Christ Our Captain

SJF • Proper 12b 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.+

It is good to be back from the meeting of the General Convention. I have to say that at times it felt a great deal like being in that windblown boat with the disciples on Lake Galilee. There was, as usual, controversy to spare, and the usual moments of high drama.

But as anyone who knows the history of the church or who can read the epistles of Peter and Paul knows, there is nothing new to controversy in the church. As with most aspects of life, there are ups and downs, ins and outs, and tos and fros. Paul describes the situation as like that of children being tossed to and fro and being blown about by powerful winds. I can imagine he may have been referring to the amount of hot air that emanated from some of the people with whom he had to contend, especially the ones he called “super apostles.” Of course, Paul himself was no lightweight when it came to rhetoric and he could blast his opponents with a force to equal whatever it was they blew in his direction.

What’s strange, though, is that we think of the church as a source of stability — and there have been times in history when the church did provide a shelter from the stormy blast; for example, when the northern barbarians were besieging the Mediterranean world, the church was largely responsible for holding that civilization together.

But the times when the church has served as ballast for the rocky boat of the world seem to be few and far between. More often than not the church was not the brake to slow things down in a runaway world, but the engine that drove the conflict. Like a mad Captain Ahab, instead of cutting sail in the midst of the storm, the church’s leaders sometimes put up even more canvas, and drove the boat onto the rocks. To use another analogy, far from quenching the flames of a world gone mad, the church has often played chief arsonist, and added fuel to the fire.

Sometimes, of course, those flames were literal. During the English Reformation — that long struggle through much of the reign of Henry VIII, all of the reigns of his son Edward and his daughter “Bloody” Mary, and well into the reign of Elizabeth I, who finally settled things down to a simmer — all through those 30 years from about 1530 to 1560 people on both sides of the raging ecclesiastical storm were imprisoned, executed, and sometimes even burned at the stake because of the controversies in which the church was embroiled.

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The long and short of it is that looking to the church as a source of stability in and of itself is looking in the wrong direction. It seems the more trust people put in the institution the more suspicious we should become. If the sinking of the Titanic taught us anything it is to be cautious when people try to assure you that a vessel is unsinkable or infallible.

So, if the institutional church is not going to be a source of stability, a trustworthy vehicle, where can we look for security and a sure promise. I think we need to look no further than to Jesus Christ himself. Notice how the winds rocking of the disciples’ boat only stop when they let Jesus get into the boat with them. I sometimes wonder if Jesus was at all welcome on either side in the churches of the Reformation — if those who were so eager to silence each other, imprison each other, or burn each other up, would have recognized Jesus or been recognized by him. I can imagine them looking at the Prince of Peace as he passes them by on the stormy sea, as they are hard at work at the oars, as he urges them to calm and charity, and saying, “Who are you? We are doing the work of God!” — burning each other up! Being unable to see the presence of God and hear God’s message can afflict anyone, especially when the demands God places upon us conflict with the contrary devices and desires of our own all too human hearts.

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I’m reminded of the story about Abraham Lincoln’s sister-in-law Elizabeth Edwards. She had never really approved of her sister Mary Todd marrying that lanky country bumpkin. Even after his assassination and towards the end of Mary’s unhappy life when Elizabeth rescued her from the insane asylum she had been committed to, and took her into her home, Elizabeth still nursed resentment — a resentment not aided by the fact that Lincoln had removed her husband Ninian from a government post in which he had performed poorly.

But then one night Elizabeth had a dream. In the dream, there was a knock at the door; she went to open it, and there, standing outside, was Jesus. But he had bare feet, and those feet had not been washed recently; his seamless robe was dusty, and his hair and beard were wild. And so she wouldn’t let him in!

Fortunately, when she woke from this dream she realized what her resentment about Lincoln had done to her own life — she had missed the chance to come to know one of the wisest and best men of that century; and had been harsh to her sister as well.

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How often have the members of the church refused to let Jesus in because he didn’t meet our expectations — didn’t let him in to our home, or our boat, or our hearts, or our church? It seems sometimes we would rather be tossed about in the storm, or blown to and fro by the winds of eccentric doctrines, even to give ourselves to the mercies of pirates or mutineers, rather than to find the calm and settled state that can come only if we let Jesus in.

