Love and Envy

Love is the power that builds up even what envy tries to tear down.

Proper 7b 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Saul was afraid of David, because the Lord was with him but had departed from Saul… But all Israel and Judah loved David.

Today’s reading from the First Book of Samuel is a classic example of the difference between love and envy. Two weeks ago we heard of the prophet Samuel’s warning that having a king is a bad idea; last week we heard of how Saul turned bad, and the spirit of the Lord departed from him, and Samuel set off to find a new king for Israel, the boy David. And today we hear the aftermath of young David’s first military victory — his one on one, mano a mano fight with the Philistine champion Goliath.

Saul can’t help but admire this young man, and David becomes a member of the king’s band of most trusted warriors, and their leader. Saul sends David out to battle again and again, and the young man always returns victorious — so victorious in comparison with Saul that the people come to favor David over Saul — and their cheers and their songs about David’s victories begin to ring discordantly in Saul’s ears. Even the music of the harp that David provides to soothe Saul’s vexed spirit becomes an annoyance — even David’s presence arouses Saul to thoughts and acts of mayhem, tossing a spear at David as he plays.

Here we have the very picture of green-eyed envy at its worst, at its most bitter and soul-destroying. Pride, as sins go, is often classed as the worst, but isn’t envy just a form of wounded pride? Saul has God’s favor for a time, and is proud of it. But as it drains away from him and rests on David, isn’t Saul’s resentment and anger just another form of pride? He is angry that someone else is able to do that of which he is no longer capable — and to do it better and more successfully than ever he did. And he just can’t stand it!

So much for envy! what about love? We see great love in Saul’s family too — in his son Jonathan, who, as soon as he sets eyes on David, feels his heart melt as if — as Scripture puts it — his own soul is bound to the soul of David, and he loves him as his own soul. That is powerful language, so powerful that some are embarrassed by it. It reads this way in the Hebrew Scripture, but when the Greeks got around to translating the Hebrew Scripture into their language, they seem to have been so put off by this passage that they left it out of their version of the Bible entirely.

And the urge to omit this story doesn’t stop with the Greeks. Those who prepared the Scripture reading cycle for the whole church chose to offer this passage, what we heard this morning, only as an option — so there will be many congregations who will never encounter it on a Sunday. Yet there it stands, the beginning of what some have called the greatest love story in the whole Bible.

And envy comes into this, too — for Saul knows full well that his son has taken a liking to David — to put it mildly. In succeeding chapters of First Samuel Saul will curse Jonathan on account of David, and even try to kill his own son. For it seems that Saul and Jonathan, father and son, have become rivals (at least in Saul’s mind) for David’s love and loyalty. Talk about a tragic turn to Fathers’ Day!

Of course, it starts even before David kills Goliath — though we didn’t hear that part of the account today, it tells a bit about what bothers Saul. When David first volunteers to take down Goliath, Saul tries to dress him up in his own armor, and gives him his sword. But they don’t fit — as you recall, Saul is a big fella, a mighty warrior. But David is still a boy, probably no more than fifteen or sixteen. So he rejects Saul’s armor — which doesn’t fit him — and that unwieldy sword, as I’m sure you recall. So what does he do? He uses his trusty sling and a smooth stone from the riverbed to bring down the proud giant Goliath. Then, after David’s victory, as we heard today, Jonathan, Saul’s son — also a young man about David’s age and size — is so taken with David that he strips off his robe his armor, and gives them to David, along with his sword, his bow, and his belt. Imagine how Saul felt at that moment: this David has rejected me, and chosen my son instead — and my son chooses him, and rejects me! And green-eyed envy is stirred up and Saul begins to give in to the Dark Side, even against his own son. And you’ll forgive me, I’m sure, if I say I can’t help but see an overtone of another father-son conflict involving turning from good to evil: the relationship of Star Wars’ Luke Skywalker and his father Darth Vader!

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Such is the dark side of the force of envy: it cannot bear to see others have what one lacks oneself. But while envy is a powerful force — that Dark Side of the Force — it cannot do what love can do. For even in the midst of this envious struggle, love is there, conquering all, as the Roman poet said.

