Seen and Unseen

Flesh and blood 2014 eyes and family ties 2014 fade in comparison to the Spirit and the vision of faith. A sermon for Proper 5b

SJF • Proper 5b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
We look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen: for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.

As someone who has had a variety of eye problems since I was young, and sadly even up to the present day; and who worked while in high school as a volunteer at the Johns Hopkins Hospital Osler Eye Clinic; and later in the period just before starting my seminary studies at the New York Lighthouse for the Blind; and as one who is even now an Officer of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, whose main work is the support of the Eye Hospital there in the Holy Land — given all of this I’ve learned a good bit about vision and vision problems in my day.

And one thing I’ve learned is that vision is not only about the eyes, but about the brain. There are forms of blindness which are caused by damage to the visual cortex of the brain — which ironically is at the back of your head — in which a person who may have perfectly sound eyes may be completely blind. Conversely, some marvelous new inventions are being designed that can allow people whose eyes are damaged beyond repair, to learn to see by means of direct electrical stimulation of portions of the brain, there at the back of the head. Geordi LaForge from Star Trek Next Generation may not have to wait ‘til the 24th century to get his visor.

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All of our Scripture readings today deal in part with the difference between seeing with the eyes and knowing in your heart and mind what you see — the difference between the inside and the outside. What is seen by the eye is not always understood by the brain, even when everything is working as it should. We’ve all seen optical illusions or puzzles where the eye can be fooled and it takes time to figure out exactly what it is you are seeing. Sometimes what you are looking for can be right in front of your eyes, but for some reason you just can’t “see” it. As my grandmother used to say, “If it was a snake, it would’ve bit you!”

And speaking of snakes — recall the promise that the snake made to the man and the woman in the garden: “Your eyes will be opened and you will be like God!” Of course, their eyes were open all along, but they didn’t realize what it is that they saw. Remember: they could see. The woman, when she saw the apple and the tree, said it was pleasing to the eyes. They had seen each other naked from the time God first woke Adam up and presented him with the one he greeted as a helper suitable to him, who was bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. It was only with the bite of that apple that they realized what they were seeing — their own nakedness — that it was in any way, shape, fashion or form unseemly, and they tried the first cover-up in history: stitching leaves together and then even going so far as to hide in the underbrush. The vision of their own frail nakedness was too much for them — and in their nakedness they also saw — and felt — their shame. In one sense, they did not become like God, but rather fully human, at that point, and they tried to hide their frail humanity from the eyes of the living God himself.

They had made, you see, the mistake that all human beings are likely to make — we who see not as God sees; that is, looking at the outside — all that our eyes are able to do. For surely our outer form is weak and wasting away. But fortunately, our true humanity lies not in our outward form, our merely biological existence as what anthropologist Desmond Morris called the “Naked Ape.” Adam and Eve were rightly shamed by the frail flesh that they were — that ‘earthly tent’ as Saint Paul calls it — seen in the stark light of God’s own judging presence. But there is more to our humanity than just our naked outside. There is an unseen part, an inner nature that is unlike that of the animals. This is the part of us that is able to reason, and above all, to love. As Saint Paul assures us, this inner capacity is renewed day by day by God’s grace, even as the outward form is wasting away in aging, sickness and death.

Our human nature, as made in God’s image, allows us to have that God’s-eye-view, to look to the inside. This is why we look beyond what can be seen with the eyes of flesh to see with the eye of faith. There is more to us than merely animal biology — our flesh and blood, the earthly tent of our outward nature. We are also creatures of spirit, made in God’s image at the first, though our eyes of flesh got us into trouble when we first started using them, startled to discover that we were naked. We failed to realize at that beginning point, that there is ever so much more to us than our skin and our flesh.

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And more than our flesh and blood, as the concluding portion of this morning’s gospel passage reminds us. Jesus’ mother and siblings are worried that their son and brother is heading for trouble — people in town are saying he is crazy or even possessed (much the same thing in that time.) And so they’ve come to take him in hand, and get him out of harm’s way, away from the crowd and the religious authorities who have come down from Jerusalem. And when the people tell Jesus that his mother and family — his flesh and blood — are asking for him outside, he makes the astounding statement that it is the people in the house, those there around him, who are his mother, brother, and sister. Whoever does God’s will is kin to Jesus, kin through the Spirit. It is not the flesh and blood relationship that matters — the relationship we may or may not have with each other through biological descent or inheritance or kinship — but the relationship that each of us has and all of us have with God, through God’s Holy Spirit dwelling within us, and among us.

