God's Messengers

How often have God's messages been missed because we didn't like the messenger...

SJF • Epiphany 2b 2015 • Tobias S Haller BSG
The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, Here I am, for you called me. Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy.

A few weeks ago I referred to the difference between hearing and listening. This is not just true of human dialogue, but of the way God speaks to us. The problem is that however God speaks, whether through nature or in the words of Scripture, through a prophet or as Christ himself, people often seem to be unable to listen, or sometimes even hear.

One of the reasons for this, as we see in our reading from the First Book of Samuel, is the inability to accept God’s message when it comes through a child. This shouldn’t be, of course: especially for us Christians. After all, we believe that God himself came to us as a child and he has told us that we cannot come to him unless we come as a child. Nor should this be a problem for old Eli, — for he knows that wisdom often comes “out of the mouths of babes.” Yet it takes three times for God’s call to Samuel to sink in for old Eli, to realize that God has chosen this child and wishes to speak to him and through him.

It is hard sometimes to hear God speaking through a child — but you can learn a lot if you listen. There was once a priest who had a framed print hanging in his office. It was a parishioner’s gift to a former rector, so even though this priest wasn’t particularly fond of the painting, there it stayed. It was a framed print of a painting by the Dutch modern artist Piet Mondrian: just horizontal and vertical black lines, with a few little squares of color to brighten it a bit; framed, under glass. Not unattractive as the such things go, but not terribly interesting. So it hung there, behind him, and the priest didn’t even look at it all that often.

One day a little boy about four years old came into the office with his mother who taught Sunday School. As soon as the little boy stopped at the doorway, he stopped short, and pointed up at the print over the priest’s head, and said, “Look, Mommy!” The priest turned to see what the child could find so interesting, but all that he could see was the framed geometric print. The priest looked over at the child and asked, “What is it, Johnny?” And the little child said, “It’s Jesus!” The priest was even more surprised, so he got up and came over to the child and his mother and looked back at the print, and said, it’s just colors and lines. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I don’t see him.” The child continued to say, “Look, look at Jesus.” The mother shrugged nervously, because she too had no idea what the child was talking about. So the priest bent down on one knee beside the boy and began to explain, “Now, Johnny, sometimes we see things that aren’t really there, and that can be our imagination; or it could be....” And then he looked up into the picture there, framed behind his desk. and there, sure enough, reflected in the glass over the print was the image of Christ from the crucifix from the wall opposite his desk, perfectly reflected on those black lines, his arms outstretched to embrace the whole world, there on that black cross of lines, and spots of color. It took a change in the priest’s perspective to see Jesus where he wasn’t supposed to be, and to understand the authoritative testimony of a child.

What was it Jesus told us?— unless you become like a child you cannot come to me? Perhaps if we adults were on our knees more often with the children, we would have a better appreciation of God’s messages for us.

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Now it isn’t only age prejudice that can lead us to reject or misunderstand God’s message. In our gospel today we see an example of how regional prejudice can also get in the way of hearing God’s voice. And in this case it is the voice of Jesus himself. What I’m referring to is Nathanael’s famous putdown of Jesus before he even meets him. When he’s told by Philip that they have found the one about whom Moses and the prophets wrote, Jesus the son of Joseph from Nazareth, Nathanael responds with a classic putdown, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Fortunately for Nathanael, Philip doesn’t give up and continues to extend the invitation to “come and to see.”

But how many opportunities to hear God’s voice and to enter into God’s presence have been missed down the years by people who stopped at the stage of the putdown and didn’t get beyond their prejudice. How many times have people failed to hear the voice of God speaking through the person who came from the wrong side of the tracks, or, in Nathanael’s case in view of Jesus, from the other side of Lake Galilee; or the one who was too old, or too young, or who had a funny accent? How many people have missed the opportunity to be in God’s presence because they thought the one inviting them was the wrong color or the wrong sex? How many times in human history have the simple words of truth been missed because the person speaking them didn’t have the right kind of education, or go to the right school, or belong to the right club? In short, how much of God has the world missed because we have let our worldly standards stand in the way of God’s messengers?