Think for a moment, about how much of the world is driven by these two engines, love and envy. Think how much they resemble so many of the other pairs of joys and pains, of what builds up and what tries to tear down; and how the building-up always seems to triumph in the end. The Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians about some of these conflicting forces, and how love always manages to triumph in the end. Envy may raise obstacles, but love will knock them down, or pass right through them: for all the dark forces of affliction, hardship, calamity, beating, imprisonment, riot, labor, sleepless nights and hunger — all of these are overcome by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness, love, truth, and the power of God. All of this is better armor than a mere sword, bow and belt. These are the triumphant weapons of righteousness for a two-fisted fighter inspired with the love of God. All it takes is opening the doors of the heart — turning away from the dark side of envy and embracing true affection and love.

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For with God, and through the love of God, even the seemingly impossible is possible. With God, as the Apostle testifies, the one treated as an imposter is the one who tells the truth; the one undocumented and unknown is the chief witness; the one threatened with death and even dying is revealed to be alive and well; the one who seems to be in sorrow is lifted up with joy; the one who seems to have nothing is able to provide everything. And, as the Gospel reminds us, the one asleep in the stern of the boat is able to quell the storm and quiet even the winds and the sea.

And all of this is from the power of love, not envy — from the force that builds up and restores. Love opens doors and breaches the barricades that envy builds around a bitter heart. We will hear more of Saul and Jonathan and David in next weeks’ Scriptures — the story ends sadly for all three of them, and David laments the loss — and yet he continues to become a great king; not perfect, by any means — and we’ll hear about that as well — but one devoted to God even when he fails in how he treats others, even when he himself gives in to the envious desire to have what another possesses; even when he stoops to a criminal act worthy of punishment.

But for now, we have the image of young David — this teenager fresh from victory over Goliath, clothed in the garments of another young soldier — one who loves him as he loves his own soul — envied by Saul yet adored by the people. We have the image of the Apostle, shaming the haughtiness and closed hearts of the Corinthians by his own humility and the open-handed offer of forgiveness and love. And we have the image of our Lord himself, one who will also suffer attacks by the envious, but who will triumph in the end, as surely he triumphs over sea and wind, calming the storm and strife — not with a shout — but with a gentle word of peace.

And I will add one more sign of love’s victory over envy that we saw enacted this week, when another young man stood in blank confusion before the families of those he had so heartlessly slaughtered, and those daughters and sons, and sisters and brothers, and mothers and fathers, did not heap curses on his head, as he may have expected and deserved, but poured out a tsunami of forgiveness — a force and a power I can only hope may rend his heart in shame and bring him to repentance.

For the power of envy may stir up, but the power of love will conquer all. Even that dark force of envy itself and all the other evils that beset us, will, in the end, be calmed and quieted, and all our fears relieved; when we too place our trust in the love of God. Even if we do not see him, even if we fear he is asleep in the stern, he is the one who keeps us safe in the storm and the strife through the night; and it is to him, as is most justly due, that we ascribe all might, majesty, power and dominion, henceforth and for ever more.

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.”+

Welcome You All

God's welcome mat is big enough for Jew and Gentile both to wipe their feet before coming into God's house...

SJF • Advent 2a 2013 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.

We come now to the second Sunday in Advent, one step closer to Christmas. Last week we heard a splendid sermon from Deacon Cusano about being alert to the signs of God’s presence, and responding with the love of God. This week I’d like to reflect with you about putting that love into action, in terms of the virtue of hospitality. Since we are in the midst of preparing to welcome the Christ child on Christmas, and Christ the King when he comes in glory, it would be well for us to look at how well we welcome our brothers and sisters (as well as his brothers and sisters) in the meantime. For he has told us that it is in how we treat the least of those who are members of his family, that we will be judged.

