Fruit Bearing

A Rule of Life is like a gardener's toolkit to help cultivate the planted seed of the Word in one's heart.

Proper 10c • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel that has come to you. Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God.

A few weeks ago I spoke about how Saint Paul sees us as living in Christ, and today he provides us with another image for that way of living, similar to an image used by Jesus himself, when he talked about the vine and the branches, or the seed scattered on different kinds of soil: the word of God is like a seed planted in us, seed that grows and bears fruit as we remain rooted in the life of God like a fruit-tree planted in good and fertile soil. Through the centuries there have been many ways by which people have been graced to fulfill that great obligation — to live in Christ, “rooted and built up in him,” as Saint Paul will say a little later on in Colossians. And one of those ways people have found to do this is through a rule of life.

Now, it might strike you as a little strange, given that over the last few weeks we have been walking through Galatians with all of its stress on freedom from the law. As we noted in Galatians, however, freedom from the law does not mean lawlessness; and Paul himself cites the same rule as Jesus, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Here lies the difference between a law and a rule: a law is designed to tell you what not to do; a rule is a tool to live by.

Let me give you a classic example: that venerable classroom tool, the ruler: It is true that a ruler can be used — or perhaps I should say, could have been used, before attitudes towards corporal punishment changed — to rap someone’s knuckles for misbehavior; and I’m old enough to remember the days of the rapped knuckles. But the primary use of a ruler is not to rap someone’s knuckles. What is the primary use of a ruler; what do you use if for? — you use it to draw straight lines, you use it to measure things. There is no “law” about it — it is a tool. When used to rule lines on a piece of paper you use it to help you to stay on the straight and narrow.

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A religious rule is similarly a tool for keeping your life in order, for living a life in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. Some such rules have been around for centuries, written by a great saint of the past: Francis, Benedict, or Augustine. Some of those rules are complicated and detailed, while others are simpler, but perhaps no less demanding: after all, isn’t it true that “love your neighbor as yourself” is easy to say but sometimes hard to do. So a rule of life — a religious rule — can be as complex as that Saint Benedict wrote, or as simple as the Golden Rule, or to ask yourself, in another rule you may hear from time to time, “What would Jesus do?” If you can do no more than this, answering the question posed in that little four-letter rule, WWJD, you are well on the way, so long as you remember to take the next step and do as Jesus did.

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But some people feel they are called to a more formal rule of life, a religious rule. Think of it this way. Remember all the good advice which we got from our parents about keeping healthy? Don’t go out without your coat; or, Remember to carry an umbrella; or even, Eat your vegetables. Compare those simple, homely, household rules; that good and traditional wisdom — which everyone knows about and most people with any sense follow — compare those informal guides to the specific instructions that your doctor might give you after an operation, or the written prescription she writes out, for a specific kind of medication. The two things aren’t mutually exclusive. You don’t forget the wisdom of eating properly just because in addition you may have been instructed to avoid certain foods or take a certain prescription.

It is the same way with these formal rules of life that many people in the church follow. One of the reasons for having such a rule is the same reason we have a prescription from a doctor — it’s a black-and-white piece of paper, that tells you exactly what you are supposed to do when you admit that you are in need of healing, whether of body or of soul. That rule, that religious rule, is a constant reminder, to those who follow it, of how much they need God in their lives. These are words of instruction for tending the garden from which we hope to bear the fruit of the spirit.

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Who are the gardeners? They are, in the case of a formal religious rule, the monks and nuns, the sisters and brothers, the friars and hermits. Let’s have a little history here for a moment. In the early days of the church, there were a few bold Christians, seeing corruption in society around them, and sometimes even in the church itself as some of its leaders became more like secular princes than men of God, and so these bold few souls went out to live in the desert to live lives of prayer and solitude. Then there arose the first communities, as some of these desert priests and sisters learned that they needed companionship from like-minded people, and they gathered together in small communities. And those communities in the very beginnings of the Dark Ages, as the world was crumbling around them, in those communities they preserved the writings, the music, the history — we’ve all seen the images of the monks copying out documents. It is to them that we owe the preservation of so much of our history that might otherwise have been lost. They preserved the wisdom of the past in manuscripts and music, and they made prayer almost a full time occupation.

And when a brighter age dawned on this old earth of ours, in a warm Italian summer of the 13th century, a poor little man named Francis came along and said that God loved the poor, and he reminded the monks, some of whom had since grown comfortable and fat in their palatial monasteries, that they were in danger of acting more like the priest and Levite than the good Samaritan. He reminded them to serve the poor, and preach the gospel at all times, using words if necessary. And so the first community of friars minor was rounded — a fancy Latin term for “little brothers” — and so it was born, the Franciscan order.

