God's Messengers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Christmas Presents

Grace and Peace are wrapped and ready... under the bed or in the hall closet... for us!

SJF • Advent 4a 2013 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
To all God’s beloved... who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Over these weeks of Advent I’ve been preaching on the three of great virtues embodied in the season: love, hospitality and patience. Today, as Christmas is nearly in sight, I want to turn to look ahead to two of the Christmas presents towards which our Advent preparation points us. These two Christmas presents are summed up in Saint Paul’s greeting to the Christians in ancient Rome: “Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Grace and peace: what better things could we wish for! We live in the midst now of the winter of our discontent, in a time of terrorism and war, when all the premature Christmas carols in the shopping malls cannot drown out the somber voices droning on twenty-four hours a day on the cable news channels; when all the well-spiked holiday punch and egg nog cannot numb us to the sobering knowledge that war is still raging, and a generation is perishing in horror in that same Syria of which Isaiah spoke — a land tearing itself apart in a most uncivil war. We are hungry and thirsty for grace and peace, and long for God’s promises to be fulfilled, yet wherever we look, they speak of war.

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So too it was for King Ahaz to whom Isaiah prophesied; so too for the Roman Christians to whom Saint Paul wrote; so too for Joseph troubled in his mind that his wife-to-be was already pregnant — and not by him! Our present turmoils and troubles, foreign or domestic, are nothing new, my friends — the world has always longed for the promise of grace, the fulfillment of peace.

The good news is that this promise of God does not go unrealized. God does come through! God delivers those Christmas presents of grace and peace more efficiently than Santa and his elves, though the gifts of grace and peace often come to us in ways that we do not expect and sometimes don’t even recognize. So often the gifts of grace and peace come as a surprise — not as what we expected, but as what we most assuredly need.

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So let’s take a quick peek in the hall closet or under the bed to see what Christmas presents lay in store for us. First the gift of peace — man, do we need that, not only in the world but in the church! Yet this is the promised gift, the gift promised by God through Isaiah to that war-weary King Ahaz of Judah. You see, his ancient enemy, the Syrians of Damascus — that same Damascus that is going through so much trouble today — those Syrians have allied with the northern kingdom of Israel against his own land of Judah in the south. This is long after the split that came after the death of Solomon, when the empire that son of David built was torn in two in the kind of civil war that has plagued the Middle East ever since — and Israel in the north was partitioned from Judah in the south.

So God sends Isaiah to Ahaz and tells him to ask for a sign. When Ahaz is reluctant, Isaiah tells him that God will give him a sign anyway: and there follows that wonderful vision of a young woman whose child will soon be born and who will receive a wonderful name, who will be a sign of God’s deliverance. This was a vision so powerful that it would nourish hope in that land for hundreds of years — until an angel would remind a certain righteous Judean carpenter of the promise... But I’m getting ahead of myself; I’ll get to Joseph in a moment.

For now let’s stick with Ahaz, and Isaiah’s promise that peace is coming, and coming soon! How soon? A young woman is with child and will give birth — so we’re talking less than nine months. This child will bear the name Immanuel — God is with us — and by the time this child is weaned from nursing, able to eat the baby food of curds and honey, by the time he is old enough to know that he likes the curds and honey but doesn’t care for that evil broccoli — say, another year and half — the enemy lands of Syria and Israel will be devastated, their kings defeated!

Now this may seem like a round-about way of promising regime change, but this was the promise none-the-less. Regime change will come; Judah will be delivered, the enemy kings of Syria and Israel will be deposed. Peace will come! Now, it won’t be the best kind of peace — unfaithful Judah and its weak King Ahaz don’t quite deserve that! This will be the peace of occupation — as an invading army will come in from outside and destroy those kings of Israel and Syria — but at least it will be peace; it will remove the threat of destruction be set to one side and people will be able to get on with their lives — much as even today we might hope that the UN or some other force would go into Syria and take it over and stop the war. Occupation is not the best peace, but it is better than a terrible war. And so, even today, many would long for such a peace as a precious prize.

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And what of grace? Well, as we know from the great and well-loved hymn, what? Grace is amazing! That is part of what makes it grace, after all: it is not what we expect, but comes as a wonderful surprise, a gift we do not deserve but which it turns out is exactly what we most need.

This Christmas present of grace comes to us wrapped up in the story of Joseph and Mary. Now, if anybody needs gracious good news it’s poor Joseph. He discovers that his bride-to-be is already pregnant; but since he’s a good and righteous man, not hard-hearted, he’s unwilling to make the kind of fuss he perfectly well could, including, under the laws of those days, dragging Mary into the town square and putting her to public shame, and possibly even being stoned. Rather, he prepares to take the option ending the marriage quietly, putting her away with as little embarrassment as possible. That’s what he’s decided to do; he’s going to call it off — and then, amazing grace happens! The angel comes to him in a dream with exactly the same message delivered hundreds of years before to Ahaz — only this time the promise is not of earthly peace, but of heavenly grace, the full and perfect fulfillment of that ancient prophecy. You see, that prophecy had a double meaning: it wasn’t just a word to Ahaz; it was a word for Joseph, and a word to us. This child is not the result of infidelity on Mary’s part; rather this is the act of God the Holy Spirit, descending into the created reality over which the Holy Spirit moved at the beginning of all things, now to bring forth from the womb of a human mother a child who shall be the savior of the world — not just of a small Middle Eastern kingdom, but of the whole world.

This is the wonder of grace: instead of a prudent end to a scandalous episode in the life of a Judean carpenter — a sort of first century Downton Abbey — instead we overhear Joseph being told, and hear ourselves, of the earth-shattering and life-changing arrival of God himself in the person of a child to be born in Bethlehem. This is the grace to which we look, my brothers and sisters in Christ, a grace that is amazing and unexpected and yet exactly what we need.

So let us, in this last few days before Christmas, in the hustle and bustle and the last-minute shopping, remember what it is we are waiting for. Let us make use of all of those virtues of love and welcome and patience, as we look forward to the great gifts of grace and peace, the peace which passes understanding, and the grace that announces the presence of our Lord and Savior, Immanuel — God with us and all who believe. Let us prepare for the salvation of our souls and the redemption of our bodies, for the restoration of all that is broken and the lifting up of all that is fallen, so that our consciences, being purified and made ready to receive him, may at his coming be as mansions prepared to welcome him, the King of kings and the Lord of lords, even Jesus Christ, our only Mediator and Advocate.+

State of the Union

How do we discern the state of things, and how do we act on what we discern?

Proper 15c • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Will the hearts of the prophets ever turn back — those who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart? They plan to make my people forget my name by their dreams that they tell one another. Let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully.

Article 2 of the Constitution of United States instructs that the President “shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” For just about a century — since the days of President Woodrow Wilson — this has taken the form of a speech delivered to a joint session of Congress, often with additional guests such as the Justices of the Supreme Court and the military leaders of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. By tradition the speech is delivered early in the year; and as the Constitution requires it normally consists not only in an assessment of the state of the nation, but also as a way for the President to give an outline of possible or desired legislation for Congress to consider.

All of our readings today present us with a kind of State of the Spiritual Union — about how things have been, how they are and how they ought to be. To carry the analogy further, all three of these readings are a bit like the speeches a President might make in wartime!

Jeremiah in particular delivers the word of an impatient Lord and God. Jeremiah lets the people know that God is not happy with the state of things: in particular not happy with those prophets who are relying on their dreams instead of upon his word. They are leading the people astray with their dreamy promises, and Jeremiah as much as says, “Who do they think they’re fooling? Don’t they know that I can hear every word they say?” “Who,” says the Lord, “can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? Do I not fill heaven and earth? I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name.” The spiritual state of things is unhealthy when those charged with speaking truth — for that is what a prophet is, or is supposed to be — when a prophet who is supposed to speak the truth is speaking lies; and God is not pleased with this state of affairs.

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews has a more upbeat message — a message of encouragement for the church to persevere in the midst of difficulties. This writer does not play down the difficulties — in fact the whole first part of the reading is a catalog of how the great heroes of the faith of the past, men and women, persevered and endured in the midst of sometimes terrible persecutions and suffering — and still, in spite of that perseverance and heroic action, they did not receive the reward that is yet to be bestowed upon all who are faithful in running with perseverance the race that is set before them. This author pictures these heroes of the past as if they were the cheering section in a great stadium, urging the present participants in life’s struggles onward and upward with their cheers and their applause, the cheers and applause of that great cloud of witnesses. The state of the world, this author seems to say, is still full of peril and persecution, but the promise of the future is there, with Jesus who is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, and who has run the race before us and taken up his place at the right hand of the throne of God. And the agenda for action for the future, is to persevere and run the race with faithfulness, those of us who are still on our feet and running, with our eyes fixed on the prize, which we too can share if we run faithfully in the footsteps of Jesus, who has gone before.

Finally, Jesus himself has the last word, and he paints a picture of a state of things that is hard to hear. Just as the Lord spoke through Jeremiah and Ezekiel that it does no good to speak peace when there is no peace, so too Jesus assures his hearers that he has not come to bring peace to the earth, but rather division. And this isn’t just division such as we now seem to find inescapable — between Democrats and Republicans, between the rich 1% and the 99% of the rest of us, between people of different races, nationalities and religions — but this division will come right home, right into each household. Fathers and sons will be against each other; mothers and daughters will be against each other; and let’s not get started on the in-laws!

Then, with a rhetorical flourish, Jesus gets back to the state of things in an abrupt assault upon his audience — something no President would be quite so bold to do. (Although I do recall, not too long ago, a bold comment that I saw from one President in recent years, when President Obama, in a State of the Union address, disagreed with a ruling of the Supreme Court, and the cameras zoomed right in on one of the Justices angrily shaking his head and frowning!)

Well Jesus does more than shake his head and frown! Jesus gets on their case because they seem to be adept at speaking the truth about the future when it comes to trivial things like the weather, by interpreting the appearance of the earth and the sky; but they don’t seem to understand how to interpret the really important signs of their times. For it is these signs — the state of things — that will shape both their immediate future and the future of the world — the world to which Jesus has come not to bring peace but rather division.

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And are we any better? We are surrounded by those willing to debate whether global warming or climate change are real or not, or whether they are caused by human activity, as they see the signs of the ice caps melting and the waters rising and the storms becoming more severe. But how often do you hear anyone talking about the spiritual climate in which we live? For surely the signs are just as clear that there is a crisis in faith as much as there is a crisis in the climate. Prophets of prosperity keep sharing their dreams that all will be well — at least for those who are already well off — and some of them peddle their snake oil of “succeed by greed,” to a populace eager to hear good news for the few at the expense of the many, and so unwilling to open their eyes to the collapse of society around them. Politicians will wave a Bible in one hand, proclaiming themselves as virtuous believers, while advancing policies that turn away the stranger or the refugee, cut back help to the sick or the suffering, and take the means to find food and drink from those who hunger and thirst. And all of this while apparently forgetting the one who said that it was in welcoming the stranger, comforting the sick and the prisoner, and feeding the hungry, that you did it unto him. I don’t want to go all Jeremiah on them, but, “Woe to you, false prophets!” seems to be an appropriate thing to say.

What is the state of our spiritual union? Dare we look closely at the signs of the times in our own lives, and find there places that need that cleansing fire and washing baptism that Jesus promises to bring us? Beloved, Christ gives us the opportunity, while there is still time, to lay aside the weight of sin that clings so closely and obstructs our view from the realities before us. When we do this we will be able to run the race with perseverance and courage. Countless throngs have gone before us and they cheer us on. Listen — you can hear their voices echo in the walls of this church, you can see their testimony in its windows. They urge us on, my sisters and brothers in the faith, they urge us on in the call to a truly abundant life. May we have the courage boldly to proclaim what we believe, to run the race, and to claim the promise.+

Seeing By Ear

Why does God more often speak than show?

Easter 3c • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

I’m sure that all of us have heard someone say, “I can’t read music but I can play by ear.” What that means is that a person can hear the notes that they need to play in their head and follow the melody along themselves as they go along. Although I have to admit that whenever I hear someone say that they can play the piano by ear I get the unfortunate image in my head of someone bashing their head against the piano keyboard. I don’t think even Victor Borge did that one!

But I saw an even more astonishing example of someone doing something by ear a few weeks ago on a science program on TV. It’s a young man who has been blind since infancy — he lost one of his eyes when he was about six months old and the other before he was two — and he is able to ride a bicycle through paths in the forest. And the way he is able to do this isn’t some kind of high-tech marvel like the electro-mechanical visor that chief engineer Geordie Laforge wore on “Star Trek Next Generation.” No, this young man makes use of something that isn’t high-tech, or even “tech” at all — as he rides along — slowly to be sure — he makes clicking sounds with his tongue and he has been doing this for so long, that the echoes that bounce off of the shrubbery and the trees are enough to tell him which way to head. He has been doing this for so long that his brain actually “sees” by sound, and it keeps him from running into trees, shrubs, or other bicyclists and joggers. He is a real, live “bat man.”

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I raise this example because of that odd turn of phrase at the beginning of the passage from the Revelation to John, that we heard this morning. It comes and goes so quickly that you might not even notice the oddity; but it says, “I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels.” “I looked and I heard” — not “I looked and I saw.” God speaks: think about this — how often in Scripture it is God speaking, God’s voice that is heard rather than something that is seen. God speaks — or in the case of the tablets of Moses, or the handwriting on the wall, writes — and the word of the Lord is just that: word, not vision.