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Tomorrow, of course, is the annual celebration of one such messenger’s birthday: Martin Luther King Jr. There will be a Bronx-wide celebration up at Holy Nativity in Norwood at 10 am, and I hope some of you will be able to attend. The bishop will be celebrating, and the bishop suffragan preaching. As I reminded everyone last week we’ll also take up a collection for the Martin Luther King Jr Scholarship Fund. This fund continues to help young people from the Bronx as they begin their college careers, helping to equip them as the next generation of young messengers to help build up the world.

Martin Luther King suffered the rejection that prejudice often inflicts upon God’s messengers. Certainly there were plenty of people who didn’t want to hear the message he brought. There were many who put him down because of his race, even though they could hardly slight him on the basis of his academic credentials or his powerful preaching. As his work progressed it became harder and harder to deny that God was working through him — until he finally was stopped not by a verbal putdown by an assassin’s bullet.

But I would like today more especially to remember another witness to the power of God: a much more humble witness. This is someone who was much more easily put down by the people of her time and place. Not only was she black, but she was a woman. Not only was she a woman, but she came from simple folks — like her Lord her father was a carpenter. And though she went to a trade school in her youth, beyond the studies she did at Teachers College she lacked any kind of advanced degree, or personal wealth, or anything else that might have given her prestige and prominence in any time or place, but especially that time and place — and yet, as poet Rita Dove put it: “How she sat there, the time right in a place so wrong it was ready!”

I hope you know who I’m talking about: Miss Rosa Parks. She was the little lady whose refusal to give up her seat on a bus one day was the spark that helped ignite the torch that would light the way for Martin Luther King’s crusade for civil rights. And isn’t it the highest of ironies that this woman to whom few would have given even the time of day back then in 1955, the woman who was told to give up her seat on the bus, received in her passing from us fifty years later an honor reserved primarily for the Presidents of the United States: to be the first — and so far the only — woman ever to lie in state under the great dome of the Capitol Building in Washington DC.

And I hope you’ll pardon my imagination if I cannot help but picture that as this brave woman walks through the gates of heaven, that Martin Luther King himself rises from the seat he justly received when he was struck down by an assassin’s bullet, and says to her, “Miss Rosa Parks, please take my seat.”

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The tragedy in all of this, is how many of God’s messages are missed in this hateful and judgmental and prejudicial world of ours; how many young voices go unheard, how many old ignored; how many foreign tongues that praise God are dismissed as uncouth or unskilled; how many turned aside by the pride and prejudice that judges people on the color of the skin rather than the content of their character?

Were it not better, my brothers and sisters, to bend our knees and listen to the child who points us to the Christ? Were it not better to set aside all prejudicial judgments and preconceptions about who people are or where they come from or what they do — and listen to their voices instead — to hear God’s truth regardless of who speaks it? This is a challenge my friends, a challenge set before us by the man from Nazareth, the town from which they said no good could come, the son of a carpenter. He has words to speak to us, and we dare not turn aside simply because of the one who bears his message. May we, rather, like young Samuel, be ready always to respond, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”+

Watch and Listen

SJF • Trinity 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness...”+

We come today to Trinity Sunday, the day on which we are invited to think about who God is rather than what God has done — although with that wonderful reading of the story of creation from Genesis still in our ears, there is ample opportunity to reflect upon what God has done!

Thinking about the Trinity is something that theologians just can’t seem to get enough of. They also often don’t know when to stop! There are distinct dangers in trying too hard to understand what is beyond our comprehension. It’s especially hard if one has a curious and inquiring mind.

I learned the danger in that as a child of six when I tried to dismantle my mother’s wristwatch — all that exercise got me was a hopelessly damaged watch, and going to bed without supper and with a sore behind and, and an earnest talk from my father trying to explain — in terms that my child’s mind could understand — how much more valuable my mother’s Hamilton wristwatch was than even all of my toys put together. Strange to say, after all that, I still became a theologian!

But maybe it was because of that. Perhaps it was my father’s willingness to offer an explanation that did it. And surely it is good on this day which is Father’s Day as well as Trinity Sunday, for me to remember and give thanks for my own father, God rest him. For even though he gave me a good shellacking after my misdeed with the watch, he also took the time to explain what that watch was worth in terms I could understand. He didn’t teach me anything about its mechanism — which I as a child had vainly sought by taking it apart. But he did teach me about its value — and surely that is what a good theologian is called to do, especially when it comes to the Trinity.

