Jerusalem Snapshot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memory of Persistence

Keeping on keeping on, urged towards justice and blessing...

Proper 24c 2013 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.

In keeping with the theme for the readings today, we persist in hearing from the letters of Paul to his disciple Timothy. Today we hear Paul urging Timothy on, like the coaches who accompanied Diana Nyad on her swim from Cuba to Florida. Look at all the encouragement Paul pours out: “Continue in what you have learned… I solemnly urge you… be persistentenduredo the work… carry out your ministry fully.”

As with most of Paul’s letters, we only have one side of the conversation. That is, we have no copies of the Letters of Saint Timothy to Paul. But common sense tells us that Paul does not write a letter such as this — full of the voice of a coach offering encouragement — if Paul has not heard, either from Timothy himself or perhaps from some other messenger, that there is something about which Timothy is discouraged.

We don’t have to look very far to find indications of what is causing Timothy’s discouragement. People are challenging his teaching — which involves passing along the gospel that Paul has passed along to him. As we saw in last week’s passage, people are “wrangling over words,” that is, perhaps arguing over different interpretations of Scripture.

In a verse we don’t hear between last week’s portion and this week’s, Paul complains that some people are giving in to“profane chatter” as he calls it, that will “spread like gangrene” because some — and Paul is not afraid to name names — “some have swerved from the truth by claiming that the resurrection has already taken place.” Paul denounces these people as frauds who are just trying to take advantage of people and make themselves rich.

In today’s passage he alludes to those who have “itching ears,” who choose teachers to their own liking instead of listening to the truth, putting their faith in myths rather than in the sound teaching that Timothy is trying to offer them.

In the midst of all this trouble — and doesn’t it sound familiar, even in our own day? — Paul urges Timothy to press on, to keep the faith and to spread it. Four times in this relatively short correspondence, he uses the phrase, “The saying is sure” to introduce some fundamental doctrine to which he urges Timothy to hang on as he would to a life preserver in a flood. The message to Timothy is persistence.

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Our other readings today reinforce this theme of persisting, holding fast, and not giving up. The story of Jacob’s wrestling match with God takes the image of holding fast literally. The amazing thing is that, not only does Jacob wrestle with God — or God’s messenger — but that he gets his adversary to cry uncle! Jacob simply will not let go until he gets that blessing, and so he receives the blessing; he becomes a father of nations, and he gains a new name, Israel — which means “he who contends with God,” whose face he sees, and yet lives — even though he is left out-of-joint and limping.

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The gospel today shows a different kind of persistence, in the parable of the widow and the unjust judge. Whenever I hear this parable I can’t help but think of those women who for many years stood in the public squares in Argentina, El Salvador, Chile, and Guatemala — all of them holding up photographs and posters with the images and names of Los Desaparecidos — the “disappeared ones” — their brothers, sons, husbands and fathers abducted by political authorities with no more care for justice than the unjust judge in today’s parable. They persisted, in a testimony to their faith that justice will eventually prevail, and that right will triumph in the end. Sadly, some of them are still waiting.

In the parable, however, we aren’t given the details of what the widow’s complaint is, only that she has an opponent, and the judge — who has no fear of God or respect for people — is not rendering a decision. Perhaps he is looking for a bribe, perhaps he just doesn’t care enough to take up her case, or perhaps — in spite of his not having respect for people — he doesn’t want to cross whoever her unnamed opponent is. Whatever the reason, justice is delayed — and as the old saying goes “justice delayed is justice denied.” Finally, though, in this case, we hear the end of the story, and the persistent widow wears the unjust judge down.

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Jesus then gives us a moral to this parable, as he spells it out, and it is an example of a teaching technique that the rabbis called “light and heavy” — a teaching device very common among the rabbis, and used a number of times by the Rabbi Jesus. We heard an example of it some weeks ago when Jesus confronted those who were upset with him for healing that woman on the Sabbath: and he confronted them by saying, if you will rescue an animal on the Sabbath how much more a human being.

This teaching technique of light and heavy was very popular with the rabbis, and Jesus uses it again and again; even in perhaps his last teaching. Even on the road to Calvary, as he carried his cross to his crucifixion, when he met the women weeping for him, he ended by saying, “If they do this when the wood is green, what will they do when it is dry.” Light and heavy — simple and hard.