Oh, there are visions to be sure, there are images but they are very few and far between compared to the words — there’s the burning bush of Moses, the plumb line of Amos, or the descent of the dove upon Jesus at his Baptism — but as you will recall these visions are accompanied by a voice that speaks — and a voice that is heard. When God warns Belshazzar that his time is running short, it is the sight of a hand writing upon a wall that startles the Babylonians — but it is words that it writes, even if the Babylonians can not understand them, until Daniel explains that their days are literally numbered. And let us not forget, that one of the very first commandments, one of those written on those tablets, is not to create graven images of divinity, not to bow down and worship them — but instead to remain faithful to the “immortal, invisible, God only wise, in light inaccessible hid from our eyes.”

Similarly, when God knocks Saul off of his high horse on the road to Damascus, although there is a display of light flashing, the primary message comes in the voice that speaks, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” The others with Saul also hear the voice, but see no one. And as if to bring the point home, that the message is to the ear and not the eye, Saul is blinded — and though his eyes are open, he can see nothing.

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So why is it that God so often seems to rely on the ear rather than the eye? Why on words instead of images? Another part of that TV show about the real live “bat man” who can cycle by sound, was about how easily our eyes are fooled by optical illusions. I’m sure that many of you have seen them, even from school days — we were brought up on those optical illusions: those lines that look like one is longer than the other, but when you get out a ruler and measure them, you discover they’re the same — and yet, without the ruler you can look at them and look at them, and your brain will keep telling you one is longer than the other. What you see, takes over, and tells you thing that aren’t there.

Sometimes, what you see can even deceive you as to what you hear. There was another thing in that TV show, that science show, called the McGurk illusion, after the man who discovered it. In it, scientists record the sounds of a man saying, “bah, bah, bah” with a “b” but they take that soundtrack put it with a different and silent film of the man saying, “fah, fah, fah” with an “f.” And the amazing thing is that most people, when they are shown that spliced-together video, “hear” the man saying “fah” with an “f” — even though what is actually on the soundtrack is “bah” with a “b” — they are actually hearing “bah” but because they are seeing the man saying “fah” that’s what they hear. What they see takes over, and dominates even what they are hearing.

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In short, our vision is less trustworthy than our hearing — it can easily mislead us — and if this is true in common things, how much more so when it comes to trying to understand the will and word of God. For God has spoken, through the prophets, and through his son Jesus Christ our Lord. He has not presented us with just some fleeting vision, some pretty picture, but words to live by.

I gave that example of Amos and the plumb-line, and of course, God showed Amos the plumb-line, and asked, “Amos, what do you see?” And Amos said, “A plumb-line.” But then God went on to explain what that plumb-line meant; he didn’t just rely on the vision, he explained, as you’ve heard me preach before, about how the “wall” that was the people of Israel had gotten out of kilter, and was no longer plumb, no longer vertical. And so God spoke to explain the vision, as God so often does. God speaks to us, my friends.

And we hear an example of how insistent God can be when he speaks to us in that passage today, in which our Lord speaks to Simon Peter, son of John. To make sure the big fisherman gets the message, Jesus repeats his question, and emphasizes his answer, three times. It is a question and a commandment for Simon Peter, but it applies to all of us.

For Jesus asks each of us, “Do you love me?” He asks three times, speaking clearly and enunciating each of those four syllables like the four beats of a kettledrum. “Do you love me?”

Like Peter, we immediately respond, yes, of course, we do love the Lord Jesus. But are we deeply committed to that love? Do we know the tune by heart, or are we just playing by ear? Are we concerned by the third time he asks, that Jesus has seen through us? — for his vision, unlike ours, never fails him, and he suffers from no optical illusions — he knows us through and through. Are we, like Simon Peter, hurt that Jesus asks us a third time if we love him, perhaps as we realize that we do not love him as we should, and we suffer the shame we rightly deserve for having failed to follow where he leads?

Jesus questions us three times, and commands us three times: and the command is as important as the question. Like Peter, we are called to feed his lambs, to tend his sheep, and to feed his sheep. Jesus says it three times to give us no excuse for having misheard or misunderstood. Each and every one of us is called and commanded to this work of care for the flock of which we are also members, the great gathering of sheep and lambs that is the church that Jesus purchased with his own blood. We are called, called and challenged and commanded to care for each other — and none of us can say, “We never heard that” or “You never told me that” — for he has said it three times!

So let us, sisters and brothers, trust, trust to the word that God has delivered to us. Our opening prayer this morning asked God to open our eyes; but let us also pray that God will open our ears. And then, let us respond with appropriate actions to the words once spoken through the prophets, and the words spoken through the Son, the very Word of God made flesh, even Jesus Christ our Lord.+

Sweet Talk

Can hard words be made softer with love?

Epiphany 4c 2013 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
All in the synagogue spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.

Our second reading this morning is one of the most beloved passages of Scripture. One might say, as Katharine Hepburn famously said of calla lilies, that it is suitable for any occasion. In addition to its use in regular Sunday worship, it is also read at weddings and funerals alike. Given the many people only attend church at weddings and funerals, this may be one of the few texts of Scripture that such unchurched people hear, the only portion of Scripture they are likely to know when at all. Who can forget Prime Minister Tony Blair’s reading of this very passage at Princess Diana’s funeral. That was seen by millions on television around the world, some of whom never darkened the doors of a church after their baptism, or will again until they are carried in and out by the staff of a funeral home.

But to return to our text, it is indeed a particularly beautiful passage, and in addition to its beauty it carries an extremely important message, similar to that from last week’s reading about how an apostle speaks — whether in preaching, teaching, or prophecy — must be imbued with love. Otherwise, a message delivered without love will be like the disruptive clamor of a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. In short, the teacher or preacher is advised to sweet-talk: to speak with gentleness and patience and grace — and above all, love.

The problem, of course, is that the message a preacher is sometimes called to deliver is not in itself very sweet. There are times when difficult things have to be said. Adding a spoonful of sugar to a batch of nasty medicine is not always easy. This is a perilous balancing act — even for one who is the soul of diplomacy and tact.

You may of heard the old story of the three old Cajun fellows who were out one night in the bayou, driving their backwoods Lincoln Continental — a pickup truck — after they’d all had rather a bit too much to drink. Although it’s hard to tell sometimes how much is too much to drink, when you’re dealing with an old Cajun fellow. At one point the truck swerved but the tree didn’t and the driver, one Boudreaux by name, went to meet his maker rather sooner than he thought he might. The other two were shaken up but drunk enough to stagger away from the wreck. René said to Pierre, “This is terrible. Who’s going to tell Mrs. Boudreaux?” Whereupon Pierre volunteered, “I will handle this. I am the soul of diplomacy and tact.” And so the pair staggered off to Boudreaux’s house.

Pierre stepped up and knocked on the door and Mrs. Boudreaux answered. Said Pierre, “Are you the widow Boudreaux?” The startled woman replied, “Why I am Mrs. Boudreaux, but I’m not a widow.” To which Pierre, summoning all of his diplomacy and tact, said, “The hell you ain’t!”

Surely preachers are called upon to deliver their messages in a truly more tactful and loving way. But sometimes, sometimes the word the preacher is called to preach, the word placed in his mouth by God himself — as we saw God do in the case of young Jeremiah — sometimes that word will be a word of plucking up or pulling down, a word of destruction and overthrow, as well as building up and planting. As you likely know Jeremiah did have some hard things to say to the people to whom God sent him, and for his thanks got thrown down a well and later put into prison.

And let’s face it, even our Lord Jesus Christ himself did not fare much better when he went to his hometown of Nazareth and began to preach in their synagogue. And if you’ve ever wondered why more isn’t said about Nazareth in the Gospels — this is why. He received no welcome and once he left he left it for good. Oh, it all started off fine, as the people observed how nicely he spoke and how gracious were his words — but then of course a few of them began to say, “Isn’t that Joseph’s son?” — as if to say, “Where did this carpenter’s boy get to talk so fancy?” Jesus of course saw through this at once and challenged that congregation with a reminder of the fact that the greatest miracles and the most powerful prophecies are not worked or spoken in the hometown setting — in large part because of the doubt those in the hometown hold about the one who would work miracles — if the people would only believe and trust instead of doubting. So Jesus reminds them of figures from Jewish history — foreigners for whom miracles were worked by the greatest of the prophets, Elijah and Elisha. He’s only telling them the truth, mind — it’s all in the Scriptures, it’s just the history — and he’s still doing it graciously, not calling anybody names — and yet they are thrown into a rage of anger and set to throw him, not just down a well, but off the cliff at the edge of town. As I said, if you wonder why he never went back to Nazareth...

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So how does one sweet talk when the things one needs to say may be received as bitter? How does a preacher preach the truth if people would rather hear sweet lies and comforting words that do them no good? How do you sweeten bitter medicine that might save a sick soul’s life?

I answer that it is in the “doing good,” it is in the “saving” that provide the clue. For it all depends on what you think love is. There is, as novelist Iris Murdoch noted, a vast difference between being “nice” being “good.” Loving words are loving because you love the one to whom you speak — not because the message itself is sweet and nice and pleasant. The medicine you need to survive an illness might taste awful, but it will do you more good than the sweet-tasting stuff that does nothing for you. Love may have to say some difficult things sometimes, but can do so with patience and kindness; without envy or boasting or arrogance or rudeness. Love does not insist on its own way, nor is it irritable or resentful — but nor does it rejoice in wrongdoing, for it rejoices in the truth. And so it is that sometimes love must speak a hard truth but in a loving way in order to reach the one who needs to hear that word — for the good of his or her soul — perhaps a word of challenge or of reformation, or of repentance. And if that word is spoken in and out of love and concern for the salvation and well-being of the one to whom it is spoken, and if it is received with that same spirit, then truly even a hard word can be spoken with love and heard and received with love.

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Once in the early 19th century, Methodist preacher Peter Cartwright was told that President Andrew Jackson was going to attend worship at his church that morning, and he was advised not to be provocative — contrary to his reputation. This was an era of hellfire and brimstone preaching, and Cartwright was known to be able to make the sparks fly.

When the sermon time came, Cartwright mounted the pulpit and began, “I have been told that President Jackson is here this morning; and I have been asked to be subdued in my remarks. But I would not be true to my God and to the commission placed upon me, were I to guard my words with anything other than the truth itself. And the truth is that President Jackson — much as any sinner in this place — will go to hell if he does not repent.”

You likely could have heard a pin drop at that point as all eyes in the congregation turned to look at Jackson, sitting stony faced in his pew. But after the worship Jackson, as he left the church warmly took Cartwright’s hand, shook it fervently and said to him, “Sir, with a regiment of men like you I could whip this world into shape.”

Sometimes a hard word has to be spoken; sometimes a hard word has to be heard. But speaking the truth in love does not mean speaking lies with love — in fact, if you’re lying you cannot be loving. But hard things can be said if they come out of love for the one to whom you speak, and it they are said in love for the one to whom you speak, and if the hearer knows as well that love is where those words come from, and receives those words with love. And if their ears are tuned to the notes of love they will hear your words with the intent and purpose to build up rather than to destroy.

May all our words of truth be spoken in love and heard with love, that good may come of them, and God’s name be glorified, to who, as is most justly due, be ascribed all might, majesty, power and dominion, henceforth and forever more.

Presto Change-O

There is more to Cana than miraculous catering...

Epiphany 2 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give.

We come now to the second Sunday after the Epiphany. Epiphany is the season in which we recall how Jesus showed himself forth, how he revealed himself to be who he was— as “God in man made manifest” — manifestation being a fair translation of Epiphany. This year the season is a bit short because Lent starts so early, but we did have the advantage of the Feast of the Epiphany itself falling on a Sunday two weeks ago, and so we got to celebrate the first great manifestation of the son of God: the revelation to the Magi, or Three Kings, as custom calls them.

Then last Sunday, as on every First Sunday after the Epiphany, we took note of the Baptism of Jesus — another revelation or manifestation of his true nature, when the Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove in bodily form, and a voice spoke from heaven proclaiming him to be God’s beloved son.

And today we come to the wedding feast at Cana, which the evangelist John describes at the end of the reading as the first sign by which Jesus revealed his glory and led his disciples to believe in him. But isn’t it striking how different this episode is from the two previous events. At first glance it seems a bit like a parlor trick, or perhaps a little bigger than that, like a stage-show magic act. Why, Jesus even treats the servants in the same way a magician treats his assistants, instructing them to fill the stone water jars and then to draw some off to take to the chief steward.

Yet surely there is more going on here than simply a magic act, a bit of presto change-o. This is the Son of God, not a Las Vegas stage performance, however spectacular. So what is going on in this miraculous change of water into wine?

The editors who assembled the readings today knew what they were up to: for both the reading from Isaiah and the one from the First Corinthians have to do with transformation; and what is more, transformation as a sign and a revelation, a manifestation of the presence of God: an Epiphany.