As my father sat on the edge of my bed while I pouted under the covers, he held up one of my toys, a wind-up tank, and said, “Toby, do you understand that your mother’s watch cost more than a hundred of these?” I was awe-struck. A hundred tanks! What an armored division that would make! All the toy soldiers in my plastic army would not be able to stand up against such an assault! And it slowly dawned on me, How awesome is the value of that tiny wristwatch. I did not learn how the wristwatch worked, but how valuable it was.

My father took the time to explain the value of that watch in terms I could understand and in the form of a metaphor — a parable, if you will. My father taught me how to teach.

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And I pass along this teaching. God is not to be taken apart in the vain search to understand how God works. Rather God is someone to be supremely valued — valued as worth more than all creation. Even after we have taken in all of creation, in awesome wonder, our final word should be, How great thou art!

God is to be supremely valued, and loved — and listened to. God is, after all, more like my father than like my mother’s watch. Not only did I learn more from my father than from the watch, but my father showed his love for me — even though at the time the discipline was painful! — especially in taking the time to teach and help me to see where I had gone wrong. God is not to be dismantled, but to be listened to — and listened for.

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Author James Hamilton tells a story that resonates with my own childhood. In the suburb where I grew up some people still didn’t have refrigerators. Many had moved to Baltimore from the mountains of West Virginia to get jobs in the post-war boom, and they brought their iceboxes with them. The iceman would still come down the alley behind our houses with his horse-drawn ice-wagon, selling slabs of ice just the right size to slide into the compartment of the icebox — do any of you here still call your refrigerator an “icebox?” My father always did — in spite of the fact that he worked his way through night-school — studying to become a school-teacher — in the appliance department at Sears! So even though we had a Kenmore in the kitchen, it was always the “icebox” in our house.

The ice in the wagon came from the icehouse, where it was made and stored. Our neighborhood icehouse made the ice with a compressor, but back in the old days they would harvest it in the winter from the frozen river near which it stood. The slabs of ice would be covered with canvas and sawdust until it was time to deliver them. The long, low icehouse had no windows, and the thick door sealed shut to keep the coolness in. The ice would be secure there behind those well-insulated walls.

Well, one midsummer day, one of the workers in the icehouse discovered he’d lost his pocket-watch. It had been left to him by his father, and he was really upset to lose it. He searched up and down, pushing the sawdust with the big broom they used, but with no luck. The other guys helped him, but they couldn’t find the watch; and then they began to wonder if maybe he hadn’t lost it somewhere else.

Kids such as myself used to hang around the icehouse, especially in the hot, humid Baltimore summer, because when the men loaded the ice on the wagons with the big, scary metal pincers, occasionally a block would drop and shatter, and the kids would scramble for the sliding shards of ice, to rub on their forehead or the back of the neck, or to let the cool water drip over their heads. (I could use one right now!)

One of the kids was watching and listening to the men looking for the missing watch, and when they went off on their lunch break, shaking their heads and shrugging, he snuck into the icehouse, and closed the door behind him.

The dim light bulbs were spaced far apart, and even with them on there wasn’t much light; all to keep the ice from melting. The air was cool and he could see his breath, the first time he’d seen it in six months. And it was very, very quiet. The thick walls and sealed out all the heat and all the sound. He looked around at the stacked-up blocks of ice, like building stones mortared with sawdust, covered with canvas shrouds. He imagined he was inside the Great Pyramid, a silent, ancient tomb.

He saw a flat spot in the sawdust about his size, went over to it, and laid himself down; he folded his hands across his chest and closed his eyes thinking about Boris Karloff in The Mummy and keeping very, very still. And in that stillness, he could hear the sounds that ice makes as it gently creaks, and the drip-drip-drip of the water as it slowly melts off. But soon he began to hear another sound. Tick-tick tick-tick tick-tick tick-tick.