So too here the “light” is the unjust judge and the “heavy” is the just God. If even an unjust earthly judge will eventually give in and do justice for those who appeal to him, how much more will the just God hear and respond to his people when they cry out to him for justice. Light and heavy.

As with Paul’s encouragement to Timothy, this is Jesus’ encouragement to the disciples, “about their need to pray always and not to lose heart” — if an unjust human will finally do justice, will not the just God ultimately do justice as well — and far more powerfully, with far more weight?

And as with all of Jesus’ teaching, this is directed to the church to which Paul ministered and Timothy ministered — and to which all of us minister in the church today, for we are his disciples. I don’t just mean the ordained ministers but each and every one of you, as each of you has some ministry, some service in the gospel to the spread God’s gospel on earth, to let all hear of the kingdom and its coming. We are, all of us, called to persevere and persist in our work and in our prayer.

As I said a few moments ago, when I was listing some of the problems that Timothy had to face: some things haven’t changed since the first century. There are still people who will get deeply into arguments about words, using the Scripture not as a medicine for the soul but as a weapon to bash other people over the head. There are some who engage in profane chatter and spread false doctrines or their own half-baked ideas instead of relying on the wholesome gospel truth of Christ and his saving life and death, and life again. There are some who prefer myths and fantasy to the tested and assured doctrines of salvation, or who have itching ears and seek out teachers who will tell them what they want to hear, instead of challenging them with the demands that Christ places upon us. And there are some who are willing to be such teachers, willing to give people what they want to hear, and make a fine living out of it, creating personal cults with devoted followers — and we’ve seen the tragic results of such things in places like Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate.

I’m tempted almost to cite our Lord’s pessimistic — it seems — closing comment, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Will he? Will he find it hear among us? Everywhere the church seems to be in decline; it is so much less a part people’s lives today than it was even thirty years ago, even twenty years ago; while the “new age spirituality” section at Barnes & Noble takes up several shelves — and anyone with itching ears for salvation through crystals, or yoga, or transcendental meditation can find plenty to occupy their time — and fill the pockets of those who are ready to provide such spiritual junk food.

But, to quote Saint Paul, “as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed.” For we have studied the Scripture together, persistently examining it and exploring it for all of the benefits that can be found in it: a light to our feet upon the way. We have recognized that the inspired Scripture is useful — this is no fantasy game! We are called and challenged, my brothers and sisters, to persevere in these disciplines of prayer and devotion and work, ministers of God as much as Paul and Timothy, each of us equipped with varying skills and differing talents, all of which can be used to the service of God and to spread God’s kingdom. Only let us persevere, and blessing and justice will be ours at last.+

Cloud of Witnesses

Testimony is natural, supernatural, human and divine, and bears witness to the transformation of the world...

Easter 7c • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
“It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches.”

I want to begin my sermon today with a question: Have any of you here this morning ever had to testify in a civil or criminal matter, either in court or by deposition? I won’t ask you for details, but I will volunteer that I have been in that position in a few civil cases, including that long, drawn-out lawsuit with the former day care operator who stopped paying her rent, in addition to other violations of the lease. The less said about that the better!

But if you have ever given testimony — or if you’ve seen it being done on TV or in the movies, or as a member of a jury, and whether fictional or for real — you know what it amounts to: affirming or swearing to something that you know to be true, usually as a witness or a party to an event or action of some kind.

Witnesses come in all shapes and sizes. I was struck a few weeks ago, after that terrible bombing in Boston, by the fact that some of the “witnesses” aren’t even aware that they are witnesses at the time at all. Much of the evidence that led to identifying the bombers came from cell-phone pictures or snapshots taken of the crowd, or from surveillance cameras and monitors, without any specific intention to photograph the particular bombers. It was only after the fact that the investigators went back to review those thousands of images to piece together the evidence that led to identifying the bombers, and sealed their fate.

I raise this issue testifying because this morning’s readings all address testimony of one sort or another. Some of it appears to be almost as unexpected as the cell-phone snapshots taken by the bystanders enjoying the Boston Marathon — before those terrible explosions went off. Some of the testimony is true as far as it goes, but entirely misses the point. And some of the testimony is important enough to be memorialized for thousands of years since the events themselves.