Isaiah speaks of God coming to redeem Zion and Jerusalem, vindicating them and releasing them from their captivity — raising them up literally like Cinderella, to be taken from the dust and ashes and to become a crown of beauty and a royal diadem. Holy Zion would even be given new names; no longer Forsaken or Desolate, but now Hephzibah and Beulah — well, yes, the translators were probably right to give those names in translation; and their meaning is beautiful — “My Delight Is in Her” and “Married” — I think today very few young women would like to be named Hephzibah or Beulah.

But a change this is, what a transformation, what a wonderful manifestation of the power of God! Lifted from the dust to be set on the throne — no glass slipper, but a royal diadem — all by the power of God.

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And the transformation that Saint Paul describes in First Corinthians is no less wonderful — no less a manifestation of God’s Holy Spirit. It is a result of the action of God upon those people. God has taken these ordinary Greeks — some of them slaves, a few of them craftspeople, merchants, mostly working class, a few of them perhaps well-to-do, but none of them likely of the “1 percent” — God has taken these ordinary people and poured out upon them an abundance of spiritual gifts, each of them given as a manifestation of the spirit for the common good: the ability to speak with wisdom or knowledge or faith; the gifts of healing or the working of miracles; to prophesy or discern spirits, or to speak in tongues or to interpret tongues — and all of this not as a result of classes at Monroe College or the University of Phoenix, or even at the local philosophers’ school, but suddenly and miraculously and from above — a sure sign that this is the work of God and not merely human learning.

So when we arrive at the wedding feast at Cana, we are prepared — and called — to see the transformation of the water into wine as more than Jesus simply acting as a miraculous caterer. There is something deeply important, deeply significant, about this change, and John the evangelist is careful to alert us by placing important details in his account.

First of all note those opening words: “On the third day...” What else happened on a “third day?” Another great manifestation? Yes! And so John starts off right from the beginning, by mentioning a “third day” — we’re up to something important here.

So then notice how he mentions where the water comes from: this is not drinking water. This is water that has been set aside for rituals of purification — John even includes the important detail that the water is in jars made of stone; for under Jewish law stone vessels could never become ritually impure — if you put pure water into them, pure it will remain, until you draw it out and use it. And what did they use it for? This water was set aside for people to wash their hands, which one would do many times in the course of a ritual Jewish meal.

This is the water that Jesus chooses to transform— and the second thing to note is that there is a lot of it; each of those jars holds over 8 gallons — about what you would need for a large wedding party to be able to wash its hands several times during each meal in the course of a seven-day wedding festival, but also obviously much more than enough wine, particularly late in the celebration, as the steward notes - another detail to pay attention to. So Jesus takes water intended for rites of purification, and transforms it into wine for celebration — and not just any wine, but good wine, and not just a cup or a flagon or two, but 48 gallons — that’s about 240 bottles of wine.

So this isn’t just a simple magic trick, something to impress the disciples; but a sign, a manifestation to teach them something about the very nature of who Christ is. Just as Zion is not simply transformed into a free city, but into a royal diadem; just as the Corinthians are not just made into good pew-sitters and member of their local congregation, but are given powerful gifts as leaders; so too Jesus transforms water that had a merely earthly purpose — something as prosaic as washing your hands — into a sign of his kingdom and its coming: wine in abundance to gladden the heart of those invited to drink of its goodness.

All of these things reveal and manifest the glory of God: the restoration of the city once forsaken, transformed into the crown jewel of the kingdom; the astonishing gifts bestowed by the Holy Spirit upon the people of that newly formed Christian community in the Greek city of Corinth; and the transformation of washing-up water into gallons of the finest wine. These are transformations and manifestations far and away more important than the most spectacular magic act, more than a presto change-o or an abracadabra. These are the kinds of things that happen when the power of God sets to work. And God is working still — right here, right now, in your hearts, when you invite him in.

Let us pray. O Lord of transformation, you lifted up the forsaken city from the dust, you poured out gifts upon the people of your church, and you revealed yourself to your disciples by changing the water of purification into the wine of celebration: So send your mighty power and restore, and grace, and change us too, that we may bear forth your message of hope and joy to a world in need of change; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

A Lot Like Christmas

Jesus takes after his mother in his human nature... A sermon for Advent 4c

Advent 4c • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.

It really is beginning to look a lot like Christmas, and that is only to be expected since it’s just two days away — even closer if you count as the Jewish people did from sundown on the night before: Christmas will begin tomorrow at sundown, and we will welcome Christ’s coming with worship at 6 PM.

So it is no surprise the scriptures resound with such a Christmas spirit: that first reading today reminded us of the little town of Bethlehem — no doubt this was the Scripture that inspired Phillips Brooks to write that famous hymn; and it’s nice to know that that preacher, Phillips Brooks, himself once stood in this very pulpit when he preached at the wedding of the third rector of this church, with whom he had worked up in Boston.

However, lest we jump the gun and get too deeply into Christmas before it has actually arrived — even though it is awfully close — our gospel passage today forcefully puts us further into the sacred backstory, shortly after Mary had herself received the archangel’s greeting, “Hail, Mary, full of grace; the Lord is with you.” It has been a year since we heard that passage — on Advent Four last December; it has taken us a year to move from Gabriel greeting Mary to Elizabeth greeting Mary; from the Annunciation to the Visitation. John the Baptist, who will announce his Lord’s coming in the wilderness, even though he is still in Elizabeth’s womb, cannot suppress his excitement that his even more recently conceived Lord has come near — and he leaps up and moves in Elizabeth’s womb, and she is herself inspired, filled with the Holy Spirit, to call out that cry of joy and acclamation, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

You will of course immediately recognize that between the archangel’s greeting last year and Elizabeth’s greeting this year we have the entirety of that very ancient prayer, the Hail Mary, or Ave Maria. I say the whole of it, that is of the original version of that prayer before the Roman Catholic Church chose to add the additional words asking Mary to “pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death” — that was a late addition from the stormy years of the Reformation, and one which, to be frank, has always struck me as a bit of a downer in the midst of the joy of those initial greetings of blessing and favor. As we did last year, we will conclude our worship this morning with the Angelus, a traditional way of reciting this beautiful scriptural prayer in its original form.

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But there is something far more important to note here than even the most beautiful prayer. And that is both the leaping up of the unborn John the Baptist and the affirmation that Elizabeth pronounces over Mary — that is, the reason she is blessed among women: “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

Mary is blessed in so many ways, from beginning to end: almost the first words the Archangel said to her affirmed that she was full of grace, or as some translations have it, “highly favored.” She is blessed in her obedience, in her willingness to accept the promise of the Lord and all of the embarrassment it might bring. She is blessed in having a husband like Joseph — a loving husband — a man who could have had her stoned to death when he discovered she was pregnant and not by him; a man who chose instead to heed the word of the Lord when it came to him as well, telling him not to take offense, but to accept the work of God, the working out of God’s purposes, that had been promised, promised for so many centuries, and yet were coming into reality even there and then.

Mary was blessed in having a cousin like Elizabeth, herself no small miracle, for she was, as our translation very politely puts it, “getting on in years,” and was considered barren, because she had never borne a child — and yet God’s same archangel Gabriel visited her husband Zechariah and assured him that his wife would bear a son who would be great, who would be the one to go before the Lord and announce his coming, to make ready a people prepared for coming of their Lord. The news struck Zechariah literally speechless, but for Elizabeth it was a blessing, a blessing that she shared with Mary when that child, so unexpected, moved for the first time, in her womb, leaped up for joy — beginning his ministry of announcing the Lord’s presence even before he was born.

And of course, Mary responded to that acclamation with her own song — the song we sang as our psalmody this morning, and in a metrical version as the Gospel hymn, that magnificent outpouring of thanksgiving known as the Magnificat: My soul magnifies the Lord.

In a way, that song is a culmination of all the blessings — blessings such as only a poor and humble person who is suddenly given incredible honors could possibly understand. It is the song of those who were cast down being raised up, the song of the hungry being fed, the song of rescue and release from captivity. These are the blessings that Mary knew in her heart of hearts, as she stored them all up.

And there is no doubt that she drew on that store — that store of blessing — and shared it with her child, Jesus, as he grew to maturity. She passed these things along to him — the one who would go on to preach release to the captives, to challenge the mighty on their thrones, to lift up the lowly by healing the sick and the suffering; by filling the hungry with bread from heaven; and by counseling the rich to give up all that they have, that their hands might be open to receive the true blessings that come from above, the blessings of life and salvation. It is easy to see that Jesus takes after his heavenly Father in his divine nature; but also very easy to see how he takes after his earthly mother in his human nature.

It is all about the blessing, you see, the blessing that came upon the one who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord. It was not just the fulfillment of her pregnancy and the miraculous birth. It was as well the fulfillment of the life of that child who lived out all of those promised blessings about which Mary sang.

It is a song we too can sing, not only with our lips but in our lives — to let our lives be canticles of thanksgiving, shouting blessings and multiplying them in the way that good things do when they are shared; for one good turn does not just deserve another — one good and gracious act can give rise to so many others; one act of kindness and generosity and grace can change someone’s life — and that life can become full of grace and yet more grace, abundant and amazing.

So let us give thanks for Mary the mother of our Lord, for Elizabeth her cousin, for John the Baptist and Zechariah, and for Joseph — this holy extended family who formed the loving and blessed environment into which the holy child was born, in which he grew to manhood, and through whom he fulfilled the purposes for which God had prepared a body for him — not just his own body, but the body of a faithful and loving and believing family, who trusted and believed in the fulfillment of what the Lord had promised. “Blessed is she — and all — who have believed that there would be fulfillment of what was spoken” and who do the will of God. Bless you all, my sisters and brothers , and may you — like them — be a blessing to others. We too can begin to look a lot like Christmas when we do God’s will.+

The Obvious Lord

No fortune telling here, just the promise that we will each face the Lord at his coming -- or our coming to him. A sermon for Advent 1c

Advent 1c • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.
For as long as people have had a sense of time — the past, present, and the future — there have been people who have said that they are able to predict the future. Most early human societies have shamans — wise men or women whom the people of that culture believe have the power to look into the future and tell what is coming. The rise of civilization did little or nothing to stop the soothsayers and prognosticators from plying their profitable trade; if anything it made their services all the more valuable. The soothsayer warned Julius Caesar to beware the Ides of March; the Oracles of Delphi and Dodona, along with the Sybil gave promises and warnings — and sometimes warnings veiled as promises or promises veiled as warnings — to the Greeks and the Romans alike.

Our own tradition is not immune to this desire to want to know the future — about half of our Old Testament consists precisely of the writings of the prophets, and so important was prophecy that the Law of Moses laid out a rule for determining when a prophet was a real prophet or not: if the prediction does not come true, then God did not send that prophet.

Even in modern times, since the dawn of the so-called Age of Reason, you can still open almost any newspaper in the most civilized cities of today’s world and find your horoscope — a form of fortune-telling that dates back four or five thousand years. And you can walk down the streets in almost any city, even in this neighborhood — I know there’s one right up on Kingsbridge Road — and find a store-front fortuneteller willing to advertise in neon lights!

Do such people really have an “in” on the future? Far be it from me to malign the prophets who were truly inspired by God, and whose prophecies — and their fulfillment — are recorded in the Scriptures, Old and New. But horoscopes and fortunetellers I will not put my trust in, though I admit I don’t mind getting a favorable fortune cookie at a Chinese restaurant! But fortunetellers are another thing: I once saw a closed fortuneteller’s shop with a sign on the door that said, “Will be reopening soon.” And I immediately thought, if you’re such a good fortuneteller why can’t you tell us the exact date that your own shop will be open!
This need to know the future — and the abundance of people ready to foretell it — doesn’t stop with such mystical folks. There are modern readers of the future— and I should say those who purport to read the future — the market analysts, the pollsters, and the pundits; and as the recent election showed us, prophets of this sort can be spectacularly wrong in their predictions of what is to come. One might say, given the failures of some of the pundits, it isn’t reading the future that’s the problem, it’s reading the present!
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Which brings me to our passage from Saint Luke’s Gospel. In it Jesus promises that the way to know what is coming is to look at what is already here. He is not advising his disciples to peer into crystal balls, or analyze the constellations and planets, to crack open a fortune cookie, or cast chicken bones on the ground and try to read the future in their pattern; or, for that matter, to take a poll, conduct a study, or interview the electorate.

Jesus tells his disciples — and that includes us — to keep their eyes open and look at what is actually happening around them, to look at what is to see what might be. He gives them an analogy from nature: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.” We’ve got a fig tree growing right outside the parish hall and many of you here have enjoyed its fruit from time to time — and you know that when its leaves sprout, summer is not far away. Jesus is assuring his disciples that the coming of the Son of Man will be just as obvious as a leafy fig tree.

The exercise he sets for them is not the complicated task of fortune-telling — no casting of runes or of horoscopes — but the simple tasks of keeping their eyes and ears open, to see and to hear what is happening. The Son of Man will come in a cloud with power and great glory — his coming will be obvious, and it will confound the whole world. The point is not to guess when this might happen, but to be ready for it whenever it happens. “Be on your guard,” he warns us, “lest the day catch you unexpectedly like a trap.”