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I could go on and talk of the later changes in the history of the many forms that religious life took, the many different rules, as in the great missionary communities, the orders who ran hospitals or schools. They’re right in our neighborhood: the Jesuits at Fordham, the Christian Brothers at Manhattan College.

And while I’m at it, let’s not forget the Anglicans and Episcopalians! Nicholas Ferrar and his family, back in England in the 17th century, found ways to tend their spiritual garden in life and work and study as a model Christian family. In the 19th century many traditional communities were reestablished in England and America: communities of dedicated people, men and women who strove to serve the poor in the inner city slums, reawakening people in the gray, dull factory towns of Northern England to the beauty of worship — with music and art in an age that had tried to rationalize everything, to mechanize everything; they helped the world to rediscover the deep peace of a life of prayer and common service to those in need.

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Today there are dozens of such communities in the Episcopal Church, of all shapes and sizes, with all sorts of ministries, all following their rules of life as ways to tend their spiritual gardens. My own Brotherhood of Saint Gregory is just one of many of these communities. Some of them live a monastic life, in one large monastery, working and praising God together; others are out in the world, scattered all over the country, in small groups, alone, or with their families.

One thing ties these communities together, one thing they share: they are all made up of people who have vowed to follow a common rule of life. Now, you might say, Why would anyone need to go beyond the simple Golden Rule, or any other such obvious guide to Christian life? And you’re right to ask such a question.

Well, remember what I said of doctor’s orders? Each of us requires different therapies and prescriptions for good health, and some of these ailments fall into broad categories, and people who have similar needs or similar ailments or require certain therapies find similar helps, and they even form support groups, don’t they? There is a solidarity of knowing that others have a condition you share, and can help keep you on the program for recovery.

And it is the same with those who follow a rule of life for their Christian journey: they know that they need this direction and guidance, and fellowship to support them, in strengthening them to persevere in their journey. They have found when they do that, that “the word is very near them” — and their rule of prayer and service helps them to live so as to follow the life that God has prescribed for them, the Great Physician who has given them a prescription written on their hearts.

They have found, for example, that they need one particular helpful prescription: Take one dose of prayer on rising and before retiring, and with meals. And so they’ve recited the Daily Office of morning and evening and noonday and bedtime prayer for almost 1800 years in one form or another.

Rules of life help those of us who are called to them, because we need them to get our lives in order. And don’t we all need that guidance — to listen to that “near word” spoken in our hearts? Doesn’t ever gardener need the tools of rake, and hoe and spade in addition to the seed, if the garden is to be tended and bear fruit? Whether it’s the Golden Rule, or the Rule of Saint Benedict, the rule is a toolkit, an aid in time of need. We’ve been assured that when we need something, and ask for it in prayer, we will receive it. People find these rules of life because they are seeking God, and God provides the way — as Jesus said, he is the Way.

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Such rules are all around us, but if they remain unused they are no better than the heart medicine unopened on the dresser, or the garden tools locked up in the shed. Christ, the good physician, has given all of us our own prescriptions — tailored to our needs — but it is up to us to use them day by day. Each of us has God’s word planted in our hearts, and suited to our abilities, talents and needs, to bring forth the fruit that each of us can bear, as we cultivate it with the tools that God has provided to each of us. God speaks to us as he spoke to the lawyer, to each of us in relation to what he gives us and what he asks of us: “Do this, and you will live.” By his word at work in us, so may it be.+

Very Near to You

SJF • Proper 10 Year C • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away… No, the word is very near to you…+

It was a hot summer day, so hot that the air conditioning didn’t make much difference. The hospital had that “hospital” smell; you know what it’s like: that mix of antiseptic and floor polish, covering but not concealing the evident aroma of sick and ailing humanity. It was mid-afternoon, a sleepy time of day, and I’d just as soon have been taking a nap! I’d been making my chaplain’s rounds most of the day, checking in on patients I’d seen before, and visiting new arrivals.

Then I noticed, in the posting at the nurses’ station, that one of the patients I’d been seeing quite a bit of was going to be discharged that afternoon. I headed to her room, wanting to say goodbye and wish her well. As I got to the doorway, I saw that she was on the phone, so I motioned that I’d wait in the hall. I just stood outside her door, leaning with my back against the wall, my suit jacket feeling a bit uncomfortable, that little trickle of sweat going down my back in the still air and humid warmth.

Just then, a man stuck his head out of the next room down, out of the doorway, stared at me intently for a moment, then turned his head back into the room and said, “Here he is!” I hadn’t gotten a page on my beeper, but I figured that the patient in that room must have called the chaplain’s office. Since I saw that my other patient was still on the phone, I waved an “I’ll see you in a minute” and headed one door down the hall to the other room. The man waved me in and then followed me.