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First comes perhaps the strangest testimony of all, and the unusual reactions to it. This is the testimony of the demon who possessed the Philippian slave-girl. That young woman had long been held captive by a demon and by those who made use of the prophetic power it bestowed. That also rings a bell in current news, doesn’t it! But unlike the women held captive in Cleveland, this young Philippian was allowed out on the streets, though she bore her demon captor with her wherever she went. She followed Paul and the other disciples through the streets of that Roman colony calling out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” It’s always interested me that Saint Paul, rather than welcoming this free advertising, is annoyed by it, and he performs a quick exorcism casting out the demon, and setting the girl free from that possession, but also rendering her of no more use to her owners, since she can no longer be a sooth-sayer. This ought to remind us of those strange incidents in the Gospels where demons proclaim Jesus to be the Son of God, and Jesus tells them to be silent and casts them out. It seems that some testimony, even if true, is not welcome from certain witnesses! God does not need devils to bear witness to him.

We then quickly see a change of scene and a real court-house testimony, as the owners of the slave-girl drag the apostles before the magistrate and offer their accusation: “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and they are advocating customs that are not lawful for us Romans to adopt or observe.” Now, as much as we might not like to admit it, this testimony is also true, as far as it goes. From the perspective of the pagans of that colony, these Christians are upsetting their world — as will be said in the next chapter of Acts, when Paul and his companions have moved on to Thessalonica, where they are accused of turning the whole world upside-down.

Finally, this chapter of Acts treats us to one last bit of testimony: after the earthquake that shakes the prison open, and loosens the chains of the prisoners, Paul and Silas proclaim the Gospel in its fulness, bringing salvation even to the jailer who had kept them locked up, and freeing him as well from his own bonds of ignorance. They were locked up because they had upset the people of the colony with their un-Roman ways; but they proclaimed something universal and powerful that is beyond Jew or Gentile: the salvation that comes through Christ. And here at last the entire household rejoices in being baptized and becoming believers in that which earlier they had earlier condemned and despised. Such is the power of testimony: it liberates from captivity of all sorts — from demons, from prison, from darkness and despair.

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But there is more, one more entirely faithful and truthful witness, one who is the Truth itself, one who bears witness not only to himself, but to his heavenly Father, as the Father also bears witness to him, for they are one: for whoever has seen the Son has seen the Father too. And this witness, this Jesus, commissions and sends other witnesses to testify to his coming, and to his mission. In John’s vision, the one who is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, Jesus, testifies that he has sent his angel to John, with his testimony for the churches, that he is who he claims to be: the root and descendant of David, the bright morning star of salvation.

And in the Gospel Jesus prays for those who will witness to him, who will testify to him, and also for all of those who will come to believe in him through their word, through their testimony. Jesus makes himself and his heavenly Father known to his disciples, so that they can in turn make this saving truth known to the world, the world that needs to be turned upside-down, the world that as yet does not know the truth of this testimony. Jesus prays for those who will believe through the testimony of the Apostles.

And that, my friends, is us. We have not the privilege to be eyewitnesses to the events that happened some eighty generations ago. We rely on the word passed down to us by former witnesses in their testimony, by disciples who actually heard and saw the Lord, and who passed that word down through the generations to those who had no first hand experience of the Gospel events, and on and on to us. We are called do our part too, passing along the words of that old, old story, telling it to those who know the tale already, who know it best, but also to those who have never heard it. This is our testimony, a testimony not at first hand, but a testimony of what we have heard and of what we have believed, of the fulfillment of the words spoken through the prophets, handed down to us through all those generations. We have heard the story retold to those who know it best, and to all the rest of us who hear it for the first time.

It is a story told to the farthest reaches of the universe, to all creatures, natural and supernatural — from the angels above, sent by God to proclaim the word in visions, to the devils who know the truth in their pit of damnation, and who tremble in terror because of it. This is the testimony, and the one who testifies has told us, “Surely I am coming soon.” And let all the people say, Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!+

The Cry for Mercy

Who prays to one who cannot answer prayer? The Jesus Prayer and a Brotherhood tradition.— A sermon for Proper 25

Proper 25b • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
When Bartimaeus heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Today’s Gospel from Mark presents us with a turning point in Jesus’ ministry as he heads from Galilee and makes his journey on to Jerusalem. This passage also includes Mark’s last record of Jesus performing a healing — for Mark chooses not to record that Jesus healed the man whose ear was cut off in the Garden of Gethsemane.