The problem is that people are all too often asleep at the switch, or worse, so caught up in their own preconceptions that they are fuzzy in their perceptions. They cannot see what is actually happening around them because they are so possessed by their own ideology or their prejudices or their desires that they forget or ignore any evidence to the contrary, any fact, any reality that does not fit their preconceived theory. This is, of course, exactly the opposite of the way one should think through such things — that is, reaching conclusions on the basis of the evidence; instead some people start with their conclusions and then ignore any evidence that doesn’t fit with what they want the result to be.
I recall seeing one rather tragic sign of this in the midst of Hurricane Sandy just a little over a month ago — a photograph of a beach home half under water, but with a sign on the side of it proudly proclaiming, “I don’t believe in climate change.”

Perhaps an even more striking example is the extent to which the pundits in last month’s election got it wrong. I saw a chart showing just how far off the pundits were in their predictions about who would be elected president. And the more political the pundits were — that is, the more the pundits were committed to the one party or the other — on both sides — the further off they were in the accuracy of their estimation, some of them being so far off as to predict a landslide exactly opposite to what actually happened.
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Surely this is not what Jesus wants for us in this passage of the Gospel this morning — he doesn’t want us to make predictions about his coming at all! When he comes, there will be no doubt that he has come again. The challenge he presents us is to be ready, and when we see his obvious coming — should he come in our lifetime — when the skies are ripped open and the clouds descend and it is obvious that he has come, for us to stand up for him and raise our heads in thanksgiving for our redemption.

And let me place this in a more personal context. Jesus tells the disciples that their generation will not pass away before the coming of the Lord. Clearly that was some twenty centuries ago, and the son of Man did not return in that way during the lifetime of that generation. So some interpret that what Jesus meant by “generation” was the whole human race, all of humanity — “this generation” as it is always “this” generation — and that makes sense both of reality and of what Jesus said.

So we can best understand this not just as a warning addressed to all of humanity but to each of humanity — that is, to each of us, to each and every human being. For each of us faces, at our own death, the “day of the Lord’s coming” as the veil of death is torn apart and the clouds of life are driven back and we behold the righteous judge. We do not each of us in “this generation” “pass away” until we travel that particular passage — the passage into everlasting life. For this passage we have no need of a fortuneteller or a horoscope, of a pollster or a pundit; we have no need of a prediction, because we have a promise. And our passage is booked.

Predictions may fail — more often than not they do. But the promises of the one who is faithful will always be fulfilled. Our Lord has promised that this generation will see him in power and great glory; and we shall, each of us, face him as he executes justice and righteousness in the land, and upon our lives; and we will see him bringing redemption and healing to each of us, caught up in his arms as we pass from this life into his life.

This is a promise better than any prediction, a promise you can count on; and be ready for — so that when it comes, when it is fulfilled, we will see for ourselves, and be able to stand and welcome — and be welcomed by — the one who is our obvious Lord, our Savior and our God.+

A Dangerous Trade

Being a prophet means telling the truth, and telling the truth can get you into trouble; but telling the truth can set you right with God -- and who do we think we are fooling anywy? -- a sermon for Proper 10b

Proper 10b • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’”

All of us here, I’m sure, were brought up with the lesson always to tell the truth. Although I’m sure it has fallen out of fashion by now, I can recall being brought up with the stories of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln — both famous truth-tellers. Washington, as a six-year-old child, simply “could not tell a lie” — even when it meant that he had to incriminate himself about having used his little hatchet to debark his father’s favorite cherry tree. This was before the U.S. Constitution and its fifth amendment barring self-incrimination. It is a little hard to picture six-year-old George Washington calmly saying, “I decline to answer on the grounds that it might tend to incriminate me,” instead of, “I cannot tell a lie.”

And of course “Honest Abe” was renowned for his straight-from-the-shoulder directness, both in his early days working in a general store and later as an attorney, and later still as President. It is said that once when he realized he’d short-changed a customer in the general store when he was a young man, he traveled all the way out to their farm to bring them the proper change, which amounted to a few pennies. Of course, in the case of Lincoln it is about greater truths, and truth-telling, than that for which he is most remembered. Truths such as, “A house divided against itself cannot stand. This government cannot endure... half slave and half free.” That was a powerful truth, and Lincoln a powerful truth-teller in his willingness to tell such a truth when others counseled a go-along get-along, easy-peasy sort of accommodation of a diversity of opinions on the question of slavery.

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The problem is that telling the truth or being a truthful person can be dangerous — when what you say is a challenge to the Powers That Be; when some truth you reveal is an embarrassment to those in high positions; when the uncomfortable truth does not incriminate you, but possibly charges others with serious crimes; when a truth you proclaim undermines the power-base of some entrenched authority — all of these are situations in which the truth will not set you free, but may end you up in prison or on the scaffold.

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Lincoln spoke about a house divided against itself, quoting the Scripture; and Amos the prophet describes a similarly troubled construction, a house whose walls are no longer upright, but tilting dangerously. God himself stands in judgment against the house of Israel, holding up the plumb-line of his truth against its tottering walls. It is a kingdom whose king Jereboam has introduced a golden calf into the sanctuary at Bethel, and for good measure — or perhaps I should say, bad measure — another golden calf at a temple in Dan. God holds up the measure of his plumb-line against this tilting, tottering wall, and calls on Amos to warn that the house is doomed to collapse — for if a house divided against itself cannot stand, what hope is there for a house divided against God! Jereboam has done the unthinkable — he has forgotten what happened when Aaron made a golden calf for Israel while Moses was on Sinai meeting with God to obtain the law written with God’s own hand on tablets of stone. And yet Jereboam has not only installed one golden calf, but set up two of them: one at Bethel near the southern border with Judah, and the other at Dan in the far north, two golden calves in temples at opposite ends of his kingdom. And Jereboam has committed the ultimate blasphemy, telling the people, “These are your gods who brought you out of Egypt.”

Amos tells the uncomfortable truth about this blasphemous idolatry, in words that the people, the priests, and the rulers cannot bear to hear. But, all things considered, he gets off with a warning, as the priest Amaziah urges him to flee from the king’s temple, to head down south to Judah, to flee the country and earn his bread down there, far away from the king of Israel. Truly the people and their rulers in the north have turned from God and no longer even want to hear the truth, let alone act upon it; but Amos is given the chance to flee for his life.

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Our gospel passage, on the other hand, shows us what befalls a truth-teller who persists in proclaiming a truth, in spite of warnings. It is hundreds of years later, and the issues are different, but it is still a king and a prophet who are at odds. John the Baptist castigates Herod the king for having married his sister-in-law. In doing so, John has made many enemies: not so much Herod himself, who is intrigued by this prophet and even interested in what he has to say. But Herod’s illegitimate wife has a serious grudge, as the Scripture says, and she finds a way to force Herod into silencing the prophet once and for all, tricking the ruler into doing what he would do on his own by simple persuasion. It isn’t enough that the prophet has been slapped in prison — no, he must be silenced, and in the most brutal way possible, by having his head cut off. Only his death will satisfy the anger of Herodias.

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Yes, telling the truth can get you into trouble. You see the warning given to Amos, and the fate of John the Baptist. I don’t think I need to remind you about what happened to Abraham Lincoln. And how many other tellers of truth down through the centuries have suffered at the hands of those who would rather believe a comfortable lie? If human beings were cruel enough to lay their hands upon the one who was Truth Himself — the Son of God come to deliver us from the lies that Satan wove around us — if the Word of God himself suffered and died, nailed to a cross in spite of having done nothing wrong — it is evident that truth comes with a price, a high price.

Yet this is the price we know that God demands. Though human beings may be bought off with a lie, God cannot be so cheated. God stands with his plumb-line poised against every person and community, against every corporation and country, against every individual and institution, poised with that plumb-line to test how upright it is. For that is what a plumb-line does: it shows how true and on the square and level stands the house, whether our own personal house or household, or the household of our state or of our church.

Honesty, truth, and clarity are what God demands of us — no deception or delusion, as if God could be fooled, but a willing engagement with the truth of his Word and his promise. As the Apostle Paul assures us, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished upon us.” So let us, then, when we fail, not try to conceal our failures under a cloak of comfortable lies from the one who sees through all our pretense anyway. Let’s take the example of young George Washington, and incriminate ourselves willingly — for it is only in admitting our guilt and confessing our sins that we will find mercy and forgiveness through the amazing grace of God. God stands with his plumb-line against our hearts; let us, my friends, be honest with him who is so ready to forgive.+

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.

Minor Prophet

The truth may well be in the minority --- but with the power of God can turn the worlds upside down. A sermon for Proper 26a.

SJF • Proper 26a • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The sun shall go down upon the prophets, and the day shall be black over them; the seers shall be disgraced and the diviners put to shame....

We heard a reading this morning from the book of the prophet Micah. He is one of the “Minor Prophets” — one of the twelve whose much shorter works are gathered together at the end of the Old Testament after the big-league heavy-hitters Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel — each of whose works alone is longer than the twelve others put together. But they are none the less important.

Micah is one of these Twelve Minor Prophets, but in today’s reading he also appears to be in the minority among the other prophets of his own time — the ones whom he accuses of leading the people astray. These are the prophets for hire, who cry out “Peace” when they have something to eat, but declare war against those who put nothing in their mouths.

This stand-off among the prophets is not all that unusual — oftentimes in Israel’s history there was disagreement among those called prophets: some said one thing and some another, and it was often the case that the one telling the truth — the true prophet — was in the minority.

You may recall the story of Elijah at Mount Carmel, when he alone faced off against several hundred prophets of the false god Baal — ridiculing them as they danced about and cut and gashed themselves in an effort to induce their god to show himself. Or you might recall that Amos (another of the Twelve Minor Prophets) prophesied in the minority and was chided for doing so. At that he protested that he wasn’t even a prophet — just a shepherd who lived off the fruit of the land— until God called him to speak the truth to the people of that land.

Another early prophet, Micaiah — not to be confused with Micah — like Elijah also had to bring bad news of defeat to Ahab king of Israel, noting that God had sent a lying spirit into the mouths of four hundred other prophets who told Ahab that he would be successful. Talk about a minority of one! — and yet he was the only one who told the truth.

The sad fact is that there were often false prophets, like those against whom Micah protests in our reading this morning: prophets at a price, prophets who thought in terms of personal profit — with an “F I” instead of “P H E” — and who would give you what you wanted to hear, for a price — like the fortune-tellers who will always give good news so long as you cross their palms with silver.

For those against whom Micah speaks, it is all about the money: not just the prophets, but the rulers who take bribes to hand out the desired judgment; priests who teach falsely for a price, or prophets who give pleasing oracles of peace in exchange for silver or gold. Micah stands in opposition to all of this. Although the prophets and princes and priests can be bought, God will not be bought off, and will bring his truth, will bring his rule, and his judgment upon all who turn aside to evil ways. As Micah says in another passage from his writing: you cannot buy God off with sacrifices and burnt offerings — even going so far as to imagine that God would accept your own children in a human sacrifice. No, Micah says: what the Lord God requires of you — in that ringing phrase — “is to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

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The situation is not all that different by the time of Christ. The authorities — in this case the scribes and the Pharisees — enjoy the privilege of their station. They sit in the seat of Moses — giving authoritative interpretations of the Law — but they fail to follow through on the Law’s harder teachings about justice, fairness and equity. The return they garner in exchange is not so plainly financial, but rather the literal “fringe benefits” — like those fringes that decorate their prayer shawls in an ostentatious show of self-righteous piety. They have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at the banquets, and the respectful bows and curtsies in the street and the marketplace, as people nod to them and humble themselves and call them “rabbi.”

Jesus, like Micah before him, stands as a minority of one against this comfortable establishment. He knows — as indeed only the Word of God can know, as the one who sent the prophets in the first place — he knows that a prophet’s task is not to cozy up to power and prestige, but as Finley Peter Dunne once famously put it, to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

Those in the seats of power would later accuse the Christians of trying to turn the world upside-down. And indeed that is what they did, and what they were meant to do. A world in which even one child goes hungry or perishes from a treatable disease is a world that needs to be turned upside-down.

Our Gospel passage this morning closes with Jesus almost quoting his mother, Blessed Mary of Nazareth, who had herself spoken prophetically when she visited her cousin Elizabeth and said, “He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.” This is what happens when the minority has God on its side — when the truth that they proclaim is not something they speak for what they can get out of it, or to please others or to gain their support from it, or to exalt themselves — but simply because it is the truth.

Telling the truth will often not win you friends or earn you praise or reward. It can get you into trouble, as it did Elijah and Amos and Micaiah and Micah... and Jesus — and as it did for the Apostles who spread the word of Jesus and his teaching, and turned the world upside-down, so that the rich and comfortable might slip from their seats — whether the seat of Moses or the prince’s throne — and come to learn what it is to be among the poor and disenfranchised of this world.

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Jesus ends his words in this morning’s Gospel with a warning to his followers. They are not to purchase honor with flattery, to take upon themselves high titles and the best seats in the places of earthly pomp and circumstance. No, they are to turn their hearts and minds — and ears — to the one in heaven, who is their Father, and to Jesus Christ who is their teacher and instructor.

We are called to be like the true prophets of old, who listened for the word of God — both for the unfolding of the written word of God, and for the teaching of the living Word of God in our hearts. The ancient prophets saw his day, far off and as in a vision, and were glad. We are fortunate enough to live in the days since his coming, and what is more, to continue to welcome him among us in Word and Sacrament. No better seat of honor, or more prestigious banquet exists than the one to which we have been invited and at which we are nowseated — not because of our worthiness, but by his grace. To him be the glory, now and for ever.

