King of Shreds and Patches

Proper 5 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
He will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen. He will take the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.

Two hundred thirty-nine years ago this Thursday, Thomas Jefferson sat down to begin working on a document that would come to be known as the Declaration of Independence. Every year on the Fourth of July, National Public Radio broadcasts a recitation of this whole Declaration. It is read by different people, each one reading just a line or two; sometimes it’s all the various announcers from the different NPR programs; one year it was read by a whole class of new American citizens. Most of us probably know the opening line, “When in the course of human events...” We are very likely also familiar with the opening of the second paragraph: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” and we will remember that among those rights are “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Unfortunately, that’s about as much of the Declaration of Independence that most of us know. So on the Fourth of July I commend listening to NPR’s morning show for their annual reading of the whole declaration — it’s shorter than this sermon!

The reason I mention it in this sermon is due to what comes later in that Declaration. It is a list of all of the faults and failings of King George III — all of the things that the English monarch has done to upset and anger the American colonists. And it is quite a laundry list. Let me just mention a few of items, and I quote:

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies... He has combined with others ... to subject us to a jurisdiction ... unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation: For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us: For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent: He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country…

You get the idea. And I hope it also rings a bell of familiarity. For in our first reading today from the First Book of Samuel we heard a portion of a similar list, also concerning a king — but in this case predicting what he will do instead of protesting what he has done. And the irony is that while the American colonists were declaring independence from the domination of a monarch, the people of Israel are clamoring to obtain a king to rule over them in spite of all the terrible things that Samuel warns them that this king will do. So this passage of Scripture is a Declaration of Dependence!

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Or is it? Let’s look more closely. The people say they want to have a king so that they can be like the other nations. And in doing so they are submitting to a form of dependent government — one in which they will be virtual slaves; a king on whom they will depend, will protect them from foreign invaders, but in exchange, they seem to be willing to give up everything: a tenth of their crops, their sons for the army, and all of the rest.

But look more closely: what they really want is a change in the form of government they have had up to that point — which is dependence on God speaking through the prophet Samuel. So they are trying to declare independence from God, even as they accept dependence on a king; they are rejecting God, their true King for someone a little closer to home.

Their God had chosen them out of all the nations, brought them out of the land of slavery. But now they want to be slaves again — not to serve their God but to serve an earthly king, so they can be just like all of the other nations — not special, not chosen — just like everybody else; like other nations each with its human king with all his faults; and believe me, King Saul will have plenty of faults, as will nine out of ten of all the other kings of Israel and Judah to come. And we’ll be soon be hearing more about all of that.

Because today begins a new cycle of Sunday readings from the Hebrew Bible — new to us at St James, but also relatively new to the church as a whole, since the church adopted what’s called the Revised Common Lectionary. In the readings for this liturgical year, we will be hearing readings from what the Hebrew Bible calls “the Writings” — the books of poetry and history. Last year we heard from the Law, and next year we will focus on the Prophets. “Law, Prophets, and Writings” are the three main divisions of The Old Testament. So this year, we hear from the writings; in particular, over the next ten or so weeks we will be hearing passages from what some people call “the Court History” — stories of the kings from Saul to Solomon.

Why do this? I’d say rather, why didn’t we do it sooner? I think we need to hear these parts of Scripture, because they get neglected, and because I believe they still speak to us, and they speak of things we need to hear. Because what the people of Israel did when they rejected God as their true king, choosing an earthly ruler instead, is something we are all tempted to do.

Not literally about choosing a king, but about other aspects of our lives. It’s not about forms of government — monarchy or democracy, or a republic for that matter — but in the ways in which all of us are liable to try to shirk our own responsibilities as citizens, not just of a nation but of God’s kingdom. It is so easy to say, let someone else do it; that’s not my responsibility; I don’t want to have to be the one to make decisions and get to work — and the work goes undone. This is a practical lesson for us as a church, as a congregation. I know of one parish upstate that had a large cardboard cutout made in the outline of a person — and he even has a name tag: his name is “Somebody.” When anyone would notice that there was a job that needed doing, they would say, “Somebody will do it.” And so they go up to Somebody and ask him to do it, and guess what? Somebody doesn’t do it. Nobody does it; and if Nobody does it, it doesn’t get done.

There are many tasks that we all, as members of and leaders in this congregation can take up to help this church grow and survive and prosper — and it needs all hands on deck. Otherwise this too will be a house divided against itself; and that house will not stand.

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It is also no good just thinking that having a priest or pastor will solve all the problems and do all that needs to be done. That’s a little bit like asking for a king, when God actually has given each and every one of us some gift, some talent, that we could put to use for the good of this place. Why, after all, does God give gifts of skill to all of his people, if not for the good of God’s kingdom, Each of us has gifts which we are not using because we think “Somebody” will do it — either the priest or the deacon, or some other member of the church.

There is plenty of work to do, and you all know the old saying, “Many hands make light work.” It’s true; those hands need to work, though, to get the work done. I mentioned last week about how we were all the adopted members of a family — the church — and how in every family there are chores to do. Well you know there are plenty of chores to keep this church open and worshiping and praising God; God, our true King. Look around you, as Jesus did when he looked around at those who sat with him, listening to him preach and teach, and say and believe what he said about those sitting around him: “Here are my mother and my brothers.” You, my sisters and brothers, you are the family that will make this church what it is. You are also the family that will make this church what it is to be. Do not think this task you can turn over to Somebody else to do it for us. Do not be like the people of Israel who rejected the gifts God gave them, who rejected God himself. Realize instead that we have been endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, and a with wealth of spiritual gifts: not just life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness: but those important gifts: faith, hope, and above all, love. Let us put these things to work, my friends, with all the power God provides, and we will do great things.+


Just as he is a shepherd and a lamb, so too we sheep become shepherds to each other as we grow up into his likeness.

Easter 4b 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside the still waters; he restoreth my soul.... You know the rest!

There is no denying that sheep and shepherds play a huge part in the imagery of Scripture. This is natural given the times and places in which the Scriptures were composed — sheep and shepherds were as central to the economies of those times and places as retail sales are to ours. I suppose we can be thankful for that; otherwise we might be stuck with, “The Lord is my supervisor,” or “He maketh me to shop in the bargain basement.” I don’t think we would want to pray, “The Lord is our Walmart and we are his customers.” And when Jesus said he came not to be served but to serve, I don’t think he was thinking about being as a sales clerk!

No, instead of mercantile imagery, we are blessed with a wealth of pastoral images, of sheep and shepherds; and most importantly of a shepherd who is also himself describe as a lamb — the Lamb of God. In fact, John mixes up all sorts of pastoral imagery in his gospel and his epistles, and this imagery is carried forward into the last book of our Bible, that is also attributed to John: Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world; he is the gate of the sheepfold through whom the sheep enter and leave in safety; he is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the flock; and he is, at the end, the Lamb again, with the marks of slaughter upon him, the innocent by whose bloody death the guilty are acquitted and reconciled with God.

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Most of us, I’m willing to guess, have little experience of sheep beyond owning a wool sweater or two — so what are we to make of this flock of images? When we say that the Lord is our shepherd, and when our Lord says that about himself, what do we mean, and what is he getting at.

Well, what we mean is that we belong to him. When we pray the Psalm that says, “We are his people and the sheep of his pasture,” or “The Lord is my shepherd,” we are reaffirming our relationship with God is one of dependence and trust. We belong to God, and if we are wise — or at least as wise as sheep can be, which isn’t much — we will follow our Good Shepherd and put our trust in him.

For that is what we mean when we accept Jesus as our Shepherd — we belong to him and we know that he cares for us. We know his voice, when he calls us each by name. We trust him and we know that he will not lead us astray; or if we do, as sheep will often do, wander off ourselves, we trust that he will seek us out and bring us back, even if it is only one percent of us who wander off and get into trouble — and don’t you wish that only one percent of us were ever in trouble at some point in our lives.

We also know that Jesus is the gate of the sheepfold: our safe passage into the fold for the night, to be kept safely from the wolves and lions of this world; and out through that gate by day to go to those lush, green pastures, to recline beside the still, calm waters, or to be fed on the herbage that nourishes body and soul.

And ultimately, we know that he is the Good Shepherd who will lay down his life to protect us. He doesn’t run away when he sees the wolf coming — even if it means he will die in the process of protecting the sheep from that ravenous danger. For this is no ordinary shepherd — this is one who not only will lay down his life for the sheep. He is one who is able to take it back up again — no one takes it from him, but he lays it down of his own accord, and he receives it back from God his heavenly Father.

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And this is where we leave off our woolgathering and reflecting on sheep and shepherds, and the penny drops and the light-bulb goes on, as we recall, after all, that we are not sheep, and Jesus is not a shepherd. We are human beings, made after God’s image and in God’s likeness, and Jesus is himself that perfect image, the only-begotten Son of God. And yes, even though we are not sheep and he is no shepherd except by way of a parable — still we are his and he is ours: we belong to him, and he did in fact lay down his life for us, and took it up again; he was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, but raised from the dead by the power of God. That is the truth, the truth that we affirm every week as we say those words of the Nicene Creed.

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And this truth impels us to do more than merely to believe, merely to say those words week after week, even more than to believe it and to share it. For we are called not merely to follow our shepherd, but to grow up into him — to become shepherds ourselves, shepherds to each other. John gets into some of that mercantile imagery, after all, when he challenges and chastises “anyone who has the world’s goods and yet sees a brother or sister in need and refuses to help.” We are called to emulate the greatest love one human being can show for another,

to lay down our lives for each other, just as Jesus laid down his life for all of us — each and every one of us both a sheep and a shepherd, bearing one another’s burdens, as the Apostle Paul would also teach.

John teaches us that it is by these loving actions that we will know that we abide in God, and God in us. This is nothing other than the power of God, who is love, love made real, love come down from heaven, love shared among the sheep of God’s pasture — not sheep after all, but children of God, God present among us by the power of the love we share.

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The Apostles knew this power fresh from God. How many people had passed by that crippled man who sat at the Beautiful Gate — how many of the very members of the high-priestly family before whom Peter and John now stand, accused of doing a good work of healing — how many of them, Annas, Caiaphas, John and Alexander and all their kith and kin, had passed by that crippled man and never given him so much as the time of day. And yet, Peter and John with healing him. Peter and John told him they had no money to help him out — but what they had, they gave him, freely and without any conditions: they gave him the name of Jesus, and the power of that name healed him of his infirmity. No wonder the selfish priests are confounded by this act of generosity; they are hired hands, who had no real love for the sheep;

they were ready to sell out the Lamb of God to the Roman wolves so as to keep their precious peace.

Yet, here, even here as Peter and John stand before them, the grace of God is shown forth and even they — Annas and Caiaphas and John and Alexander and all their relatives and colleagues — they are given yet one more chance — and it won’t be the last one! — another chance to repent and believe, as Peter, filled with the boldness of a sheep become a shepherd, confronts them and shames them with the Name of Jesus strong upon his lips.

This, my friends, is what happens when we follow a Good Shepherd, and grow up into his likeness, caring for each other with the sacrificial love that gives and gives and never counts the cost. This is the Paschal mystery, my friends, the mystery of Easter, that it is in giving that we receive, that it is in pardoning that we find pardon, that it is in dying that, behold, we live. Alleluia, Christ is risen; the Lord is risen indeed, alleluia.

Do As I Say

Jesus wants us to do as he says, and as he does... A sermon for Proper 19b.

Proper 19b • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes.

John Selden, a wise and witty 17th-century English lawyer, is the originator — or at least the recorder — of the saying, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Many a parent or teacher has used this line as an excuse, when their children or pupils point out that the teacher has failed to follow their own teaching. It is an easy loophole to slip through, and Selden the lawyer noticed how poor an excuse it is for any teacher worth his or her salt. As Selden noted, while it might be common for a teacher or a preacher to fall back on this cop-out, saying, Do as I say, not as I do; what, asked Selden, “if the Physician had the same Disease upon him that I have, and he should bid me do one thing, and he do quite another — could I believe him?” No, when life and limb are at stake you want to make sure that the advice you follow is also followed by the one who gives it! Who, after all, would trust an obese doctor to give advice on weight loss, or a doctor who smoked like a chimney who advised against smoking?

Saint James, in the passage from his epistle we heard this morning, seems to offer a similar point: teachers need to be on their guard, knowing that they will be judged with great strictness should they make an error — as anyone is bound to do from time to time. “Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect,” James assures us, and we all know that nobody’s perfect! The best thing to do when caught in an error or a misstatement is to admit the fault, accept correction, and move on — without resorting to excuses or evasions like, “Do as I say, not as I do.”

James knew the wisdom of setting the record straight and accepting his own imperfections, not excusing them, but disciplining his sloppy and fallible tongue. Not an easy task, he goes on to say. If the tongue of even the wisest teacher may slip and speak in error, how much worse the wagging and wicked tongues of gossip and cursing. Better to keep silent, it might be wise to say.

Which, indeed, Jesus says to his disciples concerning his identity — picking up on the theme from last week’s gospel. Whether Jesus really did want the disciples to keep his identity secret, or this was just his way of setting their wagging tongues alight to spread the word, each of us must grasp as best able to do. I noted last week that the idea that Jesus really wanted to keep his identity secret seems not to be in keeping with his continued and open proclamation — as our gospel reminds us today, “he said all this quite openly” — so if he really meant to keep his identity secret — like a first-century Batman or Superman — he does not seem to have followed his own advice to the disciples not to tell anyone who he was, and why he came.

The Gospel shows us Jesus is not shy of speaking out — preaching from the mountainside and on the plain, from the shores of Galilee to the very courts of the Temple. And what is more, he not only preaches — he acts. To paraphrase the Epistle of James we heard last week, he is not a speaker of the word only, but most definitely a doer.

And so Jesus closes this passage today with a good example of the opposite of John Selden’s saying: Do as I say, and as I do. Any who want to be his followers must do as he has done, denying themselves and taking up their cross to follow him. Now, that may seem obvious — how can you be a follower if you don’t follow? But as with those who say one thing and do another, surely we know that the church is not lacking in folks who swear they love the Lord, but do nothing to serve him when they come across him in the form of those who are poor, or hungry, or sick or bereft. Those who are ashamed of him — sometimes in the form of the poor and the stranger, of whom he said, “as you have done to them, so you have done to me” — surely those ashamed of him will find him to be ashamed of them when he comes in unmistakable glory at the end of the age. And so he warns us in advance, to do as he has done.

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So, in this meantime, before his coming again in glory, what is the best course for us, in the midst of this adulterous and sinful generation? How do we best do, not just as Jesus says to do, but to do as he has done? Each of us must answer this as best we can, for no one knows another’s strengths or weaknesses so well as we each do our own. I get a sense of this in James’ epistle — is this in part a confession not only of his failings in speaking, not just in slips of the tongue, but in the wagging of it? Does he speak from experience as one who found it hard to keep his tongue from speaking ill, from spreading tales, and tittle-tattle? Is he preaching to himself as much as to those to whom he wrote? Perhaps, much like Saint Paul, the cross James bore in life was his knowledge of his own weaknesses — and this is in part his way of speaking from experience to his church of the faults he knows only too well.