And notice once again how this relationship is portrayed as being inside rather than outside: the biological family, the family of flesh and blood, is outside the house, seen by all in the public square; but the true family of God is inside, inside the house with Jesus, gathered around him. It is here, here in ‘this house not made by hands’ — the house which is the new temple of God’s Holy Spirit, which is made up of all of the members of the church — it is there, “here” as Jesus says, that the true family is to be found.

So work, my sisters and brothers — and I do not call you that lightly, for we are all members of God’s true family — work to keep your inner eye, your eye of faith, focused on the place where truth and mercy dwell, with our Father in heaven. Study to see as God sees, guided by the Spirit into the truth of God’s grace, God’s love, and God’s glory.+

Hair of the Dog

The Atonement required something of the very thing that caused the problem in the first place... flesh and blood. A sermon for Lent 4b.

SJF • Lent 4b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

Anyone who comes from a culture in which the consumption of alcohol is a common feature will know that in addition to every culture’s favorite strong alcoholic beverage — whether rum or whiskey, bourbon or brandy — each culture also has its own favorite hangover cure. For it follows as the night the day — or more likely the day following the night!— that consumption of too much of any alcoholic beverage will have a definite impact on how you feel the next morning.

Some years ago, there was even a TV show called “Three Sheets” that formed the alcoholic equivalent to National Geographic. A man traveled the world sampling the strongest liquor in every country and getting royally — or democratically — drunk, depending on the country, and then the following morning seeking out each nation’s favorite hangover cure. The first episode of the series began with a search for Belize’s elusive cashew wine, high-power Viper Rum (made with real viper pickled in the bottle) and readily available Belikin Beer; and it ended with a dose of Michelada the morning after. Some of you may be familiar with these very products!

One of the things about many of the hangover cures is that they often include a certain amount of alcohol — including Michelada, which is part beer. The old saying is that you need “a hair of the dog that bit you” if you are to rid yourself of the hangover. And you are probably wondering about now what I may have been up to last night that brings forth this reflection on alcohol and its after-effects; but I assure you last night was not spent in a binge and I did not require a hair or any other part of a dog this morning in my coffee! Even being a quarter Irish I know how to behave on St. Patrick’s Day.

No, I raise this matter of the hair of the dog because of that curious incident from the book of Numbers that we heard this morning. God has Moses create a bronze serpent as a treatment for those suffering from the burning pain of snakebite. This is the same God who on Sinai had ordered Moses not to make any likeness of anything on the earth or under the earth or in the heavens — and yet here God commands Moses to make a bronze serpent; and not only to make it, but to display it before the people as a way to bring them healing from their snake-bites. Now, This is hardly modern medicine, hardly even medicine at all; and it comes from a time and a culture when such almost magical treatments for disease or injury were common. And a major feature of these cures is that they include something similar to, or derived from, the cause of the disease itself. Why, even today you can go to the drugstore and buy what they call “homeopathic medications” many of which contain small amounts of the thing that made you sick in the first place.

Now, this incident might have remained just one of those curious passages from the Hebrew Scriptures explained in a footnote but then quickly passed by if it weren’t for the fact that Jesus not only refers to this incident and applies it to himself — and not just to himself but specifically to his manner of death for our sake and for our salvation. He interprets this ancient incident as a sign: a sign of healing, not just for the snake-bitten few, but for the whole world, enslaved by sin. Originally this sign was just to heal a few people wounded by snakes for their transgressions. But its fulfillment — in Christ on the cross — where he is lifted up — is as a sign of healing for the whole world; for, as the text continues in that biblical quote so famous that it is even held up on signs at football matches — God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him, displayed and lifted up upon the cross. It is not only saving from the pain of snake-bite, but deliverance from the death pangs due to all who have fallen under the sway of the great serpent who connived the fall of our ancient parents in the garden.