Prophet’s Reward

audio link

SJF • Proper 8a 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.+

I cannot hear that short reading from the book of the prophet Jeremiah without picturing him with a wry smile. Jeremiah is, of all of the Old Testament prophets, the prime example of doom and gloom. He even has a separate book of the Old Testament dedicated to his Lamentations — the lamentations he delivered when his prophecies of doom and gloom came true.

In this brief passage, Jeremiah notes that the prophets who came before him — as far back as ancient times (which means ancient to him, which means really ancient to us — prophesied war, famine, and pestilence — much as he does himself. But, he seems to be saying, if a prophet predicts peace, and peace comes, then you’ve really got a prophet sent by the Lord.

He appears to be acknowledging, perhaps as I say with a slightly cynical smile, that given the state of the world it is fairly easy to prophesy war, famine, and pestilence; as these are more or less the normal state of affairs somewhere in the world at any given time — or if not, surely soon to happen somewhere or other.

A social scientist and historian once noted that in the entire documented history of the world there has only been a period of a few dozen years when there hasn’t been a war going on somewhere on our planet. Peace and war seem to be like an elusive balloon — squeeze it in here and it will pop out there. So prophesying war is almost a sure thing — there’s bound to be one somewhere sooner or later, and probably sooner rather than later. You can hardly go wrong!

But for a prophet to promise the coming of peace — that’s a much riskier enterprise, as it so very rarely happens. How long ago is it now that President Bush proudly proclaimed a “mission accomplished”? And yet how many additional conflicts have we become involved in since — Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and now Libya? Some of you here may be old enough to remember what they called “the domino effect” in the wars in Southeast Asia: Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Well it sure looks like somebody’s unpacked the dominoes again and set up a card table out on the stretch all the way from Morocco Boulevard to Subcontinent of India Avenue. If, as Paul says, the wages of sin is death, there are plenty of people are working overtime, and getting a bonus into the bargain!

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Jesus, as is so often the case, turns the tables on this warring world. When he speaks of the prophets, it is not their message, whether of peace or of war, that is the focus of his attention, but rather on how that prophet is received and treated. When it comes to hospitality Jesus focuses on the host rather than the guest. Jesus has told his disciples, when he sent them out, to proclaim peace to those to whom they came. What is important is how the host received that greeting of peace.

I noted on Pentecost that “Peace be with you” is the standard way of saying hello in the Middle East — and the proper response is, And with you be peace. So the hosts whom the disciples greet will be judged on the basis of how generous their welcome has been. Do they return that blessing of peace, or not?

Jesus assures his disciples that whoever welcomes them, when they come bringing (after all) the good news of the peaceable Kingdom of God, are in fact welcoming him — and whoever welcomes him will receive the grace and blessing that comes with the presence of God: the true peace that surpasses understanding. “Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward.” Even a cup of cold water given to a disciple in the name of the disciple, will be rewarded out of all proportion to the simplicity of that gift.

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It is, of course, relatively easy to welcome the prophet who brings a promise of peace and good tidings. It is much harder to welcome the one who comes bringing bad news. Jeremiah himself learned that lesson when he got himself thrown into a cistern for having brought bad news to the king. No prophet’s reward for him — or for the king!

Nobody likes bad news. How many people avoid going to the doctor to see to that nagging cough, or that sore that won’t heal, or that abdominal pain — not because they don’t want to be healed but because they don’t want to find out that what they’ve got might be serious — and by delay end up making their condition even more serious.

And just as people will avoid the doctor and hearing his diagnosis, so too people will avoid the prophet and his truthful warnings; For there are maladies of the soul as well as of the body: that sin can eat away at one’s soul like a cancer, or clog up the arteries of one’s spiritual heart until it grows cold and unloving, and stops. And in their folly, some will turn such a prophet away, and refuse to welcome the words of the Good Physician himself, and all of his associates and assistants, who come to warn of the spiritual dangers that lie in our paths, if we allow ourselves to continue oblivious to them.

For the peace that God brings us through such ambassadors is not simply the comfy peace of oblivion, but the attentive active peace of engagement with the Shalom of God. For “Shalom” does not just mean “peace” but completion, wholeness, and integrity. Who would not want to return such a promise with more than a warm welcome or a cup of cold water? God, through the many messengers God has sent and continues to send, offers us this transcendent peace, this completion and wholeness and rest, the removal of the obstacles. Let us embrace it, for of this we can be sure: when a messenger of God, be it a prophet or a disciple, wishes us peace and promises us peace in God’s name, it lies in our hands to receive that peace, and to join in the proclamation as we too become messengers and disciples in the name of God, and of God’s Shalom. God promises us grace, and that’s good enough for me.+

Seeing the Signs

SJF • Advent 3a 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Go and tell what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.

The world of the ancient Israelites, as the world of the people of Christ’s time, and our world today, was and is a world hungry for signs — for significance. At all times and in all places, knowledge comes about when our inner minds engage with some outer reality — knowledge does not simply spring from within, nor is it wholly external. It comes into being through that interaction between objective reality and subjective reaction, as our senses convey to our inner minds some apprehension of the world that exists outside of ourselves. Just as we need food and nourishment from outside ourselves to build up our bodies, we need the input of the world with which we interact to nourish our minds. In short, we hunger for significance, for things to mean something — so much so that people will often see meaning where none exists. The human mind is so hungry for order and meaning that we will look at clouds or rock formations and see castles or camels or crocodiles.

We keep looking for signs and significance because most of the time the things we see actually do tell us something of the world in which we live, the state of the world. Take one prosaic example alluded to by the prophet Isaiah. One of the first signs that spring is about to arrive is the humble crocus — the small flower that pushes its way to the surface, sometimes through snowfall, as a sign that spring is about to come.

The important thing, in addition to seeing the sign, is understanding it, and that involves a bit more mental labor — and engagement with its context. A person who saw a bowl of crocus blossoms in a florist’s shop or the supermarket in December and thought, “Oh, spring is coming,” would be sorely mistaken. (And am I the only one here who misses the sense of the seasons in the supermarket, the seasons that used to pervade the markets? There was a time when you could tell what season of the year it was by the selection of fresh produce available, and the times had their appropriate tastes and smells — but now you can find watermelon in December!) So it is not just seeing the sign, but grasping its significance, that is vital in forming a proper meaning in the mind.

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Our gospel passage today addresses both sides of this mystery of perception, the grasping of significance. And if you don’t mind, I will deal with them in reverse order, because the first part is the more significant, and I want to end with the more meaningful and significant sign.

The latter part of the passage deals with understanding the significance of the sign based on its context — as I said before, like a crocus in a supermarket or pushing its way through a snowbank, or watermelon in December — or July. In this passage, Jesus asked the people what they were looking for when they went out to see John the Baptist. That is to say, what sign did they seek? A reed shaken by the wind? Well, there would be plenty of those to see out by the river bank — but what would be their significance? what would they tell you? Maybe, if a reed was shaking, that it was indeed windy; but who needs a reed to tell them that?

Were they looking for someone dressed in luxurious garments? If that’s the case, they were looking in the wrong location — for a sign out of its place.

But perhaps they were looking for a prophet after all — and if that’s the case then they will have seen what they were looking for, the sign and the testimony of the greatest prophet who ever lived: John the Baptist.

So for a sign to be of use, one must seek the right sign, in the right place and to the right end, to the right object, for the right purpose: in this case, of being prepared for the coming of the Righteous One, the Messiah.

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John himself shows us the other important thing about signs. In the first part of the Gospel passage, he is in prison, but he sends a message to Jesus, asking if he is the one for whom the world has been waiting. Instead of giving a direct yes or no answer, Jesus tells John’s messengers to take back to him the evidence of their senses: what they have seen and heard. This is where the role of understanding a sign comes in — matching the external sign with the internal knowledge. In just this way we know that a red light means that we are to stop: not because there is a natural connection between the color red and stopping — after all, a red button is sometimes the one you push to make things go! — but because we have learned from our parents or teachers that a red light has this meaning — and we were all instructed in this meaning long before we ever saw a red light or stopped at one. We had to be taught or we would know to stop.

In this case John is asking if Jesus is the one to come or if he should wait for another. And Jesus, rather than giving a simple yes or no answer harks back to something that John would have been taught, something he knew quite well, something John had learned from his childhood up, just as children today are taught that a red light means “stop.” What John had been taught is that very passage from Isaiah: the one we heard this morning, the one that promises that the blind shall see and the deaf hear; the lame will leap and those without speech will become eloquent: and that these are the signs of the coming of Messiah.

And so Jesus, in the gentle way of the good teacher he was — much as a parent with a young child approaching an intersection might ask, “And what do we do when the light turns red?” — Jesus similarly gently reminds John through those messengers about what they had seen and heard: the fulfillment of those very promises from the prophet Isaiah! The new sign of Jesus is really a reminder about the old sign long promised. We can only imagine how John’s heart must have leapt when he received this news, for he would have recognized what Jesus was saying immediately!

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As we grow closer to the feast of Christmas, let us as well be open to the signs that God has placed upon our path. Many of them are things that we too learned when we were young; perhaps we have forgotten some of them. Perhaps we have become accustomed to watermelons in December, or we’ve seen so many laws broken that the warning signs and red-lights of this world no longer stop us in our careless disregard for one another.

Do we still remember how to recognize the signs of love and generosity, fair play and justice when we see them? More importantly, when we see signs of hatred and injustice do we strengthen our hands and make our knees firm to stand up and say to those who are doing wrong — as John the Baptist did — this is not right!

The time is near, my friends, the time is near, for each of us to bear our witness, as the prophets did of old. May we, when we are given the sign to speak, not the red light, but the green light, have something wise and encouraging to say, and speak rightly and plainly speaking of the love of him, who is our Judge and our Savior, our Lord and our God.+