In his letter to the Romans, Saint Paul was addressing a Jewish congregation in Rome — that is a Jewish Christian congregation. One of the biggest issues facing the church in its early days was the tension between those Jews who had come to accept Christ and the Gentiles who had done the same. It seems so simple and obvious to us two thousand years later, but believe me, at the time it was as hot a topic as the debates on human sexuality that we are going through the churches today. So let’s put ourselves back in time and look at what Saint Paul said from the perspective of his original hearers.

The first thing to remember is that most Jews in the time of Christ and Saint Paul regarded Gentiles as lower than dirt. One of the prevailing Jewish sects at the time was concerned primarily with purity, almost to the point of an obsession. This obsession with purity played a large part in their opposition to Jesus — you may remember all the fuss they raised about the disciples not washing their hands before eating. Concerned as they were with such matters of ritual purity, those Jews regarded Gentiles as more or less permanently unclean — since they were outside of the Law of Purity, they couldn’t be trusted to be pure: their food, their manner of life, everything about them was considered unclean. Even today you may notice on the subway an ultra-orthodox Jew, following the rules laid down in the fifteenth chapter of Leviticus, by avoiding sitting down on the subway seats, because according to the biblical law anyone who sits on a seat upon which an unclean person has sat becomes unclean himself. And while some may call the Jews who follow such rules today “ultra-orthodox,” in the days of Jesus and Paul, this was the belief and practice of the vast majority of Jewish believers: keep as far away from Gentiles as you possibly can; don’t let one touch you, don’t touch anything that they’ve handled; certainly don’t sit down to eat with them — because both their food and their seats are likely unclean!

So imagine the consternation when Peter and Paul both come along saying that God means to welcome the Gentiles into his kingdom — and not just in the way that the prophets had promised. This is no longer a promise, this is a reality. And we all know that sometimes it is easier to deal with an idea than the real thing. Peter and Paul both were saying, “Folks, this is real now. It’s happening. Now. God is welcoming the Gentiles into his household.” God’s plan is bigger than just a Messiah to rescue Israel from its troubles; God’s welcome mat is broader than imagined. It is not just for the descendants of Abraham, but for all the peoples of the earth.

You know how hard it is to change habits — especially religious habits! Well, this obsessive concern with purity was hard for many of them to let go of, even after they came to accept Jesus as Messiah. So Paul, writing to these Roman Jewish Christians, tries to prove that God welcomed the Gentiles as well as the Jews by citing those other passages of Scripture, pointing to the words of the prophets. He claims that Jesus came as a servant to the circumcised — that is, to the Jews — in order to confirm God’s promises to their ancestor Abraham, and in order to show mercy to the Gentiles, so that they also might give glory to God, who is not just the Lord of a small Middle Eastern tribe of nomads, but of the whole earth and all who dwell therein. So Saint Paul quotes the Psalms and Isaiah to prove that God’s welcome mat is big enough for Gentiles as well as Jews to wipe their feet on as they come into the kingdom.

Now the sad news is that Saint Paul didn’t convince everybody. There were still some who insisted that only they were welcome in God’s kingdom. In fact, the ongoing controversy runs through many of Paul’s letters, and right up to the end of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, when Paul finally gets to Rome and the Jews there tell him that all they have heard about the Christians is bad news! So too, many of the Jewish believers in Christ still ignored the preaching of John the Baptist, who told them that relying on their Jewish ancestry as children of Abraham meant nothing to God — God could raise up children of Abraham up from the very stones of the riverbank if need be. And so too some ignored the preaching of Paul, and insisted that only Jews were welcome into God’s kingdom, or at most Gentiles who had gone through the whole nine yards of conversion to Judaism. That included circumcision and the promise to follow the whole of the Jewish law. That law included all the rules that would separate them from their Gentile sisters and brothers, shunning even the benches they sat on and the food they ate.

Fortunately for us, the church eventually came around to Saint Paul’s way of thinking, accepting his preaching, in large part because of the experience that Saint Peter had when he was preaching to the Gentile Cornelius, and even before Peter could finish his sermon, the Holy Spirit came down out of heaven revealing that God shows no partiality, and welcomes all who turn to him in faith. God’s welcome mat is there for all, all of the children of Abraham and all of the Gentiles, all God’s children by birth or adoption.