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In the same way, each of us is called to the knowledge both of our own weaknesses, our own failings, but also to the knowledge of the one in whom we put our trust, the one who will save us precisely because we cannot save ourselves. Those intent on saving themselves are the ones who lose — for none, imperfect as the best of us is, can save themselves. It is those who fix their eyes on the great Teacher — the Teacher who does not just give a speech, but acts; who not only says, but does — perfectly. He it is who saves us because we cannot save ourselves. If we are to follow him, let us do so not in word only, but in deed, framing our lives as best we can to his example: he has given us the cross as a template, as a shape to form ourselves into, to follow him; as generous, loving people who give of themselves to help others. Let us be like him, and countless others, those saints who have followed him in faith, who are not ashamed to sit with the lowly, or to welcome the stranger, to visit the sick and those in prison — in short, to take up our cross each day of our lives, that at the end of those lives, we may be blessed to hear, Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into your master’s joy.+

The Diet God Provides

Not empty calories, but bread that nourishes, satisfies, and builds us up to be the Body of Christ on earth. -- a sermon for Proper 13b

Proper 13b • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, You are looking for me because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.

You have no doubt seen the news stories about how Mayor Bloomberg is moving to outlaw serving large portions of sugar-sweetened beverages. He and a number of medical experts agree that these soft drinks are a leading contributor to the obesity problem many people, especially young people, face. The problem is that these high-calorie but low-fat and low- or no-protein drinks provide lots of calories but don’t make you feel “full” — that’s what’s meant by “empty calories.” They can put the weight on without really providing much in the way of wholesome nutrition. A milk-shake or a smoothie might have just as many calories, but it will make you feel full, and provide some protein as well as calories and fat, and maybe even some fiber, which the body needs for good health — and you are unlikely to sit down and drink a quart at one sitting!

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In our Gospel passage today, Jesus similarly refers to three kinds of bread, only one of which has the power to nourish unto eternal life. And it is true that all three forms of bread described in our readings today come from God’s bakery, so to speak: the bread in the form of the loaves that Jesus multiplied in his miraculous feeding of the multitude — that’s a contemporary response to the miracle of the manna which God showered on the people in the wilderness, as they slowly wandered their way towards the land of promise. But even miraculous bread — whether multiplied from a few loaves, or falling from the sky like rain upon the wandering Israelites — even truly miracle bread only satisfies for a while. The ancient Israelites had to gather the manna day by day, and the scripture tells us they would pound it or grind it to make mush or to bake into johnny-cakes. But they would eat it and then grow hungry again. They would be filled each day only for each day as they received their daily bread. So this bread from heaven — miraculous though it was — was rationed out, and only fed the people one day at a time, or two on the sabbath — and even then they continued to complain because at the end of each day they grew hungry again.

The bread Jesus multiplied on the mountainside was much the same — though in this case the people really eat their fill and were absolutely stuffed, to the extent that there were many leftovers afterwards. Yet still they sought after Jesus for more of this bread. They were filled, but not satisfied, and they continued in their craving for more.

Finally, Jesus promises them, there is a third kind of miraculous bread that comes from God’s bakery — the true bread that comes down from heaven, bread that doesn’t just satisfy for a day, like the manna, or a few hours, like the bread of the wilderness that Jesus multiplied: but bread that gives life to the world, and endures for ever. And when the people insist that Jesus give them this always-bread, this eternal and ever-nourishing bread that comes down from heaven; not food that perishes but endures to eternal life — when they ask for this bread, Jesus responds with one of those powerful and mystical statements that identify him as the living presence of the power of God: the great I AM — “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Here at last is food that nourishes and satisfies, — not empty spiritual calories, but good solid nourishing sustenance — as different from that other bread as a rich, nourishing fresh-fruit and yoghurt smoothie is from a colored-water, sugared, empty soft drink. This is food that, as Saint Paul said, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up, through and by means of the power of God and the love of God shown most clearly in Christ’s gift of himself, to be bread — bread for the life of the people he has called and chosen to be his own.

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Jesus is the bread that came down from heaven for the life of the world. He commits himself to us, in his Body and his Blood, which we are privileged to share at this altar-rail, as we consume the Body and the Blood, the Bread and the Wine, through which his presence is made real with us, among us and within us. This is no ordinary bread, no ordinary wine. This is the food we are given to assist us and empower us as the church — the body of Christ on earth — to do the work that God gives us to do with gladness and singleness of heart.

Saint Paul makes a list of those works, the works we do, which as Jesus said begins with that work of believing in him — for it is only in him that we are nourished to take up all those other works, that Saint Paul lists: Some are apostles — the ones who go out into the world to bear the message of hope to friends and family and co-workers; some are prophets — those who are given the power to speak the truth that God has given them to speak, to confront the powers and principalities of this fallen world, and to call them to account when they are unjust or hurt the children of God; some are evangelists — who spread the good news of God’s salvation in and through Christ, to promote belief in him, which is the beginning of that salvation, the work of God among us; and some are pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up that body of Christ, until all of us come to that unity of faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, the measure of the full stature of Christ.

This, my friends, is the goal of the nourishment we receive: the food that builds us up into the Body of Christ, to attain to his stature. Let us pray that God will give us this food always, that we may, if we hunger, hunger only for righteousness, and be filled with the nourishment that God provides so that we may serve him well in this life, and share with him for ever in the next.+

Saved From What

Eternal salvation is to a purpose in the here and now: life is a gift to be used in service to others -- a sermon for Easter 4b

SJF • Easter 4b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Peter said, This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’ There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.

Our reading from the Acts of the Apostles picks up where we left off last week. Peter had addressed the crowds amazed at the healing of the crippled man who sat begging in the gate of the Temple. He told them that they and their rulers had acted in ignorance when they conspired to put an end to the ministry and life of Jesus.

In today’s reading Peter stands before those very rulers, and addresses them in no uncertain terms concerning the Christ. He affirms that it is through the power of Jesus Christ, now at work in Peter and his colleagues as disciples of Christ, that the man was healed and stands before them all in good health. But Peter then goes further — it is not enough that Jesus is the source of the power that brought about this one miraculous healing. Peter declares that there is no salvation, there is salvation in no one else, and no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved!

Now, if you had never heard of this before, you might be moved to ask, Saved from what? There are a couple of things worth noting about this passage in answer to that question, “Saved from what?” and the shift in the proclamation from healing the body to salvation of the whole person, the whole human being, body and soul.

Peter’s proclamation establishes first of all that there is a connection between healing and salvation. It is no accident that the word salve — anointment used for healing — derives from the same root word used here. Salvation is the ultimate healing of all that ails us — not just the ordinary illnesses or even the more lasting disabilities, but the whole state of being mortal, susceptible not just to illness, but to death itself.

So the answer the question “Saved from what?” is in large part, “Saved from everlasting death.” As Peter reminds us, and the rulers of the people and elders, Jesus himself died, crucified at their instigation and by means of Roman hands, but God raised him from the dead. He is the source of new life, and salvation not just from illness, but from death itself, because he has plumbed the depths of hell in person, and been raised victorious from the grave. Death cannot touch him any more, and those who are joined with him, in a death like his, will also be raised to a new life like his, though we too will taste of death at the end of our earthly lives, will — in him to whom we are joined as members of his body — rise with him to life everlasting. So the first answer to “Saved from what” is indeed “saved from death.”

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But in the meantime what about life — this earthly life we lead day by day and year by year — what are we saved from in this life? The Evangelist John offers us an image, a familiar one, perhaps too familiar so as to have lost some of its impact, down through the years of singing those wonderful hymns about it: Jesus as the good shepherd. He contrasts his good shepherding with that of a hired hand who fails to take responsibility and high-tails it at the first sight of trouble. The good shepherd, on the other hand, confronts the wolf, and saves the sheep from the wolf’s ravages. In this is figured the way in which Jesus saves us and protects us from the dangers of this world — if we will listen to his voice.

And that voice insists that we too ought to have love for him and for one another. John emphasizes that insistence in the portion of his First Letter we heard today. This is one of John’s major themes in all of his writing: love of the community of faith for the members of that community. This is the sign and mark of what it means to be in the light, to be a child of God. John shows us that Jesus saves us in large part by strengthening us to save each other, following his example: as he laid down his life for us, like a shepherd confronting a deadly wild beast, so too we ought also to be willing to lay our lives down for each other; and perhaps more importantly, day by day to give our lives for each other. What does John say? “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help.” John’s point is that we often save each other, those with helping those without, those who have helping those who have not, in a divine redistribution of the wealth of this world, a world in which there is plenty of food to go around and in which no one need go hungry — and yet in which so many countless thousands starve while others throw excess food away their plates are too full to hold, and which they cannot eat. Sometimes I think that in answer to the question, “Saved from what?” we need to acknowledge, “Saved from ourselves!” So much of the harm done in the world is from people towards other people — either intentionally harming others by doing wrong to them, or unintentionally harming others by failing to do the good we could do. Humanity is often its own worst enemy.

For although in relation to Jesus we are like sheep — sheep who have no ability to help each other or even to defend themselves — in relation to each other we are called to be — challenged to be — like him in his willingness to give his life in service of to others, to lay down our lives in service to each other, and at the very least to share what we have with those who have less, or who have nothing at all.

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Peter reminds us of the saving power of Jesus’ name, and John reminds us of the commandment: that we should believe in the name of Jesus Christ and love one another. That’s not an either / or; it’s a both / and. We are called to believe, and to act. As John says, to love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. This is not about lip-service, but putting hands and hearts and minds to work with all that God provides.

There is a great deal from which all of us need to be saved in this dangerous world of ours. But the great good news is that Jesus has saved us from the ultimate and final enemy, death. And that should encourage us, in the meantime, that are given this gift of life so that our lives might amount to something, in service to one another. There is no other name given under heaven for salvation, and there are no other hands or hearts or minds to serve but ours to help each other. Let us neither reject him, the cornerstone chosen and precious, nor each other, children of God and charged with his command to love one another as he loved us.

Ultimately let the question not be, “Saved from what?” but “Saved for what?” Our salvation has a purpose, and God has an intention for us, having been saved through him; and he has commanded us to spread that word of salvation in his name, and to love and serve our brothers and sisters. Thanks be to God who saves us, and thanks be to God who gives us this command. May we fulfill it in his name and to his honor and glory, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Arrival

The good news of Messiah, among us to inspire us to work his will. — A Sermon for Advent 3b

SJF • Advent 3b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

Over these first three weeks of Advent we have been hearing readings from the prophet Isaiah. And as I have said, they form a sequence almost like “ready, set, go.” The first showed Isaiah asking God why he did not show himself, and challenging and imploring God to do so. The second announced that God was indeed soon to show himself, and that unmistakably. And in today’s reading — a reading which, as we know from the gospel of Luke, Jesus identified with and proclaimed in the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth — in this reading the presence of the Spirit of God is formally announced: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me...” It is good to recall that the Hebrew word for one who is anointed is Messiah.

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God’s promise is fulfilled in this prophecy. and it is a time of great rejoicing and celebration. The imagery is that of people getting dressed for a wedding. The groom puts on a garland and the bride dresses herself in her finest jewels. These are not things one does long in advance of the event — these are the outfits you put on only on the day of the wedding itself, like the tail-coat and the wedding dress. That is how we know that the great day has arrived — and when we see the bride and the groom so attired, we know that it is already here.

But note that even these fine outfits are but a shadow of the glory of the garments of salvation and the robe of righteousness with which God will clothe his people for the celebration of the Lord’s arrival. Not just the bride and the groom, but all the guests at the wedding banquet will be gloriously dressed. It is clearly something to rejoice about.

And so Saint Paul continues that word of rejoicing, urging those to whom he writes to rejoice always, to give thanks in all things, filled as they are with the unquenchable spirit of God and sanctified by the God of peace to be kept whole and sound.

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And yet... and yet. The arrival that Isaiah appears to celebrate did not come in the time of Isaiah. It happened centuries later in the time of John the Baptist. Isaiah’s words about the arrival of the Spirit of God were prophetic — even though, fired up with the sense of God’s imminent arrival, it seemed almost, almost, as if it was happening even then. It seemed that God would break through that very day, as if the bride and groom rose from their slumber and dressed for the wedding that would take place that very morning.

So eager were the people for this arrival in the days of Isaiah, and in the days of John the Baptist, that they looked for any clue, any sign, that God and his Messiah had come. You can see that in the grilling to which the priests and Levites subject John the Baptist. The arrival of the Messiah is so close that they almost feel that they can reach out and touch him — but as John assures them, he is not the one. The time is not yet, though as the song says, “soon and very soon.” John sets the stage, even quoting the prophet Isaiah, casting himself in the role of the one who cries out in the wilderness the very same words of preparation that we heard on the first Sunday of Advent — “make his paths straight.” He is coming.

And it is notable that someone else quotes from Isaiah — not just quoting but actually reading, as I said earlier. And that is Christ himself, who, when he was given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah to read in the synagogue of Nazareth, found the very passage we heard this morning. And he not only read from it about the spirit of the Lord God and the anointing that would proclaim the Messiah — he not only read from the scroll but declared that it was fulfilled, then and there, in their hearing, in the presence of all who heard him read it. It was a proclamation that Messiah had come.

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Soon after, John the Baptist, believing but no doubt wanting to be assured, sent messengers himself to Jesus to ask if he was indeed the one — much as others had sent messengers to John to ask if he was the one! And Jesus gave to John’s messengers an answer similar to the one John gave to those who sought him out: look at what I am doing. And in Jesus’ case, he once again cataloged those evidences of God’s presence similar to the promises made in the passage from Isaiah: sight to the blind, healing to the disabled, release to the prisoners and captives. To comfort John with the assurance that Christ was indeed the one who was promised, he did not engage in a point by point Scriptural argument, but displayed his works of power — the power of God’s presence at work in him and through him, performing the signs of liberation that the prophet had promised. The evidence of God’s arrival is God’s work. This isn’t talk any more, but action.

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And God wants the same from us — action. It is very easy to talk about how much we love God, love the church, love our fellow Christians. But God wants more than talk: God wants us to put our hands to work as well. God wants us to proclaim in word and deed that same message of deliverance from bondage that Isaiah preached, that John the Baptist promised, and that Christ at the last brought into being. We live in a world that is still full of brokenhearted people — disappointed in their hopes and frustrated or maligned in their efforts to be and to do all that God intends for them. We live in a world that is still oppressed and hungry for good news; a world that is held captive by lust of possession that still works desolation, binding those enthralled by wealth and fame in chains — that while they seem to be made of gold, are cold iron underneath and weigh them down to the depths.

We live, in short, in a world that desperately needs to hear the proclamation of the year of the Lord’s favor, of the Lord’s forgiveness, of the Lord’s deliverance, and above all of the Lord’s arrival.

Will you do that? Not only in word but in deed? Will you proclaim with your lips and in your lives that God has come among us, and is among us still. Will you proclaim that Jesus lives, and that he reigns in your hearts and strengthens your hands to do his will? Will you follow up that proclamation with the hard work that shows that you mean every word you say, that what you proclaim with your lips is what you live in your lives? We, like John, may not be worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. But we can, like John, proclaim, and by our actions certify, that God is with us, acting through us, mighty in power and strong to save: even Jesus Christ our Lord.

To Be or Not To Be

Choosing life over death -- for the right reason. A sermon for Proper 20a.

SJF • Proper 20a • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
To me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard-pressed between the two; my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.

In this morning’s reading from the prophet Jonah we encountered a rather petulant man prepared to die almost out of spite. Jonah is angry at God on two counts: for letting the wicked Ninevites off the hook because they repented in response to Jonah’s own prophetic warning; and more immediately and selfishly because the bush that shaded him from the harsh desert sun has withered at God’s command. Jonah the Impatient is not one to put up with such things, and one hopes he learns better by the end of the story. At that point Jonah appears to have been struck speechless in response to God’s final question putting things in perspective. He should, after all, be happy that his prophecy was heeded and saved an entire city.

When we turn to our Epistle there is no doubt that we are dealing with a much more positive assessment. In Saint Paul’s Letter to the Philippians we behold the efforts of a committed servant of God to wrestle with the issue of whether it is better to live or to die, but for the right reasons — not choosing to die out of spite, or even out of a desire to be with God, but choosing life instead in order to serve God’s people.