This is where the theme of a covenant comes in, the theme we’ve been exploring these four Sundays in Lent. We started with God’s covenant with the earth sealed in the sign of the rainbow, through the covenant with Abraham sealed in the blood of his flesh, through the Old Covenant chiseled on tablets of stone, we come now specifically to the New Covenant of Christ’s blood shed on the cross, not to condemn the world, but in order that Christ might be lifted up and call the whole world to himself, bringing healing to all who turn to him in faith.

There is an unforgettable line in Saint Julian of Norwich’s reflections on the crucified Christ. From the cross he displays his wounds, and says, “See how I loved you.” It is in his own wounded flesh that healing and salvation lies — in his flesh and in his blood.

And that is the hair of the dog that bit us — for it is in our own flesh and blood that we fell into sin; and it is in our own flesh and blood that we turned from God. In the person of our ancient ancestors Adam and Eve we rejected all that God had planned and intended for us, thinking we could do better on our own. And we have continued to sin, in our own flesh-and-blood, in the wrongs we do towards God and to one another. I would love to say that the church is immune from such ailments, but we need not look very far to see the evidence to the contrary. Our sins cry out like the blood of Abel from the ground. I find myself crying out with Saint Paul, “Who will deliver me from this body of death!”

And the answer Paul found is the answer that rings true still: Only the flesh and blood of one who was truly human — but was also truly God incarnate — could atone for, could heal, the breach and division caused by that ancient wrong, and all our wrongs done since. This is not, as Saint Paul told the Ephesians, our own doing — it is the doing of one who is like us in every way, except only sin. But who is also God. For God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our sins, made us alive together with Christ, when he raised him from the dead. He was wounded for our transgressions, and by his stripes we are healed.

This is the covenant of the atonement — the drawing together of humanity at the foot of the cross to look upon the one whom we have pierced, through our own sins. This is the covenant of grace, of God’s promised forgiveness, healing the wounds that Satan gave us, and the wounds we give each other, by means of his own Son’s giving of himself. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Let us rejoice that God has provided us with the means of our healing and salvation, in Jesus Christ. Let us turn to him, repenting all our failings and our wrongs, toward him who is alone our Savior and our Lord.+

Doubt That Kills

Saint James Fordham • Lent 1a • Tobias Haller BSG
The tempter came to him and said, If you are the Son of God…

Today is the first Sunday in Lent, and just a little while ago we sang a long litany that included a striking petition: our earnest appeal to God that we might finally one day “beat down Satan under our feet.” Satan is, of course, the Adversary, in particular humanity’s Adversary, from the time he misled Eve in the garden to the day he tempted Jesus in the desert, the greatest troublemaker there ever was. The trouble Satan makes comes in the most part through what he tempts us to do.

As I say, he’s been at it an awfully long time. Right from the beginning, Satan has been at his work of temptation. In the garden, as a snake in the grass, he tempted Eve. We all know what that led to. Later on, he tempted Jesus in the wilderness, coming at him at the end of a long and weary fast, when he was weak and famished, hitting him when he was down. In both of his assaults on humanity — humanity at its very beginning and at its culmination — Satan tempts his victims to doubt.

Now, doubt is not an entirely bad thing. A little healthy skepticism is an important part of common sense, particularly when you get an email telling you someone has found $10 million in an abandoned account and if you just send them all of your private information they’ll do the transfer for you. Right. Some doubt can save you from some trouble. But the person who doubts everything is in some ways as much a fool as the person who doubts nothing at all. Some doubt, then, makes common sense. But the doubt towards which Satan tempts Eve and Jesus, and all of us — every man, woman and child since — is not the reasonable doubt of common sense, but the unreasonable doubt that assaults both who we are and who God is.

This is the doubt that kills: to doubt God and God’s promises, and to doubt ourselves at the very core of our being. These two doubts, so pointless and so hopeless, are the doubts Satan lays before us, setting his snare: Who am I? and Where is God? These are the doubts that lead to despair and death of the soul. They make us feel like less than we are, and also rob of us of trust in the only one in whom we can become more than we are, leaving us high and dry in the desert of despair, of loss and isolation, ready prey for Satan to snatch us up and carry us off to hell. These are the two sore points that Satan has worked away at endlessly and tirelessly since Eden, and they leave their marks on the human soul like the twin punctures of a serpent’s fangs.