It is hard, of course, to live up to what Jesus expects of us; as Paul says, “to live a life that is worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

It is hard to do this, and we cannot do it on our own. Our General Convention has tried to do this: being truthful about where we stand and what we stand for, in our willingness and our desire to remain in communion with our brothers and sisters around the world, while still standing — as we believe we do — with Christ in his Gospel based on love and forgiveness, and respect for the dignity of every human being. It is only when we do this, standing with Jesus because we have let him into our hearts, our homes, our church, that we can be stabilized by his presence and inspired by his Spirit to do all we are called to do. It is only through his presence that we receive the gifts with which he means to equip the church to do the work of the ministry we are called to do. It is only through him that we are empowered to pass through the changes and chances of this life, the temporal ups and downs of the rocky ride the world will take us through, so that we do not lose hold of that which is eternal.

It is only by holding fast to him, the way a drowning person holds fast to a life preserver; it is only by allowing him to come aboard and captain our boat, that we will safely come to port. The church, after all, is his, not ours: we are only passengers and crew; and we had best not spend our time fighting among ourselves but put our elbows and backs into the work of keeping the church shipshape.

We need not fear the winds of tempestuous doctrines, or the trickery of those who spend their hours scheming in craftiness, the pirates and the mutineers. With our hearts open to Christ, the only wind that need concern us is the blessed wind of the Holy Spirit. We have the Scripture for our chart, the cross as our compass, and our captain at the helm — and, God bless us, it is Jesus Christ our Lord.+

God's Choice and Ours

Saint James Fordham • Proper 24a • Tobias Haller BSG
For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you.+

I have spoken before about God’s attributes: the characteristics of God; God’s wisdom and power, and God’s love; you know, I’ll never get tired of preaching of God’s love, and I hope you never tire of hearing me do so! But another characteristic of God, a thing that God does, time and again, is this: God chooses.

This power to make choices is such an important part of God’s nature, that we enshrine it in our Catechism, in our definition of what it means to be made in the image of God. The Catechism asks, What does it mean to be created in the image of God? And it answers (on page 845 of your Prayer Book), “It means that we are free to make choices: to love, to create, to reason, and to live in harmony with creation and with God.”

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So the freedom to choose is an important quality of God as God, and of us children of God, made in God’s image. And what I’d like to examine this morning is the nature of the choices God, and we, make. How does God choose? Well, first of all, although we share this capacity, we are assured that God does not choose as people do. God plays no favorites, as alluded to in that passage from Thessalonians: God is impartial. So it is that God often chooses what we would not expect to choose if we were in God’s place.

Of all the nations of the earth from which God could have chosen, from the great tribal kingdoms of Africa, the powerful rulers of Asia and Mesopotamia, of Egypt so old they were into double digit dynasties two thousand years before the birth of Christ — of all of these, God chose not a single one, but little Israel: wanderers and nomads with little more than their tents, herds and flocks. And God chose to journey with them in the wilderness, dwelling amongst them in a tent, just like them.

Later, God chose little David: the youngest son, the shepherd boy, not an impressive grown-up like his brothers, but a boy no more than 14, to be the king of Israel. Centuries later, that same chosen people Israel prayed for deliverance from captivity in Babylon. And God chose as his messiah, his anointed one, not a descendent of David, but Cyrus, the gentile. Cyrus, king of Media and Persia, was chosen to end the proud rule of Babylon and send the captives home.

Then came perhaps the most unlikely choice of all. For his own coming among us, God chose to be born, not in the royal palace, but in the barn behind the inn in the suburb of Jerusalem called Bethlehem. It is as if the visiting dignitary came for a state visit — not to the United Nations, not to City Hall, not to Manhattan even, but to a borough on the edges — dare we say it: maybe even to the Bronx?

Yes, my brothers and sisters, God has chosen us! The royal visitor is here with us, as he promised he would be where two or three are gathered in his name. As with the people of Thessalonica, and of all the gentiles, God has chosen to be with the unlikely. Yes, beloved, God has chosen us, and that means we are among what is called “the elect.”

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Now, election is a difficult doctrine. It caused a whole lot of trouble back during the Reformation. It seems exclusive and prideful at first glance, as if to say, “we’re God’s favorites and you aren’t.” But that is to miss the wonder of God’s choice. It isn’t that we should place ourselves in the position to judge others, to look down on those we might think God has not chosen (for until God chose us we were not chosen either, and who knows what God may do tomorrow — remember, God shows no partiality, and is patient and generous, and the latecomers at the harvest get the same pay as the early ones who worked all day). Rather we should take comfort — spiritual strength — from this knowledge, without looking down on anyone else, or doubting their call from God.