And after a few moments of careful listening, he got up and walked across the sawdust to right where the watch had fallen, stuck half under the edge of a slab of ice, wedged tight in a fold of the canvas and covered with sawdust. All of the men’s searching and sweeping had only pushed it deeper. And when he emerged into the bright summer afternoon, even though squinting against the sun, he greeted the astonished iceman with the watch he thought he’d never see again. And as a reward he broke him off a nice fresh corner of a slab of ice, just for him, pure sweet cooling ice that had never touched the ground.

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If God is like a watch — he’s more like that one. We won’t find God by sweeping up a sawdust storm of theological speculation. As the Psalmist says, I will still my soul and make it quiet like a child upon its mother’s breast; or, as I will add, this Father’s Day, like a child in its father’s arms. God is holding us close, and loves us dearly, this unsearchable and sublimely valuable God of ours, and all we need do is listen — listen — and we will hear the beat of the heart of the One-in-Three who called the whole world into being. Listen! Upon that breast, and in those loving arms, we are carried day by day, by this loving God whom we know by Name as the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.+

Hearing the Shepherd's Voice

SJF • Easter 4c • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.+

Last week our Scripture readings told us about people who went on to become leaders in the church getting off to an awfully inauspicious start. Peter and Paul, each in his own way, didn’t perceive Jesus when he was plainly evident to others. They had to be shaken up by God to open their eyes and see what was right in front of them. Paul, as you remember, missed God’s message because he was so full of himself, his head so full of his own knowledge, his own understanding — which was really misunderstanding — that he couldn’t hear or see anything new. Peter, on the other hand, seems to have gotten the message but didn’t know what to do with it — instead of spreading the Gospel he decided to go fishing.

Fortunately God knocked Paul from his high horse, and set Peter on the right road. Look at today’s reading from the Book of Acts, and remember that Paul is including himself among the people of Jerusalem and their leaders — as he had been at that time — who “did not... understand the words of the prophets that are read every sabbath.” Remember, as we heard last week, Paul spent his youth persecuting the church, hunting down Christians and delivering them up for trial and punishment. He started hi career as the coat-check boy for those who stoned Saint Stephen to death! Yet he’d heard the Scriptures week by week in the synagogue, heard, without understanding, the God about whom those words gave such powerful testimony.

Paul finally understood the words so often heard, and came to know the meaning behind them, and the One of whom they spoke. And Peter, too, became a changed man once Jesus got him to take his mind off his fishing tackle, and sent him out to feed the sheep, and to spread the Gospel.

Powerful things can happen to you when you let God into your life. Saint John the Divine was given a glimpse, a revelation, and he shared us with us: a glimpse, a revelation, of the ultimate destiny of those who hear and follow their heavenly shepherd, people from all over the world who have heard the saving word in many tongues, and who in John’s vision of heaven stand before the throne with palm branches, praising the Lord and the Lamb, who is their protector and their God. Secure in the place where there is no pain or grief, no hunger nor thirst — not even any sunburn — they rejoice forever because they have heard and followed him who is the Savior of the world.

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But what about those who refuse to hear, who don’t let God into their lives? In today’s Gospel, Jesus is in Jerusalem. It’s a chilly winter day, at the feast of Dedication; which we might know better as Hanukkah. The people come to Jesus with the challenge, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”

Jesus returns their challenge with a challenge equally pointed. “I have told you.” If ever there were a time for that appropriate, eloquent monosyllable, this would be it. Duh!

What more could they want? By this time in John’s Gospel John the Baptist has given his testimony that Jesus is the Lamb of God, Jesus has changed water to wine at Cana of Galilee, he has cast the moneychangers from the court of the Gentiles in that very temple; He has promised that if the temple were torn down he would rebuild it in three days; he has fed a multitude on the mountain, with five barley loaves and two fish; he has healed the sick — a little boy in Capernaum, and right in Jerusalem a paralyzed man, and even more astoundingly a man born blind; and — especially in John’s Gospel— he’s taught and he’s taught and he’s taught. Yet after all of this, the people still say, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Verily, verily, I say unto you, Duh! As Jonathan Swift so eloquently put it, “There is none so blind as them that won’t see.”

It reminds me of the young man in the movie who is tempted to go further with his new girlfriend than he knows he should, and who kneels in prayer in his bedroom. “Give me a sign, God,” he says. There’s a crash of thunder, the lights flash, the walls shake and pictures fall from their hooks and books from their shelves; and still looking up to heaven, the boy says, “Any sign!”