Family Values

SJF • Proper 28c 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends...
There appears to be a contradiction between two of the Scripture readings appointed for today. The prophet Malachi says that God will send the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes, and that he will turn the hearts of children to their parents, and parents to children, so that he will not come and strike the land with a curse. But in the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus says that before the temple is destroyed, a time of testing for the disciples will take place, in which even parents, brothers, relatives and friends will betray the believers into the hands of kings and governors, and some will be put to death on account of their faithfulness to Christ. Both prophecies concern the people of one’s own household — parents and children — with Malachi prophesying what sounds like a happy meeting of minds and hearts, and Jesus speaking of betrayal and treachery. So which is it?
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Well, my friends in Christ, that is not a trick question! Nor would I pose you such a puzzle if I didn’t think there was an answer. In fact, I want to use these passages as a warning against careless Scripture reading — and taking isolated texts out of their context. In short, what I want to help you to see for yourselves, is that the texts are not contradictory — although understanding their harmony involves knowing a bit more about the scriptures, and the broader context, with greater depth. As the poet Alexander Pope wrote in the early 18th century, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” and we had best, as he suggested, “drink deep” if we are truly and well to understand. He was speaking of secular knowledge — but the advice goes double for Scripture! And I hope you will not mind this sermon taking the form of a bit of Bible study, in keeping with the collect for the day, with its mandate to read, mark learn, and inwardly digest the Scripture. And I hope we don’t end up with indigestion!
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Let us begin by taking a look at these texts in their historical context. Malachi is the last book of what we call the Old Testament. On the basis of the situation Malachi describes it likely comes from the time of the reconstruction of the nation after the Babylonian captivity, the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. So when Malachi refers to Elijah, and foretells his coming — he is harking back to a figure from the time when the kingdom was divided and the kings both north and south, were, as my grandmother used to say, no better than they should be. He is harking back to a heroic figure who spoke out against corruption in high places some hundreds of years before. This would be like an American referring to George Washington or a Haitian to Toussaint L’Ouverture.
The return of the prophet Elijah was to mark a new beginning for Israel. And Malachi prophesies that Elijah will come “before the great and terrible day of the Lord.” How long before, however, remains the question. But one thing the new Elijah will do is “turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents.”
When we turn to the Gospel, we find the disciples asking Jesus when the temple will be destroyed. He tells them that the precise hour is not known, and further that they are to trust no one who tells them that they come in his name and proclaim that the time is near. He further warns them not to be terrified when they hear of wars and revolutions taking place — these are not signs of the imminent end. As he goes on to say, nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be earthquakes, and famines and plagues, and even portents and signs from heaven. But before all of that happens, Jesus promises that many among them will be arrested, persecuted, imprisoned and tried — in some cases betrayed by parents and brothers.
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Obviously Jesus is speaking before the destruction of the temple, as that is the topic of the disciples’ question. Some suggest that he is speaking generically — not of a specific destruction of the temple but of the general fact that whatever humans build will one day fall to dust. For instance, I can promise you — I prophesy! — that one day the Empire State Building will no longer stand, and I cannot tell you the day or hour of its fall; but I can tell you that some day it will not be there any more; and the same goes, might I suggest, for the Cathedral Church of St John the Divine, where we had our diocesan convention just yesterday; in fact, because it’s built directly over a major fault, I can guarantee you it is going to fall to ruin, some day. It reminds me of what the old hymn says,
Mortal pride and earthly glory,
sword and crown betray our trust;
though with care and toil we build them,
tower and temple fall to dust.
But that Jesus should be making such a general observation of the frailty of all human efforts seems unlikely to me — for Jesus surely would have clarified he meant that when his disciples asked, “When will this be.” It is much more likely that Jesus is referring to a much more violent destruction, as actually took place in the next generation. The temple was burned by the Romans in the year 70, which brought an end to its use for worship. And then the whole city was leveled in the next century, and a Roman temple, a pagan temple, was built on the site of the Jewish temple — a desolating sacrilege indeed.
Now, this historical placement of the texts still leaves us with a bit of a puzzle — and conflicting “family values” so to speak. As is so often the case, it isn’t merely the historical, but the biblical, which will set us on the path to understanding.
One of the great gifts of Anglicanism to Bible study through Archbishop Cranmer, back in the days of the Reformation, was to advocate using one portion of Scripture to help understand other parts of Scripture. That turns out to be the case, right here. It isn’t just the historical, but the biblical itself that will set us on the path to understanding. The key is the figure of Elijah himself, whom Jesus affirmed had already come in the person of John the Baptist. Luke makes this explicit in the first chapter of his Gospel, right on the first column of text, where the angel appears to Zechariah and promises him a son who will act in the spirit of Elijah, and then the angel even quotes the very passage from Malachi we read this morning. It is also worth noting that in Hebrew Malachi means “angel.” And so the angel redelivers Malachi’s message about the one who is to come in the spirit of Elijah. So from Luke’s perspective, Malachi’s prophecy has been fulfilled. Elijah has come — in the person of John the Baptist.
This allows us to establish a kind of time-line: Elijah, that is, John the Baptist, comes — and he does indeed preach a baptism of repentance, to families, parents and children, and all of the society, to reconcile and embrace a life of service and obedience and fairness. Then Jesus takes up his ministry of preaching the Gospel of love, and telling us again and again that our true family is not the family of blood and guts, but the family of the Spirit, the family of God. Then Jesus is betrayed, crucified, and most importantly, raised from the dead. And after his ascension, but before the destruction of the temple, comes the beginning of the persecutions — which Luke will go on to record in the second half of his work, the Acts of the Apostles.
It is a hard time, a time of betrayal. It is a time when families once again forget John’s teaching and Jesus’ teaching, and start to turn on each other, and eager to save themselves, or divided over what is the true faith, betray children, parents, brothers and sisters to death. The apparent contradiction in the prophecies is resolved as a sequence of how people — people as individuals or as families — will act differently under different circumstances.
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Different times and different pressures can and do make people and families act in different ways — the same people who may act virtuously with kindness and love one day may the next turn vicious — as resources grow short, as different temptations arise. The moral point in all of this is that the family itself ought not be the focus of our virtues, of our values. Yes, you heard me right — the family itself is of no absolute moral value: there are good families and bad families, families who act well, and families who act poorly. There are families who will love and protect and turn their hearts to one another, and there are those who will harden their hearts and betray each other, depending on the circumstances — and sometimes, sadly, it can be the same family! Like the temple itself, like the church itself — if a family is not doing God’s will and providing a context for doing God’s work — it is of no intrinsic, absolute value. It is what we do, and how we do it, as members of a family or of a church, that is of value.
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As that hymn I quoted earlier continues, “But God’s power, hour by hour, is my temple and my tower.” Put not your trust in earthly things, temples or towers, or people, or families — but in things heavenly. If you want your family or your church to be a place of virtue and love, set your mind on God, and God’s will — whatever the pressures of the day. Hold fast, keep hold of that anchor line to God, who is steady and firm, and a sure foundation for your faith and your life. As Paul counsels the Thessalonians, addressing them as members of God’s new family, the church: “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.” Base all of your actions upon the love of God and the love of neighbor — including the closest neighbors: the members of your own household — and you will be expressing the family values of the family of God. And at the time of testing, because you have placed your trust in God first, and loved your neighbors as yourselves, you will be safely brought through the great ordeal, to rejoice forever in that temple not made by hands, the temple which is the Body of Christ himself; to whom we give eternal praise and glory, with the Father, through the Holy Spirit.+

Living Faith

SJF • Proper 22c •Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The righteous live by their faith.+

Although the Old Testament reading this morning ends with encouraging words, “the righteous live by their faith,” the lead-up is far from comforting. Who can hear this passage about terrible destruction and warfare and not feel that the prophet is talking about our own times rather than the ancient years gone by. The sorrow and terror is kept alive by the continuous wars and rumors of wars in the Middle East, in Afghanistan and even the actual land of the Chaldeans the prophet refers to — Iraq. Even into the most innocent-seeming things in our lives — baseball!

Did any of you see Ken Burns’ documentary this past week, the last episode of his documentary history of baseball, aired just this past week? Even there we were treated to images of the fall of the towers on 9/11. And seeing those images again, and hearing word of past and present destruction, the falling towers, the burning, the warfare, the continuous threats of further terror — why, I just heard this morning there’s a travel advisory on for Europe — I felt like the prophet, when he lamented to God — or at least would like to speak out to Ken Burns! — “Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise… Be astonished! Be astounded! For a work is being done in your days that you would not believe if you were told.”

How many of us, on those dark days nine years ago, felt such feeling of disbelief as we watched the TV news coverage, thinking, “this simply can’t be happening; this can’t be real”? I felt like it again this past week, watching the baseball special — seeing those towers fall once again. And how many times since, watching the evening news, do we shake our heads, astonished and astounded at the horror, that such behavior can be carried out, much of it in the name of religion.

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The prophet complained to God, much as we are tempted to do, Why is this happening, Lord? “How long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?” Why do you look on the treacherous and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?” How many of us have said or thought such things ourselves over the last years? How many times have we wanted to plant ourselves on the rampart, and demand an answer from God.

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And yet God is not silent. God does give us an answer, as he gave an answer to the prophet Habakkuk, the same answer now as it was then. It is an answer for the ages. It is an answer so important that God tells Habakkuk to write it in letters so big that even someone running by will be able to read it, we might say, to post it like a giant billboard by the superhighway so that no matter how fast the traffic goes by the message will not be missed. And the message is this: Justice will prevail. The unrighteous proud will fall; but justice will prevail. “If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay… The righteous live by their faith.”

That is God’s everlasting promise, the promise of the power of faith over evil, of right over wrong. Faith will triumph in the end; although it may be delayed, it will not be denied. Faith is life abundant, and nothing can ever conquer it. Faith is what we live by, the source of our trust in the God who is our life. Faith endures.

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So what does it mean to say we live by our faith? Doesn’t it mean that our faith is an actual source of our life, something that keeps us alive, because it is alive?

To look at the other side, I am reminded of a short scene in Shakespeare’s comedy, Twelfth Night, in which Viola asks the joker Feste what he does for a living. He says, “I live by the church.” She responds, “You are a churchman, then” — meaning a minister. He answers, “No, I do live in my house, and my house is by the church, and so I do live by the church.” That is not what the prophet means when he says we live by faith: faith isn’t just something convenient in your neighborhood, something you can pick up or put down as you please. No, faith is not just near you, it is in you, inside you, the source of your life, something without which you would be dead.

And because faith is living, because it is alive, faith can be passed on.

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The Saturday after the 9/11 attack I baptized a child right here in this church, right there in that font — though it was over there at the time! That child is still here, still coming to church week by week, coming to this altar rail week by week to be fed with the bread of heaven. And that simple action then and that continued action now says to me the same thing: even in the midst of tragedy and wrong, the tragedy of almost a decade ago and the tragedies that have happened since, life goes on: the life that is nourished and fed by faith. The life of faith goes on, the new life in Christ that begins in baptism goes on in the Holy Communion, and can never ever be taken away from us. Faith is alive! Write it in letters a mile high, my sisters and brothers: faith is alive and we live by it and through it.

It lives in us, and what is more, we pass it along to those who come after us, who make up the church make up the living body of Christ on earth, the blessed company of all faith-full people. And neither the Chaldeans nor the terrorists can stop it, no matter how much they try.

The life of faith goes on, passed from hand to hand like the sandbags that hold back the flood of evil from swamping the world. Faith lives, and is transmitted by the faithful. Paul reminded his own young disciple Timothy of this, reminding him about how his faith first lived in his grandmother who passed it along through his mother and on to him. And Paul recalled Timothy to that faith, as we today are recalled to our faith in the face of much opposition: called to rekindle the gift of God that is within us through Baptism with water and the Holy Spirit, “for God” as Paul told Timothy, “did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”

This is the miracle of faith and this is the power of faith. Faith lives, and is passed on generation to generation, even as the older generation passes away. Faith lives and is passed on from person to person, as the church takes on new members and grows in strength and power, fed with the bread of heaven and nourished with God’s abiding presence.

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Now it is true that sometimes we may not feel as strong in our faith as we would like to be. We are challenged, the world faces us with sinister evils sometimes. We look around, as Habakkuk did, and tremble and maybe even doubt. How many people lose their faith amidst the storms, and cast about seeking a savior other than the One Lord? How many turn to the cheap substitutes that seem to offer the ready answer rather than the living faith that endures and in which alone salvation is found? How many refuse the faith when faith is all that can truly give them life?

One such doubtful man once fell off a cliff, but happened to catch a tree limb as he fell. He hung there a while, yelling out, “Is anyone up there?” A voice came back, “I am here. I am the Lord. Do you have faith in me?” The man called back, “Yes, Lord, I have faith, but I can’t hang on much longer.” And the Lord replied, “All will be well; if you have faith you have nothing to fear. Just let go of the branch.” The man paused, then called out again, “Anybody else up there?"

It is no good calling for other help when faith in God alone will save us. We live by faith, and not by sight — faith that God is up there on the cliff as we hang from the branch, even though we cannot see him; faith that God is below us to catch us as we fall, even though we cannot see him; that God surrounds us — above, below, to our left and to our right — and will never let us go. Other helpers have we none: we depend on God alone, our faith in him is our life in this present time and is our life beyond death, beyond the grave, into the world to come. The righteous live by their faith.

And it doesn’t take a whole lot of faith, you know. Just that little bit the size of a mustard seed. For that little seed gets planted and gets watered in baptism. And when I sprinkle the congregation with water from that baptismal font four times a year on the festival days, and I preach God’s word week by week, I hope to water your faith — and mine too — so that it may flourish and grow and become so large that the birds can nest in its branches.

For we bear the word of God in our hearts, and we hear the word of God each week, not just to divert ourselves from our daily lives during the week, but to give those daily lives the faith-full meaning they would never have without that weekly reminder. Faith is what we live by. Even if it is as small as a mustard seed, the power of God’s Word and Sacraments will help us to grow, reminding us all of our own part in Christ’s church, as we too pass that faith along to others. By that faith we will do the great deeds that are required of us all in these violent days. Such is the power of faith, and such is the power of our Lord and God. He will not stand idle, nor remain silent. If he seems to tarry, wait for him; he will surely come, he will not delay. He will increase our faith within us, and give us the assurance of his justice and his power to save.

So let us, as God said to Habakkuk, write our assurance large, let us write our faith in letters big enough for runners to read them, big enough for the people caught up in the rat-race of this world to pause and be recalled to the truth and life and light of salvation. Let us shout from the ramparts so that all can hear. Above all, let us each and every one wear our faith in our faces, our faith shining with trust in our salvation, so that when we go forth from this place, we may be lights those who dwell in the dark places of fear and violence, to bring the hope and power of faith to those who need to know the greatness of our Lord and God. To him be ascribed all might, majesty, power and dominion, henceforth and for ever more.

Prophet Without Honor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good News for Now

SJF • Epiphany 3c 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”+

You’ve probably all heard the old saying, “No news is good news.” What I’d like to suggest to you this morning is that old news is good news, too. For in the Gospel passage we heard today, Jesus wasn’t being original. He wasn’t telling the people in the Nazareth synagogue anything they hadn’t heard many times before. No, he was reading from a scroll, a copy of a copy of a copy of an ancient document, handed down for almost five hundred years: the scroll of the prophecies of Isaiah, old news from long before his time, but good news at any time.

Who wouldn’t want to hear about release for captives, sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed? This is good news that addresses universal human longings, universal human hopes, whether preached as they were originally, to those facing captivity in Babylon, or centuries later in Jesus’ day, preached to Palestinian Jews suffering under Roman domination, or again centuries after that to African slaves brutally torn from their homes and shipped across an ocean to toil on plantations of the American South or the cane-fields of the West Indies, or then again in living memory to their descendants in the ghettos of Montgomery, Alabama or New York City. This is old news, but it is also good news, preached again, even more recently, amidst the ravaged ruins of Haiti.

This good news had been repeated for centuries, by the time Jesus took up that scroll,. and it has been often repeated since. What is different, the crucial difference, in the news as Jesus delivered it, lies in his closing one-line sermon on the text: (the shortest but most powerful sermon ever delivered!) “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Isaiah’s words had been read for centuries, and would continue to be read, but always with an eye to the future, to some unrealized liberation not yet come, and in that they provided encouragement and support for people in their suffering, to comfort them. Yet Jesus, with that authority for which his ministry and preaching were known, says in that one line that these promises are not for some future yet to be realized time, but are unfolding even now, even as he says them. Promises from a distant past for a future yet to come suddenly meet in the glorious Now of their realization.