There are many features to this short Gospel. Consider the fact that Jericho is mentioned twice at the opening of the passage but only to say that Jesus came and went; nothing is said about what happened in-between. This does give us the opportunity, by the repetition of that name, “Jericho,” to remember that “Jesus” in Hebrew is “Joshua” — and who can forget what happened when Joshua fit the battle of Jericho!

Then, in addition to this repeated reference to Jericho, there is the immediate repetition of the blind man’s name, because Bartimaeus means “son of Timaeus.” Also note how the blind man cries out twice for Jesus to help him, before the crowd orders him to keep quiet, and again afterwards. I’m tempted to say, “Is there an echo in here; or rather three echoes?”

As soon as the echoes die down, we witness the eagerness with which the man throws off his cloak and springs up; and then Jesus asks what he wants him to do for him — which is another echo, for as Bill reminded us last week, this is the same question Jesus asked the disciples James and John in the immediately preceding passage.

Perhaps most importantly, Mark reports the speed and simplicity of the healing itself — unlike earlier healings involving physical actions and incantations in Aramaic; here the healing takes place with one word, “Go,” and the affirmation that the man’s faith has brought him healing.

All of these points are noteworthy and could be subjects, each of them, for a whole series of sermons; but today I want to focus on the third set of echoes at the beginning of the passage: the words the blind man shouted out when he heard that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” It is notable how the economical evangelist Mark repeats this phrase twice, along with all of those other repetitions, those other echoes, both before and after the people tell the man to keep quiet. As I’ve said before, when the shortest of the gospels takes the time to say something twice, and does it three or four times in this short passage today, it is Mark’s way of drawing our attention to it. It is almost as if Mark is waving at us, and saying, “Pay attention! This is important!” So let us pay attention.

First, this is the only time in Mark’s Gospel when someone addresses Jesus as “Son of David,” and it serves as a reminder and a preparation for what is about to happen, for the passage that follows immediately is the Palm Sunday account of Jesus’ entry into David’s royal city, there to fulfill the destiny prepared for him from before the foundation of the world. The blind man — think of it for a moment — the blind man is the witness in Mark’s Gospel, that this is the Son of David; he is the only one in Mark’s Gospel to refer to Jesus in this way. He is the one who has recognized that the Son of David has arrived, as long promised.

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But even that is not my focus for reflection this morning. Rather it is on the prayer of the blind man, “Have mercy on me!” This is, naturally, the prayer of any beggar seeking relief, with his hand outstretched,“Have mercy on me. But it is also the natural prayer of anyone at all seeking God’s mercy — seeking what only God can give. To some extent, great or small, rich or poor, all of us are petitioners reaching out to our generous God, asking for God’s mercy. And because we only ask for help from one whom we believe can give it, this petition is in itself the sign of faith; as it is a sign of the man’s faith that Jesus is the one who can heal him; it is a sign of his faith, the faith that Jesus assures him his faith has brought him healing. “Have mercy on me” is the prayer of a faithful heart, for who asks for something from one who cannot give?

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This particular phrase, “Jesus, have mercy on me,” formed the central part of a great prayer from the monastic tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church: a prayer known simply as “The Jesus Prayer” or “The Prayer of the Heart.” A Russian monk wrote of his experience with this prayer in a short memoir, The Way of a Pilgrim. In it he describes how he wanted to do as Jesus taught and, “to pray always,” or as Saint Paul told the Ephesians, “to pray in the Spirit at all times.” He wanted to fulfill these commandments and so he sought out a wise old monk who told him to pray in this way, “Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” To keep this prayer always in his mind with every breath he took, the old monk instructed him, with every breath he took, to breathe in as he said the first part in his mind, “Jesus, Son of God,” and then as he breathed out, the second part of the prayer, “have mercy on me, a sinner,” and to follow his breath in his mind’s eye, picturing his breath rising up through his nose, over the arch in back and then down into his heart, and then back up and out as he breathed out. I find it helpful to think of a pulley running up through my head and down into my chest, lowering my breath down into my heart, and then brining it back up again. This is the prayer that the man was taught and this is why the prayer is called “the prayer of the heart.” It is a profoundly meditative form of prayer, and you can see at once how it is based on the prayer of the blind man Bartimaeus, recognizing that Jesus is far more than the Son of David; he is the Son of God.

