Full Atonement Made

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ransom

Exploring the Atonement, one tree at a time, ending with the Rood, the Ransom.

Proper 20c 2013 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
There is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all.
We continue today with our readings from the letters Paul the Apostle wrote to his disciple Timothy with a short portion from the first of those letters. In a few words Paul declares his gospel — affirming that it is for this that he was appointed a herald and apostle, a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth. He even adds a parenthetical “I am telling the truth, I am not lying” just to emphasize his point.

He begins with a restatement of the Jewish creed: There is one God. But he then quickly moves to the Gospel truth that there is one mediator between God and humankind. This is Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all.

What Paul speaks of here is a crucial doctrine at the heart of what the Christian faith is all about: the Atonement. This doctrine asserts that Jesus somehow made right all that had gone wrong since humankind fell through sin. He did this by his birth, life, death and rising, mediating between God and humankind and settling accounts between them, making them “at one” — in case you wonder where atonement comes from.

But just as our other readings today show us that there are many different ways to settle accounts — some of them involving cheating customers with phony weights or a thumb on the scale, some involving a bit of clever discount bookkeeping — so too there are many different ways in which the single doctrine of the Atonement has been understood through Christian history. None of these understandings has ever been settled upon in mainstream Christianity as the only right way to understand the Atonement — in fact, what marks off most of the side-streams or backwaters in Christian history is their exclusive attachment to one explanation at the expense of all the others! So I give thanks that in our Anglican tradition we are free to explore and embrace all of the different ways of understanding the saving work of Christ — more grateful for the fact that Christ has saved us, than concerned with exactly how he did so. In fact, we are so grateful, we sing about it. Almost all of our hymns today reflect on one aspect or another of the Atonement. (From the Hymnal1982: 495, 368, 167, 158, 685) So let’s explore this stream of tradition a bit, starting with the words of Paul to Timothy.

He describes Jesus as a ransom. Some early theologians picked up on that language of “ransom” and wondered — to whom was the ransom paid? Some came to believe that by falling and failing as humanity did, we became captive to the one who led us to fall: Satan. So God ransomed humanity by paying Satan the ransom of Christ Jesus. This idea held on for quite a while, but eventually dissatisfaction with this line of thought developed: Why should God pay Satan anything! Why should God owe Satan anything at all? And so the ransom came slowly to be transformed into more of a debt, a debt that we incurred, a bill we had run up. Humankind had effectively gone into debt by disobeying God, to whom we owed obedience. Because this debt was owed to one who is the ultimate Good, God himself, it could only be satisfied by one, the debt could only be settled, as the hymn we sang before the Gospel (#167) puts it, by one who was “good enough to pay the price of sin.” So Christ paid our disobedient debt through his perfect obedience.

This “satisfaction” theory held on for quite a while — as you see from the hymns today, it forms a part of our devotional life — and it held sway for quite some time, but at the Reformation other ideas came forward. For example, the Evangelical Martin Luther didn’t find the idea that God was a creditor who held debts was entirely fitting, as it seemed a bit too commercial. So he drew on elements of Scripture that strongly portray Jesus as one who takes on our punishment, the punishment due to us — death — on our behalf, as a substitute, himself sinless, but reckoned as among the sinners in our place, taking upon himself the sins of the world.

Now, that’s a perfectly Scriptural view, and it’s a view forms a major part of our devotional life and theological life as Anglicans. At the offertory today, we will sing one of the great hymns that come to us from the Lutheran tradition: Herzliebster Jesu: Ah, Holy Jesus. (#158) As the third verse puts it: “The Good Shepherd for the sheep is offered, the slave has sinned and the Son has suffered” — why? — “for our atonement.” Pay attention to that as you sing the offertory hymn.

This idea of Jesus stepping into our place wasn’t quite strong enough for some of the most extreme Reformers, like Calvin. He wanted things a little “harder” than that. He insisted that the Atonement was more than voluntary substitution, and he stressed the notion that what we had done in the fall was not just a mistake, this was a criminal offense against God — a crime that warranted the death sentence. So in Calvin’s hands the Atonement took on a judicial or legal air, with God as judge, jury and executioner — as well as victim, since Christ is both fully human and fully God.

In more recent times some theologians have tried to hark back to some of the early musings of the fourth to the eleventh century, arguing for a more mystical understanding and a less legal understanding of Atonement — drawing on Paul’s teaching (1 Cor 15:2) that “as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” The notion here is that just as the fall of Adam touches all of humanity, so too does the redeeming act of Jesus in the Atonement — not simply focused on his death but on his whole Incarnation, life and teaching, Resurrection and Ascension — bearing a redeemed humanity along with him even to the throne of God. This sense of being made clean and redeemed by Christ is common in much of our tradition, including the hymn Rock of Ages (#685), that we’ll sing at communion — we are cleansed by his blood, the blood of his death, which is not punishment or debt paid on our behalf, but something in which we participate by our communion in him, being, as Paul said, baptized into his death, and so that we share in his life. (Rom 6:3-5)

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As I said before, and as you can see from the selection of hymns we sing today, all of these various views of the Atonement find a place in our Anglican tradition. They all have some basis in Scripture, and none of them is singled out — as is true in Calvin’s Reformed Protestant tradition and in some other Protestant sects — as only one acceptable way to understand the work of Christ in the Atonement. So because we are free to wander amidst this forest of different ways of looking at things, not getting focused on just one tree or another, I’d like to take a slight liberty and offer one more twist on things, returning to that word ransom, that comes to us from Paul’s letter to Timothy, but to look at it in light of that strange reading in today’s Gospel.