This kind of spiritual “time travel” is deeply embedded in the Jewish tradition into which Jesus was born and in which he grew to maturity. The annual Passover meal was not simply a re-enactment of that night in Egypt from the distant past, that night when the spirit of God hovered over the city, slaying the firstborn of the Egyptians while passing over the houses of those marked with the blood of the paschal lamb. The annual Passover meal was and is timeless, so that those Jews who gather to this day to break matzoh and eat bitter herbs and roasted lamb in haste and with girded loins — it is as if they are dining at that same original Passover meal. So too for us, our weekly celebration of the Holy Eucharist where we share in Christ our Passover is not simply a re-enactment or a recreation of the last supper, but a present participation both in that historic event and in the heavenly banquet that awaits us in the future. God telescopes or folds up the distant moment of salvation into the present commemoration, and has and will for ever and ever.

This is the spirit and attitude we need to adopt if we are to understand what Jesus means when he says the year of the Lord’s favor has begun; that release, new vision, and liberation have arrived. The ancient prophecies of a distant future time are happening now, all around us, if only we have eyes to see and ears to hear. The day of liberation has come!

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Yet what an odd person to bring such a message! We know what would happen to Jesus in very short order: arrest, trial, sentence, torture and death. Hardly evidence of the Lord’s favor! The one who proclaims release will betaken captive; the one who announces new sight to the blind will be blinded by the sweat of his own thorn-wounded brow; the one who proclaims liberation will go to his death while a criminal goes free. Could there be anything more tragic, more ironic?

But my dear sisters and brothers, what I proclaim to you today is that it is neither tragic nor ironic. What Jesus spoke that day in Nazareth was true then and it is true today. Just as the Passover Seder and the Holy Eucharist are for ever new instances of the same meal, a kind of second seating, if you will, so too the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled in our hearing, today and every day — if we have ears to hear. For what Jesus shows us in his life and in his death and in his rising to life again is that the kingdom of God is among us. What Jesus reveals to us in his victory over death, is that liberation is taking place even in the midst of our pain and our suffering; that the presence of the Holy One of Israel abides among the faithful even when they are oppressed; that the knowledge of the love of God survives and thrives even as we pass from life. This is the incredible fulfillment that Jesus proclaimed that day: that the liberation of the spirit transcends and transforms the suffering of the flesh; that the vision of the heavenly city can illuminate our eyes even when they are blinded by the tears of this transitory life; that the yoke of oppression can be lifted from our shoulders even as we sink into the grave, singing all the while, Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

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This parish church has from its foundation been blessed by the presence and ministry of people in the healing professions. I’ve spoken before of Dr. George Cammann, the inventor of the modern stethoscope, who served this congregation in the nineteenth century as a lay leader. And among our members today are many who work in the hard but vital field of medicine. Those who exercise these ministries share in the vision of fulfillment that Christ preached that day so long ago. And what we celebrate and honor in them is not simply the skill to cure, but the gift to heal.

To bring about a medical cure is no small feat, but as we all know, ultimately medical science comes to an end, and there is always that one last malady or injury that will not or cannot be cured.

But healing — healing that is so much more than a mere cure — healing can happen and does happen even in the midst of death, perhaps even especially then. Most physicians and nurses know this, they’ve seen it — anyone who serves in a nursing home or hospice knows it for a certainty— that even in the midst of death itself liberation can be proclaimed. The healing of the spirit can encompass the death of the flesh, the vision of the heavenly city can shine forth even in the most unexpected places.

I spoke last week of the sign of transformation that Jesus gave at the wedding party at Cana; how it wasn’t so much about wine as about the new life to which he called the people. So too, the sign for us this week is not the sign of miraculous cures, but of unshakable faith that survives even in the face of death, that transcends the grave and outlives it — that hope for the resurrection. Those who serve in the works of mercy are themselves signs and agents of the heavenly reality that comes to birth even in the midst of earthly pain and death. They are the members of Christ’s body, the body which suffers when any member suffers, the body that rejoices when any member of it is honored. These workers of mercy are those most acutely charged with reaching out to touch and comfort in times of pain and suffering, to cool the fevered brow and grasp the hand of the wounded.

In their hands and hearts that scroll has been placed, to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, not merely the temporary respite of relief but the eternal manumission of salvation; not the mere glimpse of a furtive hope but the steady vision of the love of God; to set free the oppressed and proclaim the Lord’s favor; not for a time or a season but for eternity, and not with the relative freedom of even the best earthly society but with the true and lasting freedom of the children of God in God’s own house; This is not an unrealized promise from long ago. This is not a hoped for vision deferred to some distant time to come. This is the power and the presence of God with you and the present power of God among you — you, the Body of Christ, filled with his life-giving Spirit. As he promised, so it is. Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. Here. Now. Always. Everywhere. In all places and at all times. From the heights to the depths and to the end of the ages. “Publish glad tidings, tidings of peace, tidings of Jesus, redemption and release!” To him whose promises are secure and fulfilled, to him be the glory, henceforth and for evermore.+

Mountains and Valleys

SJF • Advent 2c 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The Word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness… +

HAVE YOU EVER experienced a grief so deep, been plunged into the depths of a despair or sadness so dark and unrelieved that you thought you would never get out of it? Or have you ever faced a difficulty so massive, a problem so insoluble, so impossible to get around or to get over, that you simply felt immobilized and helpless? I’m sure that all of us here have had such moments in our lives, such experiences, such feelings. But I am also sure, precisely because we are here, that somehow we found the strength to overcome whatever it was that plunged us into gloom, or blocked our ability to get on with life. Something happened to each of us to bring us up out of the depths; something happened to remove the obstacle from our path. Someone brought us a message of hope, someone’s simple word or action suddenly put things in perspective, and helped us out of the pit of despair, or helped us over the obstacle.

This is the message of Advent. Into the darkness, a light has shined; every valley shall be filled, every mountain and hill made low, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God. This was the message of John the Baptist, the Word of God that came to him long ago in a particular time and place, a time and place that the self-conscious historian Saint Luke is at such pains to pinpoint in our Gospel today.

What John was saying, and what Luke was saying, is that God acts. Things change — and not just because that’s the way of the world — but because God leads and guides and urges the world along, wooing us like a lover when we feel most unlovable, bringing us up from the valley of despair, helping us by taking our hand to lift us up over the mountainous obstacles we face, when we feel most helpless.

The reason John and Luke could be so confident that God acts is that they could look back over a whole long history of God at work in and with his chosen people, his chosen bride, Daughter Israel. John and Luke could look back to the prophet Isaiah, just as did the author of the book of Baruch. The prophecies in Isaiah encouraged Judah when the people were in captivity in Babylon, just as the prophecies in Baruch comforted the children of Israel when they were under the domination of the Greek Empire. Whatever the current state of things, these prophets promised, God would restore the fortunes of Zion. Jerusalem would put off her widow’s weeds, uncover her veiled head and put on the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting. Rather than being crushed by a mountain, she would climb it, stand upon the height and see her children coming home safe and sound.

God would set things right; God would act; things would change, as God had acted and things had changed before. Long before, God had moved the heart of Cyrus to end the captivity in Babylon, to allow the people to return from weeping by Babylon’s strand, to restore the fortunes of Zion, to rebuild the Temple. God had inspired the Maccabees to throw off the domination of Antiochus Epiphanes, that wicked man — to cleanse and rededicate that same Temple, and as a testimony to God’s presence with his people in those days, God had provided the miracle of the Hanukkah lights, oil enough to light the menorah in the Temple for eight days of rejoicing when it appeared there was only enough oil for one day.

So it was that John the Baptist could proclaim the old words of Isaiah with confidence, words whose significance would not escape his hearers: Israel had been liberated from Babylon, she had been freed from the domination of the Syrian Greeks; and she would be freed from the domination of the Romans, too.

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But John meant more than this. Those who saw John the Baptist only as a political zealot, proclaiming rebellion against Rome, would have missed the greater part of his message. He was not talking about the liberation of Palestine from Roman rule, the return of the scattered exiles. He was talking about far more: for he said, “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

John was not simply testifying to a coming political settlement, even a restoration of the Jewish monarchy, as so many Zealots hoped. Nor is this what Luke is getting at by reeling off all the names of rulers from Rome to the tetrarchies of Palestine. On the contrary, Luke is setting firmly in place one end of the great arch that will run through his Gospel and end in his account of the Acts of the Apostles, a great arch of triumph that begins in Palestine but ends in Rome; an arch of triumph that begins among the Jewish people, but ends among the Gentiles; an arch of triumph for the anointed one, the Messiah, to enter through and into historical fact, announcing the good news of salvation not just for the Jewish people, but to Jew and Gentile alike from one end of the known world to the other, so that all flesh would see it together.

This is the great good news of the first Advent: God is about to be revealed in human form, as a human being among human beings. God is about to appear as a particular Jewish child born in a particular Palestinian place, and we glimpse him today in the Gospel, grown to manhood some thirty years later about to be recognized and affirmed by John the Baptist, the herald of his coming, and all flesh — Jew and Gentile alike, slave and free, rich and poor — shall see the salvation of our God, in Jesus Christ our Lord.

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No, Luke is not just talking politics. Nor, harking back to the questions with which I began this sermon, am I simply talking about God as the answer to deep depression or despair, to feelings of helplessness or inertia, as if God was simply the latest anti-depressant! I, too, am talking about the salvation of God, the healing grace of God who not only anoints our wounded hearts and lifts our wearied spirits, who not only fills us with joy when all we can see is sadness, but who appears as a light in the darkness, glowing first as a tiny candle, that sends out rays that pierce the gloom, and illuminate the night of sin with celestial brightness, so that all humanity can and will one day finally see the salvation and grace of God that have come among us. God lifts our spirits not simply to the level of earthly comfort, but to heavenly joy, lifting us from the death of sin to eternal life.

For John’s proclamation, after all, was to a world caught up in sin, enslaved by sin; to which John offered a baptism of repentance and forgiveness. The human condition since the fall of Adam and Eve was such that everything had become an obstacle: life was a succession of deep, dangerous valleys and high, hazardous hills, unnatural boundaries that kept people separated from each other and from God. For that is what sin is: that which separates us from God and each other. And the church’s mission, proclaimed by John and begun by Christ, is to heal that separation.

John the Baptist echoed Isaiah and Baruch, crying out that one was coming who would level the mountains and fill in the valleys with their bulk. The very obstacles would thus become the means to movement. The mountains too high to cross would be torn down to fill in the chasms too wide to leap. The stones of the wall that people constructed to keep people separate from each other, would be reconstructed into a bridge to help them cross and enter in.

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This is the message of Advent. The salvation of God is coming, and all flesh shall see it together. We who have already seen, know and can tell who that salvation is; it is Jesus who is the bridge, the healer of the breach, the restorer of all that is broken. Jesus levels the mountain whose mighty bulk fills the valley of the shadow of death, making the way plain and level so that all might cross over. His own body, whose members we are, is the means of reunion, return and restoration. He is himself the healing of the wound inflicted when Adam and Eve first tried to separate themselves from God by becoming gods themselves.

For it is in Christ, that we find our true identity as brothers and sisters. It is in Christ that the valley of despair is filled and the mountain of resistance leveled. It is in Christ that the old divisions are overcome, in whom, as Paul said, there is no more slave or free, Jew or Greek, male and female. It is in Christ that the healing of salvation is begun and continued, in and through him.

As we traverse this Advent season, let us embrace the spirit of repentance that invites our Lord into our hearts, where he can work to remove the mountains and fill the valleys of our lives through the power of his love and the healing of his grace; that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer, to whom be all glory, now and for ever.+

Read Between the Lies

SJF • Proper 28b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
False messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. But be alert...+

We have come to the time of year when it doesn’t take a prophet to notice the change in the tone of our appointed weekly scripture readings. The purple of Advent begins to glow in the distance, the flags of dawn are beginning to appear over the top of the hill, and word of the great King, who will come to judge the world, is beginning to echo down the corridors that in a few weeks will bring us to the start of a new church year. The language of the Daniel and the Gospel of Mark are heavy with apocalyptic visions, visions of what the old funeral hymn called the “Day of Wrath.”

The Gospel echoes Daniel and warns of the coming tribulation, a terrible time that will follow the appearance of the desolating sacrilege. However, at the end of the gospel, Jesus gives the disciples a most unusual warning. Jesus usually tells his disciples to believe and have faith, yet here he warns them to do just the opposite: to be skeptical and doubtful.

Of course, when Jesus told his disciples to have faith, it was faith in him and faith in God. Here he’s talking about false prophets and false messiahs — people so cunning and persuasive that they could even lead the elect astray. So Jesus puts the disciples on the alert: Don’t believe false messiahs who present themselves as the answer to the world’sproblems, who offer a quick fix and an easy solution. Don’t believe false prophets no matter how many wonders they produce.

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The world has seen plenty of false prophets and messiahs since Jesus spoke these words of warning. About a hundred years after Jesus’ time a zealot leader proclaimed himself to be the Messiah. He led a revolt that provoked a devastating response from the Romans, who wiped out the last Jewish presence in Jerusalem, and built a pagan shrine on the ruins of the Temple: an abomination of desolation on that holy spot.

And from then until now, time and again people have been misled by false prophets into mass suicide at the People’s Temple or Heaven’s Gate, people deluded by leaders who seemed themselves deluded into believing they held the keys to eternal life, but in the end only brought death.