Living or dying: to be or not to be. That is the issue with which the melancholy Dane Prince Hamlet wrestles, though in very different circumstances from either Jonah or Paul. As you may recall, Hamlet is a philosophy student entangled in the midst of a family drama with supernatural overtones — his father’s ghost has appeared to him and told him that he was murdered by Hamlet’s uncle, who has since married his widow.

Shakespeare’s play is among the richest and most complex ever written, and the character of Hamlet can be played in many different ways. Sir Laurence Olivier’s version resonates most with our readings this morning — in weighing the question of life and death. You may recall that the film begins with Olivier’s voice-over introducing the theme, “This is the story of a man who could not make up his mind.” That is the heart of Hamlet’s dilemma, and it lies in that most famous of Shakespearian speeches, the one that begins, “To be or not to be.” That is, as Hamlet observes, the question — the one that faces him, and Jonah, and Paul, and ultimately every thinking person. Is it better to live or to die?

Hamlet’s short speech is a brilliant summary of the philosophical arguments for and against choosing death over life, or life over death, laying out an “on the one hand this and on the other hand that” kind of argument with himself.

Hamlet really would like to just end it all — in modern terms we would probably say he is suffering from clinical depression. Life itself has just become too much of a burden — especially with his father’s ghost getting into the picture and planting seeds of suspicion — and Hamlet doesn’t know if the ghost is telling the truth or if the ghost is trying to tempt him into committing the murder of an innocent person! So Hamlet is looking for a way out, and is even contemplating suicide. In an earlier speech he has already expressed the wish that he could just die — that his “too, too solid flesh” might simply melt and evaporate and disappear; but he immediately recalls that taking any action along those lines himself has been forbidden, as the Almighty has fixed his law “against self-slaughter.”

So in the more famous speech Hamlet returns to the question, Is suffering a thing that makes you more noble and virtuous by enduring it, or is it something you should overcome or avoid? Who after all would suffer if it were an option simply to end your life in an instant, and plunge into that endless sleep? But in that sleep of death what dreams might come? Ah, as Hamlet observes, “There’s the rub!”

In the end it is the unknown — what comes after death in that “undiscovered country” from which “no traveler returns” — that keeps Hamlet alive: not a positive will to live and a commitment to act, but fear of the unknown and the consequences of action. As he concludes, “Conscience makes cowards of us all.” So Hamlet continues on the course of his tragedy, only able finally to act against his murderous uncle when he finds a way to be sure the uncle is guilty — but too late to save himself or his mother, or his prospective father-in-law or his fiancée, or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or anyone else, from a swift journey offstage to that undiscovered country, death.

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Saint Paul, on the other hand, is not a man of doubt and double-mindedness, but of faith. He weighs the options, true, but he comes to a very different conclusion, and that right quickly. And this is because unlike Hamlet he is fully confidant of knowing what awaits him beyond the veil of death. He has absolutely no fear of what dreams might come. He does not regard death as an undiscovered country from which no traveler returns, but a land to which one indeed has gone to prepare a place for him, a land in which there are in fact many dwelling-places prepared, and from which that same one has returned, when the bonds of death were not able to keep him down. You know who that is, of course: Jesus Christ, the one in whom Paul places all of his faith. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is at the heart of Paul’s faith, Paul’s gospel, and it informs everything about his life and his ministry. It is his trust, his faith, his knowledge that he is assured of passage into the new life with Christ. In fact, he longs for it — not as Hamlet did as a kind of oblivion and end to his troubles — but as a positive desire to be with Christ. But Paul also knows that he still has work to do among the faithful — and though it is hard work and will be a sea of troubles for him, though it will mean suffering and pain, he commits to stay with it. His conscience is at work, but not to make him a coward, but to make him a hero — one willing to suffer for and with others rather than to take the easy way out. He chooses this course, convinced that remaining in the flesh — that is to say, remaining alive — is for the benefit of the struggling Christians to whom he writes. Even though he longs to be with Christ, he chooses to remain in service to and with his spiritual children.

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In the Buddhist tradition there is a figure known as the Bodhisattva. This is a person who has gained the Buddhist equivalent of sainthood — they have risen to the level of spiritual consciousness where they no longer need to suffer “the slings and arrows” of life in an endless cycle of reincarnation, but have broken through to the pure land of nirvana, the land of bliss — and yet, instead of going off to that endless bliss, the Bodhisattva chooses to remain, to stay in the flesh to help guide and teach others in their spiritual journey.

This is the kind of choice that Saint Paul makes — no quite the same, but a similar choice: not to depart and be with Christ in bliss, but to stay in the struggle, a struggle he voluntarily shares with the Philippians, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.

Paul chooses to be rather than not to be: to be in the flesh as long as the flesh is useful to himself and to others, and only to go Christ in glory when the time is right — when God has made full use of him and the cup of suffering endured in faith has been drunk down, and the vessel is empty and he has finished his course in faith. May we also serve so faithfully, working together as long as we have life, till by the grace of God this mortal life is ended and what is mortal is laid down to rest to wait for the day of resurrection, through Christ and in Christ, our redeemer and advocate, who lives and reigns for ever and ever.

At Your Service

SJF• Easter 4a • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said to them, “I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate.”

It has long been a tradition to take up the account of the early church in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles during worship in Easter Season. As I noted last week, this can be a bit confusing as it gets events into a disordered sequence — we won’t celebrate Pentecost for a few weeks yet, and most of what we are hearing from Acts takes place after the original descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, seven weeks — a week of weeks — after the first Easter. I noted last week that during this time we are a bit like Doctor Who, bouncing back and forth in time, as the story is told out of order.

But that being said, isn’t it a wonderful story! In today’s short reading we hear of the short period of peace the early church enjoyed before persecution from without and dissension from within began to trouble it. The preaching of the gospel has been such a success, and the church has grown so much! People are in awe, and the members of the church devote themselves to prayer, fellowship and praising God. Is it any wonder that people are beginning to seek to be added to that number? It is almost as if the church is running on auto-pilot, without any need for earthly leadership — just one big happy and growing family! Of course, they are happy in this way because at that early point they have put their whole trust in the one whom they know to be their true leader, the one who suffered for them, bearing their sins upon the cross, and healing them by his wounds. They have put their whole trust in the one who, when they were going astray like sheep, gathered them together as the shepherd and guardian of their souls.

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This Sunday is traditionally known as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” The theme is referred to in our opening Collect, and in the selection of the 23rd Psalm. And it is true that later in John’s Gospel Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.” But we miss Jesus’ teaching in today’s gospel if we anticipate those verses.

In today’s gospel Jesus does not call himself the shepherd, but — twice no less — the “gate for the sheep.” Perhaps we are inclined to let our minds slip over this image because it is less evocative than that of a young shepherd carrying a lost sheep home on his shoulder, as in the hymn based on David’s most famous Psalm, which we’ll be singing later: “and on his shoulder gently laid, and home rejoicing brought me.” But let us stick with Jesus’ image of the gate, looking at what the text actually says, and listening to Jesus as he teaches us — lest we too fall into the same trap of misunderstanding as his original hearers, who, as it says in today’s gospel, “did not understand what he was saying to them.”

Very well, then. Let’s try to do better. Jesus says, “I am the gate for the sheep”; and “I am the gate.” This means that he is the one through whom the sheep enter and leave, through whom they pass in to safety and out to pasture. As he also says (and we’ll hear this next week), I am the Way, and the Truth and the Life. We are saved through him. He is the way; he is the gate. So if Jesus is the gate, who then, in this imagery, is the shepherd?

Let us again “look at the text” as my New Testament professor always used to say. What is written there? The shepherd is the one for whom the gate is opened, for the shepherd passes in and out with the sheep. The shepherd is not like the thief or bandit who doesn’t go through the gate (that is, through Jesus) but climbs in by another way. And the shepherd leads the sheep and calls them by name, and the sheep hear the shepherd, and, knowing and recognizing that voice, they follow the shepherd in and out of the gate, that is Jesus.

What Jesus is doing in this passage is showing that he chooses to share the work of the church — which is salvation — with other workers: with these shepherds. Jesus delegates part of his work to the apostles and they to their successors, the bishops, who also pass along the work to the priests and deacons who serve in the parishes, and who — in case you haven’t noticed my doing this — also seek to engage all of the members of the church — that’s you! — in taking up their share of the work. These are the shepherds for whom Jesus the gate is opened, who call the sheep by name, and who lead the sheep alternately to safety and to pasture, in and out, through the gate, which is Christ himself, whose body is the church.

As to the thieves and bandits, well, next week we will see Stephen — among the first of the deacons — dealing with some of the leaders who instead of bringing their people to salvation are getting in the way of the message, impeding the work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus too dealt with such leaders, to whom he said, Woe to you, who not entering yourselves have hindered others from entering!(Lk 11:52) And surely over the last two decades we’ve heard the sad and shocking tales of priestly misconduct, of those who abuse the little ones committed to their charge, and of bishops who as senior pastors fail to keep watch, and instead simply shuffle the crooked deck in a kind of ecclesiastical Three Card Monte. All I can say is, there will be a reckoning for those who take up the role of shepherd only to molest or harm the sheep.

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But let us, dear sisters and brothers, look on the bright side of Jesus’ challenge to us, the tremendous honor that our Lord does us by asking for our help, by opening himself up to us to pass in and out, by allowing us entry by the gate, to take up these tasks of ministry, to allow us to go out through the gate, out into the world to serve the needs of the world, and committing to us all of these tasks of leadership and care. It isn’t just the clergy, the bishops, priests and deacons. The church has its lay members too, working in so many ways, who take up each their own tasks of teaching the young, taking roles in worship, visiting the sick and feeding the hungry, those who maintain the physical facility of this building and other buildings, and those who undertake the work of hospitality in the heat of the kitchen — and that’s hard work, believe me. And also, and perhaps most importantly, all of you, as you go out into the world, a challenging world that is hungry not just for earthly bread, but for the word of God. All of these tasks are important, all of them require time and talent and treasure. And the church needs all of them, as they are delegated to each one by the power of the Holy Spirit working in each one to build up the church.

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There is an old story told of a steamboat helmsman and an engineer who got into an argument as to who was more important: the one who steered the boat or the one who kept the engine running so the boat could go. So they decided to trade places to see just how hard the other worked, and how important the other job was. After a couple of hours of running along fine, the ship came to stop, and the engineer, now up on the bridge, got on the horn to the helmsman, down in the boiler room. “The ship has stopped! Are you giving us full steam?” The helmsman responded from below, “The engines overheated and stopped running! I’m coming up.”

The engineer on the bridge smiled to himself, figuring he’d won the debate as to who was most important. But as the helmsman came to the bridge and looked out at the river, he smiled ruefully and said to the engineer, “Well, I guess I know now why the boat has stopped. You’ve run us aground on a sand-bar!”

The church is too important, my friends, to run aground over arguments about whose ministry is more important. The church is too important to allow a few bad priests to destroy people’s confidence in the rest who are good. The church is too important to be injured by bishops more interested in the church’s reputation than in the good of the flock. But the church itself — Christ’s body — is not too important for God in Christ to have committed its care into our less than perfect hands — all of us. He has chosen us to go in and out through him. Mark and Catherine our bishops, I as your priest, Tony and Eliza as our former deacons, and Mark Collins and Sahra Harding as seminarians here (and now priests themselves serving in other parishes) and each and all of you as readers and teachers and ushers and cooks and cleaners and welcomers and visitors and hosts and musicians and altar serves, and most importantly of all as members of this church going out into the world and spreading the news — each of us has been given a job and a ministry by God, by our Lord, the gate for the sheep, and all of us have been empowered to carry it out by the Holy Spirit. Maybe we can — through the power and grace of God, help move the church into something resembling those early days when they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Wouldn’t that be awesome! The church being the church — coming and going through the gate and all working ship-shape and in Bristol fashion.

So let us not lose heart, let us not lose faith. When the job seems daunting or beyond our capacity, let us always remember that the Lord who is Way, the Truth and Life will provide other servants through the gate, who will join in the work of building up God’s kingdom, day by day adding to the number being saved, being brought through the gate of salvation, which is Jesus Christ our Lord.+

In the beginning

SJF • 1 Epiphany A 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ: He is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced.+

January is the month of beginnings. We inherit from the pagan Romans the notion that it is the first month of the calendar year. Even its name, January, derives from Janus, the two-faced Roman God of doorways and gates, who simultaneously looks to the past and to the future. In the secular world, January is the month of inaugurations. Even in this era of rapid transportation and communication, and even though we elect presidents, senators, representatives, and governors in November, we don’t put them to work or into office until January, usually with a ceremonial inauguration and oath-taking.

And so it is that the church similarly commemorates the beginning of Christ’s ministry every January. The church telescopes the thirty years between his infancy portrayed at Christmas and Epiphany — his birth in Bethlehem and the visit of the Magi to offer gifts to the newborn king — right up to his baptism in the Jordan River, so that our commemoration of the beginning of Christ’s three-or-so-year ministry always falls within the first two weeks of January, on the Sunday after January 6.

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Now, part of the reason for the telescoping of those 30 years is that apart from Luke’s brief account of the 12-year-old Jesus in the Temple, the Gospels are silent concerning what Jesus did, where he went, or who he knew during that whole time. It is with his baptism at the river Jordan that the story picks up again — remember that for both Mark and John this is where their accounts of the Gospel begins; only Matthew and Luke give us what film-script writers call “the backstory” — and both of them take it all the way back to Genesis, as they trace out the lineage of the House of David!

But the Gospel really becomes the Gospel with the beginning of the proclamation of the message of the Good News, as Peter says in Luke’s account in Acts, “beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced.” It is this baptism that marks the inauguration of Christ’s ministry, with St Peter like a newsboy from the last century shouting out the Good News, a headline in only five words: “He is Lord of all.”

That headline is the heart of the Gospel, later reduced by the copy-editor Paul to just three words: “Jesus is Lord.” And it is at the Baptism of Jesus that this lordship is revealed — the first “epiphany” or “showing forth” of that divine truth, in fulfillment of all righteousness. For it is at the Baptism of Jesus that the heavens open, the Spirit of God descends, and the divine voice speaks out loud and clear. “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Has any president ever had such an inauguration? Has any monarch ever had such a coronation? Has even any bishop or pope had such a consecration? All of these earthly ceremonial beginnings are mere shadows compared to the glory of God in majesty sending the Spirit of God to descend on Jesus Christ the Beloved Son of God, and literally speaking those words of blessing and benediction, a somewhat wordier proclamation of that same Gospel truth: Jesus is Lord.

That is the message — that is the Gospel — the apostles were sent to proclaim. As Peter says in today’s account in Acts, “He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead.” And his baptism is the first sign, the first epiphany, of that “ordination.” It is at the baptism that it all begins, and we ought to look to that beginning, that root and origin, if we are to grasp the significance of what Jesus Christ means to us.

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As you likely know, the study of word origins is called etymology. It looks to the roots and origins of the words we use, to show how words evolve over time, sometimes from one language to another, but often retaining a trace of their origins in spelling or form.

Let’s take that word gospel, for example. In its form and meaning it comes from two English words from the dim reaches of the Middle Ages: gode and spelle. Gode means “good” — that one’s a no-brainer — and spelle means “message.” (Nowadays the only spelle you hear about with any even distant connection to this original meaning is the kind of “spelle” cast by a Harry Potter. Although we New Yorkers may be familiar with the Yiddish equivalent for a salesman’s sales-pitch, spiel!)