But how do we know we are among the elect? What is election, anyway? Well, first of all let’s remember that election is not something we have done, it is something God has done: as I said, God chooses; God elects. That word election is, of course, very much in our minds at this season — in a very different context. But what does it mean in the context of the church? Our English word election derives from a Greek word which means “chosen, summoned, called together.” It is the source of the word ecclesia — the assembly chosen and called together by God, the church. You hear a modern form of it in the word eclectic. In home decorating that describes decor with all sorts of styles mixed up together — and if that isn’t the church I don't know what is! If you have any doubt just look around at this place and the people in it — from the stained glass windows to the people in the pews, we are an eclectic bunch, gathered here literally from the corners of the world.

So being elect means being part of the church, this odd assortment of all sorts and conditions, brought together in one place, to worship one Lord through one faith. And the way we enter that fellowship of one faith in the one Lord is through the one baptism — the same the world over. Whether our baptism is an adult choice, or (as in most cases) a choice made by parents and godparents, baptism is election to salvation and eternal life.

Now, down through the history of the church — as I said, back at the Reformation — some have said: isn’t my choice involved? There are and have been denominations that insist on what they call “believer baptism” — only adults are to be baptized, and only when they’ve asked for it. This led to conflict among 19th century Anglicans, and led to the departure of those who felt that baptism somehow didn’t really “take” on infants and children.

The problem with this view of baptism is that it calls God’s grace into question; it puts the burden on the individual, and leaves nothing with God — or the church, through which God continues to act. For the church in its apostolic faith teaches that God’s grace acts as much on a week-old child as it does on me, just as Jesus Christ was God Almighty even when he was an infant in the manger!

Yes, our choice is involved, in living a good and righteous life and walking in God’s ways once we’re old enough to walk, but only after God has made the first move, acting through the church in its many members, working as Christ’s Body on earth. God chooses us through the church, and then it is for to us to live up to that responsibility in the church. We who bear God’s image belong to God — no less than the coin with Caesar’s likeness belonged to Caesar — much good it did him.

We belong to God who saves us, with our will, without out will, even sometimes against our will. Many of us were brought to the font literally kicking and screaming. I’ve wrestled with a few right over there! But anyone who’s ever rescued a drowning swimmer knows by the way they sometimes struggle you’d think they didn’t want to be saved. But God’s grace, and God’s choice, is stronger than human panic and fear, whether we are three weeks, three months, three years, three decades or three score year and ten years old. God has chosen us and saved us.

How do we know? Because we are here. We are justified by faith and cleansed in Baptism, clothed anew with that wedding garment I spoke about last week. And... where does that leave us? Are we all dressed up with no place to go? Not at all. Baptism is the beginning, God’s choice of us. What are we to do in return? What is our choice?

People down through history have wanted to make it harder than it is: they want to impose fasts and long faces, austere disciplines and sacrifices. But we are assured again and again that God desires mercy, not sacrifice. How do we “render to God the things that belong to God”? There’s no secret here, my friends; we’ve been given the answer in advance. “Love the Lord with all your heart and mind and soul and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.” Certainly hard enough to do sometimes! We are often tempted to anger, to lack of charity, to impatience. I said we were chosen, not perfect!

But if we trust God, he will make up for our lack of charity. The God who chose us is the same God who will fill us with his love, and help us to love others. How do we know we are on the way to God? Because God has promised it, and because we want it. We really want it — for who would want to choose death when life was within their grasp. We belong to God, and God will never turn away that which belongs to him.

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Sir Thomas More was the chancellor of England back at the time of the Reformation I referred to a moment ago. He tangled with Henry the Eighth when he wouldn’t give in and accept Henry’s divorce and remarriage. Whether we agree with his reasoning, we can honor his courage and his commitment to the promises he had made. In spite of Henry’s and his own family’s pleas, he stuck with what his conscience told him he must do, refusing to be a “man for all seasons” who would go which way the wind was blowing, and for that he came to the headsman’s block. You may remember the scene from the movie, Man For All Seasons. In accordance with the custom, the man who was about to chop off his head knelt before him to ask his forgiveness. And Sir Thomas said to him, “Fear not, you send me to God.” The Archbishop, standing by, asked “Are you so sure?” And Sir Thomas responded with heartfelt words, “God will not refuse one who is so blithe to go to him.”

God will not refuse us, who are so eager to go to him. He has chosen us already. We belong to him, marked with his image, and he has washed away our sins in baptism and so brightened and restored the image we had at our birth; he feeds us with his body and blood in the eucharist. We have been delivered from the bonds of death and the wrath that is coming. God has chosen us, and we belong to him. No one can take us from him. God will go before us and level the mountains, God will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut asunder the bars of iron — delivering us from the bondage to sin and death — God will give us the secret hidden treasure of eternal life, that we may know that it is God the Lord who has chosen us, and called us, each and every one, by name.+