Closer to home, I’m sure we’ve all encountered the more domesticated false prophets: not the ones who promise salvation, but the smaller, more modest rewards. Whether a smooth politician, a salesman with a clever tongue, a con-man out to bilk us of our last dollar, or an investment advisor who promises big returns even when the market is down, many of us have encountered such false prophets, and maybe been deeply hurt by them, when they “made off” with our pension.

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So, how are we to “be alert” as Jesus commands us to do? How are we to arm ourselves against false prophets and messiahs — especially seeing they can be so crafty, or so firm in their own self-delusion, as to lead astray even the elect? How can we tell a false prophet when we hear one, and be armed against the false prophecy? And how can we avoid getting caught up in the excitement of some new messiah, whose messiahship is in his own imagination or in the unfulfilled hopes of other people’s hearts? How can we be on our guard against even those in the church whose prophecy and speech are false?

Part of the key lies in how Jesus describes these falsifiers: they call out “Look, Here is the Messiah!” or “Look, There he is!” It comes down to a question of “here” and “there” — of “Look at me!” or “Look at that!”

The false messiah points to himself as the savior; the false prophet points to something else as the savior. Both of them imply that you can get a piece of the action, if only you will do as they say. They appeal to hungry people — and who isn’t hungry? Who doesn’t long for a better life, a brighter future, a greater happiness? We are all ready targets for these falsifiers, the purveyors of false dreams — for we all have dreams we wish would come true. The con-artists know the truth of their own gospel: “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

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But Jesus said, Be alert! We are presented with two promises: “Here I am, your messiah”; or “There, that is your salvation,” and both of these promises — if they point to anything other than Jesus — are lies. The evangelist Mark warns us, “Let the reader understand...” We would do well not simply to read, but to mark, learn and inwardly digest how, as Goodman Ace quipped, “to read between the lies.”

So let’s look at these liars more closely, reading between their lies. On one side you have the false messiahs who say, “Look at me!” They promise themselves as the answer to your problem: like the politician who promises that somehow he has the power to transform society. And how quickly, do the promises of the campaign evaporate and fade away as the legislative term begins! Be alert to the those who promise themselves as the answer to your problems. People should have been for suspicious of Bernie Madoff, for instance, and his one-man-band — but he was playing a tune that sounded very, very good!

On the other side are the false prophets who say, Look what you can get — if you do as I tell you! They appeal to our needs, to our hungers and desires, and they claim to know how to satisfy them. You run into this sort even in church! There are some who promise happiness, church growth, or a bigger budget if only you’ll follow their scheme, use their product or their program, or follow their rules.

Recently we have heard strident voices of revived fundamentalism both here and abroad, pointing fingers in judgment. These false prophets say that salvation lies in following the rules — their rules — and please pay no attention to the many rules that they themselves may violate. These latter-day false prophets of the “Do as I say and not as I do school” point to the rule book rather than to its author: missing the point that Saint Paul tried to make again and again: It isn’t the Law but the Grace of God that saves us. The savior is a person, not a program, and it is God whom we follow: in Christ who said, Love God and your neighbor and do not judge. So be alert to those who promise results, apart from the love of Christ, the love of God and neighbor, and the love which does not judge but casts out fear.

Be alert! says Jesus. We need to be alert as well to our own needs and desires, for the falsifiers appeal to them, to target them. Who would follow a messiah who said, I can’t do anything for you! The liars appeal to our needs, but then we find they can’t deliver. Worse, they consume the very people who follow them. They consume them, use them, and sometimes destroy them.

Bernie Madoff’s offer was as alluring but as ultimately destructive as the Gingerbread House that trapped Hansel and Gretel. How thoughtful of the nice old lady to make her house out of gingerbread, and to make it available to hungry investors... sorry, children. But the horrible truth was that the nice old lady was only interested in herself; she was a witch, and the only hunger the witch wanted satisfied was her own! Her Gingerbread House concealed at its heart the horrible oven heated to cook the children for her own supper.

This isn’t just the stuff of fairy tales, or even Ponzi schemes; sadly it is the reality of false prophecy at its worst. For the Gingerbread House had an even more chilling reality some 70 years ago in the “model concentration camp” — Theresienstadt, or Therezin. The Nazis set it up as a false front to conceal the horror of the Holocaust; they made it look like a summer camp, with music programs. The propaganda office even made a film in Therezin as late as 1944, showing the children from the camp performing an opera written by a fellow prisoner. Yet thousands of those very children would in the next weeks be put on trains and sent to the ovens at Auschwitz. And how many Hansels and Gretels, how many Rebeccas and Jonathans would perish to satisfy the hunger of a nation gone mad, caught up in its own false prophecy, convinced by liars and ultimately made desolate by its own abomination. Of the 15,000 children who passed through the gates of Therezin only 150 survived. That’s one percent. Look around you today here in this church. There aren’t quite a hundred and fifty people here today — imagine all but one being burned to death. Which of you would escape that desolation?

False prophets will appear and produce signs and wonders, false messiahs will proclaim themselves and lead many astray. But we have been warned and armed against false prophets and messiahs. We have been given the tools to “read between the lies” and to look, not to the false promise of a liar’s future but the true reality of God’sown present; God’s kingdom here on earth, if we will but open our eyes to see it, as Jesus said, “among us.” We have been blessed by our Lord and Savior with the Gospel truth, and a table set not with empty promises but with simple bread and wine — a sign greater than all the signs and wonders of all the false prophets that ever were — the sign of the Body and Blood of Jesus, with us and for us, here to feed our souls with the bread of heaven, to quench our thirst with the cup of salvation.

And this salvation is not some promised pie-in-the-sky of Heaven’s Gate or Jonestown, nor a quick fix for what ails you, but a testament in bread and wine transformed into the presence of God, living and true. For this is the table of the Lord. We have no need of false messiahs and prophets, for the Messiah, Jesus Christ, has already told us everything, everything we need to know: to love God and our neighbor, to break bread together and to drink from his cup at his table. No get rich quick schemes, no thousand-year Reich, no cosmic transport to the tail of a comet, but the radical reality of the here-and-now love of sister and brother in the family of faith, the kingdom among us. That is the great truth of Christ’s kingdom come, God’s good will done, right now, right here, on earth, even as it is in heaven.+

Not Alone In This

SJF • Last Epiphany 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
No prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.+

One of the most interesting characters in the legends of ancient Greece is Cassandra. She was the daughter of Priam and Hecuba — the king and queen of Troy, that ancient city that got into trouble when Cassandra’s brother Paris abducted Helen of Sparta. Sparta and its Greek allies launched a thousand ships to start a war that lasted ten years, just to win her back. I’ll tell you, sometimes the legends of ancient Greece sound like a cross between “Days of Our Lives” and “The World at War”!

But back to Cassandra, daughter of the Trojan royal family: she was so beautiful that, according to the myth, even the god Apollo fell for her. Instead of a box of chocolates and some flowers, he gave her the gift of prophecy. Oracles were his specialty, after all. However, Cassandra didn’t reciprocate Apollo’s love. I guess that’s natural — I mean, after all, he gave her the gift to see right through him, and know what he was after — a dangerous gift it seems to me for a man to give to the object of his affection! (I think we’re getting back into “Days of Our Lives” territory here.) Well, Apollo didn’t take kindly to this. Cassandra forgot it’s not a good idea to get on the wrong side of a Greek god. Apollo didn’t take away the gift of prophecy, but he added a curse to it: Cassandra would remain a prophet, able to proclaim what was going to happen, but with the added curse that no one would ever believe her.

And it was this curse that finally brought an end to the Trojan War. For when the Greeks seemed finally to give up and go back home, they left that gigantic wooden horse outside the gates of the city that had withstood the siege for ten years. And the Trojans didn’t believe poor Cassandra when she shouted from the top of the tower: “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts!” True to the curse, the Trojans didn’t believe her; they hauled in the wooden horse, and that night the Greek SWAT team crept out of hiding in the horse’s belly, opened the gates, and let in the army to enter and take the city. And ever since, the name Cassandra has been attached to someone whose warnings go unheeded.

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Have you ever experienced that in your own life? Perhaps you’ve given someone some sage advice that they ignored, and ended up paying for it. You’re left either to commiserate or say, “I told you so” — and neither one of those is very satisfactory, is it? I’m sure there must have been more than a few financial advisors who said, “You really need to diversify your portfolio. I know Bernie Madoff’s offering a great return — an almost unbelievable return — but it’s better to play it safe and spread your investments around.” Scientists have been warning about global climate change for decades — but it’s taken huge chunks of the Antarctic ice-shelf collapsing, and glaciers thousands of years old disappearing for people finally to take notice — and there are still people out there who deny it is even happening!

Prophets often go unheeded — even when the prophecy is no more than common sense; and that can be, let me tell you, a very discouraging experience — when you see something, a danger that you try to warn people of, but they pay you no mind, or take you seriously.

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Clearly that is how Elijah felt, in that powerful episode from the First Book of Kings. He’s ready to call it quits — earlier in the chapter he says he’s ready to die, but when God’s angel offers encouragement he continues on the run for his life. His zeal for God has not won him any friends, and it seems that all Israel is against him. He’s spoken the truth to confront their idolatry, and what has it gotten him? So he high-tails it to the mountains and hides in a cave. God speaks to him, asking him, “What are you doing here?” And Elijah offers his excuse — everybody’s against him; he’s the only prophet left. And God tells him to “step into his office” — to come out of the cave, for the Lord is about to pass by.

And what a passing by it is! God puts on a spectacular show of power: wind so strong it splits rocks, an earthquake that shakes the mountain, and a powerful fire. And yet God is not in these powerful, noisy forces — but rather in that sound of silence (a more accurate translation than“still, small voice” we are accustomed to). And out of that silence, God repeats the question, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Interesting how asking the same question twice forces the one you ask to think hard about his answer! Even though he says the same thing, I’m sure you can detect a little bit of doubt begin to creep into Elijah’s voice when he answers the second time, talking about how zealous he’s been, how solitary and alone, the only one who hasn’t forsaken the true God.

And that is when God drops the full truth on him, and the full depth of what God is about to do. God tells Elijah to get back to work, to anoint new kings, and a new prophet to succeed him — and they will tramp out the vintage of the grapes of wrath, slaughtering up and down the country all of those who have turned away from God to worship idols. And that is where the full truth comes in: Elijah’s mission has not been a failure. He is not the only one left. He has not been alone in the task. In fact, there are seven thousand others who have not been deceived, seven thousand others who have believed his prophecy, remained loyal to the Lord, not bowed the knee to the false Syrian thunder-god Baal, nor kissed his bovine statue. To put it in contemporary language, “They haven’t taken any bull.”

Elijah has not been a Cassandra after all — he has not been a solitary voice, ignored by all. In fact, a good number have heard and believed him — it is not “Elijah against the world.” His prophecy was understood and received by others, even when it seemed to him that no one cared.

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This is in part the point that the Apostle Peter is making when he says that prophecy isn’t a matter of speaking, and not listening as well. The prophetic message is confirmed by the believers who accept it — and by their own experience showing them the prophecy is true. Peter himself had heard Jesus promise that some of the disciples would see him revealed in glory — and Peter assures those to whom he wrote that it actually happened. He’s not making this up, people! He was there, on the mountain, and the promise was fulfilled, when he saw Jesus transfigured, robed in dazzling whiteness, and joined by Moses and Elijah. And so it was that the prophetic message was more fully confirmed. It wasn’t just his own individual experience, but that of James and John as well. It wasn’t a matter of personal interpretation — rather it was a confirmation of his actual experience, in that small company of apostles on the mountain, when God spoke through the cloud, out of the silence, to announce the presence of his Son, the Beloved.

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And so it is that the church has preached and prophesied ever since. It isn’t just me speaking to you, but you listening to me; it isn’t just me speaking at all, but also my listening to you, and to my teachers in the faith, and the many teachers in the faith that all of us have had, as we listen together to the words of God — not in a whirlwind, or an earthquake, or a fire: but speaking to us out of the silence of our own attentive listening, listening as we always do for the voice of God’s Son, the Beloved. We are not alone in this: we are together. And we find the words to be true because they accord with what we have been shown and know.

And just as God did not leave Elijah on the mountain, or the Lord Jesus leave the apostles on the mount of Transfiguration, so too we are sent forth, sent out on a mission with the message more fully confirmed, and the dawning of the morning star rising in our hearts — forth from this place where we gather to hear God’s word and find ourselves transfigured, commissioned by God’s power to go forth and spread that message to others, so that they too may become disciples of our Lord and God.

And as we go we will find that we are not alone in this missionary task either — others have planted seeds which we may water in the work of evangelism; we are not the only church in town, and thanks be to God there are many thousands who have not bowed the knee to the idols of our age — to easy wealth and scornful greed, of selfishness and scant care for others. No, we will find that the message has gone before us, and our main task will be to confirm — to remind those who received God’s word but have perhaps not yet acted upon it, that now is the time, the acceptable time, the year of the Lord’s favor, to do his work and will.

May we, my sisters and brothers in Christ, be strengthened in this confidence, not relying simply on our own personal interpretation, but in our communal discernment; encouraged as Elijah was, as were Peter, James and John— confirmed in the knowledge that God sends us out to do his work for the spread of his kingdom; through the coming Lenten season and beyond, to the eternal and never-ending Eastertide, to the glory of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.+