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But there is more to this prayer, and I want to share it with you this morning; and I think it is about time, as I’ve been part of this parish for thirteen years - it will be thirteen years next month. As you know, I’m part of a religious community called the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory. It was founded in 1969 with the help of a very wise woman who was a Roman Catholic nun, a member of the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary. She was the Mother Superior of the convent up in Riverdale, just northwest of here, and our Brother Founder met with her over several years to develop the Rule by which I and over forty other brothers now live. Some years later she visited us, the brothers, when we were on a retreat, and she introduced us to the way her community of sisters had been praying the Jesus Prayer in common — as a group — for many years, perhaps going back to the founding of their community by St Francis de Sales in 1615. I want to share it with you this morning.

It is sung — and I want you to join me in singing; remembering how Saint Augustine said, “Whoever sings prays twice.” The prayer alternates between the leader and the assembly, and all you need do is repeat after me — as you slowly breathe in as I am singing, and I will do the same as you sing out with the breath you have just inhaled. The words begin even more simply than those of the Eastern Orthodox version: just, “Jesus, Son of God, mercy” — and the prayer is repeated and grows with other petitions using the many titles by which our Lord is known, and the various prayers with which we appeal through the course of our lives; but at the heart of it is the prayer of the blind man, Bartimaeus. Let’s begin; you might find it helpful to close your eyes and raise your hands with your palms upward, reaching out as we all do to the mercy of God as we pray... Jesus, Son of God, mercy... +

The Saint Mark Sandwich

The Evangelist weaves two stories together to give us a set of important messages. A sermon for Proper 8b.

Proper 8b • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse.

A month ago I spoke about different characteristics of the different Gospels. I noted John’s tendency to record long dialogue scenes, such as that between Jesus and the Samaritan woman or Nicodemus. Today we have a long reading from Mark, and it is a good illustration of one of the characteristics of his Gospel.

I’ve mentioned before Mark’s interest in moving the story along, and his frequent use of the word “immediately” — twice in our Gospel passage this morning — as well as the obvious fact that Mark’s Gospel is the shortest of the four. But another feature of Mark’s Gospel is something known as the Saint Mark Sandwich. This doesn’t involve bread and luncheon meat; it is a narrative technique, a literary device.

We have a prime example today: the account begins with the synagogue leader Jairus begging Jesus to heal his little daughter. But on the way to the elder’s house, a sick woman touches Jesus’ cloak, and is healed of her disease. Then the story of Jairus and his daughter resumes, leading to her being restored from what we would most likely call a coma.

So this is a Saint Mark Sandwich: the “bread” is the story of Jairus and his daughter, but the “filling” is that of the sick woman. For one thing this device keeps the story moving — in keeping with Mark’s brevity and immediacy. Jesus is always at work, Mark assures us, and something is always happening, and even on the way to doing one thing, something else will come up. There is an almost cinematic quality to this, like a technique used in Alfred Hitchcock’s films. Next time you watch a re-run of a film like The Birds, or Rear Window, or Psycho, notice this technique: Hitchcock will show you someone looking at something, then he will show you what they are looking at, then he cuts back to show the person looking at it again, perhaps reacting. This tells what the characters are seeing and feeling. More importantly it also shows you what they know or don’t know by their reaction to the thing they, and you, see — and this builds up the suspense that is the foundation for his films.

Saint Mark’s Sandwich serves a similar purpose: the “filling” of the sandwich helps us understand the “bread” and vice-versa. There is always some connection between the inner story and the outer story. In this case, both stories deal with healing, and that in itself is not so unusual in the Gospels. But Saint Mark gives us hints that there is more going on here than simply healing. He uses key-words to remind us that passages are linked, in this case, the word “daughter” to link the stories together. He also tells us that the woman suffered with this bleeding disease for twelve years, and then also mentions that the little girl is twelve years old. If this were a poem you would say that it rhymed!

This sandwich structure and the linkage of the repeating words in the two stories bind them together, and alert us to the fact that Mark wants us to see them as illuminating each other. So how do they do that — and what is the lesson can we take with this sandwich?