So gospel comes from a Middle English phrase gode spelle meaning “Good Message” — thought perhaps in NY I could say, “good spiel” or as we say today, “it’s the Good News.” It is a literal translation of the Greek word that the Gospel writers used to describe their writings: evangelionev meaning “good” and angelion meaning “message” — for the angels were God’s messengers. This is where our English word evangelist comes from: one who spreads the Good Message, the Good News. They are the newsboys of the Gospel, carrying it out into the street and shouting, “Listen! News! Good news! Jesus is Lord!”

So much for our language lesson! For if it is meaningful to look to origins to understand words in human language, it is equally appropriate for us to look to origins to understand Jesus Christ, the Word of God. And as the scripture assures us, it is at the Baptism of Jesus that his identity as Lord of all is confirmed and articulated, by the voice of God himself speaking from on high.

That voice affirms three things about Jesus: that he is God’s Son, that he is Beloved, and that God is wellpleased with him. God’s glory descends with God’s Spirit upon Jesus, which shows us, in Isaiah’s words, that this Beloved Son, with whom God is well-pleased, is Lord, for God proclaims through the prophet Isaiah, “I am the Lord, that is my name, my glory I give to no other.” What clearer indication could we ask, what better inauguration could we hope for, than these words of promise from the Lord God speaking from heaven, this pure distillation of the Gospel, not news delivered by messengers or intermediaries or evangelists in this case, but by the very voice of God giving his glory to Jesus as Son of God and Lord of all; doing precisely what Isaiah promised that God would not do for anyone else.

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That message of the Lordship of Jesus has spread not only through Judea but through all the world — though still there are some who have not received it, and even many who do not believe it. And so it rests for us to continue that task of spreading the word, not only with our lips but in our lives: becoming messengers of God ourselves, each in our own way. And I will say that our lives and works are often more eloquent than our words — for if you are known to be a Christian, how you act will reflect on Christ himself. As St Francis of Assisi once said, “Preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary use words.” If we say that Jesus is Lord, then we must always seek to act in accordance with his lordship over our lives, our souls and bodies. Actions do speak louder than words, you know. Let us do his will in all that we undertake, now at the beginning of this year and through it and beyond, and we will by our actions — especially those actions of love, service and fellowship — proclaim that simple gospel message, Good News for our own good and for the benefit of others: the message that was sent to the people of Israel, and throughout the world, preaching peace by Jesus Christ: He is Lord of all.+

The Idol and the Servant

What has religion to do with idols? Plenty, if you're not careful!

SJF • Easter 6c 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.

I want to talk to you today about idols: and by idols I don’t mean statues with five heads and a dozen arms — but the more insidious idols that can creep in around the edges of even Christian worship. These idols disguise themselves so well, that one can fall into worshiping them without knowing it.

Because we are not disembodied spirits, our worship requires physical expression: we need people, places and things. We are called, as the Collect says, to worship God in all things and above all things, so things play a part in our lives: our worship lives and our ordinary lives. In the church certain people are ordained to carry out special functions in our worship. Certain places, like this building, receive special honor, as a place where we gather to worship God. Certain physical things, such as the crucifix over the altar, serve to focus our worship. These people, places and things — the means of our worship — are not meant to be the object of our worship: God is.

Some years ago a priest friend of mine, who was wearing his clericals out on the street, was challenged by an aggressive fundamentalist. “Why do you Roman Catholics worship statues? Don’t you know that’s idolatry?” My priest friend said, “First of all, I’m Episcopalian, not Roman Catholic; but I will admit there are statues and images in my church. But before I answer your question, would you mind showing me your wallet?” Somewhat startled, perhaps expecting to be hit up for a donation, the man reluctantly took out his billfold. My friend said, “Would you open it for me, please. Ah — I see you have a picture of what I assume are your wife and children. Would you mind very much tearing it up and throwing it away?” The man said, “Are you crazy! I love my wife and family.” The priest responded, “But I’m not asking you to do anything to your wife and family. I’m just talking about a picture. It’s just a piece of paper.” The man — who still didn’t seem to get the connection, though I’m sure most of you have by now — said, “It isn’t the picture, it’s what it represents!” The priest said, “Well, it’s the same way with my church. We know the image of Mary isn’t Mary, and the one of Jesus isn’t Jesus. We don’t worship these images; we honor and respect them as reminders of the reality of which they are just representations and reminders: the real Mary whose obedience changed the world, and the real Jesus whose saving death on the cross purchased salvation for all of us sinners. And I’m no more willing to destroy these reminders than you are willing to do so to the picture of your family.”

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And that’s the truth. We know full well — or at least I hope we know — that this building on the corner of 190th and Jerome is not the New Jerusalem. For one thing, the New Jerusalem doesn’t require a new roof on the parish hall every 30 years! Also the New Jerusalem is lit by the light of the Lamb, not bu our lovely knew light-bulbs just installed this week. We know that the figure over our altar is made of brass and plaster, that the icons are painted wooden panels. We do not worship the physical things that we see, but we treat them with respect as reminders of the spiritual truths that cannot be seen.

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However, sometimes people in the church do become so attached to the people, places and things of the church — which are meant to guide us and lead us to God — that we lose sight of God himself. Have you ever received a birthday package so beautifully wrapped that you said, “Oh, I hate to open it!” Or been presented with a birthday cake so beautifully decorated that you said, “Oh, I hate to cut it!” I’ve heard people say those things many times. But did you ever actually leave the present wrapped, or the cake uncut? Anyone? I didn’t think so. But sometimes in worship, people get so caught up with the things of worship, that they stop there, just as it is, and fail to reach the reality behind them.

The pagan priest at Lystra — the priest of Zeus — and of course pagans were used to idols so perhaps this was natural — was ready to offer sacrifice to Paul and Barnabas, because of what they had done, and how they spoke. But the apostles cried out, “No! Not this! We are men like you! We have come to bring you the good news... to turn you from empty idols and point you to the God who made heaven and earth, the seas and all that is in them.” The apostles were there to get the people to worship the true and living God; they didn’t want to be set up themselves as idols of a new cult!

Yet many times since then, we Christians have “gotten stuck” on the things meant to guide us, like a car stuck in the ruts of the very road meant to aid our journey. When this happens, we make the error of traditionalism. And when we get stuck on a church leader or minister, we fall into what is called the cult of personality. And both of these are deadly to the church.

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First, a few words about traditionalism. It is not the same as tradition. Tradition is the heritage of our religious culture. Without tradition, we are like people with cultural amnesia, ignorant of our past. As I’ve said before, How can you do what Jesus would do if you don’t know what he did? Or what the Apostles did, or the other great saints and sages of the church’s history have done down through the years even to our own time? Tradition is a vehicle for our journey in faith, but it must be a living tradition, a vehicle which moves, which brings us somewhere, not becoming an end in itself. For that’s when tradition becomes traditionalism. As a wise man once said, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” Traditionalism reminds me of that tragic character from Dickens’ Great Expectations, Miss Havesham, who was jilted on her wedding day, and lived forever in that moment, in a musty room still dressed in her wedding-gown, with an untouched wedding cake covered with cobwebs, nourished only by her thirst for revenge.

But tradition is not such a musty museum. Tradition is a vital thread of truth passed on from generation to generation, linking us back to the time when Christ first promised that even as he went away he would send another Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who would continue to teach the disciples everything, and, importantly, remind them of all he had said and taught and done. This is tradition as the gift of God himself.

So the Spirit works to help us keep tradition in focus as we learn about the road we’ve traveled since the days of Paul and Barnabas. We learn from our history by asking questions, with respect and understanding. For when we can no longer tell what greater truth something points to, it is no longer a tradition in any meaningful sense. It has become just one more thing; it has become a vehicle that goes nowhere; it has become an idol.

Sadly, the church has a long history of people getting stuck in ruts of traditionalism, so focused on the thing itself that they loose all understanding and perspective. Sometimes people get so attached to a tradition that they even resort to violence against those who disagree or sooner die than give it up!

I’m not exaggerating. In the eighth century, a monastery of English monks resisted the instructions from Rome that they begin chanting the psalms in the Roman fashion. And so the king stationed archers in the gallery of the monastery, and as the monks persisted singing their traditional English tunes, they were slaughtered in the choir where they stood.

Maybe you’ll say, Oh, but that was in the dark ages; the eight century; things have gotten a lot better. Well, things weren’t better a thousand years later! In 17th century Russia, the Patriarch of Moscow instituted changes in worship, and open warfare broke out — thousands of people died defending the “old ways.” Whole villages were destroyed, people were burnt at the stake in the hundreds. What changes so angered these traditionalists, these “Old Believers”? What earth-shattering reforms did the Patriarch insist were crucial to the faith? To make the sign of the cross with three fingers instead of two, and to say the Alleluia three times instead of once. And as those Old Believers went to the stake, they defiantly crossed themselves with two fingers instead of three. I guess they had the last word.

When people worship their worship rather than worshiping God through their worship, then worship itself has become an idol: an end in itself rather than a means to the highest end of all, which is God.

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The other side of the coin, shown in the story of Paul and Barnabas, is what happens when people start to worship the messenger instead of the one of whom the messenger speaks: this is the cult of personality I mentioned a while ago. We’ve seen this happen with televangelists who rise on the wave of popularity and then crash on the rocks of scandal. But it can also happen in more subtle ways: when ministers are seen as so central to the life of their congregation that they are valued not for what they do but for who they are.

And this is why I am glad to take this opportunity to remind you about what ministers are and what they do. This is in part a message for Sahra our seminarian who will soon be exercising ministry in the church, as an ordained minister of the church.

First of all, that word minister. People will use it with respectful tones. “Oh, she’s a minister,” they might say. So it may come as a surprise to learn that the word minister comes from the Latin word for servant. And it’s the kind of servant most of us are still familiar with: a waiter! So it’s nothing to get high and mighty about! It is about serving — about serving God and the people of God.

This is why all ordained ministers especially should take Paul and Barnabas as their model: it isn’t about us; it isn’t about who we are, but about the One whom we serve. And our primary service is to help the whole people of God to come closer to God and to each other in Christ, and then to go forth into the world in the power of God’s Holy Spirit, the same Spirit Jesus promised would come to the Apostles and guide them and lead them into all Truth.

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We as believers in the One God reject idolatry. We honor those who minister not for themselves but for the sake of the mission of God and its outreach to the ends of the world. Even as we gather in this place, we reach out towards the heavenly Jerusalem, of which this is merely a foretaste, to that place beyond where all symbols and traditions and ministries have their end and goal.

For in the New Jerusalem, there is no Temple. The Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the Temple. There is no special class of ministers, for all of God’s people are kings and priests to God, a royal priesthood, and all of them also and at the same time servants of the Lamb. In the New Jerusalem there are no statues or images or icons, as reminders — for we will behold sanctity and divinity with our own eyes, lit by the lamp of the Lamb. In the heavenly city we shall no longer worship through traditions or customs, or things, or places, or with the help of ministers, but face to face with the one whom we adore, serving one another to the glory of God alone. God give us strength to persevere, that we may one day walk in the light of the Lamb, in the land in which there is no night, through Jesus Christ our Lord.+

The Net Effect

SJF • Epiphany 5c 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, “Put out into the deep water and let out your nets for a catch.”+

In spite of being the son of a carpenter, and perhaps being a carpenter himself, our Gospel reading this morning shows us that Jesus was quite a fisherman as well. This story involves another fisherman named Simon bar Jonah — a disappointed fisherman at that. He’s spent the whole night for nothing, and now faces the tedious task of washing and stowing the nets that let him down the night before even as he pulled them up — empty. Talk about adding insult to injury! But Jesus pays no mind to the grumbling Simon. No, Jesus just goes on preaching and teaching, sitting there in the front of the boat as Peter grumbles and fumbles in the stern. And this is how Jesus shows himself to be a master fisherman — for he too fishes for people.

Now, there are all kinds of fishermen in the world. You may have seen the sports fishermen who catch huge swordfish from the stern of powerboats — the fisherman’s equivalent of wrestling or in keeping with today, football. But there are also trout-fishers, the fishing world equivalent of archery — whose work is marked by the delicacy with which they cast the line, the gentleness with which the fly is twitched floating on the surface of the current, making it seem a natural treat to tempt a trout.

Jesus is a trout-fisher as opposed to a sports fisher. And the fish he’s after in this Gospel passage isn’t among the crowds on the shore — they’ll get caught in the big net later on, tended by someone else. No, the fish Jesus is after is right there in the boat with him. It’s Simon himself, Simon son of Jonah, no less. How’s that for a coincidence?

I’ve mentioned before that in Greek the first letters of the phrase “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior” spell out the Greek anagram IXΘYC, the Greek word for fish. People in the early church used the sign of the fish as a secret code for the fact that they were Christians. Some people still do the same with bumper stickers. So in our Gospel this morning we have Jesus, whose title spells out “fish” angling for Simon the fisherman who in this case is the fish Jesus is after, just as Simon’s father’s namesake, Jonah, once got caught by a fish, and later also became a fisher of men when he went preaching to Nineveh. This is some fish story! And before it is fully told, Simon will be sent, sent to fish for people all around the banks of the Mediterranean sea. He will have received a new calling.

And in today’s Gospel we see how Jesus places this important call. Jesus plays out his line, trailing the lure as he teaches and preaches. For while he speaks to the crowds on the sure, he is also targeting Simon, there in the boat with him. Simon seems to be a bystander, such is the craft of Jesus the fisher of souls. Simon doesn’t even know he’s being lured! He just sits there tending his nets, and the words of Jesus — what they were we’ll never know — they come to him second-hand, or so it seems.

Then, suddenly, the spell is broken. Jesus turns to Simon, and instead of asking to be rowed back to land, as we might expect at the end of the sermon, he tells the fisherman to put out to the deep and try for another catch.

You can well imagine what thoughts went through Simon’s head at that point. “A carpenter is going to tell me how to fish?” But something in Jesus’ command gets through, and out they go. Simon lets down the nets — nets he’s just finished cleaning — and suddenly grace breaks through, and there are so many fish he doesn’t know what to do with them, and the boats are almost swamped. And Peter, knowing now that he’s been caught, falls to his knees and appeals to Jesus to throw him back. But it’s too late. Jesus has caught his Big Fish who will become the Big Fisherman, and tells him not to be afraid, for he will now start his true calling, his calling to fish for people.

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Calling. That’s a simple English word for what sometimes gets called a vocation. Sometimes the “calling” is literal, and audible “calling out” in spoken words. Simon in our Gospel this morning gets an express verbal command; Gideon in our Old Testament gets the same; Paul on the road to Damascus got the same; Joan of Arc heard voices in the ringing of the church bells telling her to put on armor like a man and go to Orleans and tell the king to start acting like a king.

But most people in the history of the Christian faith don’t receive their calling in such a direct and literal and audible way. God whispers to our hearts more often than shouting in our ears. And just as Jesus appointed Simon to go out and fish for people, assigning him a task rather than doing it all himself, God continues to work through angels and ministers of grace, apostles and evangelists and preachers and teachers, members of our own families and friends we’ve known for years, and sometimes casual acquaintances we hardly know, or even a stranger — to gather in the people of God, to pull in the nets into his great ark of the church.

For as I’ve pointed out before, our church is a great ship, literally. Look up into the vaulting of the roof at those ribs. We’re a great upside down boat, and you are sitting in the nave. That’s why they call it “the nave.” We are on naval maneuvers! Our church is a boat turned upside down, a great boat that sails between heaven and earth. And there are nets cast out through the portals of this church that stretch off into the world, to bring in a catch.

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All of us here this morning have a calling, even if we are not entirely sure what it is or what it will be. Sometimes you have to listen very carefully to hear God’s voice speaking through the many messengers God sends out. Other times it may be as clear as a trumpet blast.