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The crafty serpent came to Eve, and the hidden assumptions behind the advice he gave to her planted those seeds of doubt. “You will be like God...” the serpent said. But Eve was already like God, made in God’s image and likeness. Satan put his advice in the future tense and conditional mood, as if to say, “You are not like God now, but you could be, if only you eat the fruit.” So the serpent led Eve to doubt herself, her own likeness to God, her very being. He made her feel like less than she was, and then offered a way to feel better about herself.

Does that sound familiar? Haven’t women and men been caught by the same nasty doubts ever since? How many products are are marketed precisely by making people feel bad about themselves and then offering them a quick solution. The modern day serpents whisper to us that we are too fat or too thin, that our hair is the wrong color, or not shiny or plentiful enough, and on top of that — we smell bad; and then offer us the diet plan or exercise machine, the hair color or shampoo or baldness cure, — and the mouthwash and deodorant. Satan was, it seems, the first creature to get someone to use a product they didn’t want and didn’t need. And he did it by getting Eve to doubt herself.

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He also got her to doubt God. That’s the second fang in the serpent’s mouth. Satan’s crafty temptation to Eve calls God a liar — “You will not die; you will become like God! God hasn’t told you the whole story! And how can you trust him if he isn’t on the up and up with you? Who is this God, anyway? Where is he? But look at that fruit; it’s a sure thing! It’s right here... Where is your God?” And Eve, without responding to the devil, silent in the face of the doubts he has raised, takes the fruit.

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How strong is the power of doubt! Eve has known God’s blessings all her short life. She’s never even been out of the garden, in which God has been such a gracious host. She has been cared for and watched over, God graciously providing for her every need. Yet against her whole short life’s experience, she is prepared to listen to the hisses of a snake in the grass, and turn from God in mistrust, without so much as a word.

Again, doesn’t this sound familiar? How many relationships have been wrecked through a casual bit of unfounded or malicious gossip? How many reputations have been ruined by false accusation, by devilish doubt ready to leap out against even the most trusted, most belovéd person, pouncing like a rattlesnake. Oh yes, Satan is still busily at work, and ever since Eve, people have been giving in in silence to the doubts that chill the heart and kill the soul.

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Yet Jesus shows us a different response to Satan and the doubts that Satan spreads. Satan confronts Jesus in the wilderness, and he bares the same two fangs of doubt he’s chewed on people with since time began. “If you are the Son of God...” he begins each assault. If? If? Is Satan trying to get Jesus to doubt that he is the Son of God? You bet he is! And with his one-two punch Satan follows up with temptations that try to poke holes in Jesus’ faith in God’s providence, God’s protection, and God’s authority.

But Jesus, unlike Eve, knows that silence will not do to clear away these powerful doubts. Jesus knows that just ignoring Satan won’t make him go away! The hissing of doubt must be answered, the murmur of doubt must be silenced by the voice of faith. And so Jesus answers every doubt that Satan raises. He will not let the devil have the last word, and it is Satan who ends up retiring from the field, silenced at last by Jesus’ rebuke.

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Jesus talked back to the devil, to the one who tried to get him to doubt God and to doubt himself. We too can talk back to the devil, whether he appears in the guise of friend or family member, co-worker or public figure, or as that more familiar devil, that nagging little voice within you. You’ve heard him — don’t deny it! He is that little voice of insecurity who tells you you are less than you know you are, or that bids you not to trust the Lord with all your heart and soul and mind and strength.

To the voices that seek to whittle you down, to cut you into little pieces, to nibble at your insecurities, you can boldly respond, “Quiet! I am a child of God, loved by God and made in God’s image!” To the little devils who spread rumor and distrust, you can boldly respond, “I’ve known my friends far longer than I’ve known you, and I trust them more than I trust you.” And to the deep, evil voice that asks us “Where is your God?” we can confidently respond, God is with us, among us and within us, and we can go nowhere out of his providence, his protection, and his power.

We can talk back to all of these faithless chatterers, internal and external; and with bold words of rebuke beat down Satan under our feet. And there are few more choicely worded rebukes to the talkers of doubt (within and without) than these from Ella Wheeler Wilcox, with which I close:

Talk faith. The world is better off without
Your uttered ignorance and morbid doubt.
If you have faith in God, or man, or self,
Say so. If not, push back upon the shelf
Of silence all your thoughts, till faith shall come;
No one will grieve because your lips are dumb.+