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Let’s first notice the “hinge” of the story, the very center — or to use the sandwich analogy, the mayonnaise: the key-word “daughter” links across the boundary from one story to the other. Jesus tells the woman, “Daughter, your faith has made you well, go in peace,” and while he is still speaking the messengers arrive with the contrary word, “Your daughter is dead; why trouble the teacher further?” So in this seam in the stories we are confronted with healing and peace with death and trouble, and going (as he sends the woman on her way) and with staying put (the advice to let the teacher stay where he is).

Moving a little further out from this center of the story, we see that the woman herself did not want to trouble the teacher, just to touch his robe, but in the end she causes quite a bit of trouble; while on the other side of the hinge the messengers suggest not troubling Jesus but when he arrives he finds a commotion.

So the first thing Saint Mark wants us to take away from this sandwich is the importance of relationship to Jesus — highlighted by that word “daughter.” The bleeding woman wants to remain secret, but Jesus wants to be in relationship with her — it is not enough that she has been healed, he wants to know who it is that touched him, and he calls her “daughter” and sends her off with a blessing. Similarly, notice the intimacy with the little girl’s healing: Jesus keeps the crowds outside, and brings only the parents and his inner circle of disciples — Peter, and the brothers James and John — into the house with the little girl, whom he takes by the hand and addresses endearlingly as “Talitha.” So Mark is assuring us that healing is not just some magic act, not just some quick fix — but that Jesus wants an intimate, personal relationship with those he loves and heals.

Then there is that mention of the number twelve — a significant number in the Gospels — but remember that Mark mentions it twice, and that when hasty Mark takes time to tell us something he must mean to make a point. And the point here is that this woman’s disease began about the same time the little girl was born — and recall what it is that happens about the time a young girl reaches the age of twelve, and how under Jewish law a girl or woman is considered to be ritually unclean when she has her monthly period. This reminds us of how miserable this sick woman’s life has been for these twelve years; the constant bleeding has rendered her permanently unclean under Jewish law, unable to participate in the life of the community, perhaps even being barred from going into the synagogue — the synagogue of which Jairus is a leader — just in case you might wonder why that particular detail was included in the story! According to strict interpreters, a woman in her period was not allowed to enter a synagogue or, more important for our story here, to touch a Torah scroll. Yet here this woman ventures to touch the living Word of God himself! And when she does, her interminable bleeding stops — her uncleanness is removed.

For the little girl, on the other hand, her monthly flow will soon start — but for her it is a sign of life — that she is alive and has reached that age; she will be restored to her family, and become a young woman in her own right.

There is so much richness in this Saint Mark’s Sandwich — in case you can’t tell St Mark is my favorite evangelist — I hope I’ve given you at least an appetizer, and that you will when you get home perhaps take out your Bibles and look at some of the other accounts in Mark’s Gospel, and look for other sandwiches. But in closing — and I hope you bear with me for a somewhat long sermon since I’ll be away next week and I need to make up for that! — I want to note one more link between the two stories, because of the core message Mark wants us to take away. It is lost in our translation that we used today, and you might miss it otherwise, so I want to highlight it.

In the crucial hinge verses — the ones linked by the word daughter and the contrast between peace and trouble — Jesus tells the woman that her faith has made her well, and then also tells the leader of the synagogue not to fear but only to have faith. (That’s the way I’d translate it, because in the original faith and belief are the same word.)

So the message to us is to have faith, faith in Jesus who is with us in crowds and commotion but also in private and in secret; Jesus will heal us whether old or young, from chronic or acute conditions, whether we trouble him or simply reach out to touch the hem of his clothing. This is our living Lord, presented to us in this beautiful portion of Scripture from the hand of Saint Mark the Evangelist. He truly has, as Jesus commanded the little girl’s parents, given us something to eat: bread of heaven, words from the mouth of the Most High. Let us give thanks for such nourishment.+

The Good News

There is one old story that never grows old, and it has an effect however often it is told. -- a sermon for Easter 2012

SJF • Easter 2012 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which you also stand, through which also you are being saved.+

Happy Easter! We come once again to the glorious morning on which we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord. In the midst of the celebration, the flowers and the festivity, we might sometimes be tempted to miss the centrality, the vital importance, of this day. This is the day that makes Christianity what it is — the day on which God affirmed that Jesus was his beloved Son by raising him from the dead. And the fact that Jesus was raised from the dead is the heart and soul of the gospel, the good news.

