread that is carried forward and set upon the altar, and the bread that is broken and placed into your hands as you receive Communion; it looks just the same, just ordinary though slightly unusual bread.

But just as Jesus looked the same as any other ordinary man, and yet was deeply different, so too the consecrated bread of the Holy Eucharist may look no different from how it looked before — but it is profoundly changed. The fact is that many important and substantive changes take place in the world without any apparent external change in appearances. Some things continue to seem to be just what they look like, even while being deeply changed inside, transformed inside.

This is especially true of the sacraments and rites of the church. Even though they make a real and profound change in people, the change is, as Jesus would say, “from above” or “heavenly” — it is not visible to the earthly eye. Baptism, for example, we believe to make an important change in the life of every child who is baptized: we believe that baptism transforms us from a merely earthly life into participation in a heavenly life, through our union with the death and resurrection of Christ himself. The water washes our foreheads, which are sealed with holy oil, but the only difference is the moisture and the scent of balsam that comes from that holy anointing oil. But the inward change — what cannot be seen — is the renewed life of the Holy Spirit, of God himself now adopting the one baptized as a member of his holy family, the Body of Christ, the church. I can assure you that I’ve baptized many a child — and will baptize two more today! — and believe me, they all look more or less the same after as before the baptism — just a little damp. But oh, my friends, I know that they are changed, profoundly changed, deeply changed by the action of God upon them, a change visible only to the eye of faith.

The same is true of the Bread and Wine of the Holy Eucharist — they still appear to be Bread and Wine, and yet have become the Body and Blood of Christ. Our Lord and our God is truly present, as Martin Luther said, “in, with and under” those outward forms of bread and wine. And if some skeptic sitting next to you in church some day should nudge you and say, “Look at that bread the priest is holding up there. Why it’s hardly even worth calling ‘bread’ it’s so dry and thin and almost tasteless,” don’t be at all shy to say to that skeptic, “That’s the Body of Christ you are talking about my friend.”

Jesus comes to us in this humble form of Bread and Wine as he came in the humble form of flesh and blood: the flesh and blood of a man whose family the villagers thought they knew. Some rejected him in that humility and humanity because they thought they knew better. They thought they knew him for who he was — and yet how deeply they erred in their misunderstanding. He came from God, from heaven above, as bread come down for the life of the world, as one who loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. Let us give thanks for that offering and sacrifice, and celebrate the feast he has committed to us, and instructed us to do, until the great day comes when sacraments shall cease, and we behold him as he is, in his glory and in his majesty, even Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Diet God Provides

Not empty calories, but bread that nourishes, satisfies, and builds us up to be the Body of Christ on earth. -- a sermon for Proper 13b

Proper 13b • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, You are looking for me because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.

You have no doubt seen the news stories about how Mayor Bloomberg is moving to outlaw serving large portions of sugar-sweetened beverages. He and a number of medical experts agree that these soft drinks are a leading contributor to the obesity problem many people, especially young people, face. The problem is that these high-calorie but low-fat and low- or no-protein drinks provide lots of calories but don’t make you feel “full” — that’s what’s meant by “empty calories.” They can put the weight on without really providing much in the way of wholesome nutrition. A milk-shake or a smoothie might have just as many calories, but it will make you feel full, and provide some protein as well as calories and fat, and maybe even some fiber, which the body needs for good health — and you are unlikely to sit down and drink a quart at one sitting!

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In our Gospel passage today, Jesus similarly refers to three kinds of bread, only one of which has the power to nourish unto eternal life. And it is true that all three forms of bread described in our readings today come from God’s bakery, so to speak: the bread in the form of the loaves that Jesus multiplied in his miraculous feeding of the multitude — that’s a contemporary response to the miracle of the manna which God showered on the people in the wilderness, as they slowly wandered their way towards the land of promise. But even miraculous bread — whether multiplied from a few loaves, or falling from the sky like rain upon the wandering Israelites — even truly miracle bread only satisfies for a while. The ancient Israelites had to gather the manna day by day, and the scripture tells us they would pound it or grind it to make mush or to bake into johnny-cakes. But they would eat it and then grow hungry again. They would be filled each day only for each day as they received their daily bread. So this bread from heaven — miraculous though it was — was rationed out, and only fed the people one day at a time, or two on the sabbath — and even then they continued to complain because at the end of each day they grew hungry again.

The bread Jesus multiplied on the mountainside was much the same — though in this case the people really eat their fill and were absolutely stuffed, to the extent that there were many leftovers afterwards. Yet still they sought after Jesus for more of this bread. They were filled, but not satisfied, and they continued in their craving for more.

Finally, Jesus promises them, there is a third kind of miraculous bread that comes from God’s bakery — the true bread that comes down from heaven, bread that doesn’t just satisfy for a day, like the manna, or a few hours, like the bread of the wilderness that Jesus multiplied: but bread that gives life to the world, and endures for ever. And when the people insist that Jesus give them this always-bread, this eternal and ever-nourishing bread that comes down from heaven; not food that perishes but endures to eternal life — when they ask for this bread, Jesus responds with one of those powerful and mystical statements that identify him as the living presence of the power of God: the great I AM — “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Here at last is food that nourishes and satisfies, — not empty spiritual calories, but good solid nourishing sustenance — as different from that other bread as a rich, nourishing fresh-fruit and yoghurt smoothie is from a colored-water, sugared, empty soft drink. This is food that, as Saint Paul said, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up, through and by means of the power of God and the love of God shown most clearly in Christ’s gift of himself, to be bread — bread for the life of the people he has called and chosen to be his own.

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Jesus is the bread that came down from heaven for the life of the world. He commits himself to us, in his Body and his Blood, which we are privileged to share at this altar-rail, as we consume the Body and the Blood, the Bread and the Wine, through which his presence is made real with us, among us and within us. This is no ordinary bread, no ordinary wine. This is the food we are given to assist us and empower us as the church — the body of Christ on earth — to do the work that God gives us to do with gladness and singleness of heart.

Saint Paul makes a list of those works, the works we do, which as Jesus said begins with that work of believing in him — for it is only in him that we are nourished to take up all those other works, that Saint Paul lists: Some are apostles — the ones who go out into the world to bear the message of hope to friends and family and co-workers; some are prophets — those who are given the power to speak the truth that God has given them to speak, to confront the powers and principalities of this fallen world, and to call them to account when they are unjust or hurt the children of God; some are evangelists — who spread the good news of God’s salvation in and through Christ, to promote belief in him, which is the beginning of that salvation, the work of God among us; and some are pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up that body of Christ, until all of us come to that unity of faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, the measure of the full stature of Christ.

This, my friends, is the goal of the nourishment we receive: the food that builds us up into the Body of Christ, to attain to his stature. Let us pray that God will give us this food always, that we may, if we hunger, hunger only for righteousness, and be filled with the nourishment that God provides so that we may serve him well in this life, and share with him for ever in the next.+

Come To The Water

The nature of a sacrament, and its effectiveness in doing what it says: a sermon for Easter 6b

SJF • Easter 6b 2012 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on 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?” So he ordered them to be baptized.

Last week and this we’ve heard paired passages from the earliest period of the church, both of them concerning the water of baptism. Last week, Philip opened the Scriptures to the Ethiopian eunuch, who accepted Jesus in his heart, and cried out, “Look, here is water. What is to prevent my being baptized.” And this week, after they heard the good news at Peter’s proclamation, the Holy Spirit blessed the household of Cornelius the Centurion, and they began to speak in miraculous tongues. Whereupon Peter cried out, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people?”

In both cases the baptism that followed these exclamations was an extraordinary step — for both the Ethiopian and the Roman and his family were foreigners and Gentiles. These events marked the next great stage in the expansion of the mission, committed to the church by its Lord: to baptize all nations.

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So it is from the very beginning that baptism has been seen as central to what it means to be a Christian. Even after the Ethiopian accepted Jesus in his heart, even after the miraculous descent of the Holy Spirit on Cornelius and his family, still the apostles understood the water of baptism to be an essential element in the process of entering into full fellowship with Christ and his church.

And part of the reason for this is the public and objective nature of baptism. What goes on in ones heart, even what one says with ones mouth, is essentially personal — and only you and God will know if what you do in your heart or say with your mouth is true. But baptism is a public and external act that happens outside a person, and more than that, between persons — more than one person is involved: baptism is a sacrament.

How many of you remember from your Catechism or Confirmation Class the answer to that question, “What is a sacrament?” I won’t put you on the spot. The language most of us grew up with put it this way: it is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us; ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive this grace, and a pledge to assure us thereof.” If that sounds a little too much — particularly the “whereby” and the “thereof” — if that sounds a little too much like something you’d find in fine print in pale blue ink at the bottom of a mobile-phone contract, our present Prayer Book puts it in somewhat more up to date language, declaring that the sacraments are “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.”

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That’s a bit of a mouthful, too, I admit, though I think it is a little easier to understand. Let’s look at it bit by bit, as it applies to baptism. First of all there’s that objective, external element I referred to: baptism is an outward and visible sign. You’ve all been to baptisms — at least your own, though you may not remember it — but you surely know that baptism includes words that are publicly spoken and water that is poured, and that it takes place in the presence of witnesses. Even so-called “private baptism” — just involving the family and godparents — does involve the family and the godparents, as well as the minister who performs the rite. Baptism is not something you can do on your own; it requires the presence of the church. Baptism isn’t just something going on in your head, or in your heart. It is something that happens which others can see and participate in.

In fact, I’m reminded of the old joke of the Anglican bishop who was once challenged by a non-conformist Anabaptist asking, “Do you believe in infant baptism?” The bishop responded, “Believe in it? Why, man, I’ve seen it!”

The second thing to note about sacraments is that they are given by Christ. Jesus told his disciples both to baptize all nations with water in the name of the Trinity, and to celebrate the Holy Eucharist, when he said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” The other things that are sometimes called sacraments, the “sacramental rites” like marriage, confirmation, ordination, confession and anointing don’t rest on the authority of Jesus, but on that of the apostles. This doesn’t mean they are unimportant, and they do form important steps in the Christian life — but unlike baptism and the eucharist they fall into that category of “all may, none must, some should.”

The final thing to note about baptism — and this is true of the eucharist as well — is that it is productive of an inward and spiritual grace. As I said last week, it is not something that goes forth empty; it goes forth to bear fruit. There is grace that comes about because of the act of baptism, because of the act of receiving the eucharist. And more importantly, perhaps, this grace is certain and the sacrament is the means by which the grace is conferred. The outward and visible sacrament both certifies and conveys that inner and spiritual grace for which it serves as both sign and means.

Most things in our common experience don’t work that way. Take, for example, a driver’s license. It is a public and physical affirmation that you are allowed to drive a car, but it doesn’t buy you a car or teach you how to drive. It may certify — indeed I hope it certifies — that you know how to drive and have shown you can by passing a driving test. But the license does not convey any inward change in you — it merely permits you to do something.

But there is in our daily experience something that is a bit more like a sacrament — I mentioned it earlier in talking about the fine print on a contract or a lease. The thing to note about signing a contract is that it is your signing it that also makes the contract take effect. It is not merely a symbol of something, a sign, but it actually has an effect; and it is in one and the same action: when you sign the contract, the contract comes into effect. The outward and visible signing actually conveys what the contract represents, in some cases, as in real estate, actually “conveying” the property in question into your ownership.

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Now, perhaps all this reference to leases and contracts seems, again, like dry legalism. So let me try one more analogy — one that actually speaks to the central aspect of baptism. And that is the fact that baptism is what makes us children of God — baptism is, in effect, our adoption papers, testified to by the Holy Spirit, no less. Perhaps it is fitting, on this Mothers’ Day, as we recall our biological mothers, also to recall our spiritual mother, the church, through whom we are all adopted, by baptism, into God’s household. It is true that John says, we become children of God by loving God and obeying his commandments — emphasizing as John always does that commandment to love. But we dare not neglect the witness of the other evangelists, who affirm that Jesus also commanded his disciples to baptize, and to celebrate the feast of the Holy Eucharist. Thus God comes to us not in water only, but with the water and the blood — and let me add, with the bread that comes down heaven, to give life to the world.

All of these physical, outward and visible signs point us to and impart to us the marvelous and spiritual grace that God gives us so abundantly. Who would dare withhold these gifts from anyone, seeing that God has provided them with such abundance. So let us, brothers and sisters in the faith, rejoice in our own baptism, and call others to the water, and celebrate the communion we share in the Body and Blood of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ, joining with our newfound family of faith — all of us adopted as God’s children through water and the Holy Spirit — let us gather as the new family of God and celebrate together this heavenly feast.+

We Will Be Satisfied

How much can our tastes change when we "taste and see that the Lord is good." -- A sermon for Easter 5a 2011
SJF • Easter 5a • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
To you then who believe he is precious; but for those who do not believe, “The stone that the builders rejected...” and “a stone that makes them stumble.”

We are presented today with one of the great strangenesses of human experience: that a thing which can be delightful and wonderful to one person can be horrible or disgusting to another. Much in life seems to be a matter of taste: when it comes to food or music or art, or even religion — what one person finds delicious or pleasing or inspiring, another finds nasty, ugly or repulsive. This could be a matter of nature — something with you from birth — or of nurture — learning to enjoy something you found distasteful as a child, like broccoli — or to find displeasing something you really quite enjoyed as a child, like making mud pies.

Some of it clearly relates to the person him or herself: some people are by nature capable of hearing sounds or tasting tastes — either pleasant or irritating — that others cannot, and this has a real impact on their enjoyment of or distaste for certain kinds of music or food. In fact, there is a chemical — phenylthiocarbamide, in case you’re interested — that people with a particular genetic makeup taste as strongly bitter, while others cannot taste it at all. We all know that some people cannot abide broccoli or asparagus, and this is in part because they are genetically more sensitive to naturally occurring bitter chemicals in those vegetables. A taste which many tolerate or even enjoy due to the inability to taste it in its fullness, such people find intolerably unpleasant.

My point is that the vegetables, and the chemicals in them, are just what they are: the difference lies, as is said of beauty, “in the eye of the beholder” — or in this case, the tongue!

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In our reading from the First Letter of Peter, he describes Jesus as a chosen and precious and living stone. He is the cornerstone of the spiritual temple which will be the church of God — for those who believe. But for those who do not find him to their taste, to the builders who reject the cornerstone, he becomes a source of scandal and stumbling and fall. The one and the same stone can be — for those who accept and believe in him — a precious protection from shame; but for those who deny or reject him, he will bring subjection to that very shame and stumbling. The point is that the joy or anguish is not in the stone itself, or I should rather say, himself — for it is Jesus of whom we speak here — the joy or the anguish is in that proverbial “eye of the beholder.” Whether the stone will be your rock of ages, cleft for you to find refuge; or a stumbling-block that makes you trip and fall depends on you, and how you treat it: with respect and acceptance, or with rejection and hatred.

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We see the two sides of this reaction in our first reading, and can side by side set the personalities of Stephen and Saul. For Stephen the deacon, Christ is Savior and Lord, worth dying for — and he sees the heavens opened to receive him as he dies. For Saul, this crazy new teaching is heresy of the worst sort, and Christ, the founder of this pestilent sect, is a mischief-maker rightly rejected by the authorities. One and the same Christ can lead a man to lay down his life in witness to him, and drive another to the extreme of murder — though, of course, we also know that once Saul came to know Jesus better, on that road to Damascus, he too saw the light — literally, and it blinded him for a time — and he developed finally a taste for Jesus, and even beyond that a bold willingness, like Stephen, to suffer and die for him. As I said, not all things are determined by genetics, and we can be nurtured in directions we might never imagine. Who would have thought that Saul the vicious persecutor of the church would become one of its greatest champions? More than his name changed when he became Paul!

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And that is ultimately the good news in all of this: our tastes can change. We are not always newborns who can only tolerate milk. As we grow older we can learn that a little bitterness — offensive to a child’s tongue, a sensibility that only wants sweets or pleasant things — that little bitterness or sourness actually makes certain foods taste sweeter. We come to understand that a little piquance actually brings out the sweetness of certain foods, or that a dash of Scotch Bonnet pepper — which to a young child can be a truly nasty experience — brings for the adult who has learned to enjoy it, just the right savor and relish to a dish, without which it would be dull, stale, flat, boring and intolerable. We can learn to appreciate certain kinds of music or art by studying them, and realizing that our first impressions may have been based on our own ignorance, not on some quality inherent in the art or music itself.

And when it comes to God — and Christ Jesus his Son — well, God is God, after all; and he assures us that he is in fact the Way; as he said last week, “the gate”; and if we enter, as we are invited so to do, he will invite us to “Taste and see.” He invites us to his supper.

In the old legends of the Holy Grail — the cup that Jesus used at the Last Supper — it was said that the Knights of the Grail, those who dwelt in the Grail Castle and served there, lived on nothing but the Holy Communion. But the legend also says that each and every one of them experienced the bread and wine they received as if it were his favorite dish, whatever food they liked best. Though always and only bread and wine, though of course also the Body and Blood of Christ, one of the knights would experience its taste as roast pheasant, another as beef, still another as the finest venison. To each one it brought complete satisfaction and joy, though it was only and always what it was, and their only food.

Jesus similarly promises that in the Father’s house there are many dwelling places — and no doubt each of those blessed to follow in his way, abide in his truth, and live with his life will find the dwelling place uniquely suited and furnished to each one’s taste and desire.