In this parable Jesus describes a rich man whose manager has been mismanaging his business. The text says, “squandering” — and it’s the same word used in the immediately preceding story of the Prodigal Son; the Prodigal Son who squandered his inheritance, in the chapter just before. In this case it must mean the manager is not a very good manager, is spending more than he is taking in, selling short and buying long. The rich man naturally calls for the manager to produce the accounts. And what does he do? In order to make friends with his master’s debtors he fiddles the books even more, getting from the debtors only a fraction of what they owe, even further depleting his master’s balance sheet.

The surprise comes when the master finds out about this, and instead of putting the crooked — there’s no other word to describe him — manager into jail, commends him; he doesn’t condemn him. The normal expectation is turned upside down. The manager has, in effect, ransomed himself at his master’s expense — it’s the master who is losing out here — and yet the master commends him for it.

So what I’d like to do is turn the ransom of Christ around in a similar way. Rather than stressing that humanity was held captive by Satan or death, or owed a debt to God, or committed a crime against God — all of which are true — what if we think of Christ’s ransom as being paid to us! Like the Prodigal Son or the shifty manager, we in effect hold God hostage — or try to do so — by our actions. As with the father of the Prodigal and the master of the manager, though, God doesn’t play that game — God goes along with it; he pays us the ransom himself, in the person of his Son giving himself to us. He brings out the ring and the robe and the shoes for the Prodigal, he kills the fatted calf; he commends the manager with a pat on the back; he forgives us even from the cross, completing there the Atonement by paying us the ransom of his life, what we demanded in our folly, but which he paid in full — not to God, but to us.

It is to us that Jesus gives himself, to us and for us, because he loved the world so much that he would not allow us to be lost. We held God hostage by our sins, and we crucified him when he paid us the ransom that we demanded in our folly. And by that cross we are saved. Praise be to him, by whom that price was paid!+

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.+

Not As We Deserve

We might get the idea that God hates us when we treat God so badly.

SJF • Lent3a 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.+

There was once a man who hated his boss. That in itself is probably not all that rare or unusual a circumstance. But this man really hated his boss. I mean, he couldn’t stand the sight of him. He hated him so much he could taste it; literally: if he caught sight of him — or even worse had to deal with him in a meeting or work session — his stomach would churn and he would throw up a little bit in his mouth. It was that bad. This was hatred he could taste, anger and resentment that would bubble up inside and churn over.

And he didn’t keep this feeling to himself. Although he wouldn’t insult his boss in public, or confront him directly, he wasn’t at all shy about letting his distaste and contempt for his boss be made known amongst the other workers. He assumed, probably rightly, that word of this had gotten back to his boss, but he didn’t care. He said to himself and to his friends and co-workers, “As long as he doesn’t fire me, I don’t care if he hates me as much as I hate him. He probably does, but it makes no difference as long as I do my job, and do it well. He has no cause to get rid of me other than the fact that he hates my guts as much as I hate his. Let him just try to fire me and I’ll take it to the review board and the union.”

This went on for a number of years, and nothing would or could change it. The man did his job but went right on hating his boss and thinking that the boss hated him just as much, in spite of his good annual reviews — with which he always managed to find some fault, some oversight or underestimation of his performance which he attributed to the boss’s malice.

Still the pot boiled. At the company picnics the man could always be found in a circle of other employees, clustered in a group far away from the boss, bad-mouthing him and complaining about him.

Then one day something terrible happened. I should say, one night. For in the middle of the night an old frayed extension cord under a carpet in the man’s house sparked a fire. The flames spread quickly through the whole house — fortunately the man and his family escaped with their lives but the house was a total loss. They stood out on the street in their pyjamas and the overcoats they had hastily grabbed as they ran through the front hallway, watching the firefighters attempt to quell the flames. As the man stood there transfixed by the disaster unfolding before him, his home slowly collapsing in ruins, almost too numb to feel anything, he felt a hand on his shoulder.

He turned to see who it was. It was his boss. Still numb from the emotional weight of the disaster that had overtaken him, he was too surprised to recoil or withdraw. He just opened his mouth and his eyes wide, but no words came out. His boss nodded sympathetically and broke the silence.

“I was listening to the late news and I heard about the fire. When the reporter mentioned the address, I knew it was your house.” In the man’s mind a thought flashed briefly, “He knew my address?” But before he could say a word his boss continued, “I had to come and tell you how devastating it is for me for something like this to happen to one of my employees, especially one of my best and hardest workers.” With his other hand he reached into his coat pocket and pulled out an envelope. “I know that your insurance will cover a most of your expenses, but I’m sure there will be some things they just won’t pay for; so I want you to have this.”

The man, still unable to speak, took the proffered envelope and opened it just enough to see that it was a personal check for $5,000. If he could have spoken earlier he certainly couldn’t anymore. His boss nodded and waved his hand understandingly. “It’s o.k. Don’t say anything; it’s the least I could do for someone in such a state. And here you are out on the street with no where to go... what am I thinking! Let me arrange a place for you at the motel up on the highway until things are sorted out.” The boss pulled out his cell phone, stepped a few paces aside and busied himself with the call.

The firefighters had finally finished their work, put away their hoses and other equipment, and were prepared to head back to the station. The remains of the house, now a pitiful low pile of wreckage and waterlogged ashes, still steamed slightly, and the air was full of a smell of chlorine mixed with charcoal, of burnt plaster and wood and paint and the bitter tang of burnt asphalt shingles.

The man looked to his wife, still unable to speak. She’d heard all the stories, too, time and again — oh my had she heard them — and she was just as amazed as her husband. She shrugged and shook her head. Finally the boss came back and said, “It’s all set. Let me drop you off at the motel.” With that the man finally found his tongue: “I...I thought you hated me!”

The boss looked at him in amazement. “Hated you? Why would you think that? You’re one of my best workers; been with the company for years! I know we haven’t always gotten along, and I know you haven’t always agreed with some of my decisions or policies, or my work style — yes, word does get around — but hated you?” He shook his head. “It never crossed my mind. Now, please, it’s getting chilly — please let’s get you and your family into the car so I can take you to the motel!”

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Saint Paul the Apostle wrote, “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” As the Collect for Ash Wednesday reminds us, God hates nothing he has made — and that includes us. God loves us, and always has and always will, even though we have not always returned God’s love. Look at those crabby, thirsty Israelites in today’s Old Testament reading — carping and complaining at Massah and Meribah! And as Saint Paul reminds us, God is hard on us sometimes as a loving parent must be firm with a young child — and the child may not find the discipline enjoyable. But hatred! — hatred for us never crossed God’s mind even when we failed to mind his cross!

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It is on that cross that God shows us just how much he loves us. From that cross, even from that pain and unspeakable death, Jesus the Son of God spoke words of forgiveness. We did not earn God’s forgiveness and grace — that’s why it’s grace, by the way — something we didn’t deserve. We rebelled against God so much and so strongly that we came to think he must hate us for how we’ve acted towards him. But he doesn’t hate us, my friends. He loves us, not because of what we do, or have failed to do, but in spite of what we do, and because of who we are — we belong to God, who created us and redeemed us; God so loved the world. The fact that fallen humanity has disobeyed and badmouthed our creator — the clay talking back to the potter — means nothing to God, so great is God’s love.

And how much more, as Saint Paul says, now that God has come in Christ and reconciled and justified us by his faithful obedience — the unjust justified by the king of justice himself, the seemingly irreconcilable differences reconciled by the one who keeps the books of life and death — how much more then ought we to understand and rejoice and give thanks for this great gift. It is so much more than a check for $5,000, or even a few weeks at a motel while our house is being rebuilt. The house being built for us in heaven is eternal and everlasting, and the builder is God, who prepares such a dwelling-place for us. God in Christ has reconciled us to himself — has wiped the slate clean and set us on our feet again.

As we continue our journey through Lent, on up to Good Friday when we stand to face the cross of Christ, and kneel in silent wonder at the foot of that cross, and remember what he did for us, let us not be dumbstruck or astonished at this wondrous love: that the King of Bliss should set aside his crown for our souls, but let us sing out in rejoicing, singing on and singing on through all eternity, Blessed be our God who has loved us so much, who has saved us from our sins, and made us heirs of everlasting life!+

A Fine Mess

How does the temptation of Adam and Eve in the garden relate to the temptation of Jesus in the desert? And what does this have to do with Laurel and Hardy?

SJF • Lent 1a 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.

And so we come to the first Sunday in Lent, and over the next six weeks we will journey with Jesus from his temptations to his sacrifice upon the cross — and then on to Easter. It is a journey that encapsulates the faith; faith in the crucial — and I use that word very intentionally because it is based on the Latin word for cross, the very crux of the matter — in the crucial decisions and actions of Jesus for our sake and for our salvation. Saint Anselm, who was Archbishop of Canterbury some nine hundred years ago, wrote a book about it called, Why Did God Become Human? The five word summary: “To save us — that’s why!” And over the course of Lent we will be filling out the background and the implications of that simple fact, the fact of salvation. And as is so often the case with such explorations, we had best start at the beginning — and so we turn to Genesis.

But before turning to Genesis, let me ask a question. Do any of you remember Laurel and Hardy? Some of the younger folks here may not know them — although I will say it was Oliver Hardy who invented the word “D’oh” long before there was a Homer Simpson — but I’m sure most of the adults here remember the portly and fussy Oliver and his skinny, mousy sidekick Stan. As you may recall they were invariably getting into scrapes of one sort or another, and whether it was his fault or not, Stan usually got the blame, as Ollie would put his hands on his hips and complain, “Well that’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into!”

Turning to our reading from Genesis, we can see the “fine mess” that Adam and Eve have gotten us into. Of course, they didn’t need Ollie to tell them that. As soon as the deed was done, while the taste of the fruit of knowledge was still on their lips, the light bulb went on. Well, not a light bulb, since those hadn’t been invented yet — but their eyes were opened, and they saw for the first time that they were naked, and a pair of human beings felt shame for the first time ever. It must have felt like a sleepwalker feels when awakening out on the street in his pyjamas — frightened, bewildered, and embarrassed — wondering, “How did I get out here?”

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Genesis tells us — all of us children of Adam and Eve — how we got out here. It tells us that God made us in the image and after the likeness of God — which the catechism in our Prayer Book explains to mean, in part, that we are reasonable creatures, we are capable of making choices. And Genesis tells us that God laid choices before us: Adam the gardener was given specific instructions about tending the garden and keeping it; and, as a laborer is worthy of his hire, and you are not to muzzle the threshing ox, God allowed his gardener to eat of the fruit of the garden — except for that one particular tree of the knowledge of good and evil. So Adam had his instructions and he also had the power to choose — to obey the instructions or not. Well, we heard the rest of the story: how the serpent crept in with his deceptions, and how Eve chose and Adam chose to allow their delight and desire to overcome their obedience. They did not fall by accident — but by choice. This was no comic slip on a banana peel, but a deliberate decision to take and eat of a very different fruit. They chose to believe the serpent’s lie rather than God’s promise that if they ate of the fruit they would die. As Saint Paul observed in his letter to the Romans, “Sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned.” And we would be justified in saying, along with Oliver Hardy, “This is a fine mess you’ve gotten us into!”

This is how it all began. Our ancient ancestors got us into this fine mess because they misused the very thing that made them like God, in a misguided effort to become like God. They used the power to choose — a divine power resident in human beings, a reflection of the divine image in humanity: for human beings are not mere animals driven solely by instinct and need. What does the Psalms say, “Do not be like horse or mule that have no understanding, who if you do not tie them down will not stay near you.” Human beings shouldn’t need to be tied down. They have the gift to reason and the choice to obey or not. Adam and Eve used that very power to choose, to choose wrongly and to fall into disobedience by means of the very thing they sought — their likeness to God.

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I mentioned Laurel and Hardy earlier; you may have seen their most famous short film, for which they won the Academy award in 1936, “The Music Box.” It’s the one where they are supposed to deliver an upright piano up an unbelievably long flight of many stairs. Time and again they get it halfway up or almost to the top only to lose their grip on it and have it role clanking and clamoring down the many steps. Finally, just as they’ve managed to get it to the top of the stairs the postman arrives at the house and tells them they could have taken the road up around the other side of the house and avoided the stairs altogether. And what do they do? Even though they are at their destination, even though they are ready to bring the piano into the house, what do they do? They bring the cursed piano all the way back down the stairs to put it on their horse cart to bring it up to the very same place they had it, by the road they could have used in the first place!

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Adam and Eve could have remained in Paradise; they were where they wanted to be, they were wear God wanted them to be, and they could have stayed had they chosen to listen to God in the first place. They were already like God and didn’t need the fruit of any tree to become like God. Instead, they listened to the serpent who told them that if they disobeyed God they could get to the place they wanted to be — even though they were already there! They lost what they had by trying to get what they had.

Fortunately for us there was a way out of this paradoxical dilemma. But we could not do it by ourselves. By making the wrong choice at the very beginning, humanity got so far off course that it could never find its way home again on its own. We tried and tried to get that piano of sin up the steps of the Law, but it always came sliding down again. We got it back on our cart, but then we couldn’t remember where the road was to get us where we needed to be.

Humanity had become so lost that it needed to be rescued — to be saved. And because humanity itself had become so weakened by this time, so debilitated, by that initial failure to choose rightly, that salvation had to be in the form of one who was himself fully human — so that in human flesh that perfect obedience could be undertaken by one who in himself summed up all of humanity. Just as Adam had been the beginning of all humanity, this one man had to be the culmination of humanity. But it was also needful that he be a human being who was in perfect unity and full communion with God — able to present the untarnished and perfect image of God that all other human beings through the fall of Adam and Eve had distorted and tarnished and worn out. And so the Word which was God became human flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. Why? To save us — that’s why.

And he accomplished this by doing the very thing our ancestors had failed to do. As Paul said, “just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” And the course of that obedience is set in the very first action of Christ’s ministry, immediately following his baptism. He goes right into the wilderness, and there confronts the very one whose tantalizing misdirections first got Adam and Eve off course and into that fine mess. Jesus confronts the devil, and faces each of his tantalizing temptations with obedience. He chooses obedience at each point. When the devil offers fast food, Jesus proclaims the primacy of Scripture. When the devil offers safety through disaster, Jesus proclaims that God is not to be so tested. And when the devil offers power, Jesus proclaims his dedication and submission to God and God alone. All of these temptations, as at the first, are, if you not carefully, are temptations for Jesus to grasp at things he already has. (The devil really can’t come up with anything new!) And it is through his obedience in spite of the temptations to take what is already his by right — to seize it rather than simply to be in it — it is through this obedience, demonstrated here against the spirit of rebellion who first tempted humanity to choose wrongly, that Jesus sets his feet firmly on the path that will lead to Calvary.

That is why God became human — to save us. We will be with him on this journey, this Lenten journey, seeing that process unfold once again. And so, sisters and brothers, let us journey with him, the one who shows us the way to God, who is himself the Way, Son of God and Son of Man, even Jesus Christ our Lord.+

The Zinger

SJF • Proper 29c 2010• Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
For in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

When someone tells you a story that has a surprise ending, whether humorous or shocking, pleasant or painful, that ending is called a “zinger.” Whether it’s a hilarious punch-line or slap in the face, when you get hit with it, you know that you’ve been “zinged.”

Well, the passage from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Colossians that we heard today ends with just such a surprise, just such a zinger. It starts off talking about glorious power and the joyous inheritance we await with the saints in the light — the light of God. It continues through words of deliverance and rescue, and then launches into a radiant description of the Son of God, in all his might, majesty, power and dominion. The passage builds and builds in its cosmic magnificence, one of the clearest testimonies in the whole New Testament witnessing to the divine Sonship of Jesus Christ — not merely a human being but Eternal God Incarnate — but then, suddenly, on the last five words, we are shocked to be called back to the horrors of Calvary, and the shedding of Christ’s blood on the cross.

Saint Paul no doubt intended this to be a zinger: an abrupt bit of shock and awe to remind the grateful Colossians — and us — just what their and our deliverance cost. I said a few weeks ago when I preached about Zacchaeus that we’d be returning to this reminder of Good Friday in the midst of the autumn — and sure enough here is this zinger: a reminder of Christ’s passion and death right on schedule on the last Sunday after Pentecost in the last year of this first decade of the 21st century.

And our gospel text today picks right up at the scene to which Saint Paul has brought us. It is as if Saint Paul were the usher who has guided us at first through a magnificent lobby or antechamber such as you might see in a great palace befitting the king of the universe: the stones of the polished floor and the marble columns and magnificent decorations themselves seem to sing of grandeur and majesty. And then our usher Paul guides us to the massive and gorgeous bronze doors — surely we expect an even grander sight as the doors open to reveal the king’s throne room.

Instead, comes the zinger. Instead of finding ourselves at the royal throne we expected, Paul has ushered us in to join a crowd of people standing by and watching the pitiful spectacle of a man nailed to a cross, dying the death of a criminal between two other nameless felons condemned to death. We can hear the sounds of the leaders scoffing, “He saved others; let him save himself.” We can make out the mocking sign hanging above that sacred head, sore wounded, “This is the King of the Jews” — Pilate’s exquisitely double-edged insult both to Jesus and the Jews — his cruel and pointed way of saying, “This is what happens when you mess with Rome.”

Finally, we hear the voice of the thief who comes to the defense of Jesus when the other thief derides him, and challenges him to save himself and them. And the second criminal doesn’t even ask to be saved — he just says, Remember me. And then comes one last zinger, the last word for our gospel today: “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

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So it is that today we are faced with a double zinger, the great paradox of the nature of God and the nature of humanity, united in one person in Jesus Christ the Son of God and Son of Man, the one through whom and for whom all things — and that includes us — were created and have their being, and through whom and by whom God reconciled to himself all things — and that includes us again. To put it in the perspective of Martin Luther’s two most famous hymns — we affirm that God in Christ is both our Mighty Fortress and the one whose sacred head was wounded by a crown, not of gold but of thorns. He is our Creator and our Redeemer, so we owe him a double debt.

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I want to close with an old story; it’s so old that no one knows who first told it. It happened a long, long time ago, in the days before there were big toy manufacturers, long before Toys ‘R’ Us, long before television tempted all of us to spend more than we could afford. Back in those days children were often happy enough a set of wooden blocks, or with a toy they made themselves.

One young boy worked hard at making a model sailboat, and she was a beauty. But one day when he was sailing his prize model boat in the stream that ran at the back of the family field, a sudden thunderstorm and gust of wind blew up, and blew the boat out of sight downstream. Though he looked and looked for it along the bank, he couldn’t find it and after a few weeks he accepted the fact that it was lost.

Then a month later he was in the town with his parents, helping with the weekly shopping. And across the street, he saw in the window of the local curiosity shop, a model sailboat that looked mighty familiar. He asked his father’s permission and ran, dodging the horse-drawn carriages — I told you this was a long time ago — across the road to the curiosity shop, and pressed his face against the window. Sure enough, that was his boat. He pushed open the shop door and the shopkeeper came out from the back room as the bell tinkled to announce the arrival of a customer. “That’s my boat in the window,” the boy said proudly. “Is it now?” said the shopkeeper. “And here I thought it was mine! I bought it from a gentleman who brought it in last week, and I paid good money for it.”

The boy persisted, “But Mister, it’s my boat. I made it with my father’s toolkit, and the sail came from one of my mother’s old worn out aprons. And here’s the name I painted on it — The Royal Crown. That’s the name I gave it and I christened it out in the out behind our house.”

The shopkeeper was not convinced. “Well that’s as may be, but I paid a dollar to the man who sold it to me, and just to be fair, I will do the same to you: I’ll be glad to let you have it at that same price.”

The boy’s heart sunk. In those days a dollar was a lot of money. He knew he had some pennies in his piggy bank, saved from what he made doing chores and helping out, but he didn’t think he could possibly have as much as a dollar. But he obtained the shopkeeper’s promise that he would hold the sailboat until th boy could came back to town the next week.

Oh, how he itched and squirmed on the way home that day, waiting to see how much he had in his piggy bank. When he got home, with shaking hands, he opened the stopper and poured out the pennies on the dresser — would there be enough? He kept shaking, shaking, hoping to hear the sound of another penny rattling in the piggy-bank. And then began to count slowly and carefully — 85 86 87 — he could see that he was running low — 92 93 94 — he kept on going — 99 100 — just exactly what he needed, but everything that he had!

The next week he carried the coins in an old mason jar, as he proudly pushed open the door of the curiosity shop, and put the payment on the counter, and received the sailboat from the shopkeeper. Cradling the boat carefully in his arms, he said, “You are mine twice now: I made you and I bought you.”

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So beloved, we are to Christ; he holds us in his arms; he made us and he bought us — and that’s the zinger to end all zingers. He is our creator and redeemer, he made us for himself, and when the winds of sin blew us off course and carried us far away, he sought us out and found us, and bought us with everything he had, his life itself — purchasing our salvation by the blood of his cross.

And so, we don’t belong to ourselves any more— however independent we might feel at times. No, beloved, we belong to God: we were made by God and for God, and we were sought out and bought back by him through the shedding of his blood. We are his people, not just the sheep of his pasture but the citizens of his kingdom. Come then and let us offer our thanks and praise to him who made us and saved us, our Creator and Redeemer, even Jesus Christ our Lord.+

Great Servants

Sermon for the Patronal Feast of St James the Apostle, 2010 -- the 157th anniversary of the founding of the parish.

SJF • July 25 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.

How fitting are these words for us to hear, we gathered here on this festival of Saint James the Apostle, our Patron! For although I have the privilege and responsibility to bear the title of Minister in a formal way, yet each of us is a minister in this place — and a minister beyond this place. Each of you has a ministry to carry out as much as I. I have spoken many times before of the responsibility each Christian bears to witness to the saving gift of Christ, to witness to the truth that is in you as you go about your daily life in the world at large.

This is a vital ministry, a life-giving and life-saving ministry, particularly in our day when the church has ceased to be at the center of society. When this parish was founded 157 years ago, those who gathered to begin that noble work were not such as we: working people, tradespeople, students, craftspeople, laborers. No, they were the cream of their society, men — and in those days they were as the founders all men, though women played a very important part, of which I will soon say more — but men of wealth and influence, captains of industry and commerce, leaders in trade and politics, mayors of cities, diplomats, and generals and admirals in the army and navy.

And yet all of them served — however high they were on the scale of earthly achievement, they did not think themselves too high and mighty to soil their hands with the hard work of providing a place for the people of God to worship. They did not flinch from digging deep into their own pockets to provide for a parish that would stand the test of time, stand for more than a century and a half, as a testimony and a tribute to their devotion and their ministry. And I want to name just a few of them, from those early days.

Gustav Schwab, one of the wealthiest men in this Borough in his day, chaired the building committee for the construction of this church, paid for many of its appointments, including all of the stained glass windows in the sanctuary, from his own pocket, and worked long hours diligently to serve the people, without any reward. Truly he was a Minister who served.

George Cammann, of whom I’ve spoken before: a renowned physician of this City, the chief physician of the Home for Orphans and Foundlings, did not think to profit from the stethoscope that he invented, but made it free to the public domain, so that anyone could manufacture it, thus spreading the reach of this powerful tool for the diagnosis and treatment of disease. Truly he was a great servant of all people.

Franklin Edson, the Mayor of the City of New York, served this parish as a vestryman for 21 years, taking time from his civic work to attend meetings and serve on committees with diligence and skill. Truly a Minister who served.

William B. Ogden, the first Mayor of Chicago and president of the Union Pacific Railroad, who loved Saint James so much that he loaned its name to the cathedral he founded in Nebraska, who was baptized and confirmed late in life, at the age of seventy-one at this very altar rail, who died and was buried from this place the following year — truly he was a great servant to the people.

Closer to our own time, some of you here will remember those gentle spirits Ralph, Ken and Gladstone, true gentlemen and gentle men, who served in this sanctuary and sang in this choir — or our dear Rita and Rosetta, just last year taken from us to serve in a greater choir.

And who can forget Florine, or Rhena, Mervis, Katherine, or Noel, Viola, Maggie, or Jane, or Mercedes, or Ira, or the names of so many other women who did so much to build up this church, to keep it going when others were ready to let it go. Recall that it was the women of the church who provided it with the chalices from which we still take the sacred blood of Christ, and the magnificent paten upon which rests his consecrated Body, when they dedicated those gifts in 1853. All of these, and so many others whom time will not permit their naming, were Ministers who served, great servants of the people.

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In this is one of the great mysteries of Christ: that whoever seeks greatness must do so not by exaltation but by service, not by putting oneself forward, but by putting oneself to work, not by standing prominently on the street-corner making an empty show of religion, but by stooping down to wash the feet of the poor, to bend one’s back under the cross of service day by day, that alone makes one worthy to bear the name of “Christian.”

Our Lord came not to be ministered to, but to be a minister to all; he came not to Lord it over us, but to raise us up by his own descent to the very depths. His was a baptism of pain and suffering that he knew he must undergo, his a death in which he knew he must go under: even unto the grave, even unto hell itself, to free from bondage all imprisoned there since the day our ancient parents fell from grace. For only in giving his life as a ransom for many, only by drinking that bitter cup of betrayal and death, only by this full and perfect sacrifice of himself once offered upon the cross could he be sure that nothing would be lost: to catch us all from falling, to lift us up from where we had already fallen, he would place himself beneath us all, beneath us as a servant, and a savior, to catch us as we fell, and to raise us up with him.

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Each of us is challenged to do the same: not seeking exaltation and glory, the best seats at the banquet and the roles of power and prestige, but instead diligently to seek for the opportunities to serve that present themselves to us day by day and year by year. To ask oneself: Is there some church committee or group that needs my help, that needs the skill I have, the gift God gave me, and yet which I am not using for God’s purposes? Am I storing up my treasure in a barn, or burying it in the field instead of putting it to work as God would have me do?

Or is there some opportunity for me to witness to the love of God to those with whom I work, by showing them the faith and joy of one who serves the Lord? Dare I pass among the byways of the outer world and keep such grace as I have known in this place secret? Dare I let it be said of me by those with whom I worked, after I am gone, “We never knew he was a Christian”?

Or is there in my neighborhood some task to be accomplished that needs my help, some task in which my hands might make the difference, and making the difference, further or complete the work? Do my friends and neighbors know me as one to whom they can turn for help, for comfort or for aid? How do I witness to my Lord to those among whom I live?

Or is there even in my own family someone from whom I have been estranged, some kith or kin with whom I have not spoken through some grudge or past wrong yet unforgiven or unrepented? And might my reaching out bring the balm of healing to that wound, in a true ministry of charity and love, a ministry commanded by our Lord, who urged us to forgive, even as we are forgiven?

These are the ministries that God places before us as he placed them before the disciples James and John. We do not know who will find themselves in the exalted seats of honor in the kingdom of God when he comes in glory to judge and rule the world. But we do know that the baptism of Christ is the baptism into which we have been baptized; that the cup from which he drank is offered to us still to drink from; that the cross he bore is offered to each of us day by day to bear — or to refuse. God offers us this choice, and offers us the promise that those who do God’s will on earth will truly find their reward. May we always choose to follow our Lord as ministers and servants, ministering to each other and to those whom God places on our path, that we may do the will of him alone to whom we now ascribe, as is most justly due, all might, majesty, power and dominion, henceforth and for evermore.+

Mediator and Advocate

SJF• Easter 7c • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.”+

Just between us, I’m kind of glad that the Sunday School and Youth have gone about their activities, because I’m going to mention something about childhood and youth that is probably best kept amongst the older generation. Though, seriously, I don’t know who I’m fooling, because almost all children really know it already; soon after learning to walk and talk, they have learned a powerful secret that will help carry them on through life and into their own adulthood. It is a secret that helped the children of Israel survive in the wilderness, and in the Promised Land in which they settled after their long journey. It is a secret that helped the Apostles deal with the difficulties they faced as the church began to find its feet and take its first tottering steps and begin and speak out against idolatry and injustice. And the secret is this: when Mom says No, Dad can be appealed to, to intercede, and maybe to get Mom to change her mind.

This is the secret art of advocacy, getting someone to advocate for you, to mediate for you and take your part, to speak on your behalf when it seems that the case may be closed and the judgement final. Having been serving jury duty last two weeks, and due to go back for at least another before the trial is completed — I’ve seen with my own eyes how important it is to have a good defense attorney: someone to serve as an advocate, to speak on your behalf, to make a compelling case. Even very young children learn fairly early on that No is not always the last word, and that a little skillful diplomacy, advocacy or mediation can get even a stern motherly or fatherly mind changed. The crucial thing is that the advocate must be someone who can speak to the one who has made the adverse decision, someone who has a relationship with the one who handed down that previous order, someone whose advocacy will have an impact, just as a husband might be able to influence his wife, or, as in the case of our Gospel today — the Son of God interceding on behalf his disciples, and those who will believe through their word — who knows he will be heard by his Father in heaven. He is not just speaking into the air, but into the ear of his loving Father.

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Imagine, if you will, a child who has just knocked over his mother’s favorite vase. Now, this child might well go to his mother right off and apologize. But a wise child might first go to his father, explain the situation, and ask for his help in preparing the way for the apology to his mother. And such a father might well tell his child to rely on the love that his mother has for him, even though he’s just broken her favorite vase.

I spoke last week of how important tradition is, how important history is for knowing where you’ve been and where you are, in order to understand where you’re going. That goes for our personal history as well, the history of our personal relationships — relationships that do not simply pop into existence out of the blue, but which are built up over time and enriched by experience. And few such relationships are as important as the relationships we have with those who brought us up from childhood — whether our own parents, or foster parents, or grandparents. Those relationships begun in childhood are the longest lasting, simply because they are the earliest to start.

And so, the father in my imagined scenario might encourage his son, by saying, “Do you think that your mother, who has loved you your whole life, will turn away from you now just because you broke a bit of crockery? No, she won’t do that, because of the love that has been there long before.” Not that a few helpful words from the father to the mother might not help, mind you! — that’s where intercession and advocacy come in — but the basis is the trust that relies on the relationship that existed long before.

And that is really how advocacy works. Most advocacy, most mediation, consists in reminding people of the “big picture” or the larger context of the situation. It’s not just the broken piece of crockery, but what might have led to that accident. Justice is not just about the particular minute act in question, but about the whole course of a life, with all its ups and downs, its failures and successes, seen in relation to the circumstances of the particular occasion. This was a point made by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor as part of her confirmation hearings. Some people didn’t like that way of thinking; they didn’t like to think that a woman who grew up in the South Bronx might bring a different perspective to the Supreme Court. Some people didn’t like it and thought a judge should preserve complete judicial blindness to the context of a person’s life and treat all actions in the abstract — as if they were pure acts suspended in space, apart from the actors who carried them out. But thanks be to God that God’s justice is not blind — based as it is upon complete and perfect knowledge not just of the individual actions that we perform, but of us, and of all of the contexts and conditions surrounding them.

This is why God is the ultimate just judge, and also — in Christ — the great mediator and advocate. He is the Lord of context, of inclusion, of the “big picture.” He is the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end, arching over the whole of creation and present in every place at every time.

God is infinite, but we are finite. God is without limit in time or space, while we have a beginning and an ending, and a specific place in the world. We human creatures, dust brought to life at the breath of God, aware of our limitations, need to be reassured from time to time that God still does take account of us, that God cares about us, especially when we’ve strayed and done wrong, and know we’ve done wrong, and rightly feel that God may turn from us.

Our collect today contains that almost heartbreaking appeal: “Do not leave us for comfortless...” And so we appeal in these moments of feeling desolated and comfortless, to Jesus our Lord, the Son of the Father, to intercede for us with the Father. We appeal to him to take up once more that great prayer that he prayed on the night before he suffered and died for us, that prayer not only on behalf of the apostles, but also on behalf of those who believe in him though their word, for us, who have received that word second-, third- or fourth-hand down through that long tradition of the church. He was praying for us as well that night: that we might all be one.

We crave the assurance of that unity, of God’s love for us, for that unity and peace in the embrace of God, like the embrace of a loving parent, that all is well; and yet we know we are far from perfect, we know we have erred and strayed, and not done all as we should do. So somewhat shy of standing before the majestic judge, we turn to Jesus, who, while he is our judge, is also our only Mediator and Advocate, and we ask him to intercede on our behalf, to restore our sense of unity with him and with each other, and with God, his Father and our Father. For it is unity that is our hope and God’s will for us: that we may all be one even as God is one. Our prayer is to be with Jesus where he is, for when we are with him who is one with the Father, we are with the Father too.

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I began this sermon by telling about children’s skill in obtaining an advocate to be with them on their side and speak on their behalf. Writer Carol Kent, in an interview in Today’s Christian Woman, tells of one such skillful child, her little boy Jason. They were eating breakfast together one morning; she was wearing a patched pair of jeans and a fuzzy old sweater, ready to do housework on her day off. The little boy looked up over his cereal bowl and said, “Mommy, you look so pretty today!” She was surprised, since she didn’t even have any makeup on, and said, “Jason, why would you say I look pretty today? I’m not even wearing my suit and high heels.” The child said, “When you look like that, I know you’re going away; but when you’re dressed like this, I know you’re here, and you’re all mine.”

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Well, Jesus is all ours. He is our mediator and advocate, and that’s a big “our.” It’s not just you and me here at Saint James; it’s not just all the Episcopalians or all the Anglicans; it is rather all for whom Christ prayed on that night before he died, all of those who would believe through the preaching of the apostles, all one in Christ throughout the whole wide earth. That is what Christ prayed for, and that is what God granted.

Christ came to us dressed in his housework clothes, and he knelt to wash the disciples’ feet. He came to us not in majesty and splendor, robed as a king or a conqueror, but as a humble worker — a carpenter from a small town out in the suburbs, a friend and companion of common folk, of fishermen and farmers, of clerks and shopkeepers and people who lived by their wits on the streets. And he was with them and he belonged to them as he is with us and belongs to us, and all of us together belong to God through him. He is our only mediator and advocate, and he has not left us comfortless, nor abandoned us— he is ours for ever, and we are his. And even in this present seeming-absence from us, in this in-between-time in-the-mean-time since his ascent into heaven and until his coming again in power and great glory to rule the world, he has sent his Holy Spirit to be with us, so that we might have him in our hearts, comforted with that spiritual presence until that great day when we are exalted to that place where he has gone before, that where he is, we may also be, for ever, and be completely, utterly, and finally and at last, one.+