And we can’t be sure where the call will lead us. Simon Peter walked off and left the nets, the fish, the boats, and everything else. A man who thought he would spend his whole life long plying the nets by Galilee, ended his life in Rome crucified upside down, as upside down as his world had been turned, and as upside-down as he and the other Christians had turned the world— we Christians who sail the ship of the church upside down in the waters of heaven.

The call of God has “a net effect.” When we respond to God’s call it will make a difference in our lives; as Paul said in the epistle this morning, “I am what I am by God’s grace.” That grace, that call will make us be what we are, though it may change what we do: even if the calling is not to something new, but the rediscovery of something old. Sometimes God redirects a person’s skills say, from catching fish to catching people. And sometimes God opens our eyes to see God’s grace in the calling we’ve already got, the precious uniqueness of a skill we thought was common and ordinary. For there is nothing insignificant in God’s great world, and the net God casts is very fine, and doesn’t miss a single fish.

Of course, when we hear the word vocation we often think of vocation within the four walls of the church, an on-board ministry, so to speak. Not everyone, though, will be called to be a sailor, or a steward or purser — the world needs travel agents and tour guides and hotel managers too! And what I want to say to you this morning is that every calling of God is a holy calling, and every act done in the Name of Jesus is a work of the kingdom of heaven — on board the boat or out in the ports and harbors of our journey. The church is the ark of salvation, but some of us are also called to go out, out into the deep places of the world, where the Spirit of God moves where it wills, touching hearts that are hungry and thirsty for the Word from beyond the worlds, who made the world and everything in it, and who calls that whole world to himself.

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I mentioned Joan of Arc a moment ago, how she received a commission to go to the king and tell him to start acting like a king. Well, about a thousand years ago, King Henry the Third of Bavaria, thought he had a calling to become a monk. He’d been an effective monarch, but he also felt a strong sense that God wanted him to devote himself to a life of prayer. And so he went off to the local abbey, to meet with the wise old Prior. And right off, the Prior, who was very wise, said, “You know, your majesty, you’ve been a good king; but kings aren’t generally accustomed to accepting orders from other people, and here in the monastery, as you place yourself under obedience to me and the other senior monks, you may find the vow of obedience is much more difficult for you than the vows of poverty and chastity.” King Henry said he understood, but he persisted. “I know it will be difficult. But I wish to give my life to God. So I will obey you as you command.” “Will you, then, your Majesty, do as I tell you?” said the Prior. “I will,” he answered, “with all my heart.” And so the wise old Prior said, “Then go back to your throne and serve where God has put you.”

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Sometimes the call of God will send us off to the other end of the world, and sometimes the call of God will send us right back to where we’ve always been. But in any case, as we do God’s will for each of us, each of us being what we are through the grace of God alone; whether we see new things or see old things anew; the net effect is that our world will be changed, as we are empowered to change the world around us. God is calling each of us to be all that we can be, or to make new use of what we already have, for it all comes from God, after all, new or old. We may find ourselves, like Simon son of Jonah, leaving all that is familiar behind us on the beach. We may, like Henry of Bavaria, find ourselves returning to an old task with a new sense of purpose and commitment. In any case and in every case, God is calling us, and may all of our work in response, all of our calling and vocation, be to the glory of God alone, to whom we give thanks, and in whose Name we pray.+

Varieties of Service

Proper 26a & All Saints’ Sunday • Tobias Haller BSG
Jesus said, the greatest among you will be your servant.

All our readings today address the theme of service, and it is fitting to reflect on that theme, in light of our annual celebration of the lives of the Saints — both the great historic saints of the church, and our own more personal saints, whose lives had such a great impact on our own. This impact, historical or personal, resonates down the years — from lives of those who touched so many other lives. And this resonance, this impact, is due to how these saints served.

What does it mean to be a servant? For it is in being a servant, in serving, that people leave a mark for the good on all whom they encounter, and all whom they serve. How people of the church’s past, or of its present — around the world or in this parish — serve their neighbors and their Lord, will determine the future of our world, and the future of this parish, both their immediate future, and how they will stand fifty or a hundred or a thousand years from now.

The problem with the word servant is that for most of us these days it is just that, a word. There was a time when almost every household among the well-to-do had live-in servants. And even among the middle class it wasn’t unusual to have what they used to call “help” or “someone to do” once or twice a week. But nowadays about the only place you see servants, even on TV, is on Masterpiece Theater. The world of maids in starched aprons and butlers in tail-coats is far from us.

However, there is one kind of servant with which we are familiar, and it goes back long before butlers and chambermaids. These servants stood at their masters’ tables, served them their meals, filled their empty goblets, and cleared away the dishes after each course. This most ancient kind of servant is still with us, though today we call them waiters. And since we’ve all experienced good and bad waiters, it seems appropriate to look at the servants in today’s readings in that light.

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The prophet Micah starts us off with the portrait of the kind of waiter who is only interested in the tip. If you’ve ever had a terrible waiter and left a small tip on that account, you’ve probably encountered the sort of waiter who as Micah says, “declares war against those who put nothing in their mouths.” These servants only work for their pay — they have no devotion, no vision, no vocation or calling. It’s just a job as far as they’re concerned. And if they can get away with substandard work, they will. Probably the less said about waiters like this the better; and so let’s move on to the next sort.

The gospel takes us from the ungrateful waiter to the haughty maitre d’. Don’t the Pharisees and scribes of today’s gospel sound an awful lot like a snooty waiter? They are unwilling to lift a finger, they do everything for show, and are all dressed up and placed in the position of honor, to be greeted respectfully.

It may seem odd that a servant would be in a position to look down on a patron, but that is the odd circumstance one finds in certain posh dining establishments, like the one I described a few weeks ago where “proper attire” is required and the maitre d’ is the guardian of gentility. He is the one who has the power to admit only those deemed worthy to dine, looking down his nose at anyone who doesn’t show him proper respect, but groveling before the rich and famous. Unlike the first sort of bad waiters, who couldn’t care less about the job as long as they get a good tip, this kind seem to care more about the appearance of the job, the perks and titles, and honors and esteem, the fancy suit and the stylish boutonniere, than they do about actually seating the guests and seeing that their meals are served. Their focus isn’t upon those whom they serve; it’s on the whole role-play of importance and appearances, what Shakespeare called “the game of who’s in, who’s out, who’s up, who’s down.”

Finally, though, we turn to Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians. And here we find at last a servant whose attention is properly directed. All Paul cares about is those whom he serves. It is their happiness and their joy that is important. This sort of waiter is always there when needed, not someone whose attention is impossible to attract. You will find this kind of waiter filling your glass before you even notice it is empty; offering suggestions on what is a particularly good dish; ready to serve and eager to make you comfortable. And not because there’s a big tip to be looked forward to, but because the waiter simply enjoys seeing you enjoy yourself.

This is the kind of service one rarely encounters. It’s the kind of service loving parents provide for their children. And Saint Paul uses such imagery, family imagery, in describing his work among the people of Thessalonica, his brothers and sisters for whom he toiled so hard, and who, when he was separated from them, he missed as an orphan misses his parents.

This is the kind of service to which our Lord calls us all: service not for profit or gain, except the profit and gain of our brothers and sisters as they reap the fruits of the Spirit. It is not service for show, for honors and titles, but service that lifts up others without thinking about itself.

This is the service of the saints — the big important famous ones from church history, as well as those personal saints who touched our own lives with their immediate presence. Such saintly service finds its end in the happiness and joy and well-being of those who are served; such a servant finds glory and joy in the act of service, and in knowing that the service was rendered to a good end, that it has done some good.

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I want to close with a remembrance of such a servant — not a saint of the church, but of the world. He has touched all of our lives though we may not think about it. But if you ever drink a glass of milk, you should give thanks to the man who gave his name to the process that made it safe to drink: Louis Pasteur.

Pasteur was one of the greatest scientists of all time. He was numbered among the top 100 most influential persons of the last millennium. He was among the first who championed the notion that germs cause disease, and developed treatments for scourges such as anthrax. As I alluded to, he invented the process we now know by his name, pasteurization, by which beverages are kept safe and healthful for our tables — and though we think first of milk, the process was originally applied to beer and wine, which the French considered far more important!

Pasteur also discovered the first successful treatment for rabies, which in his day was a deadly affliction that killed thousands every year. He had worked on the vaccine for some time, and was about to try an experiment on himself, when a young boy of nine, Joseph Meister, was savagely bitten by a rabid dog. Joseph’s mother begged Pasteur to try the new and untested vaccine on her son, who would surely die in agony otherwise. Pasteur, a patient servant, administered the vaccine for the next ten days, in progressively stronger doses. His experiment worked, and young Joseph Meister lived. Not only did he live, but he continued in a form of service himself — working first as a janitor and later for decades as a tour guide in the Pasteur Institute, completed just a few years before Pasteur died.

For Pasteur was already old when he saved Joseph Meister’s life. After years of people saying he was crazy, he had finally become a national hero, with the great Pasteur Institute just completed, funded by contributions from all over the world. As a new national hero in old age, public plans were being made for his tomb. (You know the French love to build fabulous tombs for people whom they dissed for most of their lives!) Pasteur was asked what he would like to have as an epitaph: some acknowledgment of pasteurization, that saved the French brewing industry? A few words to serve notice that this was the tomb of the man who proved that germs do after all cause disease, and who found a way to combat some of the most deadly? What would be a fitting epitaph for this great man?

Pasteur said that if it were up to him, there would just be three words engraved on his tomb, three words that would sum up what his mission had been about, three words that summarized the service he had rendered: “Joseph Meister lived.”

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For a servant can focus only on his wages; a servant can focus only on his prestige and office; or a servant can focus on those whom he serves. I know what kind of servant I hope to be; I know the kind of servants whom we remember as saints in the church and saints in our own hearts and homes. May God give each of us the strength to serve in humility and humbleness ofheart, that we may one day be remembered not for who we were, but for who and how we served; through Jesus Christ our Lord.+

The Life Preserver

SJF • Proper 17a • Tobias Haller BSG
Jesus said, Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

Years ago there was a scene in a disaster movie that sticks in my mind. I can’t remember if it was The Towering Inferno or Earthquake — but it took place in a skyscraper during a disaster. Everyone is rushing to the elevator to try to escape the building. One man is the last to arrive, and when he finds he can’t squeeze in, he grabs a woman from inside, drags her out, and then takes her place — and the doors close. Well, you can guess what happens — the elevator cable breaks and the car plummets to the depths, killing all the passengers. The message is clear — that selfish man, in an effort to save his life, lost it.

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I don’t think that’s the kind of saving and losing that Jesus is talking about in our gospel today; though he is speaking of matters of life and death — eternal life and eternal death, in fact. It is in how each and every one of us takes up our own cross day by day to follow him that we will lose and find our lives. What this means, in part, is losing control over our lives, and control over the lives of others. Our call is not to think about ourselves, but to get to work doing the work God intends us to do.

This is a consistent message in the teaching of Jesus. Remember the parable of the servants entrusted with various amounts of money? The master expects them not simply to save it by burying it in the ground, to return just what he gave, no more, no less. Only the servants who take the risk are rewarded, and the one who saves the money instead of risking losing it, receives no reward for his lack of effort — and loses even what he has. No, Jesus is clear that whatever is entrusted to our care in this life is to be put to use — not saved for a rainy day.

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Our reading from Romans shows this process at work as Paul tells of the gifts each member receives. These gifts are meant to be put to work for the good of the whole body.

Prophets are to prophesy, in proportion to their faith. That is, the one with much faith will be able to proclaim it more eloquently to encourage others, helping their faith grow.

Ministers — that is, those called to serve — are expected to serve, to get to work, and not treat the ministry like some kind of honorary title. It is always a ministry to the needs of others, placing them ahead of ones own needs — like the mother who prepares dinner for her family but doesn’t sit to eat until all have been served.

Teachers are to teach — and anyone who teaches knows that the more you teach the more you learn: the more knowledge you give away the more comes back to you.

The exhorter is not to take it easy and assume that everyone else will do as they ought without any exhortation. If you watched any of the Olympics, you will remember those anxious, watchful exhorters standing on the sidelines — the coaches, without whose help those athletes would never have made it so far. The hard work comes back to them, too. Who is the first to greet the athletes when they step off the platform, if not the coach — whether to comfort those who didn’t do as well as they hoped, or to rejoice with the winners!

The giver is to give — generously and not under compulsion; and by giving, giving up control over what is given — giving freely for the spread of the kingdom, the upbuilding of the church. Those who give this way are like those in the proverb: “Cast your bread upon the waters and it will return to you.”

This is about so much more than money, my friends. As easy as it would be to turn this into a stewardship sermon, this is not just about the offering of treasure, or even of time and talent. It is about self-dedication. The giver is to give with that same sense of sacrifice as did Jesus himself — who gave himself for us, not counting the cost.

We all give, and we all receive — not just of our time, talent, and treasure; but of our selves, our souls and bodies, as a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice to God. This builds up Christ’s kingdom and makes it strong and resilient .For just as the relay race depends on every member of the team, so too the church depends on all of its members doing their part.

And what goes for the members goes for the leader. The leader is to lead with diligence — again that means with care and concern, not for him or herself, but for the good of those being led. The leader is to lead, confident in knowing that the leader too is led by the ones who have gone before, and who it is the leader follows even in taking up the cross of leadership day by day.

And finally, the compassionate are to be cheerful. Now, you might not think that compassion is either a gift or a ministry, but believe me it is: for to be compassionate means to be able to feel with others — to share their griefs and help them carry them. In this way the compassionate help others to bear their own crosses, their own struggles and burdens.

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You will notice in all of this how none of these gifts are solo ventures — they all involve others, they are all woven together into the fabric of the church, the body of Christ. In this the church lives — lives the life of the one who died for it, who died for us, the members of his body.

And it is with that in mind that I want to return to the literal life and death matter of which Christ speaks. For in all to which Saint Paul calls the church, all of those things with which we have been gifted, Christ was there first, and to the ultimate degree.

For the prophecy with which he prophesied was that of his own death and resurrection, in accordance with the Scriptures, and the faith he had was his faith in God that he would be delivered through death, and bring us with him. The ministry of service he undertook was as the servant who suffered for our sake. The teaching he taught was the eloquent testimony in his own flesh and blood, his body given for us unto eternal life; and the exhortation he gave is the same one we repeat week by week in our solemn worship: as he exhorts us to Take and Eat, to Take and Drink, of his body and his blood — the most generous gifts of the most generous giver.

Finally, his leadership was exemplary — given to us who profess to follow him whatever the cost, in the way of his compassionate offering of himself, for the sins of the whole world.

So it is, you see, a matter of life and death. Few of us will ever be called actually to lay down our lives in this way, to give our lives to save another. But you never know. In January 1982, Air Florida flight 90 crashed on the runway at the edge of the Potomac River. There were six survivors in the icy water, clinging to the plane’s tail with frozen hands. The rescue helicopter could only save one at a time, as it lowered a life preserver on a cable. Every time it lowered the line to save another person, a middle-aged man in the water passed the life-preserver to someone else. On helicopter’s sixth return, the one that would have saved him from the water, Arland Williams was gone — exhausted and freezing, he had slipped beneath the water.

I cannot help but think that Arland was lifted up by an even more everlasting life preserver than the one he passed to five other people on that cold January day. He was preserved unto eternal life in doing what Jesus would call the greatest act of love, mirroring Christ’s own act in giving himself to save others.

We may not be called — I hope we never will be — to suffer such a fate even if it brings such a hope of glory. Rather may we spend each day in those smaller acts of giving — giving ourselves for the good of others, losing our lives for their sake in little ways, in all those ministries which we share together in this wonderful church.