I wasn’t ready for what I saw. A middle-aged woman was not in a bed — she was braced and bound almost upright in a stainless steel contraption — the like of which I’ve only ever seen used in prisons to administer a lethal injection to a strapped down criminal. She was upright with both of her arms stretched out, and was holding onto the bars at either end with all her might, and it didn’t take a medical degree to see that she was in great pain; the expression on her face — eyes clenched tight shut — told me all I needed to know. It was like walking onto Calvary — for the woman was literally crucified on that bed of stainless steel.

Then she opened her eyes and looked at me, and a wave of relief flooded over her, her arms and her hands relaxed just a bit, and she said, “I knew you’d come.” I thought to myself, “Well, this is good timing. Glad I decided to wait outside the other patient’s room for a few minutes!”

The woman relaxed a bit, some of the tension in her arms softening. We talked about how she felt, and she told me about her faith — which was great. She’d had cancer once before, and gone into remission, but now the cancer had reappeared. But she felt sure that God was with her and would be with her in and through all of her pain. There really wasn’t much for me to do as a chaplain — this was a woman who had it all together, and she knew where she’d put it. And with the gathered family we prayed and prayed and prayed — you’d think I’d been born and bred a Baptist to see me that day, and the power of Pentecost and the Spirit was upon us in that room.

As the prayer came to a close, and we all became quiet for a moment, I asked if she had called for a chaplain, so I could make the proper entry in the hospital records. That’s when I got my second surprise.

“Call for a chaplain?” she asked, looking a little confused. She looked at her husband, who shook his head. “Why no. We didn’t call for a chaplain.” That’s when I guess I looked a little confused.

“No,” the husband said, “We were praying a little while ago, and then my wife told me she’d had a vision that a man of God was coming to see her. And that’s when you came.” Suddenly her husband’s short sentence, “Here he is!” took on a whole new meaning.

Suddenly I was no longer simply talking to a woman and her husband in a hospital on the upper East Side of Manhattan. Suddenly I was sitting in a room with people for whom visions are reality, for whom faith is a certainty, for whom men of God come walking through the door as a matter of course, people for whom God is very near. This was not just Golgotha, but in its own way the new Jerusalem.

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In his farewell in Deuteronomy, Moses told the children of Israel, “The commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away… No, the word is very near to you….” The lawyer in today’s Gospel used a rabbi’s classic technique of combining two Scripture texts — Moses’ teaching in Deuteronomy concerning the nearness of the law and loving the Lord with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and that text from Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But it took Jesus to show him who the neighbor was. For the neighbor is the one who, like God, is very near to you.

God and God’s word were and always had been truly and uniquely present with the children of Israel: God had led them out of Egypt with signs and wonders, had been with them in a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire, God had dwelt among them in the tent of meeting, the tabernacle of the presence, God had even bent the heavens themselves and come down to the top of Sinai.

Yet, as Jesus assures us, God is just as present in every loving act of charity done to a neighbor. The work of God is as close as that, as close as the needy one placed in your path by circumstance or design — and after all, is there any “circumstance” under the grace of a God who fills his people’s hearts with the knowledge of his presence? who is so very near to all of us? God is present in the meeting of a hated Samaritan and a wounded Jew. God is present in hospital wards and nursing homes. God is present in the peace we share in this liturgy, and in the bread we break and the wine we drink. God is present to us and in us and with us, when we have eyes to see, and ears to hear, and hands to work and pray. There is no circumstance — it is all design!

The commandment of God is neither too hard nor too far away. We can all take part in it, all of us neighbors to one another, all of us working together, being present to each other as God is present to us.

And it’s not just that we become agents of God when we help others. That is true, and it is God’s will for us, and we give thanks to be instruments in God’s service, to be “good Samaritans” to lend a hand when it is needed. But God is also present in the ones who suffer; as God was uniquely present in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who stretched out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that the whole world might come into the reach of his saving embrace. God is present in the sick and wounded whom we serve, for as Christ told and assures us, when you do good to the least of these, you do it to me.

When I walked through the door of that hospital room that hot summer day, the woman there saw in me the presence of God, believing I’d been particularly sent down that particular hall on that particular day, to that particular room at that specific time. And indeed, I had been sent, though I didn’t know it at the time. God can do such things, even when we aren’t aware God is doing it; leading and guiding us to be where he wants us to be, as he led that Samaritan once long ago, as indeed he had led the priest and the Levite who instead of following God’s lead, chose to pass that gracious opportunity by. God leads us, but it is still up to us to follow.

But I’ll tell you something else: when I went through the door of that hospital room, and saw that woman with her arms stretched out, and the grip of terrible pain upon her face, I knew I too was in the presence of God, the God who in Christ became flesh and suffered upon the cross, the God who bears our griefs and weeps with us and for us, the God who is very near and not far off, very near, so near that we can feel his breath.+