Just what does it take to hear the voice of God when God is speaking slowly and clearly in words of one syllable?

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Well, Jesus gives us the answer, and in words of one syllable: My sheep hear my voice; I know them; and they follow me. (O.K., follow has two syllables.) But the message is clear.

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” The blessed ones, the ones who belong to the flock of Christ, hear the voice of their divine shepherd. Notice that doesn’t mean that they necessarily understand the shepherd, any more than ordinary earthly sheep understand their earthly human shepherd. They may not even know what a shepherd is, but — and this is the most important thing, as Jesus goes on to say — the shepherd knows them.

Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t try to understand God’s message to us. If that were the case I’d stop preaching right now! But we need to hear God first, before we try to understand, and trust that God knows who he is talking to! God does not dial wrong numbers!

People do, of course, and it’s a good example of how preconceptions — being full of yourself instead of being open to others, as was Saint Paul’s problem — can prevent you from hearing what is being said to you. Once I was working in the church office, and the phone rang. As always, I answered, “Good afternoon, St. James Church.” The person at the other end said, “Is this the Recreation Center?”

Now, if I’d really been swift I could have said something like, “Yes, we offer re-creation every Sunday morning at 11 a.m.” As it was, I just said, “No; this is St. James Church. The Rec Center is next door.” Of course, I’d said that the first time, but the person calling simply couldn’t believe they’d dialed the wrong number. Isn’t if funny how people won’t believe that you aren’t the person they wanted: I’m sure I’m not the only one here who has had to repeat several times that no, Juanita doesn’t live here. Well, in this case, the caller wanted the Recreation Center, they expected the Recreation Center, so when I said, “Good afternoon, St. James Church” they didn’t even hear the words.

But God’s sheep do hear the voice of their heavenly shepherd; and that is how our salvation begins. It is enough for us to begin by hearing, hearing without preconceptions, and in the true knowledge and trust that the one who calls us knows exactly who we are, knows us each by name. God don’t dial no wrong numbers! Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them.” And so we begin by hearing, and being known.

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And then, we follow. Yes, that’s the third essential two-syllable part of this morning’s word to us. The shepherd knows his sheep and calls his sheep, not for casual conversation, but for a high purpose: that they might follow him to the springs of the water of life, where every tear is wiped from their eyes, where they find shelter from the sun’s scorching heat, where there is no pain or grief, no hunger nor thirst. He gives them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of his hand. What is his is his for ever.

This is what it means, beloved, to be counted among the flock of the great shepherd of the sheep. It is nothing less than life eternal. Thank God that we have heard the voice of the one who calls us; thank God that he knows us and has chosen us. And thank God that we have set our feet upon the path to follow him. Amidst the distractions and the shadows of this life, amidst the distractions and noise and busyness of our lives, may we always be ready to hear the voice of the one who knows us, and to follow him when he calls, even Jesus Christ our Lord.+

Prophet Without Honor

SJF • Epiphany 5c 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, No prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.+

Once, long ago, there was a great city named Troy. And a Trojan prince fell in love with Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, and stole her from her Greek husband. This led to a great war, the Trojan War, as it came to be called. Helen was the woman whose face launched a thousand ships — and it had nothing to do with whacking them with bottles of champagne! No — these were warships sailing from the Greek “coalition of the willing” to lay siege to the great city across the sea in Asia Minor, in a war that would drag on for a decade — and stop me if is beginning to sound familiar!

In any case, you probably remember the famous strategy by which the Greeks won the war. After nine years of fighting, they pretended to give up, and left a giant horse as a peace offering. The Trojans took the bait, and wheeled the horse into their fortified city. That night, the Greek soldiers hidden inside the horse crept out, opened the gates, and let in the rest of the army — who had just been a few miles out to sea — and the city fell in flames and destruction.

Now, what made this particularly tragic is that the people of the city had been warned in no uncertain terms, but they paid no attention to the warning. The Trojan king had a daughter, Cassandra, who was cursed with a terrible gift: she could foretell the future, but only on the condition that no one except one old man would believe her — and no one believed him either. So while Cassandra yelled from the highest parapet of the city, warning her people not to be fooled about that horse — Beware of Greeks bearing gifts! — no one believed a word she said. They thought the Greeks had gone, and they had won. What they thought was a trophy turned out to be a weapon of mass destruction — and they hauled it themselves right into their city.

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In today’s Gospel we also witness doubt and destruction turned against the prophet himself. Jesus is in his hometown. The people have heard of the wonders he’s done in other towns and can’t quite believe it. Someone starts the word going around, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?”

Imagine the buzz and whisper through the crowd. “Isn’t this the same Jesus we used to see playing with mud-pies when he was a little boy? Isn’t this the same Jesus who had to be taught how to read and write on this very synagogue porch? Don’t you remember his Bar Mitzvah? And remember the first time he tried to make a chair in his father’s workshop? And that time that he gave his parents grief, when he got lost in Jerusalem and ended up in the Temple?” And in that buzz and chatter, Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Christ — who has just delivered the message of salvation, that the hope of Israel has dawned; that as we saw last week, that the words of Scripture have been fulfilled in their hearing — by means of wagging tongues this Jesus is whittled down to a little boy with muddy hands, an awkward youth trying to handle a saw, a nervous boy reading a Scripture passage for the first time, or a bad little boy lost in the big city, and causing his parents grief. Instead of receiving his message that the Scripture is fulfilled in their hearing, it’s as if all the congregation can find to say in response to this divine revelation is, “My, doesn’t he read well. What an improvement from when he was a boy!”

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No, no prophet is honored in his hometown. Cassandra couldn’t get her people to listen to her warning. “She’s the king’s daughter; naturally she’s over-excited about these things, worried about the war in which her whole family is involved — after all, her brother started it all when he ran off with Helen!”

And as for Jesus — he would not find ready hearers among the people of his own hometown. So he would carry his mission elsewhere, to other towns, to people who hadn’t known him, people free from preconceptions and expectations, from prejudices and the familiarity that breeds contempt — to people ready to hear because not only was the message new to them, but the messenger as well.

Saint Paul had a similar experience. His own people largely rejected him — even the rest of the Apostles were clearly uneasy around him, and though Peter and he shook hands, it was only so as to agree to go their separate ways: Paul would spend most of his ministry preaching and teaching Gentiles in the same Greek cities that centuries before had banded together to launch those thousand ships.

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Why is it that people can’t seem to accept the word of salvation from those closest to them? Why are missionary churches so often more vital and vibrant than those that are domestic?

I mentioned the old saying, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” But it also breeds expectations. We think we know what those we know best are going to say, so we don’t really listen to them, we don’t really hear them even when they say something we don’t expect to hear. Expectations drown perceptions, and when they do, it becomes impossible for us to see what is right before our eyes, to hear what is being shouted in our ears.

An old friend of mine, a print shop manager, used to keep the front page of a copy of the Daily News on the bulletin board up behind his desk. And whenever he interviewed people for proofreading jobs, he would ask them to read the banner headline aloud. And most would read the simple three-word headline, in letters four inches high, “Liz Taylor robbed.” And they wouldn’t get the job. Because what the headline said, was “Liz Talyor robbed.” T-a-l-y-o-r. A typo! How could anyone — from the original typesetter to the publisher of the Daily News — miss a misspelling in letters 288 points high? Simply because it wasn’t what they expected, and expectations, even the expectations of skilled proofreaders, can drown their perceptions.

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John the evangelist, in the prologue to his Gospel, said, “Jesus came to his own, and his own received him not.” They couldn’t hear what he was saying to them, because they knew who he was, and where he came from; or thought they knew where he came from. They couldn’t accept the good news he tried to tell them, because they thought they knew it all already, just as they knew him already.

In our gospel from Luke, Jesus tried to show them the way out, that they needed to become like foreigners, like a Phoenician widow or like a Syrian general if they were truly to understand the amazing grace of God. These were stories from their own tradition, from their own Scriptures, and they knew them backwards and forwards, but they had missed the point until Jesus made it — and when he made it they didn’t like it, if they even understood it. For the people of Nazareth didn’t want to become like foreigners in their own country! Instead they became enraged and hustled Jesus off, ready to throw him off the cliff. But they couldn’t lay hold of him with their hands, any better than they could lay hold of his message with their ears. He passed right through the midst of them, just as his teaching had gone in one ear and out the other, so he passed through the midst of them and went on his way, on to the other towns, on to new ears better tuned to hear a new message, and to be astounded by the authority with which he spoke.