And if by chance we are graced to do more — actually to find ourselves in a situation where our life is asked of us quite literally, may we have the courage to lose it in the knowledge that God will give it back to us, and we will find a greater reward than we can either ask or imagine. As Jim Elliot, a missionary who was murdered in South America, said so eloquently, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” We cannot keep our lives, preserve our lives or save our lives; come what may, they will some day come to an end. But we can give our lives, in a daily process of parting with each moment in service to others — to gain the greatest gift, the everlasting gift, the thing we cannot lose: everlasting life in Jesus Christ our Lord.+

Don't Tell It In The Valley

SJF • Last Epiphany A • Tobias Haller BSG
Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

Today is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, the season of “showing forth.” It was a very short season this year, only four Sundays counting Epiphany itself; yet some significant things have already been shown forth to us these few weeks. We have seen how God hides and reveals himself, and come to understand how utterly known to God all of us are — known through and through, and loved by the one who made us in his own image.

We have heard gospel readings describe Christ’s showing forth to the world. A dove settled on him at the river Jordan, showing John that Jesus was the one he waited for. John’s followers answered Jesus’ call to “come and see,” and Jesus himself went to the far reaches of Galilee of the Gentiles, and netted himself an assortment of fishermen, who left their nets and boats and families behind, to follow him. But on this last Sunday before Lent, Jesus is revealed in a different light, and delivers a paradoxical command to three of those fishermen.

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First, the revelation. Jesus is revealed for a moment in his full glory. He had promised his disciples, in the verse before our gospel for today begins, “There are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” Peter, James and John get a preview of Jesus’ divine majesty, a down-payment on the final fulfillment. No wonder Peter wants to stay on the mountain!

However, not only don’t they stay on the mountain, but Jesus issues a strange command as they are coming down from the heights. “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” And we wonder, Why reveal, then conceal? Why reveal the good news and then order them not to tell it? I spoke two weeks ago about how God plays hide and seek with us, and this may be yet another instance. But I think there is more to it in this case.

And the “more” begins in our Old Testament reading. Here too is a mountain on which God is revealed, though not in human flesh, but in cloud and majesty and awe, carving the Law in stone. God gives this written revelation to Moses, who brings it to the people. And we all know what happens. The people are not ready to receive God in the form of sublime and righteous laws. God is ready to meet them half-way, to enter into a covenant with them. But they don’t want to go half-way; they don’t want even to be near the mountain. They will reveal themselves to be happier with a god they’ve made themselves, a golden calf they can dance around, who won’t do anything for them— but who will ask nothing of them.

So God is faced with a dilemma. God loves humanity, and sends Moses with the Law, a covenant into which the people were invited, but which they reject before the ink is even dry, so to speak. So God sends the prophets, like Elijah, reminding the people of the promises, of the love, of the forgiveness that awaits them if only they will turn to God and forswear their foolish ways.

What happens to the prophets? Some are heeded—briefly. But others are beaten, some killed. So God decides to send his own dear Son — not a letter, not an ambassador, but one who shares his being, one who is God— one who is glimpsed in majesty on the mountaintop by three disciples, and will only later be revealed in the mighty act of resurrection from the dead.

This is why Jesus orders the disciples not to tell the people about what they have seen on this mountain... until after. The people already have Moses, for the Law is read week by week in the synagogue. The people already have Elijah and the other prophets, whose deeds and warnings are also recounted. Jesus knows that this is not enough— the Law and the Prophets alone cannot save. Following rules and hearing warnings will not save people — they don’t need another teacher or lawgiver: they are too hardheaded to be instructed. They don’t need to be taught, but rescued; not instructed, but saved! And that goes for us too. What is needed is for someone to rise from the dead, mighty in power and strong to save.

So what happens on the mountain is the preview, not the feature presentation! It is a private screening, to encourage the apostles — not for general release! And even what they see on the mountain is not enough — it is not salvation, but promise. Peter wants to stay on the mountain, to bask in the momentary glory, to live in the promise rather than the fulfillment.

But God has other plans: When Peter offers to build three shelters, God speaks, “This is my Son. Listen to him.” God is saying, The Law and the Prophets, Moses and Elijah, have had their day and did their part, but now you have the Son himself: listen, and do as he says. There is something better even than this to come.

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Saint Paul understood this difference well, a lesson learned at great personal cost. He had been a man of the Law and the Prophets, but he learned that, in the light of the resurrection, all his learning was just so much rubbish. Jesus is working along the same line when he tells the disciples to keep the vision secret until he has risen from the dead. Don’t give away the ending, he’s says, perhaps the first spoiler alert! The best part — the important part — is still to come— but not before suffering, pain and death. Jesus does not tarry on the mountain. He goes down to the challenges still waiting. For he knows that only through his death and resurrection can people finally be saved. The promise is not enough — there must as well be performance.

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We, too, have our mountaintop moments. Like Peter, we are tempted to remain in them, enjoying them, trying to make the experience last. But we too have challenges awaiting us. The parish church is one mountaintop for us. We come each week, hear the words of the Law and the Prophets, and of Jesus, and then go out on our way. Surely, it is good to be here. We feel restored, renewed, encouraged and comforted.

But all of these feelings are meant to impel us to action, not as ends in themselves. We receive the promise in order to equip us for performance, in God’s name. It would be easy to stay in the comfort of community, but we are challenged and equipped to go out to face a world in need.

It is good to be here, and we need a weekly return to our mountaintop: just as Christ himself went to hills to pray. But he also went back to the valley for ministry. We are fed by the Law, the Prophets, and the Gospel; but we know that the Law is without power to save on its own, that the prophecies will pass away, and that the gospel will perish if there is no one to preach it. So we are reminded today that we have a mission, a mission to all the world. We go back to our weekday lives equipped with gifts of the Spirit, as ambassadors of Christ.

Us? Ambassadors of Christ? Yes, us! We have been transformed, changed into messengers of Christ, so that what is unchanging may be revealed through us. The great news is the resurrection has happened — we are not bound like James and John and Peter, to keep it secret until it happened — for it has, praise God! We live in the time of “until after” — Christ is alive! That is the Gospel, the Good News. And so we’ve received the commission to tell it out, to tell abroad the Good News that salvation has come, and we are its heralds and ambassadors.

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Christ came down from the mountain to a valley that led towards Calvary. He didn’t stay on a mountaintop with three booths, but marched steadfastly on toward a little hill with three crosses. But there is more; do you see it? As we begin our Lenten pilgrimage, as we enter the valley of challenge before us, keep your eye on the mountain there ahead —— not the little hill called Golgotha, but the mountain that rises behind it, the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven like a bride adorned for her bridegroom. Though Lent is about to begin, we know the end of the story, the greatest story ever told, we know that Christ is alive, risen from the dead and powerful to save, and we — we servants of God — equipped with that knowledge and filled with the Holy Spirit, we can go forth from this place on our mission, empowered to tell that story and do great works in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.+

Minding Our Business

Saint James Fordham • Proper 28c • Tobias Haller BSG
For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work…+

How often have you been asked questions like this: What sort of business are you in? What kind of work do you do? This is often one of the first things to come up when you meet a new person. In fact, in some times and cultures, what you do for a living was and is so connected with your identity that it becomes your name. Any us who bear names like Baker, Smith, Collier, Sawyer, Cooper, Taylor, Joiner, Miller, Porter and so on, can tell what one of our ancestors did for a living. My own ancestors, on my mother’s side, bore the name of Clark — so I know that somebody in my ancestry was a minister! Even today, though we don’t have names like Sidney Salesman, Sondra Surgeon or Clarence Computer Technician, work is — for many of us — such a part of our day-to-day experience that it can almost become our identity. We can lose ourselves in our work; we can “get married to our jobs,” and end up neglecting our real family. We can become so attached to our jobs that when retirement comes we don’t know what to do with ourselves.

Work, work, work… Hasn’t it always been that way? Looks like it! Those who study human prehistory see work as so much a part of human identity that they consider the discovery of tools — rocks shaped into hammers or knives or spearheads — as the marker that separates the subhuman from the human. As far as they are concerned, the earliest humans aren’t those who may have thought great thoughts, told wonderful stories, or sung songs deep into the night, but the ones who picked up stones to grind seeds or club animals.

You probably remember the opening scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey. When the ape-man uses a bone to club a pig to death, he steps across the anthropological line in the sand and becomes a human being. Work, then, is deeply connected with human life, with the basic biological fact that food must be gathered and prepared, the young cared for, the old and sick helped: human society depends on work.

Yet who doesn’t have a love/hate relationship with work. I doubt if there is anyone here so fortunate always to love every moment of their work. Many of us, even those who enjoy their jobs most of the time, will find there are moments — or hours — of tedium, distress, or fatigue. And most people in this busy world of ours work in drudgery and hardship from the beginning of each day to its dreary, bone-tired end.

Most simply put, work is not play. As Sir James Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, once said, “Nothing is really work unless you would rather be doing something else.” Peter Pan, you may recall, was the boy who refused to grow up. He wanted to remain in the world of childhood where all the work is done for you; and the biological necessities of food, clothing and shelter are all provided by someone else.

There is more than a bit of this attitude running through our religious history. Most of our biblical texts come from a time when almost all work was drudgery. The story of Adam and Eve paints a picture of humankind in paradise created at first to do at most a little gardening, living off the abundant fruit of the trees. When they fell from grace, they took up work, the sweaty-browed tilling of the soil to earn their bread, and work was a part of the curse occasioned by their sin. So our work has long been seen as a part of that inherited guilt. Many in the Jewish and Christian traditions have understood freedom from work as a sign of God’s grace restored — and looked forward to that “Land of Rest.” +++ This is just what happened in the community to whom Paul wrote the letter we heard today. The Thessalonians, quick to grab the good news that the Lord was about to come, got carried away by it, and some of them began to act as if the world was literally about to end, giving up working for a living, and sponging off the church as they waited for the coming of the Lord.

A few went even further, claiming that the day of the Lord had already come! In their overenthusiastic conversion to Christianity, they’d gotten the wrong end of the stick. +++ Not that the stick wasn’t there to be grabbed! Paul himself, in his First Letter to the Thessalonians, sowed the seeds of this misunderstanding by emphasizing “that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” and warning them all to “keep awake.” And unfortunately the urgency of his tone had the effect of convincing some of them that it meant they should close up shop and wait for the rapture!

So when Paul wrote his Second Letter to the Thessalonians, (in part to deal with the problems created by his First Letter) he used language much more like what we heard in today’s Gospel. Hold on! The end is not yet, and a whole lot of stuff is going to happen before the end comes; so back to work, people! +++ The same message holds today. We are a bit less frantic about the end of the world now than folks were just before the year 2000. I’m not the only one here, I trust, who stocked up on bottled water and extra batteries! Well, I think I’ve still got some of that vintage water in the kitchen cupboard — Chateau Hudson 1999!

But some people went whole hog — they really believed that not only might there be a few problems with utilities caused by the Y2K bug, but that the actual end of the world was nigh. They sold homes, gave up jobs, and traveled out into the middle of nowhere to wait for the Lord to appear in the clouds to come and fetch them. They were, to say the least, disappointed.

People have been led astray for centuries by some mistaken prophet or other, announcing that the Day of the Lord is near. Some still are led astray, even after all the failed promises. But we have received different instructions, instructions from our Lord, and Saint Paul. Jesus tells us to be like servants doing their jobs when the master comes home. Listen to today’s gospel with that in mind. “Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!,’ and ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be terrified, for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.”... “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.”

You see, when you read the text this way, Jesus is not saying these are signs of the end, but signs of the present! The world is a dangerous place and full of many terrible things, but the coming of the Lord will be unmistakable and swift and most importantly, without a sign and without a warning! What Jesus said is the Gospel truth: the world has seen countless false prophets arise; we have seen many nations rise against many others, seen terrible famines and plagues. We’ve even seen a comet fly through the heavens and smash into the planet Jupiter,
leaving a hole in it five times as big as the whole earth! And yet the end is not yet.

No, the Son of God will return without warning. Now, when someone says something is going to happen without warning, what should you do? What do the Scouts say? Be prepared! So Jesus tells us to be always ready, to be about God the Father’s business, as he was himself from his childhood on: doing the work God gives us to do and witnessing to God’s love and patience. As Saint Paul says, we are to work, and not to be weary in doing what is right. And “right” does not just mean morally right, but right in the sense of appropriate. When we find the right work, or when we work with a right attitude, an element of joy can enter it — true, there may be a good bit of drudgery, but if we can find the core happiness in being occupied, devoting even our secular work to God as we realize that our work is for the good of society — then our work can bring us joy, and be a gift to God’s glory. This lies at the heart of the stewardship of our talents: the work we dedicate and then do to God’s glory.

The great English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins was also a Jesuit — you know, the folks who run that little University down Fordham Road! The Jesuit motto is: To the Greater Glory of God. Everything — everything — is done with that in mind. Hopkins put it this way: “It is not only prayer that gives God glory but work. Smiting on an anvil, sawing a beam, whitewashing a wall, driving horses, sweeping, scouring, everything gives God glory... He is so great that all things give him glory if you mean they should.

Let us, then, sisters and brothers, so pitch our work to God’s glory — minding our business with the mind of Christ. Let us each of us do the work that we have been given to do, whatever it is, to the glory of God, finding in each act, however humble, some way to serve. Let us open our eyes and hearts and minds to see that work is a means to a greater good, and be found at work when the master comes. Let us mind our business by setting our minds and hearts upon it. Let us work each day as if God were our only boss, never wearying in doing what is right, serving each other to his honor and glory.+

First Fruits and Last Gifts

SJF • Proper 27c • Tobias Haller BSG
Now, he is not the God of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive…+

Today’s Scriptures touch our deepest fears. What does it mean to die? What does it mean to be “in the resurrection” — that strange phrase in our Gospel?

We might well seek to answer these timeless questions by asking another: What does it mean to be alive? You might think the answer is obvious. But ask a doctor what it means to be alive, and you’re likely to get a shrug in response. There was a time when the answer was easy: if your heart was beating, if there was breath in your lungs, you were alive; simple. But with advances in medical care, a heart can be restarted and kept beating for years. A ventilator can keep air moving in and out of lungs, even in the absence of anything you would recognize as “life.”

The truth is, we must look further to understand what it means to be alive. There is more to life than so many pounds of flesh, so many pints of blood, so much breath. What this something is, what life is, connects us with the world around us, far beyond the edges of our skin. Everything we do, every act we perform, makes waves in the universe like the wake of a passing ship — and who knows what effect those waves may have on other vessels, on other shores.

I’ve spoken before of the film, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” with Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey. He finds out the effect those waves had, how much he accomplished in that small hick town of Bedford Falls, without even being aware of it. When he was removed from the equation, everything about that little town changed. His one life touched so many other lives, saved lives, changed lives, changed the very shape of the town and even its name, a town that without him became hard, cruel and mean — a Potter’s Field in every sense of the word.

Every life makes many such waves, and the world is built up in the interaction and the washing of these waves.

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These matters of life and death touch on another deep question, the question of identity. What is the “me” about me; what is the “you” about you? Where is the edge of my life? Of yours? How far do the waves flow? Priest and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, put it this way. “I am not the part of the universe that I control completely, but I am the complete universe that I influence in part.”

This is a deep truth. When it comes down to it, we do not control even our own bodies. As Jesus said, “You can’t make even one hair of your head turn black or white.” No, we do not have full control over our bodies, and death is the final proof of that fact, universal and unavoidable.

And yet, and yet… there is that influence, that wave that flows out from each of us, and reaches… how far? George Bailey learned how far the edges of his life extended — beyond his control but not beyond his influence — when Clarence the angel-in-training showed him what a gaping hole he’d leave in the world if he’d never been born. In the most memorable scene he sees his brother Harry’s grave in the snowy, windswept cemetery. George, never having existed, didn’t save his little brother from drowning as a child — and his brother didn’t grow up to save a whole troop-ship full of soldiers, lost when their ship was struck and sunk.

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How far do the waves of one life extend? And how far away in time and space are the lives those waves touch? Isn’t that influence, that being-able-to-be, to ring like a bell and let the sound go forth, to set up waves in the ocean of the world that reach uncharted shores, isn’t that a big part of what it means to be alive, to have a life, a wonderful life?

And the really wonderful thing is that those waves continue on even after our body lies in death. Yes, they do! The sound of the bell keeps rolling on, long after the bell has stopped swinging. “Their sound has gone out into all lands,” and “they still speak.” Old suffering Job has been dead for 3,000 years, but his words were written and inscribed in a book — and those words still move us today, waves of hope beating against the shores of our hearts.

And look around you at this church. Almost everything you see here was made possible, was given and dedicated, by or for someone who is now dead. And yet they are not dead, if by death we mean complete absence and silence. Behold, they live!

Even here below they are part of our present worship through the things left behind: the sound of the church bell, the images in the windows, the font in which children continue to begin their new lives, the altar at which we celebrate the feast, and the chalices from which we drink the precious blood of our Lord and Savior: all of these things continue to tell of the glory of God, and witness to the faith of those who have gone before, whose generosity in the past continues to serve our worship in the present.

Take this humble hymn-board — given to Saint James almost 100 years ago by Admiral David B Macomb. His story is not unlike that of Harry Bailey. A navy man, he served with Commodore Perry on the first entry into Japan. At the end of his life he was Commandant of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He touched the far corners of the world.

But during the Civil War he did something even more important. During a gale off Cape Hatteras, his ship Canonicus lost control — the tiller rope snapped in the storm, and the ship began to founder. Risking his own life, he dove four times into the cold depths until he could refasten the rope to the tiller, saving the ship from the storm — and who knows how many lives he saved that day? In its own simple way, this hymn-board still guides our singing, and it as if old Admiral Macomb was joining in the song.

And each of us can do the same. Each of us can ensure that the rope stays fastened to the tiller of our lives, so that the waves continue to be felt in this place. In our present contributions, and by remembering this parish in our wills, we continue to serve even after we have died; we continue to provide for those who come after us, we touch life after life after life — we remain connected by these bonds of affection.

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There is, of course, more, much more to this than a stewardship sermon, more than me exercising my duty to remind you of the importance of making a will — as spelled out on page 445 of the Book of Common Prayer! There is much, much more to it, and it is spelled out in our Gospel, and in how that Gospel echoes the lives of so many people who knew and loved this church.

You know that we lost one such loving member of this church two weeks ago. Evelyn Balz was half a year past 100 when she died. She never married, and outlived most of her friends. She hadn’t been inside this church for years — but she never stopped being here in spirit, through her support. Her pledge envelopes came in on a regular basis — mailed in a bundle every few weeks, or given to me by her still strong hand when I would visit her at home. And her faithfulness and witness relate to what Christ tells us in the Gospel today.

It concerns the promise of the resurrection: a better promise than simply being remembered by descendants, friends and fellow worshipers after we are dead, a better promise of which Job caught a glimpse, but which came into full view in the life and death and rising of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. For after life and death, there awaits us a rising to life again, a rising that will sum up and multiply all the little waves of our lives into a great wave that will tower to the sky. His one life touches all our lives, all lives, all life itself.

The Sadducees don’t understand the resurrection. All they can see are the waves you make while you are alive, waves of a particular kind: your children. To die childless, like the woman they question Jesus about, like our friend Evelyn Balz, like how many people who never marry, or who never have children, to die this way, to the Sadducees, means your life amounts to nothing: the only afterlife they believed in was the biological life of your descendants, your flesh walking in someone else’s body. You can picture the smirk as they pose their mocking question about the childless woman and her fruitless marriages; you can almost imagine the air-quotes, In “the resurrection” whose wife will she be?

But Jesus is unperturbed by their disbelief in the life of the world to come. He tells them that those who attain the resurrection no longer need to worry about begetting children to serve as posthumous waves in the world, for they have passed through death, they cannot die anymore. They will continue to make their own waves as part of that great wave of the risen life in Christ.

The children of the Spirit have become part of the new life which does not rely upon biology — the life of the flesh — but upon God, in the life of the Spirit. Those who rise to the new life join with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, living again in the strength of the living God. Those who rise to the new life live like Job, in risen bodies and with new-seeing eyes experiencing and beholding the Redeemer who lives and stands towering over the wrecks of time.

And we too will know that risen life in Christ. We have heard the good news, the proclamation that death is not the end, and we look to obtain the glory of our Lord. We have known the truth of which John Donne wrote, that “No man is an island, entire of itself.” In Christ, we are all connected, you and me and Miss Balz, and Admiral Macomb, and all who called this their parish, whose worship filled these four walls with the praise of the living God, the God of the living, not the dead who was, and who is, and who is to come, Jesus Christ, our Lord.+

Body Parts

SJF • All Saints’ Sunday • Tobias Haller BSG

God has put all things under Christ’s feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

Halloween is just past and so I can confidently say that in the world at large it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas! But I invite you today to put on the brakes a little bit, and hold back from the momentum with which the merchants of this world urge you to be swept along, and rest here for a moment on this All Saints Sunday. Today is something like one of those scenic view turnoffs on the highway towards the coming Advent, which is itself the church’s proper anticipation of Christmas. And the view is worth a stop.

The festival of all the saints also reminds me of graduation day — and the work involved in getting ready for the mandatory class photo. I went to a big high school, and my graduating class was about 500 strong, so it took a while to get the class photo organized. Even after it was taken the little faces in the picture were so small it was hard to pick out who was who. Yet each of us there on that day were individual souls, with our own gifts and talents — a gathered assembly, yet made up of many members.

But I would like to think of another image for All Saints Sunday, attractive as the mountaintop view, or the image of the saints as a graduating class may be — as the poet Dante pictured them sitting in a huge heavenly Colosseum forever giving glory to God. It is a wonderful image of the saints above — but I would like for us today to think about the saints below: that is, the members of what used to be called “the church militant” — those who still serve here upon this earth in anticipation of the day when we will serve the Lord for ever in heaven.

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When Saint Paul wrote about this earthly church and its relationship with God — which he did on many occasions — he also used many different images and symbols. Often at a wedding we will hear the passage in which Saint Paul likens the relationship of Christ and the Church to that of husband and wife. He also used architectural language in which he refers to Christ as the cornerstone and the church as the Temple built upon a foundation of the apostles and prophets. And he also spoke of the Church as a flock of sheep under the custody of shepherds — good or bad! — though that message to the Ephesians is only recorded as a speech in Acts of the Apostles, rather than in the Epistle from which we heard a reading today.

In that Epistle as elsewhere, Paul makes use of yet another image: describing the church as the body of Christ, of which all of the members form parts. You may recall that he made use of this image when he was trying to get the people in Corinth to stop fighting with each other — telling them how absurd it was for the various organs of the body to contend with each other rather than working together for the good of the whole body, under the direction of the head — who is Christ.

This is a very powerful image, and it makes a great deal of sense. For just as the various organs or parts of the body all work together for the good of the whole body, so too the church functions at its best when different people with different skills combine them to the good of the whole church. As Paul would say, not all are apostles, nor evangelists, not all have the gift of healing or the gift of prophecy — but each and every member of the church, like an organ of the body, has some particular function however humble or however exalted. And when all of these body parts work together the body is healthy and able to do all of the things of which each of the organs would be incapable alone — all of them needing their mutual support.

After all, if the mouth doesn’t eat, the stomach can’t be filled, and the other organs can’t be nourished through the blood that is pumped by the heart. If the muscles of the diaphragm do not move then the lungs do not breathe, oxygen cannot enter the blood, and the brain and other organs will soon shut down.

And so it is in the church: the various ministries function together — and it is the saints of God who carry out these ministries — to do the work of the church under the direction of God through Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit. And each and every minister — which is to say each and every one of us, whether a layperson, a deacon, a priest, or a bishop — all of us saints below and saints above — each is like an organ in the body of Christ.

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Saint Paul talked about the body parts working well — functioning at their best efficiency. But when we look at ourselves and those around us, we might well feel that we are not always doing our best, at least when judged by the world’s standards.

Fortunately, Saint Paul also assures us that we need not and ought not judge ourselves by the world’s standards. Rather, Saint Paul preached the gospel of the Cross — that God’s power is revealed in weakness. What the world calls defeat is actually victory. The head of the church, Jesus Christ himself, suffered, died and was buried. In union with him, the members of his body also suffer. And yet we are assured that even in our weakness and suffering we are still embodying the presence of God — even when we are unworthy servants, the one whom we serve is exalted.

And God will raise us up in him. We, the saints below, as feeble and frail as we sometimes are, will one day be exalted with him. This is a promise he himself has made and he ratified the promise in his blood.

When he speaks as he does in our Gospel today to the people who follow him, he assures them that their poverty is a blessing, for it certifies their possession of the Kingdom of God. Those who are hungry will be filled to overflowing; those who weep will laugh. And those who suffer harm, those who are hated, excluded, reviled, defamed and insulted on account of him, because they bear his name — they are to leap for joy. Not someday, he says, but then and there “in that day.” Their reward is great in heaven — not “will be great someday” but is great now.

What he assures us of is the fact that being a saint is something we are called to do right now, even in the midst of weakness and being less than perfect — it isn’t something that happens to a good person once they get to heaven. God’s kingdom is among us now, and we are citizens of that kingdom even now — even in our poverty and our hunger and our tears; even amidst the hatred, exclusion, and insult — just as Jesus Christ was Lord of the earth and Son of God even as he hung upon the cross.

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I want to conclude with a true story about two of the saints of the church now at rest, the Reverend Canon Edward Nason West, long a fixture at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, and a sister of a religious order not too far away from there, to which Canon West was chaplain. Canon West certainly had his failings and his eccentricities, and the sister I have in mind was also a good example of the kind of imperfect saint that all of us are. She was assigned as head of the order’s altar guild — though she didn’t have a real gift for it. But as a good obedient sister she kept at the task she had been assigned. Canon West was mildly annoyed that she could never quite figure out how to fold the linen corporal correctly, and he became a bit angry with her when she almost burned down the chapel as hot coals flew out of the thurible.

Well, this sister fell ill and it turned out her illness was terminal. And Canon West visited her in the infirmary quite often in those last few weeks. And one day she said to him, “Father West, I know I haven’t been very good on the altar guild.” Canon West stifled his agreement and simply nodded wisely. She continued, “I know I’m not perfect. I never did get the knack with the altar linens, and burnt that hole through the carpet in the sanctuary. I’ve never really been very good at anything. But I can do one thing — I can show how a Christian dies.”

This good sister taught the old priest a lesson — reminding him that God doesn’t judge us for our success; God doesn’t judge us on our ability to fold a linen correctly, or knowing how to swing a thurible without burning the church down; or however well we may preach or sing or serve. God loves us because we are his, and empowers us in our faithfulness, even when we are at our weakest. God does not look to our success, but to our faith, faith which remains strong even when we are weak. Just as Jesus Christ showed us what God is like most perfectly in his death up on the cross, so to, we his saints can show ourselves most like him even in our weakness and our death. For God’s strength is made perfect in weakness. Even when we are hungry, thirsty, or poor; when we are persecuted and excluded; even when we are dying — we shine as lights in the firmament, like stars appearing — showing forth the glory of God, whose strength is perfected in us.

You know the old song, I believe in the sun even when it’s not shining? Well Jesus Christ is the Son — the Son of God — even in his suffering and his weakness — and his death. And we who have a share in his sufferings, persevering as saints in the offices and ministries with which God has equipped us as members of Christ’s body — we shall also be raised with him. Our weakness is but a passing shadow — it cannot hide the sun for long, and makes it even more glorious in its reappearing.

So rejoice, my brothers and sisters, rejoice now even as we look forward to the day when all of our sufferings and weaknesses will be at an end and we are clothed upon with the resurrection in Jerusalem the golden. Even as we hope in Christ, so let us continue on the pilgrims’ way, continuing to do the work God has given us to do, called as saints, knit together in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of Jesus Christ our Lord.+

Dying on Easy Street

SJF • P21c • Tobias Haller BSG
Alas for those who are at ease in Zion, and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria...

You probably all know the expression, “Living on Easy Street.” It means everything’s going your way; you’ve got it made; everything’s coming up roses and daffodils, as Ethel Merman used to sing. You haven’t got a care in the world and all your needs are provided for, because you are living in the lap of luxury.

Sounds like the folks Amos is talking about in this morning’s Scripture reading, doesn’t it? They lie on beds of ivory, lounging like regular couch potatoes, dining on tender lamb and veal, entertaining themselves with the latest pop tunes and performing cool musical improvisations; savoring vintage wine not just from cups but from bowls, and getting oil massages as they luxuriate in comfort. They are living on easy street like nobody’s business.

And, “Alas,” says Amos — “alas for those who are at ease in Zion, and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria.” For while they are enjoying themselves and taking their ease, things are afoot that will shake their comfortable world to its foundations. The Assyrians are coming, and at their coming there will be warfare, destruction, defeat and eventual exile — and the revelry of the loungers will pass away. They are not, after all, living on easy street — they are dying on easy street.

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This is a powerful lesson — for us today as much as it was in the days of the prophet Amos. For it addresses a human failing that we are no less liable to in our day than they were in his. And that is the failing of complacency, the kind of complacency that gives in to comfort and relaxes into a kind of nearsightedness that not only doesn’t see danger coming, combined with a kind of farsightedness that makes us oblivious to others who are nearby, and who areno danger to us at all.

We see that in our Gospel today: the story of the rich man who ignored the poor man who sat just outside his house. This rich man was living on easy street. He dressed like royalty — in those days purple cloth was earmarked for the Imperial household. He feasted not just off and on, but every day.

But out on the street — not easy street but the real hard-paved, dusty street — there was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing for something to eat — lying there in misery at the gate while dogs came by and licked his sores.

Well, Lazarus died — no surprise there — but at his death God sent angels to carry him to Abraham’s side. The rich man died too — also no surprise; with all his daily feasting he probably ate and drank his way into heart and liver disease: a perfect example of dying on easy street. But instead of angels, what does this rich man get? — the torment of Hades, and the oblivion of being forgotten, even his name having passed away with him, to be known to us only as “a rich man.”

Now, it’s not as if he hasn’t been warned of his fate. As a Jew, even if he wasn’t particularly observant, he would have been familiar with the law of charity — that one is to be openhanded and generous, and to help the poor and the oppressed, the widows and orphans, the sick and the suffering; in short, to love one’s neighbor as oneself. The problem is that his own self-comfort had blinded him to the dis-comfort of the neighbors all around him — even something as obvious as a dying man lying at his very gate — and you can’t get much closer to home than that. No, he had been warned countless times of his duty to love his neighbor as himself; and instead of that he’d spent his wealth on himself, clothing himself in purple and feasting everyday — while Lazarus suffered at his doorway, half-dressed and starving.

The warnings were there for him and all to see — which is why Abraham gives the rich man some hard news down in Hades, when he has the nerve to ask Abraham to send Lazarus on an errand to his five brothers, to warn them of their fate. And the bad news is — Sorry, but they’ve already received the only warning they are going to get: the teaching of Moses and the prophets — the teachings about loving one’s neighbor, and helping the poor and oppressed.

And, if I can extend Abraham’s warning, he might well have said — “And by the way, you didn’t pay any attention to Lazarus when he was right outside your door every day; so why do you think your brothers would pay any attention to him either? Do you think they’ll listen to this dead man, even if he returns from the grave, when they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, who were once alive but now are here with me as well— for though they died, their words live on and are preached week by week in the synagogue. All of you had your chance to heed the words of the dead and behold the lives of the living — and you ignored both.”

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That’s what living on easy street can do to you. We can get so comfortable that we forget the most elementary lessons of the faith: to love God and neighbor. Comfort — even relative comfort, not just luxury — can take our minds off of our duty to those less fortunate than we are.

I dare say none of us here are wealthy — since they discovered chemical dyes in the 19th century purple cloth has been no more expensive than any other color; and I very much doubt that any of us here feasts every day.

Yet even if we don’t consider our daily meals to be feasts, there are parts of this world of ours where people would be glad to eat the scraps that fall from our tables, places in the world where a loaf of fresh bread is considered a delicacy, and a few ounces of meat a feast worthy of a monarch.

We don’t really appreciate how good we have it — until we turn and consider those who have less. And thanks be to God that members of this parish have made that effort, and continue to do so. The message we heard wasn’t from a dying man at the gate, but from the voices of children calling to us from half-way around the world, from Dabalo in Tanzania: and we heard their call, and we answered and sent them help. Just this past May fifty-three children received the gifts that members of this parish provided for them, gifts they still enjoy as they are fed in body and mind, dressed in new school uniforms and with shoes on their feet and food in their stomachs, and books and school supplies to support their minds as well as their bodies.

I just received an email this week from the project manager in Dabalo, which included this message from the children — “May God bless our supporters in America also for our breakfast every morning!” Think about that — when was the last time you thanked God or anybody else for the fact that you were able to have breakfast! We have it so, so easy here on easy street. Perhaps this will be a reminder to us to give thanks more often. And to be of even greater help.

It seems such a simple thing to do what Saint Paul advised in the good counsel we heard today: to do good, to be rich in good works, generous and ready to share. Thus we store up “the treasure of a good foundation for the future,” to “take hold of the life that really is life.”

We don’t have to give up living on the easy (or at least comfortable) street we live on — we just need to be aware of the people out on that street, out by our gates, or on other streets not so well paved as ours, even those half-way around the world. Neighbors are near and far, and they have been given to us by Jesus asan object for the good he has equipped us and enabled us to do. None of us is asked to do more than we can — but only what we can, with the help of God, which is surely to do more than simply live, but to help others live as well.

May our ears be always open to the calls for help, may our hands be always full of the means to give that help, may we press forward in service to help and minister to all whom we can, by God’s grace, through Jesus Christ our Lord.+

Very Near To You

SJF • Proper 10c 2007 • Tobias Haller BSG
Grant, O Lord, that your people may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them.+
In his short story, “The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl,” Ray Bradbury describes what happens to a man who loses track. It begins with the main character of the story standing over the body of the man he has just murdered. No one else is around, no one has seen him come, and no one is likely to see him leave. Still, he realizes he has left traces of himself in the form of fingerprints all around the living room. And so he finds a cloth and begins wiping the arm of the leather chair, and then the top of the table; and, of course, the glass from which he had enjoyed a drink. Then there’s the door knob of the library — and he’d better do the one on the inside as well. And the front door, both handles. And did he touch the edge of the doorway when he came in? Give it a rubdown just in case. And that marble-topped table in the foyer — did he set his hand on the top of it when he passed by?

He sets to work, polishing everything he can think of — even things that thinking should tell him he hasn’t touched; but he can no longer be sure. He even polishes the fruit at the bottom of the bowl which gives the story its title, and completely loses himself in his effort to wipe away any evidence that he had been there.

When the police finally arrive — I don’t recall the detail from the story; perhaps because the murdered man has missed an appointment — they enter the house and find it gleaming. Every surface is polished within an inch of its life. Martha Stewart would be put to shame! Then, hearing some noise from upstairs, they find the murderer, frantically polishing coins from a chest in the back corner of the attic.

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Now, what, you may ask, what does this have to do with the Good Samaritan? Well, the resemblance begins as our gospel passage begins, when a lawyer asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life — that is, how do I escape the human predicament of guilt and wrong, just like the man who tried to wipe away his fingerprints? Jesus throws the question right back at him, essentially saying, “You’re the lawyer; what does the law say?” And the lawyer quotes the well-known Summary of the Law — and it is good to note that Luke puts this summary, a combination of two verses from Deuteronomy and Leviticus, into the lawyer’s mouth. Jesus approves this summary, but then the lawyer wants to justify himself and asks, “And who is my neighbor?”

It is a reasonable question for the lawyer to ask. Does it mean neighbor literally — the person who lives next door? Or could it mean people who live as much as two or three doors away? Or anyone in the neighborhood? And just where is the edge of the neighborhood — where does Fordham become
Kingsbridge Heights or edge over into Mosholu or Norwood? Is it just this borough, or the whole city? Do I just wipe my fingerprints off the doorknobs and the glass, or do I have to go rummaging in the bottom of the fruit-bowl, or climb the ladder to the attic?

Seen in this way, the question is, What is the limit of one’s responsibility? In my sermon last week I mentioned Marley’s plaintive statement, “Mankind was my business.” But Scrooge, even after his reclamation, didn’t try to save all of mankind, or even everyone in the good old city of London! He helped Bob Cratchit, and Tiny Tim, and many others — but not everybody. And the people in the Titanic’s lifeboats, who didn’t row back to rescue other passengers, weren’t expected to rescue everybody — but they could have rescued somebody.

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In his response to the lawyer, Jesus shows by way of a parable the kind of response he expects. We know nothing else about the Good Samaritan apart from his being a Samaritan and being good. All we know is that unlike the priest and the Levite, he doesn’t ignore the man he comes across on his journey. As far as we know, he’s not an ambulance driver or a homeless shelter coordinator or a social worker going out searching for injured or homeless people to see to their needs. He simply responds to the needy person who is actually in his path. And that’s important — not in his neighborhood (after all, he’s from Samaria) but in his path. The presence of this wounded man on the road is an opportunity for ministry — a ministry rejected by the priest and the Levite, even though they were on the same path, but an opportunity for ministry to which the Samaritan responds. And he is the one about whom Jesus says to the lawyer, “Go and do likewise.”

The message to us, then, is that God will provide us with opportunities for ministry, too; and when those opportunities arise, God expects us to take advantage of them. We are not to cross to the other side and pass by.

While God will give us such opportunities to do good, God does not expect us, either as individuals or as a congregation, or even as an entire church, to solve all the problems of the world — to wipe out to world hunger, and poverty, and disease — on our own. But God does give us the opportunity to feed someone, to help someone who is down on his luck, and to offer care and comfort to someone who is sick. We cannot on our own solve all the problems of the world; but individually we can help to address the needs of other individuals — and they are our neighbors no matter how far away they live. And in the long run every generous act will contribute to the net balance of good in the world, even the smallest act of kindness adding to the blessing. And enough grains of sand will eventually make an island. Enough good done will go far to making the world a better place.

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There is an old story that is such a cliché I’m hesitant to retell it, but it is so to the point that I will. There was a man who would walk up and down the beach every day picking up stranded starfish on his path, starfish that had washed up beyond the reach of the waves, and gently toss them back into the sea. A person who watched him doing this for awhile said to him, “Why are you wasting your time throwing those starfish back into the sea? There are thousands of them! What difference do you think it makes?” The man looked down at the starfish in his hand, paused for a moment, then tossed it into the sea, and said, “It makes a difference to that one.”

The simple fact is, God doesn’t ask the impossible of us. God doesn’t expect us to save the world — he already did that almost 2000 years ago, and he did it while nailed to a cross. But God does expect us to love him and our neighbors; and to show that love by treating all whom we encounter with that same respect and care that he showed for the whole world. God does not give us more than we can handle. His law of love is not incomprehensible or far away — you don’t have to go running up to heaven to find it; you don’t have to cross over to the other side of the sea to hear of it; you don’t have to rummage in the bottom of the fruit-bowl or climb the rickety ladder to the attic to find it. The law of love is very near to us, in our mouth and in our heart. And our neighbor, to whom God wills we show that love is near us in spirit and in fact.

Whether that neighbor is the person sitting next to you in the pew, a person to whom a kind word or smile might just make their day; or whether that neighbor is a child in Dabalo parish 85 miles north of Dodoma in Tanzania on the other side of the world — a child who now has a new school uniform and shoes, and books and pencils and paper, and a good breakfast every day, because someone here in this parish chose to help — God gives us neighbors aplenty to love and serve as we love and serve him. The law of God is not too hard — it is very near to us, as near as our nearest neighbor, as far as our hearts can reach.

As the wonderful old Ghanaian hymn says, “Neighbors are rich and poor, neighbors are black and white, neighbors are nearby and far away. These are the ones we should serve, these are the ones we should love. All are neighbors to us and you. Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love, show us how to serve the neighbors we have from you.”

Grant, O Lord, that your people may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.+

Bearing the Burden

St James Fordham • Proper 9c • Tobias Haller BSG

Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.+

I imagine that many of you here this morning saw the film Titanic when it came out a few years back, or perhaps one of the earlier versions such as A Night to Remember, or if you haven’t, you at least know the story of that tragic disaster. The story strikes close to home in this parish — for as I recently learned one of the survivors of the tragedy, Colonel Archibald Gracie, was the grandson of one of the founding members of this parish. He was a hero of that terrible night, staying on board the ship helping people into the lifeboats right up until it sank, and survived because he managed to catch hold of one of the capsized collapsible boats, and under the guidance of one of the ship’s crew, stand — yes I said “stand” — along with about thirty other survivors balanced on the hull and tilting from side to side to keep the upside-down boat steady against the swell; until they were rescued by the Carpathia.

But another aspect of this tragedy, perhaps even less well known until the most recent film version portrayed it, is the fact that all but one of the lifeboats refused to row back after the ship had sunk, to gather more survivors from the water. Most of the lifeboats were far from full, some less than half — such was the haste and unpreparedness of the evacuation. There was plenty of room to save dozens of other lives — but only Lifeboat Number 14 turned back, seeking out survivors floating and slowly freezing to death in the icy waters.

The rest of the lifeboats remained distant, out at the edge of the wreckage, but not so far that those lucky enough to have made it into them were unable to hear the cries for help, cries that slowly weakened, grew hoarse, and then weak, and then silent, until all that was left was the quiet lapping of the water, the creak of planks, the bump of flotsam against the sides of the boats in that calm, cold, cold water. The survivors were left to contemplate in silence the imponderable weight of their guilt.

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“Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” This is Saint Paul’s word to us this morning. “Bear one another’s burdens.” I’ve pointed out to you before how well the nave of this church lives up to its name — for this church building is like an inverted naval vessel, a boat turned upside down with its ribs becoming the roof-beams — as upside down as that capsized boat that saved the lives of 30-some people along with Mr. Gracie’s grandson. And sure enough our roof used to leak like a sinking ship until we fixed the big holes in the roof there, and there, and there!

But there is a deeper truth to this — and that is that the church has long been known as the vessel of salvation, a lifeboat — even an upside-down one — that saves from a dying world. And if this is so — and I believe it is or we are wasting our time — then the church cannot be a lifeboat that hangs back on the edges of the shipwreck, half-empty, ignoring the cries of those in need.

Why, after all, did the Titanic’s lifeboats hold back? Why did all but those in Lifeboat Number 14 close their ears and their hearts to the cries for help? The sad answer is they were afraid: afraid that if they went back, those still in the water would cling to the boats, would swamp them and sink them, and that all would founder and drown.

Yet Lifeboat 14 did not founder; it did not sink; it saved a precious few more who otherwise would have surely died. The risk that one boat took could have been taken by most of the others, and how many more would have lived to tell their children and their grandchildren the story of that fateful night?

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Does the church act the same way from time to time? Do we, the church’s members, fear that if the church grows too much we will lose something, something precious? I have heard of parishes that want to stay small because they like the feeling of everybody knowing everybody else. I have heard of parishes that want to stay small because a few people like to have the last word on this or that, and the fewer the people, the easier it is for them to keep control. I have heard of parishes that fail to reach out into their communities so that they can preserve their “identity.”

But my dear brothers and sisters, what identity is worth having if it is not the identity of Christ? Of what use is our “Anglican identity” if it does not serve Christ. The harvest is great and the laborers are few: can the church stand idle and fail to send out workers to harvest the abundant wheat, simply because it would rather harvest rye?

We cannot choose what voices will cry out to us from the cold and darkness that surrounds our lifeboat. We can only hear their cry, and choose to help them or ignore them. “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

Paul continues his admonition, “all must carry their own loads.” This may seem at first a contradiction. Is Paul saying, Mind your own business; take care of your own lifeboat?” Well, yes, in a way, he is. The problem is, we don’t always know what our lifeboat is, what the heart and soul of our life itself is; we don’t know what our business is half of the time, we are so busy minding it.

Jacob Marley from Dickens’ Christmas Carol learned too late what his business was, and from beyond the grave he warned his old colleague Ebenezer Scrooge. When the old miser complimented Marley’s ghost on always having been a “good man of business,” the angry ghost rose to his feet, shaking the chains he had forged in life, and cried out in anguish, “Business? Mankind was my business!”

Well, mankind is our business, too. The proper use of a lifeboat is to save lives, to save as many lives as it can, not to row about half-empty in the dark, while people freeze to death. The business of being human is involvement with what matters to humanity, the human community in which “no man is an island,” and in which we all have a responsibility for the well-being and the salvation of our brothers and sisters. Remember, it was the first murderer who asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” There are no innocent bystanders — and we all have the option of helping those in need.

So surely it is true, we all must carry our own loads: but our most important burden is the burden of our neighbor. It is, in fact, our neighbor himself.

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One day a student asked the great anthropologist, Margaret Mead — who, by the way, was an Episcopalian and participated in the creation of our present Book of Common Prayer — a student asked Mead what she regarded as the earliest sign of civilization. Was it an axe-blade, an arrowhead, a fish-hook, or something more sophisticated, such as a musical instrument or a pottery bowl? She answered, “A healed human femur.” Not something made by a human, but something human: a healed human leg-bone; not an artifact, but a part of someone who once lived and walked this earth, until the leg was broken, and given time to heal.

She explained to the surprised student that where the law of survival of the fittest reigns, a broken leg spells certain death. When you can’t make it on your own, you die. But a healed leg-bone is physical evidence that someone cared. Someone else gathered food for that injured person until the leg was healed. Someone cared for that person until they were able to care for themselves. Someone expressed what Mead regarded as the first sign of civilization: compassion.

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One cold night in 1912, a group of people by all other standards considered civilized, by many standards considered the very cream of society, failed to fulfill the law of Christ, the law of compassion, the law of love. In the face of tremendous need, all but one of the lifeboats drifted in idleness and half-emptiness.

The world is in no less trouble now than the Titanic was that night. People are dying all around us, dying spiritually and physically, and calling for our help. Some have given up hope, and aren’t even crying out any longer. Our little lifeboat, our little church, as leaky as it once was, may seem too small to do any good: but look around. Our vessel isn’t foundering upside-down; the leaks have been repaired — and there is still plenty of room.

Inviting new people to join us will involve some risk. We may find that the newcomers will have different favorite hymns than we do. We may find that they don’t share all of the same traditions we do. We may find ourselves challenged — but we will also find ourselves blessed. For in bearing one another’s burdens, we will be fulfilling the law of Christ. The harvest is plentiful, the laborers few. And who dares stand idle on the harvest plain?+