To look at the teaching of some Christians, you might think it was otherwise. For some, the emphasis appears to be on the cross, the crucifixion, suffering and death of Jesus. And surely that is important, as I said last Sunday, “crucially” important. But as with a story that you understand only when you have read it to the very end, the importance of Good Friday depends entirely upon what happened on Easter.

Think about it for a moment: if Good Friday, and Christ’s death on the cross had been the end of the story, if the women had gone to the tomb and found it closed but perhaps recruited a helpful friend to roll the stone away, and then just went about the sad business of anointing the dead body of their dear friend with spices and then sealing the tomb back up — — in short, if Jesus had not been raised from the dead, I don’t think we’d be here this morning. As tragic as his suffering and death was; even as comforting as meditating on his passion and death has been down through the years for many suffering, wounded, or injured people — if that had been the end, then little note would have been taken, there would have been no resurrection to witness, no preaching of the gospel, no good news — the best news and the greatest gospel: that an innocent man who suffered and died was vindicated in being raised from the dead, and more than that: that he gave power and promise to all who believe in him to share in a life like his. This, my friends, this is the good news — not just that he “was crucified under Pontius Pilate” but that “the third day he rose again from the dead.”

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We need to be reminded of this, just as the people of Corinth needed to be reminded, as Saint Paul did in fact remind them. This good news is not just something told once, and then filed and forgotten. This is good news that never grows old — even as it becomes the “old, old story”— this isn’t like some story on CNN that gets told over and over again to fill the 24-hour news cycle, but is forgotten as soon as some other item rises to the surface and grabs our attention. Last year, didn’t we all get tired of watching that offshore under-water oil-leak, week after week, as CNN became the “Oil Leak All the Time Channel”? But the leak was quickly forgotten once it was stopped up, and people are right back on the drill-baby-drill bandwagon!

No, the good news of the resurrection of Jesus Christ is not like that. This is good news that never grows old, except in that wonderful way of really good, old stories. The Good News is news we can hear over and over again. We can hear the old, old, story, that is always new, the one we love to tell, and we tell it out because it tells of glory. Not just death on the cross, but life, new life, triumphant.

And not only does it tell of glory, this gospel, this good news: it has an effect upon us, a saving effect. For the story of salvation is salvation itself. It is told so that we may believe, and believing, have eternal life.

Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if all that news “coverage” of that oil-leak could actually have covered the oil-leak and made it stop? But it didn’t. The story of the resurrection, however, the gospel of the good news of God at work in Christ Jesus — the story of salvation actually saves. For it is in hearing the good news, and believing it, that we are saved.

Saint Paul reminded the Corinthians of the process: of the good news that is first proclaimed to them, which they in turn received — for what good is a message if you do not receive it! But there is more: it is good news in which also they stand; that is, they hold on to it and stand on it and by it — which is to say they put their trust in it, their faith in it. And so it is through that message of the good news they are being saved. They have not believed in vain, but to a purpose and an end.

This is the fruitfulness, the productivity of the gospel message: Christ rose from the dead not just to rise from the dead, but so that we might be saved through him, through that proclamation, reception, holding fast and standing by that message. The gospel, and the gospel alone, bears the fruit of salvation.

Compare this with an earthly message, say, about that oil-leak. You can proclaim it — surely CNN did so hour after hour, day by day and week by week. I can receive it — and with cable TV the reception is pretty good, in HD no less. I can even believe it — after all, there’s the live under-water oil-leak-cam running in the lower corner of the screen, day and night, twenty-four hours a day, and seeing is believing.

But that’s the end of it. This news bears no fruit, does nothing for my immortal soul one way or the other.

Only one news story ever had the fruitful effect of bringing everlasting life, and you heard it once again this morning, as we do each Easter. It is a message first delivered to some frightened women, at first so frightened that they didn’t spread the news. But as the Gospel tells us, eventually they did, and Jesus himself began to appear to others, showing himself to have been raised from the dead. And the good news spread, from east to west, that sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.

So, my friends, do not let this Easter morning be the end of that good news, as good as it is for you. Even if this is the first day you’ve been in church for a season — do not let it be your last. And more importantly, become news-bearers yourself: Continue to tell the story, the old, old story of the good news of Jesus and his love, how he was raised from the dead, and through his resurrection brought salvation to the world. Alleluia, Christ is risen; the Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia.