Connected To The Flow

God is in us when we are in God -- a sermon for Easter 5b

SJF • Easter 5b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love... and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.

I was very fortunate, when I was in seminary, to be able to spend two of my years there studying the Hebrew language. It is not at all an easy language either to learn or to understand, but I felt it was important to study the language in which most of the sacred Scriptures are written, and it has been a real advantage to me ever since, because it has helped me in studying them — to be able to return to the original text.

As with all languages, other than those with which one grows up and uses all the time, it is important, after you’ve studied a language in school, to remain in touch with it, to review it and keep in touch with the languages you studied, especially in later life, in order to remain familiar with them and be able to make use of them.

After I graduated from seminary and was ordained, my first parish was in Yonkers, even though I was still living in the Bronx, I commuted back and forth on the MTA and the Bee-line bus. This gave me plenty of time to read; and one of the things I decided to read in those first years out of seminary was the Hebrew Scriptures — starting with Genesis — in order to keep that language I had studied fresh in my mind. I didn’t want that study to go to waste.

Well, one day something happened to me that is not unlike what happened to the Ethiopian who was reading Isaiah in our passage from Acts today. I was on the bus reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, and a rabbi happened to get on and sit next to me. I could not have been more obviously gentile, as I was wearing my clerical shirt, nor could he have been more obviously a rabbi, with a very large white beard. After a while the rabbi, who I could tell was curious and reading over my shoulder, finally overcame his shyness, and virtually quoted the evangelist Philip by asking, “Do you understand what you’re reading?” I told him I’d been studying Hebrew in seminary and was trying to keep the language fresh in my mind, and we had a lovely conversation about the language and tradition of study that is so much a part of the rabbinic tradition and way of life.

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I mention all of this, reminded by the story of Philip and the Ethiopian, because as it is with language — the need to stay connected with it if it is to be of any use — so it is with the life of faith, the life of hope and above all the life of love. It is imperative that we stay connected with the source of our life and of all love, which is God.

Saint John the Divine makes this abundantly clear in that passage from his First Letter that we heard this morning. God is love, he affirms, and if we are to love we must to stay connected to the source of all love, which is God. John goes on to say that love is the proof that one is truly connected with God — and that those who do not love their brothers and sisters whom they have seen, cannot possibly claim to be connected with the love of the God whom they have not seen.

How many of you here have had the experience of working with an appliance of some sort — as sophisticated as a computer or as simple as an iron or a lamp or a vacuum cleaner — you flip the switch and nothing happens: the computer remains dark, the iron fails to get warm, the light bulb doesn’t go on, or the vacuum remains silent? And what is the rule? What’s the first thing you are supposed to check? (Which unfortunately I have to admit I often don’t remember to check myself) You look to see if it is plugged in. How many of you have stood there switching the switch back and forth, back and forth, wondering why it’s not working, instead of seeing if it is plugged in! The problem isn’t with the switch; it’s with the plug. It is a no-brainer to realize that none of these appliances can work unless they are connected to the power source they need to operate.

So it is that we cannot love our brothers and our sisters if we are not connected to the source of all love — who is God. It is by being connected with God, plugged in (if you will), that we have the ability to do the work God has given us to do; which is, as John reminds us, to love one another. And if we do this — by living in God — John says that God will live in us and his love will be perfected in us.

To get back to my first example, it is by spending time in and with the Hebrew Scriptures, reading them in the Hebrew language and studying it, that the language gets into me — into my head and my heart, becoming a part of me so that I truly understand what is written. So the more time I spend in it, the more it is in me. The more time I spend in God’s word, the more God’s word is in me — in my heart, in my head, so that it becomes a part of me.

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Jesus uses a similar example with the image of the vine and the branches. Anyone who has ever watched a tree or a bush or a vine grow understands that if you cut a branch from it, it will not grow any more — any leaves or fruit that are already on it will shrivel, wither and die shortly after the branch is cut from the source of its life. In fact, those branches will quickly dry up altogether and become suitable for nothing but kindling.

And Jesus emphasizes that it is his word that must abide in our hearts, the hearts of those who believe, this fruitful word, this word which, as Isaiah had said, “goes forth and does not return empty.” The word of God — whether the written word of the Scripture or the living Word of God, the Son of God himself, dwells in our hearts when we allow our hearts to dwell in him and on him.

This is the mystery on which John so often meditates, both in his Gospel and in his Epistles: how something can contain and be contained at the same time; how Jesus can abide in us even as we abide in him. It is like the lamp that by being connected is “in” the electrical circuit just as the electricity is “in” the lamp — or like how a sponge dipped in a stream is “in” the stream even as the stream is “in” it. Or, to use the example that Jesus raised, how the life of the vine is in the branches even as — and only as — they are in the vine.

The love of God is in us when we are in the love of God. And we show that love of God when we pass that love along to our brothers and sisters — like the light that illuminates when it is connected to the current and the current flows through it; like the fruitful branches that bear their fruit because they partake of the life of the vine; like the language that is spoken and understood because it is in the minds and hearts of both those who speak and those who hear.

Let us then, brothers and sisters, soak ourselves deeply in the love of God, draw deeply on the current that runs through him, through us, and reaches out to others, showing that the love is real. Let us bear the fruit that God empowers us to bear; let us speak his word boldly, not by our own virtue, but because we are connected to the flow of the love that created the universe, the Word through whom all things were made, including each and every one of us who dwell on God’s good earth, that we may give glory to him by sharing that love with all who love the Lord.+

Common Life

A sermon from Saint James Church Fordham

Proper 22b 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
For the man there was not found a helper as his partner.+

The second chapter of the Book of Genesis presents us with a marvelous example of God’s generosity and care, and the extent to which God’s children have the responsibility to make decisions, and how God abides by those decisions once they are made.

You no doubt remember the events that lead up to the events described in our reading from Genesis today. God created Adam from the clay of the riverbank, breathing into him the divine life and spirit. And God planted the beautiful garden of Eden, and placed Adam in it, to tend it and care for it as God’s gardener. And God looked down upon this peaceful creation and instead of smiling at its goodness, frowned slightly and shook his head a little. And for the first time in the whole narrative up to that point God said that something was not good.

And what was that? Was it something God had made? No; it was something yet unfinished, something yet to be made. “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” And taking more clay, the same stuff he’d made Adam from, God set to work.

Now, this next part of the story is something many people forget, so I’m glad it was included in this morning’s reading. For what was it that God made out of that additional clay? Not another human being, but rather all of the animals of the field and the birds of the air. And God brought all of these creatures to Adam, for Adam to name, approve and accept. But Adam did not find among them a helper meet or suitable to be his partner.

Only then did God put Adam to sleep and take, not more clay this time, but some of Adam’s very own body, to make for him a helper suitable to be his partner, one like himself. And Adam recognized this kinship immediately, and rejoiced that at last here was one like him, another human being, one who could truly be called his mirror image, bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh.

The wonderful thing about this narrative is that God gave Adam such respect, and abided by Adam’s judgment as to who in all creation was to be his helper and partner, one truly like himself. God did not force Adam to be content to live alone as a solitary hermit in a garden. God did not force Adam to be happy with just the animals to keep him company. God did not take offense when Adam shook his head at all of these other creatures, and found none to be a suitable partner for him. God did not force Adam to accept them, and didn’t get offended and say, “Who do you think you are to turn down what God has provided.”

Rather God allowed Adam the freedom to choose the one who was like himself, his own flesh and blood, as a partner and a helper. God used no force in this: but allowed freedom, revealing, as our Gospel hymn said, that “force is not of God.”

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Well, you know the rest of the story. Adam and Eve lived in the garden only for a short time. One of those animals Adam had rejected as an unsuitable helper and partner perhaps didn’t take too kindly to the rejection. It was the creature God made with some of the leftover clay, the kind of animal any child knows is the easiest thing to make with a lump of clay — just as the Gary Larson cartoon shows God at his work table rolling out the snake and saying, “Gee, these things are a cinch!” Cinch it might be, but it opened up a whole can of worms! The serpent wriggled in and did his dirty work, sowing the seeds of discontent and pride, taunting with the fear of death, tempting with the promise of divinity, leading Adam and Eve to disobedience. The serpent dangled temptation before them, and they bit.

And so the caretakers got evicted from the garden. And for thousands of years human beings continued to stumble about in their ignorance and pride. Humanity lived under the fear of death, yet unable to escape it, no matter what they did, alternately sinned against and sinning, unable to find righteousness even though God tried time and time again to show them how, by giving them the Law and inspiring the preaching of the Prophets.

God would not, you see, simply force people to be good, any more than God forced Adam to accept Eve. God wanted people to be good from the inside, good from the heart, not just coated over with a whitewash of proper behavior, but deeply loving, deeply just, deeply free — and deeply responsible for the choices they made in that love, justice and freedom.

Just as God had a few false starts in creation, so too there were false starts in this re-creation. God first gave the people a law written in stone, and the people disobeyed it and rejected it. God sent the people prophets, but they ignored them or mistreated them. God gave the people kings and most of the kings turned out to be worse than the people!

But finally, in the fullness of time, God decided to do something similar to what he had done way back in Eden. God would not this time send the Law. God would not send a prophet. God would not send a king, at least not the kind of king people were used to. God would not even send an angel.

God would instead give to humankind one who was human, a human being like Adam himself, but one who was also divine, one who was God incarnate. God would choose incarnation — being made flesh — our flesh.

So as of old when God took the raw material from a human being, from Adam, this time God took from the flesh of a young woman named Mary all that was needed to make the one who was for a little while to be made a lower than the angels, one not ashamed to call men and women his sisters and brothers, for he shared the same human flesh as they — as we. “He sent him down as sending God; in flesh to us he came; as one with us he dwelt with us, and bore a human name.”

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The human name he bore is Jesus, which means Savior. The divine name he bore is Emmanuel, which means God is with us. He was and is our Saving God who is with us, who shared with us in mortality and pain, shared the weakness of human flesh, so that he might redeem and save that human flesh. He suffered death so that he might destroy death for ever, and destroy the one who, as the Letter to Hebrews says, had the power of death, the same devil who ages before had snaked his way in, to ensnare and enslave humanity by their fear of death.

Jesus, our Savior and our God, is also our brother, for he taught us to call his Father our Father. We who share in the flesh of Adam also share — through Jesus — in the Spirit of God. The old serpent can do nothing to us any longer if we do not let him. He’s done his best to do his worst, and he failed utterly when Jesus broke the power of death and was raised to life again. And we who are united with Jesus in his death, are also given the power to rise with him in his life.

We can still refuse God’s offer. God respects our freedom too much to force us to follow the path he so desires for us. And there are those who would rather listen to a serpent’s lies than to God’s own truth. There are still some so possessed by their fear of death that they have forgotten how to live. We look at a world in which we see that all things are not under human control — disease, crime, famine, and injustice still seem to rule. Some seek long life or wealth, or pleasure or fame, but rarely find lasting happiness. But we also see Jesus, the human one who suffered, the human one who died, who gave up everything and yet who through the power of God triumphed over everything, and now is exalted over all things.

We too can confront all the shallow promises of the world, promises offered in the devil’s accent, to find that none of these things will answer our deepest need. In none of these things can we find our true and final happiness whatever the snake may say to the contrary. It is only in Jesus — God from God, light from light, true God from true God, that we recognize our own truest human self — the perfect image of humanity made after God’s own image and likeness. God offers us the option, and will not force us to choose life rather than death. God invites us to find our truest life in him, and has shown us the way, but he will not force us on that path.

In this is our hope, our freedom, and our challenge. As we make our choices, let us always remember the promise of our Gospel hymn, and choose rightly:“Not to oppress, but summon all their truest life to find, in love God sent his Son to save, not to condemn mankind.”+

Who Has Known?

SJF • Proper 16a • Tobias Haller BSG
How unsearchable are God’s judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord?

Thomas Aquinas was one of the most brilliant minds of his generation. He is also considered by many to be the greatest systematic theologian ever to have written. Theology is, as another great theologian, Saint Anslem, said, “faith seeking understanding.” But a systematic theologian is not just someone who wants simply understanding guided by faith, or who sketches out a few articles, or writes a few books. A systematic theologian wants to cover all the bases.

And Thomas Aquinas very nearly did it. His great work was called Summa Theologica, which could be loosely translated as “Everything You Always Wanted to Know about God and just about Everything Else”! In its thirty-eight treatises, thousands of articles, tens of thousands of responses to every conceivable objection, Thomas Aquinas set out to systematize all of knowledge in his search for God.

This great work remains unfinished, however. Oh, Thomas didn’t die before completing it. On the contrary, he stopped work on it at the very height of his productivity.

Why? Well, one day in early December 1273, Thomas, who was a Dominican priest, was celebrating the Holy Eucharist. And by the way, a Dominican in this case isn’t somebody from the Dominican Republic, but a member of the order of Saint Dominic — an order founded specifically for the purpose of preaching and study — and Thomas Aquinas was one of the best.

Well, that early December day Thomas was celebrating the Eucharist, and in the midst of the service, he stopped cold — or perhaps I should say, stopped warm. For something he couldn’t describe — even with his remarkable ability to categorize and elucidate — something happened to him in the midst of that holy sacrament, something so amazing it completely overpowered him. He caught a glimpse of the infinite God he had tried so hard to pin down, and he decided never to write again. Hisfaithful secretary tried to encourage him to take up the work again, to bring his monumental work to completion. How much more might he perfect it in light of his recent experience! But Thomas replied, “I can do no more. Such things have been revealed to me that all I have written now seems to me to be like so much straw.”

Like his namesake, Thomas the Apostle, Thomas Aquinas saw something that made all of his questions fall apart, as he fell to his knees in adoration of his Lord and his God. The one who had spent most of his life picking things apart, dividing them up into categories and organizing them into systems, confronted the One before whose utter unity and singularity all his systematic complexity collapsed like a house of straw.

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Paul wrote to the Romans, “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord?” Who has known? Thomas tried to know the mind of the Lord, and what the Lord showed him that cold December morning, made him realize he didn’t know anything at all! Everything he thought he knew turned out to be so much mattress stuffing, the labor of his life turned into dust.

But don’t misunderstand this story. Thomas wasn’t unhappy about this development. On the contrary, he treasured it. Because, in addition to his effort to know God, Thomas had also devoted himself to another effort, an effort to love God.

In addition to the dense philosophical argumentation of his theological works, Thomas also wrote poetry, spiritual poetry in the form of love-songs to God. Nowadays the pages of the Summa Theologica are rarely opened outside the walls of seminaries and philosophy departments — in fact, between Fordham University and Saint James Parish, I’d be willing to venture that Thomas Aquinas’ name is spoken more in this little corner of the Bronx than almost anywhere else! But the love-songs, ah, the love songs Thomas wrote are still sung in churches all around the world. Five of them are included in our own EpiscopalHymnal, and we’ll be singing one of them at the offertory today. These hymns attempt to capture that longing for the invisible, incomprehensible divinity who lies invitingly beyond our reach, beyond our grasp — but not beyond our love and worship.

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We do not know what Thomas saw during the Holy Eucharist that December day, but I’d be willing to venture that God rewarded this faithful seeker more because of his love than his intellect; rewarded him with a glimpse of the unseen verity he had so long humbly adored. It was Thomas the lover, not Thomas the theologian, who finally caught a glimpse of his beloved Lord, and one look was enough to do him in. He saw his Lord in the very bread and wine he had lifted up day by day. It was in the Holy Eucharist that the weak human intellect, and weaker human senses of taste, touch, and vision, were overwhelmed by the outpoured Love of God, the veil was parted, and Thomas beheld that Love, however briefly, face-to-face.

And so can we. We cannot all be theologians, at least not systematic ones. And, thank God, we needn’t be; we aren’t expected to. But we can all love God. What is more, we can share in this holy mystery, this precious gift of the Holy Eucharist, in which our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ assures us that he is present. Here at this earthly altar we taste heavenly food, as Jesus gives us his Body and Blood, this spiritual food and drink of new and unending life in him.

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Years ago, when I was beginning to consider giving up my career in the theater to serve the church, an actor friend of mine told me he thought I was making a terrible mistake. He was an agnostic, a rather badly burned ex-Roman Catholic who had lived through the worst of a very restrictive upbringing. He didn’t believe in God — but did believe in flying saucers. He thought humanity was created and guided by space aliens, for some reason known only to them. He was always full of the latest news on sightings of space ships, as proof of the existence of the aliens he believed in instead of God. One day I told him I really didn’tput much stock in the whole theory of aliens, and he said, “O.K., then, when was the last time Jesus appeared?” Almost at once I said, “Last Sunday morning, on the altar at Trinity Episcopal Church!” So perhaps it is fitting that he finally got a recurring role
in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I ended up here!

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Whether space aliens have been here or not, I trust that Jesus has been here, and is here, and will be here, till even this type and shadow ends and ceremonies cease, and we behold the glory unabated, face to face. That is the truth, if we are prepared, with loving hearts, to accept it. Jesus comes to us today, hidden with, in and under bread and wine. We are granted a glimpse of Christ’s presence, a glimpse granted to those who love him, to those who seek him, and who seeking, loving, find.

I would like to end this sermon with the words of Thomas Aquinas, the words of one of his love songs to God written about eight years before his life-changing experience of 1273. The song ends like this:

Jesus, whom now hidden, I by faith behold,
what my soul doth long for, that thy word foretold:
face to face thy splendor, I at last shall see,
in the glorious vision, blessed Lord, of thee.

Never give up looking for God — who has never given up on you. Seek, and love, and you shall find.+

Human Worth

St James Fordham • Proper 7a • Tobias Haller BSG
Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

What is a human being worth? It used to be said that if you reduced a person down to the chemicals that make up the human body you’d have just over a dollar and change worth of carbon, sulphur, nitrogen, potassium, and so on. But one day a doctor pointed out that organic compounds, not chemical elements, are what you should go by to determine the value of a human being. Our bodies are, after all, more than mere combinations of chemicals, but rather intricate producers of complex biological compounds. Some of the hormones and secretions we generate in our bodies are very valuable, only recently synthesized by virtue of the advances in molecular biology and genetics. On this basis, the doctor calculated that just a handful out of all of them were worth over $6 million. Quite a difference from the buck-fifty we were once told we were each worth, adjusted for inflation or not!

However, I still think the doctor fell short on estimating the value of a human being. We are certainly worth more than a few jars of elemental chemicals, but we are also worth more than a few vials of steroids, hormones, and factors our bodies produce.

To reduce human worth to this sort of inventory — even the valuable inventory of a medical supply company — is like saying a painting by Van Gogh is worth more than one by Rembrandt because the paint is thicker. The worth of a great painting has almost nothing to do with the amount of paint that makes it up, and everything to do with the painter, with the love and the care of the artist who created something that others could value. We human beings are worth more than all of the chemicals on all of the shelves of all of the DuPonts and Dow Chemicals of this world. We human beings are worth more than all of the inventory of GlaxoWellcome-SmithKline and Pfizer put together. And that is because the artist who created us took great pains over us — took the ultimate pain over us — and finished us off in perfection to the last detail, down to the number of hairs on each of our heads. Worth more than sparrows? You’d better believe it!

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Yes, indeed, we’d better believe it, even though sometimes it may seem so hard to believe, this idea that each and every one of us is a great work of art by the greatest artist. As G.K. Chesterton once said, “Everyone matters. You matter; I matter. That is the hardest thing in theology to believe.” It is hard to believe, and sadly, we human beings don’t often act as if we believed it. We treat each other as less than who we are. It’s hard to remember that the person who cuts us off on the highway is a child of God. It’s hard to remember that the mugger and the addict and the prostitute are supremely valuable in the eyes of God. It is so easy, as it were, to hold the telescope backwards; to look through the end that makes everyone else look small.

I’m sure you are all familiar with Charles Dickens’ classic story, “A Christmas Carol” — most likely because you’ve seen one of the many film or TV versions of it. Most of these version leave out one of the most powerful statements in the story. When Scrooge’s heart begins to soften, as he begins to show the first glimmer of concern for little Tiny Tim, he asks the Ghost of Christmas Present, “Will Tiny Tim will be spared.” The Ghost responds by quoting something Scrooge had said that very day when he was asked to contribute some money to save the lives of the poor: “If he be like to die, he had better do it and decrease the surplus population.”

Scrooge hangs his head in shame; and that is where most of the dramatizations end the exchange. But Dickens pressed the point, and put powerful words into the mouth of the Ghost of Christmas Present, a bit too strong for popular entertainment, but not out of place in a sermon. The Ghost fixes Scrooge with a stare, and says, “Man, if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child.” Powerful words that cut to the heart.

And of course, Scrooge needed to be cut to the heart — he needed a kind of spiritual heart surgery: to have his heart of stone replaced with a heart of flesh. And he had vision problems too, Old Scrooge did: The same vision problem that afflicts so many of us, the inability to see the value of others, especially those deemed the poorest and weakest. This is what comes from looking through the wrong end of the telescope.

In just the same way, but long before telescopes, it was hard for people to see a wandering preacher, convicted and sentenced for having gone too far, stripped and nailed to a cross to die in agony — hard to see in that pitiful figure the perfection of human nature. But this is the challenge we have been given: to acknowledge the presence of the supremely worthy even in those whom the world counts as worthless, and to acknowledge them before that world, so that it might have its vision cleared and finally see, and believe, and have its cold heart melted and warmed to life, and realize just how supremely valuable is every human being made in the likeness and image of God.

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For our Lord himself became one of us — and not among the great and wealthy, but among the poor and lowly, to show us that our human worth does not consist of the abundance of our possessions or our position in society. Had he come as a mighty monarch, proud to win over the crowds by pouring out wealth upon them, it would have been very easy for them to accept and acknowledge him as Lord.

But he did not do so. He came among us as a member of the lowest class of people, the common people who toiled and worked with their hands to make a living. Even when he worked miracles, he gave the people not gold, but at the most bread and fish, and wine for a wedding party — consumables for use, not treasure for accumulation. In short, God did not bribe us or try to win us over when he came to us in the person of Christ. He came to us as one of us, as one of the least of us.

And he came not merely as one of the least of us, but for the least of us: as we heard in our reading from Romans last week, he came not only for the least of us, but for the worst of us — for all of us, while we were still weak, while we were still sinners. Which is, of course why we should never presume to judge anyone else’s sins — for all of us have fallen short; and yet God still loves us and forgives us.

That is why we who acknowledge him — with the expectation that he will fulfill his promise and acknowledge us before his Father in heaven — why we must also acknowledge our fellow human beings — all of them, including the poorest and the weakest, the most admirable and the most reprehensible — as sisters and brothers in the great human family. We dare not single Jesus out and neglect the rest of his family — for as we have done to the least of them, we have done to him.

This gives added weight to his warning that whoever denies him before others will be denied by him before his Father in heaven. For it is not only the poor we deny when we turn away from them — in doing so we are denying Jesus himself.

We have the choice — but it’s a package deal: we cannot embrace Christ unless we also embrace our sisters and brothers, we cannot claim his forgiveness of our sins unless we also forgive those who sin against us, who are his children as much as we are. To deny them is to deny him. We dare not turn aside from or presume to judge the least of these — each and every one worth more than many, many sparrows.

We are each and every one of us so valuable, that a sage of the Eastern church once said, “Before every human being there go ten thousand thousand angels shouting, ‘Make way for the image of God.’” How the world would be changed were we to treat each other — all of us, high and low — as worth what we are in the eyes of God. May we always, every time we encounter another person, open our eyes to see another child of God, open our hearts to embrace them, and open our ears to be able to hear the voices of those angels reminding us just how much each and every one of us is worth; for, to echo Tiny Tim, God has blessed us, every one.+

Athirst for God

Saint James Fordham • Easter 6a • Tobias Haller BSG

For thee, my God, the living God,
my thirsty soul doth pine;
O when shall I behold thy face,
thou Majesty divine.

As many of you know, Jerome Reservoir a few blocks north of us is closely connected to the history of this church. It was built starting in the late nineteenth century as part of a new water supply system to meet the clamorous thirst of the growing metropolis just south of here: the New York City of which, in those days, the Bronx was not yet a part. (Back then we were still part of Westchester County.)

Jerome Avenue running past our doors is named for Leonard Jerome, the Wall Street wiz and horse-racing fan who lived just across the street, about where the Post Office now stands. (He was also Winston Churchill’s grandfather, and rumor has it, though the parish records don’t confirm it, that his daughter Jennie was baptized here.)

Mr. Jerome owned much of the property around here, and where Jerome Reservoir now stands he built Jerome Park, the racetrack where the first Belmont Stakes was run in 1867. When the thirsty throngs in Manhattan called for more water, that spot was singled out as of a perfect size and shape to convert into a reservoir, and so it was. Our additional parish connection is through two members of this parish, Hugh Camp and Mayor Franklin Edson, who appointed Camp to the team for the design of the new reservoir (at the time the largest in the world) and the new aqueduct system that would convey plentiful water to the people of New York City. The water came from the Croton system upstate, making a brief stop at the Jerome Reservoir before continuing on its way through the aqueduct underneath Aqueduct Avenue just up the hill from here.

And all of this in response to thirst — the thirst of people for clean, pure water. We all know from personal experience what ordinary thirst means; and we also know the effects that global warming has had on the supply of what you need to satisfy that thirst. If you pass by Jerome Reservoir with any frequency, you will note that unlike former days, it is now rarely more than half-full, and is often as dry as a proverbial bone.

Drought brought on by a lack of water can be a terrible thing — and we’re lucky that this past year broke the string of dry summers we’ve had for a while now.

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But there are worse things that a drought of water. Think for a moment how much worse would be a drought of God — the drying up of knowing God’s presence and grace, the receding and sinking of the pools of spiritual nourishment, drained away, lost and gone, replaced by the sandy desert or dry lake-beds of desolation. People have a built-in need for God, a thirst for God, in whom, as Saint Paul assures the Athenians, we live and move and have our being. Imagine what a drought of God would mean— to be cut of from life, motion, and ones very being, withering like a parched plant in a desert.

Saint Paul compliments the Athenians — a rare thing for this often grumpy saint — he praises them for their religious impulse, for their effort to search for God, even if they do not have a clear idea as to who God is and how to find, know, and love God. Still, Paul credits them with seeking and searching for God, groping for God, much as a persistent tree will send its roots out in search of life-giving water. The search for God is a universal human reality, Saint Paul assures us, as in our human thirst for the divine springs we seek, grope and explore to find the source of our being and life, like people roaming the fields with spiritual dowsing rods, or searching the empty sky for the sign of a cloud, seeking the signs of God’s presence, the quenching of our spiritual thirst with the living water of God’s being.

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Yes, people need God and seek God. For without God we dry up, wither, fail, and die. Jesus uses the image of the Vine and the Branches to make this clear. Just as in the past weeks we’ve heard Jesus refer to himself as the “gate” for the sheep, and the “way” to the Father, so today he assures us that he is the “vine,” apart from which we branches are useless and fruitless, able to do nothing at all but wither and dry up, good for nothing but firewood.

Anyone who has done any gardening knows this well. If you cut off a branch, you cut off its life-support system. No branch can thrive on its own, whether a branch of a vine or a tree. Without the source of life, the connection to life, there is no life.

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And God is the source of our life. In him we live and move and have our being. He is the reservoir from which we draw the water of life, the vine from which our nourishment flows. Disconnected from God, we wither, fail, dry and die — just as if you cut off the aqueduct there will be no water in Manhattan. Without the source and without the means to transmit it, no water will get through to quench our thirst.

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Sometimes people will say they have no time or place for God in their lives. How wrong they are, for it isn’t that God isn’t in their lives — it is their lives that aren’t in God! They are cut off, wandering in a desert, and the oasis of earthly success is just a mirage. They struggle to reach that green and welcoming spot on the horizon, only to discover it is not an oasis, but just more dry and dusty sand, a tempting vision created by reflected heat. Meanwhile, their connection to the vine has been cut, and though they may not feel it yet, soon their leaves will begin to wilt and wither. Their hand-made idols will be of no help to them, and they will merely cling to them like the dead vines cling to a ruined and forsaken building.

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But the good news is that God the True Vine is merciful, even to those who think they can live apart from God, even those who think they can bear fruit without being connected to the vine, even those who worship the idols of their own making.

We’ve all known people who devote themselves so whole-heartedly to their careers that they have no time for anything or anyone else. They imagine that they are self-sufficient, not realizing how much depends on others, how much depends on God. Yet the merciful God does not forsake even these preoccupied, self-centered people. The merciful God allows some hardship to come their way, some drought, some thirst, some pain that recalls them to themselves, and recalls them to him. God overlooks human ignorance, and prompts the ignorant and thirsty heart to repent, to seek, to grope its way back, to turn to the true spring, to quench its desires in the cool water of grace, the cool water of baptism into Christ.

And when even we who are incorporated into Christ get so preoccupied with our work that we forget who we are part of, and who is the source of our life; when we begin to rely too much on our own gifts, become too proud of our own work and our own accomplishments, Jesus gently reminds us who he is and who we are. He is the True Vine; we are the branches.

Hugh Nesbitt Camp and Franklin Edson were both successful men of their generation. They were the cream of high society, risen to the very top. But they knew on whom their success — and not only their success, but their very living, moving and being — depended; someone far greater than themselves, someone apart from whom they could do nothing. If you cut off the flow, the water will stop. If you cut off the branch from the vine, it will dry up and die.

It is fitting that the man who assisted in the design of New York’s water supply system, is remembered here at Saint James Church in that stained glass window, The True Vine, here in the church where he worshiped the God he loved and served, the source of his ability to live and move, to love and serve his fellow citizens.

It is a reminder we can do nothing apart from God. Apart from him we will wilt, wither, dry, and end in the flames. But in him; ah, in him we draw the sweetest draft of satisfaction from the pure source of life itself. In him we branches are nourished and strengthened to bear much fruit. And if we get too confident of our fruitfulness, he will prune us back, and we will bear even more fruit — such is his care for us. So rejoice, sisters and brothers, that our Lord has recalled us to himself and to ourselves, reminding us who we are and whose we are. He is the end of our drought; he is the gentle rain upon our desert-weary hearts, the spring that appears in the midst of the wilderness to quench our thirst and satisfy our deepest needs; he is our reservoir and his cross is our aqueduct, bringing us new life; he is the true vine in whom we find our nourishment and shade, from whom we derive our life, our movement, our being — and our fruitfulness. Let us rejoice in that life, and bear much fruit, so that all may give glory to God, the source of all being, henceforth and for evermore.+

Hide and Seek

SJF • Epiphany 2a • Tobias Haller BSG

John the Baptist said, “I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed...”

As I said in my sermon two weeks ago, Epiphany means “showing forth.” By implication, something that is now shown once was hidden. Now, it’s clear that curiosity is very much a part of our human makeup. Even very young infants appreciate a game of peek-a-boo, and what game is more universal the world over than hide-and-seek?

The very idea of something hidden being revealed builds up anticipation. Perhaps I am aging myself, but I can well recall, not so very many years ago, car manufacturers would all bring out their new models at the same time each year. And in the weeks before the new models were set to debut, the car ads on TV would feature the new models — draped in sheets, so that all you could see was the outline of the car’s shape. And only after weeks of anticipation would the sheets be pulled off to the oohs and aahs of the eager public.

Of course, here in church we are interested in more important things than cars. But it seems that God works in much the same way as the car dealers, taking advantage of the human desire to look into secrets. We curious creatures want to break the code, Da Vinci or otherwise, to solve the mystery, finally to see what it is hidden under that sheet. So God takes advantage of our curiosity, and hides, and then reveals himself.

God, who remains to us unknowable in full (because a limited human mind cannot contain the infinite actuality of God) still allows himself to be known in part. As author H.G. Wood observed, “God would not be God if he could be fully known to us; but God would also not be God if he could not be known at all.” The question is, How do we know God? And the answer, as we will see, involves both God and us in give and take, a divine game of peek-a-boo or hide-and-seek or tag that God plays with his beloved children.

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The starting point, in this as in all else, lies with God. Our knowing God begins with God knowing us. God knows us completely, all that we are and all that we ever can be, because “God made us and we are his.” As Isaiah says, God called his chosen servant Israel before he was born; while still in his mother’s womb, God gave him a name. God didn’t simply see the future Israel; God saw all of the possible Israels that yet-unborn child might become, and worked with loving care to “form him in the womb to be his servant” like a potter slowly modeling a pot as the clay spins under her firm hands, urging the clay, balancing her own strength against the resistance of the clay so that it takes shape exactly as the potter wishes.

Yet clay would be no use to a potter if it didn’t also have its own inner strength, its own cohesiveness, its own native ability to take on form. God knows us, and knows what we are made of, and knows that what we are made of is suitable for the work he has for us to do. God does not sculpt with Jell-O; but rather with more enduring and solid stuff — for even if our flesh is grass, even if Adam was made from clay, still we are inbreathed with God’s own breath, and capable of bearing God’s likeness. What we are made of, that inner reality of what it means to be human, lies is our being made after God’s image, which means that we are able to know, and to love. So God’s revelation to us begins in this: God knows us, and so, knows that we are capable of knowing him.

If you are traveling in a foreign country and don’t speak the language, what’s the first thing you look for? Why, someone who speaks your language, someone who knows what you’re saying, right? God comes to us precisely because of all things in creation, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, we were made to know God, and to love God.

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So the game of hide-and seek continues. God has found us, “searched us out and known us,” God has tagged us, and we are now “it” — and it’s our turn to seek for God. So when we run after God with our questions, like the disciples of John we run after Jesus full of excitement and wonder. And how does Jesus respond? Well, the game of tag continues, and rather than giving a pat answer right away, he says, “Come and see.” God in Christ keeps the game going. Just when we think we have him cornered, he is off in another direction.

But not without a leaving a trail! When we get to where we think God is hiding, we find another clue to yet another hiding place, clues in the form of words and acts, of Scripture and Sacrament, each one an invitation to come to know him better. God continues the ongoing revelation, as he opened himself and revealed himself to his people Israel, step by step as they grew to know and love him better, and then in Jesus himself, and in the Spirit who continues to lead us into all truth: adding moves to the game, recurring surprises and unforeseen turns of events, each of which brings us deeper into a relationship.

Like all relationships, the relationship each of us has and all of us have with God — personal relationships and corporate relationships, as Israel and the Church have learned — will have their ups and downs. There have been times in my life when it seemed like God was completely hidden again, completely distant from me, utterly silent to my search for an answer. There are times I’ve felt like “It” in a game of hide-and-seek, in which all the other kids have been called home to supper, and I’m all alone in the gathering dusk, looking for people who aren’t even there anymore.

Isaiah experienced the same sort of desolation. Look what he says in today’s reading: “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing.” He feels like he’s wasted his time trying to redeem Israel. They just won’t play! Then look how God responds, finally, out of that silence and desolation. God doesn’t just say, “There, there. Yes, you’ll redeem Israel; yes you will.” No, God tells his servant, “It is too easy for you to redeem just Israel… I’m going to give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth!” God doesn’t just restore the relationship, God raises it to a higher level.

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Like all good and lasting relationships, the relationship we have with God grows and expands in unexpected ways. And the primary way that relationship grows and expands is in community, the community of the church. For it is here, where the Word and Sacraments are shared, that the knowledge of God is opened up, that the love of God takes form. Here we become God’s agents for letting God be known.

What’s the first thing you do when you’ve had a wonderful experience? What was the first thing Andrew did after meeting Jesus and spending a day with him? He went and found his brother Simon Peter. Building on his own relationship with God, he opened that relationship to his brother, bringing him into the growing circle of disciples. The church reaches out to those who feel abandoned, surprising and reminding them that they are not alone.

What, after all, is the church? It’s as if you finally found all your friends, who you thought had gone home for the night, all hiding in the same place — and it turns out it’s a surprise party just for you! This is how the church grows, sharing the knowledge of God; and it is the only way in which it grows right and true and firm and secure.

A church that grows on slogans and gimmicks, on false promises or glitzy promotions, will quickly crumble when problems arise. But a church that grows in the knowledge and the love of God will endure. This is the kind of church we are called to be: a church built upon the truth that God has known us and chosen us; a church built upon the relationship each of us has with our loving God and Father in heaven and upon the relationships we have with each other; a church in which each and every one of us, illumined by God’s Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known and loved, worshiped and adored to the ends of the earth.+

Three Gifts for the Child

Saint James Fordham • Epiphany • Tobias Haller BSG

Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.+

This year is one of those rare years (about one in seven) when the feast of the Epiphany falls on a Sunday. Epiphany is the day that marks the beginning of the post-Christmas season, the day after the twelfth day of Christmas — I assume the day when people go to the department store return-desks with arms full of geese a-laying, calling birds, French hens, a pair of turtle-doves and a partridge complete with pear tree. Perhaps they should go to the poulterer’s instead of the department store! I suppose one would hold on to the five gold rings, of course...

Which brings me to my serious reflection for this day; for gold was also one of the gifts the wise men brought to the Christ child on that first Epiphany so long ago. What a strange name, for a day of strange gifts from strange people! Epiphany — it’s an old Greek word that has a simple meaning in English. It means showing forth! And the subtitle of this holy-day helps us understand just what it is that is being shown forth. For the Prayer Book, on page 31, tells us that the subtitle of Epiphany is “the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.” Starting today, and throughout the season of Epiphany, we will hear in our Gospel readings just how Christ manifested himself in his earthly life, what he did to show himself forth not only to his disciples but to the whole world.

So it is on the feast of the Epiphany we start at the very beginning, with the coming of the foreign wise men to bring their gifts to the infant Christ. Many traditions have grown up around this event, most of them not actually included among the scriptural details in Matthew’s gospel. We’ve come to think of these visitors as the Three Kings, but the gospel doesn’t call them kings, nor does it even specifically say there were three of them. The gospel calls them “wise men.” It tells us that they came to find a child at the prompting of the rising of a star, a child who was to become the new king of the Jews. And the gospel tells us that they brought three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Because of the three gifts, tradition assigned a wise man to each — for who would show up without a gift!

In addition the tradition portrayed the three wise men as representing three different races of the Gentile world, joining with the shepherds reported by Saint Luke, who represented the common poor Jewish people of Judea. In this way the faithful down the years wove together Matthew and Luke, and added imaginative details to fill out the story, and fill up our table-top creche. And this is not entirely out of keeping, even though it isn’t strictly speaking scriptural — for as my old liturgy professor used to say, “Listen to the people of God.” The church has its wisdom, and that includes all the members of the church — and the wisdom in this case lies in seeing what this feast-day is all about: the opening of the doors of salvation, so that the whole world, Jewish and Gentile, is represented kneeling at the Christmas crib — the Jews represented by the shepherds first on Christmas, and the Gentiles represented by the wise men following on the feast of the Epiphany.

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However, today, rather than exploring the possible ethnic background of the wise men, or the church’s embroidery on the story, I would like to stick a bit closer to the fabric of the gospel text itself, and take a careful look at those three gifts that the wise men brought. For here the text is clear and explicit, and we need rely on no uncertain tradition. The gifts presented to the young child were treasures of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Although in these days the latter two gifts are widely available and reasonably priced — the frankincense we burn in our censer costs only about six dollars a pound, and a little goes a long, long way — at the time of the birth of Christ all three items were very valuable, and the frankincense and myrrh were even more costly than gold.

But in addition to their value as mere commodities, and far more important, is the symbolic meaning of these gifts. Remember, Epiphany is about showing forth, it is about symbolism and demonstration, and manifestation. In short, it is about revelation. So what do the gold and the frankincense and the myrrh reveal to us? What do these three gifts tell us about the one to whom they were given?

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Gold is the symbol of royalty. “Born a king on Bethlehem’s plain, gold I bring to crown him again” — so we sang in the hymn before the gospel. Royalty in just about every human culture for as long as we can tell were adorned with gold — from Pharaoh to the Inca to the Emperor of China. The first prehistoric person who found gold in the earth or in the river-bed recognized its special qualities: a shining metal that did not tarnish, flexible yet durable, which could be made into almost any kind of ornament; heavy and yet subtle, solid and substantial, and yet capable of being beaten into leaves as light as air, glowing in the firelight or the sunlight, a truly royal metal. So it is that golden crowns and necklaces have been cast for royalty for centuries. And so it was that the wise men offered gold to this child who was to be the king not just of the Jews but of the whole world.

Frankincense is the symbol of prayer and praise. Again, as our hymn at the gospel said, frankincense “owns a Deity nigh; prayer and praising gladly raising.” In ancient times frankincense was offered in temples all over the world as a sign of worship. As Psalm 141 puts it: “Let my prayer be set forth in your sight as incense; the lifting of my hands as the evening sacrifice...” This costly resin was harvested from trees that grew in Ethiopia, carried by caravans to the distant East, and into Europe, valued all over the known world, and offered in the worship of many faiths. We continue to do the same to this day. For we still burn frankincense in our liturgy, the symbol of prayer ascending in a cloud, a gift that is utterly consumed as it burns, something we must give up completely and offer to God, for once it is burned we can’t take it back; and as we offer this up, we commit to God’s gracious hands all our needs, concerns, and gratitude. And so it was that the wise men offered frankincense to this child who was the Word made Flesh, the nearer presence of the unapproachable God who dwells in inaccessible light, come down to earth to receive the prayers and praise of all people.

Myrrh is the strangest of the three gifts to be offered to this child. Yes, myrrh was another valuable kind of incense, a resin used in a number of different ancient brews. But the primary use of myrrh in the ancient world was in embalming the dead, preserving dead bodies and preparing them for burial. “Its bitter perfume breaths a life of gathering gloom; sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in the stone-cold tomb.” Hardly the kind of thing one brings to a baby shower! Yet this was the third gift of the wise men, and their wisdom was vindicated in the end. For myrrh is the symbol of death, and this gift reminds us that even in the joy of Christmas death is not that far away. Matthew’s gospel continues its story to tell how Herod would soon send soldiers to murder the innocent children of Bethlehem, so set was he on wiping out the threat to his throne. Only a dream to warn Joseph, and another to warn the wise men not to return to Herod give the Holy Family time to escape to Egypt. So even at the manger, death is looming not far away. And let us remember as well, that the village of Bethlehem where Christ was born is only five miles from Jerusalem where he died; Golgotha and its cross are also not so very far away from the stable and its manger.

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Gold, frankincense and myrrh: these are the gifts that the wise men gave to the Christ child, symbols of royalty, worship, and death. They show us what these wise men thought of the one to whom they brought the gifts. They honored his kingship, they acknowledged his divinity, and they foretold his death.

But these three gifts also show forth and reveal what Christ gave to us. He gave us his humble royalty, not lording it over us but coming to us as one of us. He gave us his divine presence, assuring us that we are not forsaken and alone, but companions with him on our earthly pilgrimage, as he walks with us to teach us and opens his words to us even as he hears the words of our prayers. And he gave us his saving death, that precious gift that opened the way of everlasting life. These are the gifts that Christ gave to the world.

And the gifts the wise men brought also show us what we are to give to Christ in return. For in return for his royalty and divinity and death, we give him our obedience, our worship, and —not our deaths — but our lives, dedicating ourselves to the pure service of the love of God and neighbor.

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The Epiphany season has begun, the time to behold God revealed to us as one of us, and it starts with the gifts at the birth of the babe of Bethlehem. May we throughout this Epiphany season remember the meaning of those gifts, and offer to our Lord and God all obedience and all worship, and the tribute of our selves, our souls and bodies, as a reasonable and holy sacrifice to him who saved us, even Christ our Lord.+

Only One Thing

St James Fordham • Proper 11c • Tobias Haller BSG
Jesus said to Martha, “One thing is necessary…” +

Have you ever been a dinner guest in someone’s home, only to find that your hosts are so busy tending to the cooking, the serving, and the cleaning up that you feel as though you might as well have gone to a restaurant without them? In spite of their good intentions to make the meal pleasurable, your hosts have missed the point of your visit: you were there for them, not for the food, however good it might be. The meal was only the vehicle for the real purpose of your visit, your fellowship and friendship your time of sharing, the companionship of company.

Well, this misplacement of the purpose of hospitality is what happens in our Gospel reading for today. Martha, dear, eager, hardworking Martha, taking pains to please her special guest, gets distracted from the guest himself, caught up with the many details of first-century Palestinian cuisine. This is long before the gas-range, and the refrigerator, to say nothing of the microwave and Wonder Bread.

We get a glimpse of the meal preparations needed in the reading from Genesis, a detailed description of just how much work was required when you had a dinner guest in the ancient Near East. If you want bread, you have to bake it — you don’t just run around the corner to the Associated. You want beef stew? Well, the recipe starts: “Run to the herd, take one calf, tender and good…” I guess the closest we come these days to that sort meal preparation is when we go to Red Lobster and get to see our future dinner swimming in a tank in the lobby! However, back in those days — little changed from Abraham’s to Martha’s — every aspect of meal preparation took much longer, before all our modern appliances.

So we can be sure there is plenty of work for Martha to be distracted by in preparing a meal for her special guest; and one can easily understand the testiness in her tone when she complains that her sister is just sitting there while she does all the work. Jesus, however, gently reminds this hard-working woman, that in the midst of all her busyness, she has neglected the one thing that is really important: his presence there in that household.

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All preparation has a purpose, though it can be difficult to keep our eyes and hearts on that purpose. How do we remain attentive to Jesus in the midst of our all-too-busy lives? How do we find the time to sit at his feet while all around us there is so much to do?

I believe we will find the answer in that reading from Genesis. All the preparation that Abraham, his servants, and his wife make for the trio of guests — whom Abraham rightly recognizes as no ordinary visitors — all of these preparations lead up to an announcement. And the announcement is so off-the-wall, so unexpected, that Sarah literally laughs out loud when she hears it.

It is a birth announcement, among the strangest ever heard: this ancient couple — Abraham nearly 100 years old, and Sarah in her early nineties — this aged pair will soon be the proud parents of a bouncing baby boy. No wonder Sarah laughs! How could a child come from the withered loins of an old man, the dry womb of an ancient woman? Lift the tent-flap and peek into the tent: You can picture the grin spreading on those parchment cheeks, the desert-engraved fan of laughing wrinkles spreading from the corners of her eyes, over the blushing giggle: “Now that I’m old, and he’s even older, shall I have pleasure from the old fellow still!” This was, after all, long before Viagra!

But the Lord is more miraculous than any modern pharmaceutical, and he gently chides her, having heard every word even though she is in the tent. And, ever considerate, the Lord even misquotes her, when he speaks to Abraham, — who, we must assume, is a little hard of hearing — to forestall Abraham taking offense at the suggestion he might not be up to the task of fathering a child. So, instead of God saying, “Why did she say, ‘Shall I have pleasure?’” God asks, “Why did she say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child!’” But then God goes further and says, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? Sarah shall have a son!”

Of course, Sarah hears all this through the tent-flap. And does her laughter stop then? Does she choke for a second on a sob or a gasp, a hope she’s long forgotten? Sarah has grown old — old and childless. Desperate for a son, she’s already taken what she thought was the last resort: allowing her husband to sleep with her slave girl, hoping to experience surrogate motherhood through someone else. But now, now the Lord is promising that from her own womb a son will be born. She herself will give birth, and her dream and Abraham’s dream will be fulfilled.

This is, for Abraham and Sarah, the one thing necessary: an heir of their own flesh and blood, who will fulfill God’s promise already made to Abraham, the promise that with their son God will establish an everlasting covenant.Gen 17.19

All preparations, you see, have a purpose; and God’s preparations were far longer in the works than even those for the most elaborate banquet. Think of it: All of God’s work in creation, and then the Flood that wipes it all out to start over, after the massive cleanup; all God’s patient care for Abraham as he wandered far from home; and human labor too: all their work to prepare the meal for the divine visitors, all the hustle and bustle and to-ing and fro-ing that Abraham and Sarah undertake; all of this work, divine and human, crystallizes in this revelation of God’s promise, this one necessary thing, this one precious piece of news, this announcement of a new birth.

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All preparations have a purpose. When Jesus gently chides Martha, he is helping her to see that the generous purpose for all her work was to allow him to sit, and then for her finally to sit down too, at her sister’s side, to focus on the one necessary thing: the one great and wonderful piece of news: Jesus is here.

So too, all our labor of worship and devotion is of no use to us at all unless Christ is born within us, unless we too can say, Jesus is here. Our labor to bring Christ to birth in our hearts is like the labor of a woman in childbirth. It is this labor that Paul describes in his letter to the Colossians. He rejoices in his sufferings for the sake of those for whom Christ will become present by means of that pain, bringing to birth the mystery hidden for ages and generations but made manifest to the saints, which is, as Saint Paul says, “Christ in you.”

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All preparations have a purpose. All labor and pain and suffering can lead us to consciousness of the presence of Christ with us and in us. Each of us bears Christ, in our own flesh — completing what is yet to be completed, each suffering and labor pain we feel joined with the suffering of Christ himself, Christ made present, Christ born in the midst of pain, but revealing glory and mercy in that very birth.

All preparations have a purpose, and God’s purpose for us, through our whole life long, through all our busyness and occupation with many things, through all our labor and work, through our devotion and praise, through our suffering and pain, and even through our doubts and fears — as Sarah doubted, and the disciples feared — God’s purpose is that Christ himself be born in each of us: and that we be with him where he is — he, who is himself the one thing needed, the good portion, and who can never be taken away from us. And so, as Phillips Brooks wrote in his immortal hymn, “O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today. We heard the Christmas angels, the great glad tidings tell; O come to us, abide with us, our Lord, Emmanuel!”+