And what of those who take another way, or reject his truth, or devalue that life and the lives of those who accept and follow him? It is not for us to judge. Who knows? If such a murderous and hateful one as Saul can be brought round in the end, who are we to set limits on the grace and the power of God? And more than that, ought we not examine ourselves in the meantime and see if something in our own behavior as Christians might be keeping others away?

When I was growing up, we lived next door to a man who had a large garden, and he always gave my mother vegetables. Among the vegetables there would always be one or two eggplants, which we never ate because my mother didn’t like eggplant, and always said, “You wouldn’t like it,” when I asked why she didn’t prepare it. And so we never had it. It was only years later when I was grown up and living away from home that I gave eggplant a try — and it turned out I loved it! (I told my mother the next time I saw her after that, and she just grimaced — she couldn’t believe it, — clearly she was more sensitive to whatever it is in eggplant that gives it that bitter taste; she had never learned to enjoy it, that bitterness that is part of “the eggplant experience.”)

But I had learned. You can learn. You can change. Saul changed...

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But it is not for us to judge the tastes or fates of others. God the Father has prepared a house with many dwelling places in it — and some of those places may have been prepared for some of the most unlikely people! As the old joke says, they may be the ones surprised to see us there! These may be people who had never imagined themselves as Christians; they may be people who have taken offense at something they’ve seen an individual Christian or a Christian church do; they may even be among those who have at first rejected the very cornerstone of faith. It is not for us to judge, however; it is our task to celebrate as much as possible, to show our joy in the Lord in such varied and persuasive ways, that even those who may have been at first put off or reluctant to do so, might venture to taste and see that the Lord is good. They may find that, after all, the thing they rejected in the past is now just what they most desire, and come and join us at the feast where there is room for all, and all are welcome, and all — all — all who come to the banquet shall be satisfied.+

Surprise Package

SJF • Proper 14b 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
They began to complain about him, because he said, I am the bread that came down from heaven. They were saying, Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?+

Have you ever gotten a surprise package? They come, you know, in several forms. One kind is the grab-bag: sometimes a store or a mail-order company will dispose of excess stock by offering you a selection that you pay for sight unseen — and which, who knows, might contain a wonderful bargain. And then there’s the birthday or Christmas gift that you weren’t expecting, the carefully and lovingly wrapped package that contains a wonderful surprise. Have you ever gotten a package that surprised you — opened a gift you expected to contain one thing, and then been delighted to discover it was something else? something you never expected? There is a lot of fun in a good surprise package!

The common thing about all of these surprise packages is that you don’t know what’s inside; that’s what makes them a surprise. Either you can’t guess the nature of the contents, or you think it’s one thing and it turns out to be something else. In both cases, you’re in for a surprise.

In today’s Gospel, the leaders of the people have received a surprise package in the person of Jesus. He’s just told them something extraordinary: that he is the bread that came down from heaven. The problem is he doesn’t look like bread from heaven. He looks like Joseph’s son, like a man whose father and mother they know. How can he be bread from heaven? He’s just a carpenter!

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Many years ago, long before steamships and radios, there was a sailing ship in sore distress out on the Atlantic. The ship was in trouble because their supply of fresh water had run out. It was like that memorable line from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”: “Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” The crew were perishing from thirst, because the saltwater all around them, however tempting as it might look, would if you drank it lead only to delirium and death. With hope almost gone, they sighted a ship approaching in the distance and hoisted their distress signal pennants: spelling out, “No water.” And as the captain looked earnestly through his telescope, the distant ship hoisted its pennants and signaled in return. But what the answering flags spelled out was not “We’re on our way,” but “Dip it up.”

“Dip it up?” the parched and weakened crew moaned. What heartless mockery, they said among themselves. To suggest that they dip up buckets of lethal salt water! They signaled again, “No fresh water,” but the very same answer a second time, “Dip it up!” Finally, in despair, they lowered a bucket and hoisted up some of the sea water To their amazement and joy it turned out that the water in which they were sailing, even out in the Atlantic Ocean, was fresh, sweet water. They hadn’t know it, but they were sailing through a current of water that flowed from the mouth of the mighty Amazon river, flowing out into the Atlantic Ocean fresh water flowing invisibly far out at sea. All the thirsty while, they thought for sure that the water surrounding them was useless, yet the means to save their lives was all around them.

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Yes, Jesus was a carpenter. It’s said he made good yokes; easy, light ones, as he said himself. And yes, he was reckoned to be the son of Joseph and Mary, well known to the folks in town. But he was also the bread which came down from heaven, to give life to the world. He looked like a man, and so he was — but he was also the Son of God, the Word made flesh, the bread of life, whom to eat is to live for ever. He was and is the surprise package for the world’s birthday, the unexpected miracle that looks so ordinary, and turns out to be beyond our dearest expectations.

We are here in this church because we have accepted the surprise package. We’ve bought the grab bag. We’ve been presented with the greatest gift ever given. And when we open it up, what do we see? What do we see when we come to this altar to receive communion. Bread! And skeptical folks today like the skeptical folks from Jesus’ home town might say of us, as they said of him, How can they believe that is bread from heaven?! Don’t we know it comes from Vermont Church Supply, shipped by UPS in cardboard boxes. Don’t we know how much it costs and how it’s baked? How can we imagine it to be bread from heaven? How can we imagine that it is the Body of Christ, given for the life of the world, that whoever eats of it will live forever?

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There was once an elderly woman who made her living by making and selling artificial fruit. One day a potential customer came into her shop and after looking around with a frown, complained that the artificial fruit she made was not realistic enough — it was too perfect. She pointed to an apple sitting there on the counter. “Look at that,” she said. “It is far too red, it’s too round and it’s too big to be a real apple.” The old woman nodded thoughtfully, picked up the apple (which happened to be her lunch) and proceeded to take a nice big bite out of it!

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You see, there will always be people who will never understand that things are sometimes exactly what they appear to be; that sometimes you find a perfect apple it looks too good to be true — but it is — and is it ever good! And on the other hand, there will always be people who will never understand that some things are not what they appear to be, that our wrong understanding of a thing can make us believe it is something other than what it is. People can go off the road of understanding on both sides.

Anger, for instance, can so preoccupy us that we miss the new opportunities offered to us. People can get so angry at things not going their way that they fail to see how much better things are going than if they had gone their way. Fear can make an old hollow tree on a dark road look like a monster. Simple ignorance — just simply not knowing — can make us think that clear fresh water is deadly poison. Pride can convince us that we know more about apples than an apple grower, or more about art than an artist. Familiarity can make us miss the marvelous hidden in the people and places we think we know through and through but who contain wonderful surprises for us. Contempt for the ordinary can cause us to miss wonders — or worse. For remember that when the king wanted to come among us to see what we really thought of him, he took the distressing disguise of a poor man from the Galilean hill country, son of a working family and a working-man himself!

God has enriched this world with surprise packages so numerous that life can be a perpetual birthday party if we’ll only allow ourselves to look for the mystery and the surprise instead of being happy with the obvious, or missing the depths of reality as our limited senses skim only the surface appearance. The stranger you pass by on the street, the person you neglect to greet, may have some wonder to show or tell you, or a smile that could light up your days for a month of Sundays.

There will always be people who will tell you that bread from Vermont can’t possibly be bread from heaven. There will always be unbelievers who will say that Jesus was just a poor misguided human being, the son of quite ordinary small-town folks, who got himself into trouble with the law and suffered the consequences. There will always be sober and serious people whose lives contain no surprises, who pass up the grab-bags because they don’t want to risk losing out — and consequently never have the pleasure of a surprising bargain. There will always be angry people so bitter that things don’t go their way that they miss the sweetness offered to them; unhappy, angry people who frown ungraciously at the gifts they receive simply because they aren’t what they expected. There will always be people who will die of thirst because they will not dip their buckets into the living water that surrounds them. There will always be people who die from hunger and pass into oblivion because they won’t take and eat the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.

But sisters and brothers, thank God that we are not among them. Thanks be to God that we have seen the signal pennants aright, we have heard the words, life-giving words from the mouth of God and his son Jesus Christ: Dip it up! Take and eat! And isn’t that a wonderful surprise! +

The story of the fresh water current is adapted from Donald Deffner, “Seasonal Illustrations,” Resource 1992

True Bread

SJF • Proper 13b 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”+

When I was a child one of our local bakeries in Baltimore installed what must have been one of the first automated systems in any kind of factory. Their slogan was, “The bread untouched by human hands.” They had a grainy black and white TV ad that showed robot hands at work kneading the dough and shaping it into loaves before it was baked. One of the local Baltimore TV personalities who was kept busy doing many different things at the TV station — he hosted “Dialing for Dollars” in the morning, he was the weatherman in the evening, and, in the after-school hours in between, he played Bozo the Clown on the kiddie cartoon show. It was there, I think, that he made fun of the bread company and its slogan, “Untouched by human hands,” by cutting to a grainy black-and-white film of a chimpanzee dressed in a baker’s costume furiously pounding on the dough! I hope he didn’t get fired for offending a sponsor.