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Can we here at Saint James Church become, as it were, foreigners in our own land, strangers in our own church? Can we be willing to hear the message of Jesus regardless of who it comes from — from one of our own or a stranger? How often has Jesus passed through our midst but not been seen? How often have we passed him by in the street without knowing it? How often have his words slipped past our ears, or in one ear and out the other, because we’ve treated them as the same old story instead of hearing them as the good news?

On a more personal level, can we hear our spouse or child or colleagues, really hear them, really pay them the respect we should pay to even a stranger, a messenger with important news, and not face them with a kind of “Oh-I-know-what-you’re-
going-to-say-already” attitude — talk to the hand — that misses the heart of the matter? Who knows what gracious word may come when you least expect it? Who knows what familiar voice may speak a word of salvation in your ear.? We dare not say, “It is only a boy... or my wife... or someone I’ve heard a thousand times.” For the word of God is always new, whoever it comes from, and it can pierce the soul and light up our hearts if we will allow it to do so.

Let us pray. Dear Lord, be at home with us in exile here, as our own familiar friend, and help us hear your good news, whether it comes from neighbor or stranger; open our hearts and minds and ears, to hear you when you speak, to embrace your word in our hearts, to love and serve you all our days, until we come to our true homeland, where with the Father and the Holy Spirit, you live and reign, one God for ever and ever.+

Be Opened

SJF • Proper 18b 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Then looking up to heaven, Jesus sighed and said to the deaf man, Ephphatha, that is, Be opened.
Have you ever found yourself the object of someone else’s sharp accusation: You haven’t heard a word I’ve been saying! Perhaps at the end of a long day you’ve been sitting in front of the TV while your spouse has been telling you about what’s been going in their day — then there’s that sudden pause, not the pause that refreshes, but the one that alerts you to think, “Uh-oh,” followed by the magic words that bring us fully back to the present: “You haven’t heard a word I’ve been saying!”

Or perhaps you remember the experience of your school days, especially in that deadly time after lunch from one to three. I don’t know what Einstein or Stephen Hawking might say, but I think those hours had something to do with a distortion in the space-time continuum! Maybe teachers have a special gravitational force! Certainly you find yourself and your eyelids getting heavier and heavier the longer the teacher talks. You even find that your mind is getting further and further detached from your body. Then suddenly you hear the voice of the teacher say, “Miss Martin, can you answer the question?” And with an awful sinking feeling you know that not only don’t you know the answer, but you don’t know the question!

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These aren’t examples of being hard of hearing, but being hard of listening. When we find ourselves accused, “You haven’t heard a word I’ve been saying,” it isn’t quite true. We’ve heard, all right, we just haven’t listened. Unlike the man whom Jesus cured, it isn’t our ears that need to be opened, but our hearts and our minds.

Listening is more important than hearing — it is the reason we hear, the goal and end for which hearing exists. God has given us the gift of hearing so that we might listen, understand, and ultimately act to do his will. And yet how often, like a tired spouse at the end of a long day, do we allow our weariness to transform us from human beings into couch potatoes?

Is there such a thing as a pew potato? Haven’t we all known times when our Sunday morning worship, instead of filling us with energy to do God’s work, instead lulls us into a celestial snooze, contented to be in God’s presence, drifting on a spiritual cloud. Then, suddenly, something in the Gospel, some phrase in a hymn, I’d like to think maybe even a word from the preacher, pierces our hearts like a voice that says, “You haven’t heard a word I’ve been saying!” and we are called back to awareness of the importance of our call to serve the Lord our God: to be doers of the word, and not hearers only. Thanks be to God for that wake-up call when it comes, for this is one of God’s greatest gifts to us, the gift of awareness of his purposes for us, that we might become, as Saint James says in the epistle we heard this morning, “a kind of first fruits of his creatures” — that is, a result, an end, a purpose: For just as listening is the goal of hearing, the harvest is the goal of the planting. God does not plant the seed of his word in vain, but in order that it might bring in a plentiful harvest.

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Saint James describes a kind of spiritual deafness, and gives us helpful advice on how to avoid it. He begins, “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak.” I’m reminded of an old proverb, one of my grandmother’s favorites: You were born with two ears and one mouth — so listen twice as much as you speak! And it isn’t just talking with your lips that can impede your listening: there’s body language and brain babble, too. Have you ever tried to talk to someone who was doing this? [hand on hip, looking into space, sighing] You know what it’s like. That’s mighty eloquent body language, and it tells me “I can’t hear you” just as effectively as the schoolyard version [fingers in ears, la-la-la]. The fact that you see one in the boardroom and the other in the schoolyard simply shows how universal is the tendency to not want to hear, to not want to listen.

Then there’s brain-babble. That’s what happens when you tune out the person talking to you and start listening to your own inner monologue instead — this is where we’re liable to be caught short when we lose track of the exterior conversation because we’ve been talking to ourselves on the inside, rather than listening to our brother or sister right there before us on the outside.

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Saint James mentions one more cause of spiritual deafness: “Be slow to anger,” he counsels. How hard it is to listen when we’re angry, particularly if the person we’re trying to listen to is the one we’re angry with! And what solution does Saint James offer? “Rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.”

That’s a gardener talking, you know, one who expects a good crop: Saint James is telling us to weed our hearts; to pull up anger by the roots, cultivating and tilling the soil of our souls to be pure good top-quality topsoil to receive the word of God when it comes to be planted, and able, then, to bear much fruit. Saint James counsels us to treat anger in our hearts as we would weeds in a flower-bed: out of place, and good only for pulling up and throwing out.

Then Saint James makes his final appeal: after you hear the word, don’t stop at being a hearer, but be a doer! Get into action! This is where the harvest comes in. Otherwise you’re like some silly soul who looked in a mirror and saw he’d forgotten to button his shirt or do up his fly, but as soon as he walked away from the mirror forgot what he had seen and walked out into the street half dressed.

We talked last week about being properly dressed for the service of God, dressed in the armor of God that is provided to all who believe in him. And this week we are reminded that those who hear and bear God’s word and prepare for action, but who never act, are, as the saying puts it, all dressed up with no place to go! It’s time to stop looking in the mirror and admiring how fine we look. It is time to get to work!

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As I told you a few weeks ago, the Secretary-General of the Anglican Communion has invited me to join with a group of four other theologians and leaders in reconciliation and peace-making from around the Communion, under the leadership of the Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church. Our task is to help the Anglican Communion engage in a process of listening to each other, meeting together as Christians should who care deeply about each other. Our first meeting is next week in London, and I will be traveling next weekend and so will be away from Saint James. I ask your prayers for my travel and our meeting. I will carry all of you in my heart — you who come, many of you, from different provinces of the Anglican Communion yourselves; and I will carry the other Saint James in my heart: that other Saint James, the one from whose Epistle we heard this morning, for he has much to say about listening.

I know that in all of this I have been equipped, as all of us have, with the armor of God and ears to hear. Brothers and sisters, we are all dressed up and do we have a place to go whether to London or Staten Island or Co-op City or just down the block! We have work to do, God’s work. We have a mission to accomplish, God’s mission to bring all people into unity with each other in Christ. We live in a world so full of noise that people have grown deaf to the sweet sound of God’s voice calling to them from afar, or even whispering in their ear. We live in a world so overgrown by the weeds of rank self-absorption that the seeds of God’s grace are finding fewer and fewer places to grow.

But we know that God has put the tools into our hands to go forth and help clear those weeds. He gave us the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of the Gospel, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit. I’d like to see any weed stand up to that! And we know that God can use us to speak the truth in love, to speak even in a babbling, self-absorbed world, to put what we hear in church to work when we go to the world. To call for justice for the oppressed, for food for those who hunger, for freedom for the prisoners, welcome for the stranger, sustenance for the orphan and widow.

This is the message we carry to an inattentive world. We will speak clearly — but we will not have to shout or raise our voices. For with God’s implanted word in our hearts, we know how powerful it is when we simply pause for a moment, and then say to that world in God’s name, “You haven’t heard a word I’ve been saying.”+