In any case, clearly, there is bread, and then there’s bread. And where and who it comes from makes all the difference.

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In our Scripture readings today, we hear about three different kinds of bread. First of all, there is earthly bread — and let’s not ask about who it was that baked it! This is the earthly bread that the Israelites in the desert have run out of, and the bread that Jesus multiplied to feed other Israelites in a different desert. One might observe that the touch of his human hands worked wonders!

Then there’s that miraculous bread from heaven — the bread that God showered on those Israelites coming out of Egypt in a form that at first they did not recognize as bread — who, after all, would recognize that a light dusting of frost on the ground is something you might gather and eat. And so they called it manna — which means, basically, what’s it? So it was that God fed them withwhazzit scattered through the camp every morning, through those forty years.

Finally there is a third kind of bread, and it appears in John’s Gospel. It is neither bread from an earthly oven, nor some previously unknown dusting of a mysterious substance on the ground, appearing with the morning dew. This third kind of bread, Jesus says, is the true bread. This true bread, the Bread of God, comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.

The people who followed Jesus still didn’t understand what he meant and they ask to be given this bread. And then Jesus tells them that he is that bread. In many ways they were like the Samaritan woman who appears a few chapters earlier in John’s Gospel, and she’s right there in our stained glass window. You will recall that Jesus tells her that he has a source of living water; and thinking this is literal water she asks him to tell her how to get it so she won’t have to go to the well with a bucket. And then Jesus reveals to her that he is the source of living water, the Messiah, “the one who is speaking to you.” That moment is preserved in our stained glass window there, as Jesus reveals himself to her and she looks up, in that instant of being startled and amazed, before she turns to go back to tell the rest of the people in her town the miracle that has happened.

Both she and the people who came to Capernaum looking for Jesus are like a third character in John’s Gospel — this is a consistent theme in John: Martha. Remember how after she affirms her belief in the resurrection, telling Jesus she believes her brother will rise again at the last day. Remember what Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

In all three of these instances Jesus proclaims himself to be what the people are looking for; he proclaims that we who also seek him, we who bear the name of Christian, through faith, believe him to be: he is the son of God, he is the source of light and life, he is the satisfaction to all our earthly hunger and thirst. He is resurrection and life. Just as I said last week that we cannot have unity and peace in this boat we call the church without Jesus being on board with us, so too we cannot have eternal life and release from hunger and thirst without him: the One who is the true source of life and nourishment.

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So it is that we have been told what the true bread is. It is not the bread we bake ourselves, nor even the earthly bread that Jesus multiplies when the people turned it over to him. Nor is it even the miraculous bread that nourished the Israelites for the years of their wanderings, but which ceased upon their arrival in the land of promise. No: it is Jesus himself: the true bread who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world, such that whoever comes to him will never be hungry and whoever believes in him will never be thirsty.

As I’ve tried to show, this is a particular angle of John’s Gospel — whether living water, or the life of the resurrection, or the bread of life — it is all about Jesus. He, John says, is the answer to all our questions.

But I would like for a moment to relate this to what I said about our Gospel from Mark from last week: Mark’s account of that rocky boat ride, stabilized only upon Jesus’s arrival. For it seems to me that the message for the church is the same in this case, in Mark and John: it is only in Jesus that we will find our peace, our life, our nourishment.

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And yet, how many appear to spend their time whining about the lack of bread, like the Israelites in their hunger in the desert? Or how many scan the ground seeking some other miracle than the one God offers? Or how many think that they can make do with merely earthly bread — bread that grows stale and fails to satisfy even as it eaten?

Paul writes of this latter sort, who try to turn back or away from the Lord, or cling to their former way of life: the life that did not give them life. They are like the Israelites who longed for the fleshpots of Egypt, and who were ready to turn back to slavery rather than to accept the freedom God offered them through Moses. It was bad enough to live that way when they had not heard of Jesus — but once they had, how much worse to turn away and go back to that former way of life, that old self, corrupt and deluded. When offered the opportunity to be clothed in a new self created according to God’s own likeness in righteousness and holiness — who would turn back to the disorder and disaster of merely human life, a life untouched by divine hands?

Unity and peace in the church will not come about through our doing — neither our bread nor the bread we gather from the hillside (even when it comes from God) will unite us. Unity and peace in the church is rather only through God himself in Jesus Christ, true bread come down from heaven and given for the life of the world. Our unity is in Jesus Christ — and he has given us the means to share in that unity by his own everlasting promise: when he took bread and broke it and gave it to his disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you.” That bread: his Body.

Unity and peace in the church will come through our participation in the holy meal at this holy table, and all the other holy tables set up throughout the world and consecrated to the unity for which Christ gave himself, and gives himself: Unity through communion. This is a miracle greater than the manna that fed the children of Israel; this is a miracle greater than the broken bread that fed the multitudes that followed Jesus in the wilderness; this is the greatest miracle — that Jesus Christ should come to be with us in, with, and under the form of visible and edible bread, bread we take into our hands, place on our tongues, and eat, in fulfillment of his commandment: take, eat. He is the bread of life, the Bread of God from God’s own hands, and it is here at God’s table that we unite with him, and become one with him, in communion with each other through communion with him.

Let us pray. Heavenly Father, give us this bread always, the bread of your Son Jesus — bread which earth has given, and human hands have made, but which through your gracious gift has become for us the bread of life; for it is in sharing this bread that we are both nourished and built into his Body; so that at the last we shall hunger no more, and thirst no more, but sit at your table in your heavenly kingdom for ever; through Jesus Christ our Lord.+

The Spirit’s Doing

SJF Pentecost • B 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus came and stood among them and said, Peace be with you.+

On Pentecost, fifty days after Jesus rose from the dead, and in fulfillment of the promise he had made, the apostles saw and felt the Spirit descend upon them in tongues of fire, and began to proclaim God’s saving deeds in many languages. But given the amount of woodwork in this church, if we were to see tongues of fire distributed and alighting anywhere we would likely sound a fire alarm! Clearly, when the Spirit comes to us — and I have no doubt of the Spirit’s presence, as I shall explain in a moment — when the Spirit comes to us it is in a less inflammatory fashion. We don’t see flames alighting on the tops of each other’s heads, we don’t find ourselves speaking languages we never learned to speak. How, then, do we know when the Spirit visits us?

We might begin by noting that even with such marvels as tongues of fire and the miraculous gift of languages there were still some folks who failed to see the Spirit at work on Pentecost in Jerusalem on that day so long ago. They attributed the disciples’ inspiration to hitting the bottle rather early in the morning, accusing them of being drunk and disorderly. Some, it seems, can not recognize the Spirit even when the Spirit is most obvious. So how, then, do we recognize the Spirit?

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The first sign of the Spirit’s presence with us is community, for the Spirit calls and summons us, drawing us together, or rather back together: re-membering us as members of the church so that we can remember God together.

There have been great souls who have been able to go it alone, great saints whose solitary encounter with God is the stuff of legend and sacred history. These are the spiritual athletes who encountered God flying solo, out in the wilderness, like Moses and Elijah, or the monks who dwelt in the Egyptian desert, some of them going so far as to live solitary lives on the tops of pillars, as far away from human society as they could get. But unlike such rare souls as the desert hermits, most of us will not find God in solitude on top of a pillar, but in community. If we are spiritual athletes, it is only as team players.

Moreover, the Holy Spirit appears to favor the public assembly over the private audience. “The disciples were all together in one place” when the Spirit came upon them. They were not pursuing their own personal holiness, but praying together — for and with each other — when the Spirit blew through the windows and set their souls on fire. It is in community — from the most intimate community of a loving couple, to the wide community of the church — that the Spirit comes to us, revealing Christ in our midst. Community, then, is the first sign of the Spirit.

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And the Spirit reveals Christ gathered with us too, revealed in our midst, revealed foremost as one who serves, who before his death washes the feet of his friends, and afterwards responds to their betrayal and lack of belief with words of peace, who offers them forgiveness so that they might be able to forgive in turn. This service and forgiveness find their natural home in community. For just as it takes two to tango, so it takes at least two to serve, two to forgive. Service and forgiveness flow from community as naturally as dance flows from the music, when you simply have got to move your feet to the persuasive beat.

So the ministry of hospitality, which combines service and mercy, and grows from community, is the second sign of the Spirit’s presence: as I have said many times before, “see how they love one another” is Christ’s identity badge for the church, a sure sign of the Spirit’s presence.

Hospitality takes many forms, in a parish coffee hour or visit to the shut-in; in an act as simple as an outstretched hand to help someone up these steps to the altar, or as formal as baptism. We offer a hospitable welcome to each newly baptized person, welcoming them “into the household of God” — a dwelling for the Spirit whose building-stones are ourselves — our selves, souls and bodies — as the church’s members.

Remember the children’s game: here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors, and see all the little people. The outside of a church looks like a building, but when the doors are opened the living, human construction is revealed — as a community. So hospitality is the natural response of the gathered community we call the church, the second sign of the Spirit’s presence.

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And what the disciples did upon the Spirit’s arrival was to proclaim the story of salvation to each other in many languages, so that those outside the house were attracted by the sound, and were astonished to recognize their native tongues.

This proclamation is the third sign of the Spirit’s powerful presence. The children of Israel knew this, and they were always telling their story to each other. Their story sustained them through exile and captivity in Babylon; and through and beyond the destruction of the Second Temple, and even up to this day — as we are reminded of the bombing attempt at two synagogues right here in the Riverdale section of the Bronx — through and beyond the most terrible and single-minded efforts to exterminate them. The Jewish people have told and retold their story to each other, in synagogue and schul, down through the years, and the Christian church’s story is added to theirs; and each of us has a story, too, like footnotes and annotations expanding the history of salvation — so that the whole world could not contain the books that might be written.

As if the world even cared! “The world” that confronts us today, is a world where community is shattered, a world that doesn’t know how to serve, a world that has forgotten its own story. The world will not stop talking — or Twittering, or blogging — long enough to hear the gracious possibility offered to it.

Well, the world needs a wake up call. And the responsibility to give that call falls on us, the members of the church, the Body of Christ: to tell the story of salvation to the world. If we at Saint James Church faithfully proclaim that story, the world may stop its chatter for a moment and overhear: that’s how it worked on Pentecost, and it can again. People who have forgotten that they are God’s children, in the midst of this great but terrible city, might suddenly hear a voice speaking a language they haven’t heard for a long, long time, but which they recognize at once: a language from home, reminding them who, and whose, they are.

If we at Saint James Church then open our doors and our hearts and welcome them in, we will be magnified, and together we will offer glory to God such as never yet has rung from this corner of the Bronx.

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The Spirit reveals Jesus’ presence in the gathering of the community, in the hospitality they shared, and in the telling of the greatest story ever told. But the Spirit also reveals Jesus to us through a last sign unlike any other: in broken bread and a cup of wine. In the fourth sign of the Spirit’s presence, in the eucharistic feast, the one serving at the table reveals himself as the bridegroom, and the story takes a classic turn: like Richard the Lionheart casting off his pilgrim’s cloak, revealing the king’s bright red cross on his chest to an astonished Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men. And suddenly, everyone drops to their knees.

Suddenly, though the doors be locked, we realize who has been among us all this time, and we can hear his breathing. Suddenly the Holy Spirit descends upon us and upon these gifts and we remember and are re-membered into the Body of Christ.

Once one special Pentecost, that ancient Jewish harvest festival, the Spirit gathered the apostles together like a harvest of grain once scattered on the hillside. And together they welcomed, served, proclaimed, and feasted: in fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in prayer. We, their successors, can do no less. The Spirit has gathered us together. It is the Spirit’s doing, not our own. Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us, and the Holy Spirit our Pentecost has come to us. So come, let us welcome; come, let us serve; come, let us proclaim; and come, let us celebrate the feast. +

Who Has Known?

SJF • Proper 16a • Tobias Haller BSG
How unsearchable are God’s judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord?

Thomas Aquinas was one of the most brilliant minds of his generation. He is also considered by many to be the greatest systematic theologian ever to have written. Theology is, as another great theologian, Saint Anslem, said, “faith seeking understanding.” But a systematic theologian is not just someone who wants simply understanding guided by faith, or who sketches out a few articles, or writes a few books. A systematic theologian wants to cover all the bases.

And Thomas Aquinas very nearly did it. His great work was called Summa Theologica, which could be loosely translated as “Everything You Always Wanted to Know about God and just about Everything Else”! In its thirty-eight treatises, thousands of articles, tens of thousands of responses to every conceivable objection, Thomas Aquinas set out to systematize all of knowledge in his search for God.

This great work remains unfinished, however. Oh, Thomas didn’t die before completing it. On the contrary, he stopped work on it at the very height of his productivity.

Why? Well, one day in early December 1273, Thomas, who was a Dominican priest, was celebrating the Holy Eucharist. And by the way, a Dominican in this case isn’t somebody from the Dominican Republic, but a member of the order of Saint Dominic — an order founded specifically for the purpose of preaching and study — and Thomas Aquinas was one of the best.

Well, that early December day Thomas was celebrating the Eucharist, and in the midst of the service, he stopped cold — or perhaps I should say, stopped warm. For something he couldn’t describe — even with his remarkable ability to categorize and elucidate — something happened to him in the midst of that holy sacrament, something so amazing it completely overpowered him. He caught a glimpse of the infinite God he had tried so hard to pin down, and he decided never to write again. Hisfaithful secretary tried to encourage him to take up the work again, to bring his monumental work to completion. How much more might he perfect it in light of his recent experience! But Thomas replied, “I can do no more. Such things have been revealed to me that all I have written now seems to me to be like so much straw.”

Like his namesake, Thomas the Apostle, Thomas Aquinas saw something that made all of his questions fall apart, as he fell to his knees in adoration of his Lord and his God. The one who had spent most of his life picking things apart, dividing them up into categories and organizing them into systems, confronted the One before whose utter unity and singularity all his systematic complexity collapsed like a house of straw.

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Paul wrote to the Romans, “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord?” Who has known? Thomas tried to know the mind of the Lord, and what the Lord showed him that cold December morning, made him realize he didn’t know anything at all! Everything he thought he knew turned out to be so much mattress stuffing, the labor of his life turned into dust.

But don’t misunderstand this story. Thomas wasn’t unhappy about this development. On the contrary, he treasured it. Because, in addition to his effort to know God, Thomas had also devoted himself to another effort, an effort to love God.

In addition to the dense philosophical argumentation of his theological works, Thomas also wrote poetry, spiritual poetry in the form of love-songs to God. Nowadays the pages of the Summa Theologica are rarely opened outside the walls of seminaries and philosophy departments — in fact, between Fordham University and Saint James Parish, I’d be willing to venture that Thomas Aquinas’ name is spoken more in this little corner of the Bronx than almost anywhere else! But the love-songs, ah, the love songs Thomas wrote are still sung in churches all around the world. Five of them are included in our own EpiscopalHymnal, and we’ll be singing one of them at the offertory today. These hymns attempt to capture that longing for the invisible, incomprehensible divinity who lies invitingly beyond our reach, beyond our grasp — but not beyond our love and worship.

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We do not know what Thomas saw during the Holy Eucharist that December day, but I’d be willing to venture that God rewarded this faithful seeker more because of his love than his intellect; rewarded him with a glimpse of the unseen verity he had so long humbly adored. It was Thomas the lover, not Thomas the theologian, who finally caught a glimpse of his beloved Lord, and one look was enough to do him in. He saw his Lord in the very bread and wine he had lifted up day by day. It was in the Holy Eucharist that the weak human intellect, and weaker human senses of taste, touch, and vision, were overwhelmed by the outpoured Love of God, the veil was parted, and Thomas beheld that Love, however briefly, face-to-face.

And so can we. We cannot all be theologians, at least not systematic ones. And, thank God, we needn’t be; we aren’t expected to. But we can all love God. What is more, we can share in this holy mystery, this precious gift of the Holy Eucharist, in which our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ assures us that he is present. Here at this earthly altar we taste heavenly food, as Jesus gives us his Body and Blood, this spiritual food and drink of new and unending life in him.

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Years ago, when I was beginning to consider giving up my career in the theater to serve the church, an actor friend of mine told me he thought I was making a terrible mistake. He was an agnostic, a rather badly burned ex-Roman Catholic who had lived through the worst of a very restrictive upbringing. He didn’t believe in God — but did believe in flying saucers. He thought humanity was created and guided by space aliens, for some reason known only to them. He was always full of the latest news on sightings of space ships, as proof of the existence of the aliens he believed in instead of God. One day I told him I really didn’tput much stock in the whole theory of aliens, and he said, “O.K., then, when was the last time Jesus appeared?” Almost at once I said, “Last Sunday morning, on the altar at Trinity Episcopal Church!” So perhaps it is fitting that he finally got a recurring role
in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I ended up here!

+ + +

Whether space aliens have been here or not, I trust that Jesus has been here, and is here, and will be here, till even this type and shadow ends and ceremonies cease, and we behold the glory unabated, face to face. That is the truth, if we are prepared, with loving hearts, to accept it. Jesus comes to us today, hidden with, in and under bread and wine. We are granted a glimpse of Christ’s presence, a glimpse granted to those who love him, to those who seek him, and who seeking, loving, find.

I would like to end this sermon with the words of Thomas Aquinas, the words of one of his love songs to God written about eight years before his life-changing experience of 1273. The song ends like this:

Jesus, whom now hidden, I by faith behold,
what my soul doth long for, that thy word foretold:
face to face thy splendor, I at last shall see,
in the glorious vision, blessed Lord, of thee.

Never give up looking for God — who has never given up on you. Seek, and love, and you shall find.+

The Feast of Memory

Maundy Thursday at Fordham Lutheran • Tobias Haller BSG
Jesus took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
Memory is a very important part of human life. Think of all the popular songs that feature it: from “Try to Remember that time in September” through “Memories are made of this,” and the rather directive “You must remember this” and on to that somewhat annoying and hard to get out of your head hit song from the musical Cats that goes by the simple name, “Memory.” Memory is not only important for the world of popular culture, however — it is an important element in all culture: for without memory, without the ability to pass along what we’ve learned and experienced, we would be no different from the creatures of the field that live only that day-by-day existence and then pass from the scene, gone and forgotten. Memory, and the ability to transmit it, is part of what makes us human, and certainly a key to the fact of human culture. But memory is not only important for culture in general, but especially for that part of it that we call “the faith” as well.

We began our Lenten journey on Ash Wednesday, when we heard those words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Then last Sunday we heard Luke’s version of the Passion, in which the thief on the cross cried out to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Finally, earlier this evening we took part in a recreation of the Jewish Passover Seder — we as Christians as guests at someone else’s meal: for the Seder is ultimately the Jewish people’s celebration of their corporate memory. That is why it follows a somewhat school-bookish or classroom approach — strange in what is essentially a celebration built around a family meal.

But maybe it isn’t so strange, after all. I mean, isn’t it true when your family gathers for a meal in the evening that you ask, What did you do today? For the Jews, the Passover meal is the chance to ask those questions, not just about the day that is past, but about the ancient times of this people, and the formative tale of their great deliverance by the hand of God himself — deliverance from Pharaoh’s bitter yoke, as they fled that cursed land riddled with ten plagues, and then passed on dry foot through the parted waters of the Red Sea. And the memory of that great event was passed down from year to year, to be recalled again and again, so that each person who heard the story could feel that it was as if he or she had been there to experience those mighty works.

As I say, earlier this evening we shared in the story of our spiritual ancestors, the children of Israel. And now that we have come up into this sacred space we begin to reflect on how we share in the story that is more properly ours — the story of the central mystery of the Christian faith, as we join in remembering Jesus’ own transformation of the Passover feast into the Holy Eucharist, the Holy Communion that he commanded his disciples to continue to celebrate, with bread and wine, in remembrance of him. Through baptism we have become a new people — as if we had passed through our own version of the Red Sea; and through this holy meal we are reconstituted into the Body of Christ, who is, as Saint Paul called him, our Passover. And we do this through the power of memory — and of the storytelling to which it gives rise.

How does memory do its amazing work — and what are the signs that it is working among us? The first sign of the power of memory is community, for as we share the story memory calls us together, or rather back together: re-collecting us and re-membering us so that we can remember God. Unlike rare souls such as the desert hermits, most of us will not find God in solitude on top of a pillar, but gathered in community. God does appear to isolated spiritual athletes like Moses or Elijah in a burning bush or a still small voice. But usually God seems to favor the public assembly over the private audience. The disciples were gathered with Jesus in that upper room when he committed his memory to their care. They were not pursuing personal holiness, but praying together — for and with each other — when Jesus issued those startling commands to break bread that had become his flesh, to drink wine that was his blood.

It is in community — from the most intimate community of a loving couple, to the community of the church — that memory is multiplied as one voice takes up the story after another, correcting, adding, expanding the memory and revealing Christ in our midst.

And in that gathering, Christ is revealed foremost as one who serves, who before his death washes the feet of his friends, and afterward responds to their betrayal and lack of belief with words of peace, who forgives so that they may forgive in turn. This service and forgiveness find their natural home in community — and grow out of the memory and the story that is shared. For while one can remember on ones own, to tell a story implies at the very least one other with whom to share it. Just as it takes two to tango, it takes at least two to tell the story, and two to serve, two to forgive. Service and forgiveness flow from community as naturally as the dance flows from the music, as naturally as the story-telling flows from the powerful memory. So the ministry of hospitality, which combines service and mercy, is a sign of the power of the memory and the truth of the story: “see how they love one another” is Christ’s identity badge for the church, and a sign that we’ve got the story right.

Hospitality takes many forms, in a supper such as the one we just shared, or in a hospital visit; in an act as simple as an outstretched hand to help someone to their seat in church, or as formal as baptism itself. We welcome each newly baptized person through their own miniature Red Sea — there it is right over there! — “into the household of God” — a dwelling place for memory and story-telling, whose building-stones are the church’s members. Do you remember the children’s game: here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors, and see all the little people? The outside of a church looks like a building, but when the doors are opened the living, human construction is revealed — as a community. So hospitality is the beginning of the community we call the church.


The wonderful thing about this growing community is that just as the memory and the story call the community together, the community then empowers further story-telling — for each person has his or her own story to tell. The children of Israel knew this, and were always telling their story to each other, not just at Passover! Their story sustained them through exile and captivity in Babylon; and through and beyond the destruction of the Second Temple. It sustained and sustains them even up to this day, through and beyond the Holocaust — the most terrible and single-minded effort to exterminate them. The church’s story is added to theirs, and each of us has a story, too, like footnotes and annotations expanding the history of salvation — so that the whole world could not contain the books that might be written.

If the world even cared! “The world” that confronts us today, is a world where community is shattered, a world that doesn’t know how to serve, a world that has forgotten its own story. I mean the world out there — right out on Walton Avenue — a world of noise without meaning, of sound and fury signifying nothing; chattering endlessly thanks to the ever-present cell phones — but isn’t it as if each user were locked in his or her own “cell” as they toddle through the streets proclaiming the details of their lives to the public? Endless talk, and no message, and the world will not stop talking long enough to hear the gracious possibility offered to it, to be reminded of its true story.

Well, the world needs a wake up call. And the responsibility to give that call falls on us, the members of the church, the Body of Christ: to tell the story of salvation to the world. If we in the church faithfully proclaim that story, the world may stop its chatter for a moment and hear what is truly important. People who have forgotten that they are God’s children, in the midst of this very city, might suddenly hear a voice speaking a language they haven’t heard for a long, long time, but which they recognize at once: a language from home, reminding them who, and whose, they are. And their story will enlarge our story,

Memory, then, reveals Jesus’ presence in community, and in the telling of the greatest story ever told. But memory also reveals Jesus to us through a sign unlike any other: in broken bread and a cup of wine. These are the means committed to us from his hand, to call us back together, to remind us who we are and who he is, and what we share. In this great work of memory, in the eucharistic feast the servant reveals himself as the bridegroom, and the story takes a classic turn: like Richard the Lionheart casting off his pilgrim’s cloak, revealing the king’s bright red cross on his chest to an astonished Robin Hood. And suddenly, everyone kneels. The King has returned. Suddenly, we are back in the upper room with him, sitting at the table as he breaks the bread and passes round the cup. Suddenly the Holy Spirit descends upon us and upon those gifts of bread and wine and we remember and are re-membered into the Body of Christ.

Once one Passover, Christ gathered the apostles together like a harvest of grain once scattered on the hillside. And after his rising again, he sent them forth, and together they served, and proclaimed, and feasted: in fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in prayer. We, their successors, can do no less. So let us hear once more the song of remembrance sung by the Spirit and the Lamb, addressed to us and to the forgetful world:

Remember, remember,
Come home, my scattered children!
Here's bread to break
and wine to drink.
Sit down and eat,
and I will wash your feet.

Remember, remember —
Sit still, my noisy children!
I'll speak the prayer
and sing the song
that tells of glory.
Listen to the story.

Remember, remember?
Look at my hands, my children,
Look at my side:
I am your friend
no longer dead
but known in broken bread.+

Strange Invitation — Strange Banquet

SJF • Proper 15b • Tobias S Haller BSG
Wisdom calls from the highest places in the town, “You simple, turn in here!” To those without sense she says, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.”
If you come from a large family or have a large number of friends, one of the things you are likely to receive on a fairly regular basis is an invitation to a major event of some kind — a christening, a sweet sixteen, a wedding, or an anniversary celebration. Now imagine for a moment going to your mailbox one day and finding one of those ivory-toned envelopes — the kind you can tell even without opening contain an invitation. And imagine that you open the envelope and find the beautifully engraved ivory-toned card stock invitation. And you think, How nice; and then you read the invitation; and this is what it says: “Mr. and Mrs. John Smith request the pleasure of the company of all you stupid people at the marriage of their daughter Matilda....” Well, I don’t think you would read much further!

Who would ever think of sending out such a strange invitation, such an insulting invitation? And yet that is exactly the kind invitation that Holy Wisdom, as personified in the book of Proverbs, sends out — not just calling from the highest places in the town herself, but sending all of her servant girls throughout the town with the message. “You that are simple, turn in here!” To the senseless she says, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.” Or as someone might say on the streets of New York, “Yo, stupid, come to supper!”

This is a strange invitation indeed. And yet within its strangeness there is a profound truth. Who, after all, most needs to come into Wisdom’s house and dine on the meal she has prepared than those who lack wisdom? Who most needs the nourishment Wisdom provides than those who are foolish or senseless or immature? It is the hungry who most need to eat, the thirsty who most need to drink; and the ignorant and unwise who most need to learn.

Wisdom’s invitation may seem outright insulting. And yet, a few years ago a major publishing company made the brilliant choice of issuing just such an honest invitation: appealing to people’s willingness to admit that they needed to learn. And so, starting with computer training — about which many people will admit their need to learn more — this publisher produced a series of books for dummies, proudly proclaiming that fact in their titles: Windows for Dummies, Microsoft Word for Dummies, and so on — and now you can find books on almost any subject you can imagine — for dummies! It seems that Wisdom was wise after all in knowing how to appeal to people’s need and desire to learn; and a modern publisher has reaped the profits. For Holy Wisdom herself was the first to publish such a book and issue such an invitation: The Way of the Lord — for Dummies.

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So much for the strange invitation; but what about the banquet? Say you’ve swallowed your pride and admitted your ignorance, and accepted the invitation to the banquet — the one that said, “Yo, stupid, come to supper!” And you get to the banquet hall, and the tables are all set; but there is no buffet, no bar, no band, no heavy hors d’oeuvres — or light ones, for that matter — no maitre d’, no waiters, and only silence coming from the kitchen. And you sit down with all the other stupid people, and start whispering to each other, What’s going on? And then a man comes out and goes up to the microphone and says, “My friends, tonight you are going to dine on my flesh and drink my blood.”

You can only imagine the shock that such an announcement would provoke. Of course, we’ve gotten used to hearing such language from Jesus — so we tend not to be shocked by it at all. But put yourself for moment in the place of his disciples — they had quite literally never heard of such a thing. Obviously they would be shocked at the idea of eating another person’s flesh; but the idea of drinking blood was even more repulsive.

For the disciples were all observant Jews; and according to the Jewish law, eating blood is absolutely forbidden — blood of any kind. Even a hen’s egg with a tiny spot of blood on the yolk is strictly off limits. All meat is to be drained completely of any last trace of blood before it is eaten — and for good measure treated with rock salt to draw out the last remaining blood in the process known as koshering. That’s what kosher meat is: not just slaughtered according to the Jewish law, but certified to be drained of any and every last trace of blood.

This commandment forbidding the eating of blood was held to be vitally important because it predated the law of Moses. You may never have noticed, but Adam and Eve were vegetarians: God gave them only the plants and their seeds and the fruit they bore for food. It was only after the flood that God gave Noah and his descendants — that is, everybody — the permission to eat meat, on the condition that they not eat the meat with its blood — its life — still in it. So important was this law from the Jewish point of view that the apostles, all of whom were Jews, made it one of the first conditions for any gentile who wanted to become a Christian. When the council of the apostles gathered in Jerusalem to decide what to do with the first non-Jewish Christians, they decided that these gentile converts, unlike regular converts to Judaism, did not have to follow the law of Moses in all of its 600 or so particulars — but they did have to abstain from blood — as this was particularly offensive to their Jewish sisters and brothers; and had, after all, been given as a commandment to Noah, from whom all the nations of the earth were descended. And you may be surprised to learn that this rule remained on the church’s rule-books for centuries, until Saint Augustine of Hippo — the one in our stained-glass window around the corner there — came to the conclusion that enough time had passed so that there were so few Jewish Christians to be bothered about this tradition that it had become a nonissue. And ever since we western Christians have been allowed to enjoy a nice juicy steak!

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But this is now, and that was then. Put yourself back into the mind-set of the disciples when Jesus first uttered these words, words he would repeat and put into action at the Last Supper. Whoever eats his flesh and drinks his blood will have eternal life, and will abide in him as he abides in them. A strange banquet indeed — and yet, beloved, this is Wisdom’s banquet. We are here in Wisdom’s house because we know we need to be here. We have heard her calling from the heights, we have heard her servants calling in the streets, “This is what you foolish ones need. This is what you hungry ones need. This is what you thirsty ones need. This is what you dying ones need. For this is the food of wisdom, the drink that puts an end to thirst, the food that preserves unto eternal life. Whoever eats this bread will live for ever.”

And so we come, week by week, in response to a strange invitation to a strange banquet — to be fed not with bread alone, but with every word that comes from the mouth of the Most High; to be fed with the flesh and the blood of the Eternal Word himself, the one who came down from heaven to give himself for the life of the world, as testified by the Holy Spirit. Fed with this food, nourished with this drink, filled with this Spirit, singing and making melody to the Lord in our hearts, let us give thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.+

Bread on the Hillside

at Fordham Evangelical Lutheran Church
Maundy Thursday 2006 • Tobias S Haller BSG

When the hour came, Jesus took his place at the table, and the apostles with him.
Tonight we celebrate and commemorate the founding of the Holy Eucharist. This is part of our annual observance of the events of Holy Week, and it marks the turning point from the joy and celebration of Palm Sunday towards the sad and bleak experience of Good Friday. Last Sunday we stood with the crowds on the streets of Jerusalem, (a few of us on the streets of the Bronx, right around the corner!) palm branches in our hands, to welcome Jesus as we shouted Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Tomorrow we will follow him on his last pilgrimage to Calvary; we will keep company at the foot of the cross, and bear silent witness as he is laid in the cold, stone tomb. Tonight we began with a memory of another of God’s great victories: the Passover of the children of Israel, but before this night is over we will have stripped the sanctuary bare, doused the lights, and gone out into the darkness prepared for tomorrow’s sorrow. But before the darkness descends, before the altar is stripped, we will do tonight as he did on the night he was handed over to suffering and death, as we share in the feast he instituted on that night so long ago, the new twist he gave to the ancient Jewish feast of Passover, as we remember and recall him and all he did for us — Christ, our Passover, in whose feast we will all share.

Now, there is more to this feast than mere bread and wine — and not just because we preceded it with a wonderful potluck seder! This is no ordinary bread, no ordinary wine — not ordinary food and drink. This is a participation in the life and death of our savior until he comes — the meal he left for us by which he never leaves us.

But how, you might well ask, can bread save us? The little bread we will eat in communion, the tiny sip of wine — these would not be enough to save us if we were starving! Ah, but my friends, there is ever so much more to it than that: this bread, this body, is not for my body or your body alone — no it is for the body of the church, the whole community of the faithful, for it is by his body and blood that we become who we are: the body of Christ on earth, to do his will in all we undertake. For in the bread of the Holy Communion, what was once grain on a hillside becomes one bread. And in the Communion itself, we who are many, become one, through the perfect sacrifice of our Lord, who gave himself to the death of the cross on our behalf. The bread we eat is the bread of his sacrifice, the bread of his death, broken to remind us that he died, but feeding us to remember that he lives.

Once upon a time, long long ago, in a Japanese fishing village a man learned how grain on the hillside could save the lives of many. And so did the whole village. The man lived on the top of the hills overlooking the sea. The hills were terraced for growing rice, and they belonged to the man who lived at the top of the hills, away from the shore, away from the fisherfolk and their everyday doings. He was a very rich man, while most of those who dwelled down below simply made it by, day by day. They didn’t envy the old man — this was just the way things were, and everyone had their station in life; so as long as there were fish to catch, the villagers didn’t begrudge the rich man his land or his grain. They traded their fish for grain in due season, and everyone had plenty. And the rich man was a good man, a fair man, and his prosperity helped them all in the long run. The sale of his grain in the capital brought him the resources to build a fine temple on the hillside, and support the monastery near it. Rich man, fisherfolk and monks, all benefitted, and were content.

One year the harvest had been particularly good. The sheaves of grain were gathered in, bundled and ready to be loaded onto carts. Soon that grain would feed the people of the capital, perhaps even the Emperor himself. The rich old man smiled to himself as he stood before the storehouse, looking over the stacks of sheaves, as they glowed warmly in the sunlight that streamed through the doorway and lit the rice-paper walls with a golden glow.

As he stood smiling, and rocking on his heels in contentment, he felt a deep and distant rumble, a vibration too low to hear, but very noticeable to his old legs. He knew, of course, that it was a distant earthquake; far away, nothing to worry about. And so he went back to his review of the crop, smiling as he saw how high the sheaves were piled, in places right up to the wooden beams. He reached out to touch the bundles lovingly, gently, like a proud father might pat his son on the head.

As he glanced over the grain with swelling pride and satisfaction, his eye happened to stray through the open doorway, out towards the sea. His brow furrowed. What was that? He went to the doorway and looked down the terraced hills to the shore. The villagers below were going about their end-of-day business; preoccupied with mending nets, stacking part of their catch to bring to town the next day, stringing the rest on cords to hang to dry. But the old man on the hill saw something else, something strange and worrisome. The sea was moving. Yes, he looked again; yes, the sea was going away, moving out away from the shore. And at once he realized with horror what was happening. Sure enough, out in the distance, out at the western horizon lit by the setting sun, a line had formed on the sea. And he spoke one horrible word in a strangled voice — tsunami.

Quickly, the old man called his grandson. “Bring me a torch! Hurry!” The boy looked at him wide-eyed, but ran off obediently, and quickly returned with a torch from the house. After one last loving look at his grain, the old man took the torch and walked along the edges of the sheaves, letting the flame lick at the ends of the bunches, until they joined together in a devouring inferno, spreading quickly to the storehouse, its paper walls and wooden beams feeding the flames as they leapt skyward. The old man went out to the edge of the hill and looked down to the village below, and then up to the line at the edge of the world, the line that was moving closer every minute.

The people down below couldn’t help but see the flames from the burning storehouse on the hill above. One of the monks was first to see the flames, and he rang the temple bell, and down below the villagers looked up, and then dropping their nets and crates and fish and cords, the whole village grabbing buckets and pails, started running up the hillside, splashing through the terraced pools, scooping up water as they ran, women cupping up water in their leather aprons, bearing it like a child as they rushed along, tumbling up the paths to help their rich neighbor put out the fire that was destroying his grain and his storehouse.

As they came to the hilltop, they wondered why the rich old man wasn’t looking at the fire, but out to sea, as if possessed. “Look,” he said, “look at the sea.” And as they turned in wonder to look, they saw the line on the sea grow until it became a wall of water rushing towards the shore with terrible deliberation, swifter than a horse could gallop or an eagle soar. And as they watched in silent horror, the wave came crashing down upon their empty village, shattering the bamboo huts, boiling up the hillside and destroying the carefully tended terraces, and then, as if satisfied with its destructive assault, withdrawing to its place, like a tiger slowly pulling back his paw, revealing the damage done by his claws, the gouges and gaps of ruins and wrecks where once a village and terraced rice-paddies had stood.

No one said a word. Slowly they turned to face the old man, in the dimming light of the setting sun, the fading light of the fire crackling out behind him, a man no longer rich, but as poor as any of them. He said, “I had to burn the grain to warn you? I knew you would come to help me, and it was the only way I could help you.”

“It was the only way I could help you.” These are words Jesus might well have said of his own sacrifice upon the cross. This was the bitter cup that he had to drink, in order that we might be saved. Jesus, the bread that gives life to the world, became poor that we might be rich, sacrificed all that he had on that hillside on the outskirts of town, lifted high upon the cross for our redemption, lifted up so that he might draw the whole world to himself. He perished there on that dark hillside, that his death might be a flaming beacon to call us from afar, to deliver us from the dangers that surround us, while we were going about our busy lives in ignorance. He is the one who calls us to himself that we might be saved, the bread from heaven who gives life to the world — the bread that feeds and nourishes even as it perishes. Therefore let us worthily celebrate this feast, remembering him who died for us and rose again, who gave his life as a ransom for many, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, the bread once scattered on the hillside.

The story of the Japanese village is freely adapted from a folk-tale recorded by Lafcadio Hearn.

The Cover and the Book

SJF • Baptism of Our Lord • Tobias S Haller BSG

John the Baptist said, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
There is an old saying that things are not always what they seem. This is a true saying, and as the Scripture puts it “worthy to be received.” Certainly there are many things in the world that seem to be designed by nature to deceive and conceal their true identity. Watch any of the nature shows on TV and you’ll see the examples: the amazing stick insect that disguises itself as a twig; the chameleon that can change its color to blend into the background; or the eggs of that interloping bird who lays them in the nest of another species, eggs that look just like those of the unwilling host, deceiving that bird into keeping them warm. Once the chicks are hatched — which happens before the duped bird’s own eggs hatch — the invading chicks push the host’s eggs out of the nest, and the poor host is forced to feed the invaders. And of course, you can also see plenty of other TV shows that show similar behavior among the higher animals — by which I mean people — deception as a willful act, upon which depend the careers of every con man or woman, every trickster and fraud.

But sometimes the misapprehension of a thing is not the fault or the intent of the thing itself, but rests with the perception of the one who sees it. Things are, after all, what they are: and it is often our perceptions that create the confusion or misidentification. Our emotional or psychological state of mind has a powerful influence on what we see: on that lonely walk home late at night along a country road, armed only with a flashlight, it is no wonder that a strangely shaped tree should take on the appearance of a hobgoblin: but it is after all only a tree.

I spoke a few weeks ago about how the limitations of human language can create such confusion: how words or gestures can mean different things in different cultures — my point being that the gesture or the word is just what it is, but the meaning conveyed by it may be entirely different depending upon the person who sees the gesture or hears the word.

Years ago business people tried to address some of the problems caused by this reality by developing symbols and icons that they hoped would be understood everywhere in the world. One of the most obviously necessary ones was the symbol to indicate that the contents of the shipping box were fragile. So to indicate this breakability, someone came up with the idea of using a picture of a broken wine glass in a circle. This seemed to work fine until one company discovered that their shipments of radios to South Asia were not getting through to the intended dealers. On investigation the shipping company discovered that the stevedores unloading the shipments in that remote port thought that the broken wine glass symbol meant that the contents were damaged goods, and they were simply chucking all the boxes into the rubbish. So the international symbol for “fragile” eventually was changed into an unbroken wine glass!

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The reason I mention all of this is the important role that symbols play in the church, most especially in the form of the sacraments. I’m sure all of you remember from your confirmation classes the definition of a sacrament: “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.” The sacrament is first a sign: something you can see or touch or hold; but it is more. It actually and always delivers on the promise. It is, in short, a book that you can judge by its cover. It is what it appears to be, without deception or pretense, and it makes good on that appearance by a sure and certain delivery — this is a shipment that always gets through to the intended addressee, clearly labeled as what it is, understood and welcomed and received as such.

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The sacraments represent a kind of ultimate truth in advertising. Baptism truly washes away our sins and makes us members of the Body of Christ, the priestly fellowship of all faithful people. The Eucharist truly feeds us with the body and blood of Christ, giving us strength and food for the journey, and reminding us that just as the fragments of broken bread once formed part of a single loaf, so too we in our separate lives share a common life through this Holy Communion in the body and the blood of Christ. The sacraments are exactly what they promise to be — means of grace to the glory of God.

I mention all of this today because we’re observing the feast of the baptism of Jesus: when Jesus himself came to the Jordan River and allowed John to baptize him. Jesus did not, of course, need to be baptized: the sinless one had no need to be cleansed of sin. Rather, what we see in the baptism of Jesus is the revelation of the true nature of the Christ: certified by the sign of the voice from heaven that speaks not only to Jesus himself but to all those who are ready to hear, whose ears are open to hear that good news, that this is the beloved son of God.

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I noted in the weeks leading up to Christmas that John the Baptist is the original advance man, the patron Saint of “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” And in today’s gospel we see that he is also the patron saint of truth in advertising, of symbols being what they are, and the honesty to clarify what they are not. He says, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

John is clear about this because he knows that the people are looking for a Messiah. Under the heel of an occupying power in league with a corrupt local government, the people are ready and set to perceive a savior in anyone who looks even remotely like one. So John makes the extra effort tosay, essentially, “I am just the signpost.”

Think about signposts for a moment. What use would a signpost be if it was in the wrong place, or said the wrong thing, or pointed the wrong way? A signpost separated from the road to which it points is useless or worse; it gains its only value from being at the right place, accurately naming the road by which it stands or towards which it points.

Well, John the Baptist is the signpost — but Jesus is the road; as he will later say, “I am the Way.” John the Baptist is the cover of the book, but Jesus is the Book of Life itself, the Word of God made flesh and come among us, full of grace and truth. And John the Baptist is the promise but Jesus is the Truth and fulfillment. John is the wineglass symbol on the box but Jesus is the unbroken chalice within: the one who comes to us in fragile human flesh to redeem and restore that fallible flesh, the one who truly communicates his saving blood to all of humankind.

We are not in the world of deception here, the world of deceit and falsehood, not even the world of mistaken identity and confusion of purpose. We are not here lost in the maze of confusing signs and symbols, or walking along the lonely country roads where our own fears make goblins of the forest. No, here we stand by the riverside, and we hear John’s disclaimer that he is not the one the people seek, and we hear God’s proclamation that Jesus is that very one — the one who will baptize not with water alone but with the Holy Spirit. John is the signpost, the cover of the book, and the promise; but Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He is God’s beloved son, the only-begotten and firstborn, to whom we are united in our own baptism, and whose body and blood we share in the Holy Communion that he commanded his disciples to celebrate.

May we so always hear his voice and follow his commands, walking in his way, proclaiming his truth, and celebrating his life.+