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Let me close with a story about another Abraham, the 16th president of these United States. I don’t know how many of you have seen the Steven Spielberg film that came out last year. A point it makes is that even many of those who agreed that slaves should be free still couldn’t imagine that they were equal them, or should be treated as full citizens. Many even of those who opposed slavery would still, by any standard, then or now, be considered racists — because for them, race made a real difference; for those people, race made them superior. Into this atmosphere, Lincoln won a second term in 1864, as the War raged on, and as this very church building was being constructed — some things don’t stop for war.

And neither did the inaugural ball, which was a grand affair. Guests arrived by coach and on foot, and were ushered in to the festivities. Among them was a tall, sturdily built African-American man, with an impressive mane of white hair and a beard that Moses would have envied. He came up the steps and approached the front door of the White House. Out of nowhere, two policemen rushed up and blocked his way.

Well as I said, the gentleman was a large, powerful man, and he just brushed the two officers aside and stepped into the foyer. Once inside, two more officers grabbed him, all the while yelling insults at him that I will leave to your imagination. As they dragged him from the hall, he remained surprisingly calm and called out to a nearby guest, “Please tell Mr. Lincoln that Frederick Douglass is here!” At that name the officers let go , still standing on their guard. Soon enough, orders arrived to usher Douglass into the East Room. And as he came into that room, a hush fell as Lincoln, seeing him enter, took three big strides across that room, and stretched out his hand as the crowds parted like the Red Sea, and he walked towards his guest, with hand outstretched in greeting, and speaking in a voice loud enough so that none could mistake his intent, and said, “Well here’s my friend Douglass.”

And I can’t let pass another great man, who died this past week, known to his people as Madiba, but to us as Nelson Mandela. After 27 years in prison on Robin’s Island, he was elected president. And at the inauguration, people noticed among the guests seated on the platform the warden of the jail where he had spent those 27 years. And many people shook their heads to see this sight. But Madiba said, “We are all South Africans now.” That was what he fought for, that was what he lived for, that was what he spent 27 years in prison for — that all, all, would be there, on the platform. Just as Paul and Peter and Jesus preached, that all would be there in his heavenly kingdom. And it is our challenge to be like God, to say, “We are all God’s children now.”

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My sisters and brothers, Christ has called us to be his friends, as Lincoln welcomed Douglass. He has invited all, and his welcome is still open to all. We dare turn no one from the door of this church for any reason, any more than God turns them away from his welcome mat: for the color of their skins, or the nature of their ancestry; because they eat foods we might find distasteful, or have habits we might disdain; because of the languages they speak, or the relationships they form; for what they have done or left undone. God’s welcome mat is there for all who are prepared to enter his kingdom. Let us, as we prepare to welcome the Christ Child at Christmas, and Christ the King when he comes to judge and rule the world, also be prepared to welcome all of our yet-to-be-known brothers and sisters in him, that we may all together as Saint Paul said, “with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”+

Speak for your servant is listening

SJF • 2 Epiphany B 2009 • Tobias Haller BSG
Samuel said, “Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.” +

Many of you who are parents know just how hard it is sometimes to call children. Whether you’re calling them to dinnertime, to bed, or to get up and get ready for school, seldom does a single call suffice. The first call, it appears, simply conveys information, rather like the chime of a clock which one can note or ignore without the fear of consequences.

The second call is a bit more intense, perhaps raising in the one called a dim awareness that they may indeed be the one being spoken to — a bit like a phone ringing in the distance, that you can’t be quite sure is yours, or might perhaps be in the next apartment. Or you might wonder, “Is that my ringtone?” Surely I’m not the only person to use, “Who let the dogs out. Woof. Woof.”

But all of us here are familiar, either as the source or the object, of the particular tone of voice that develops on the third attempt to call a child. Not the finest coloratura soprano has the flexibility that suddenly infuses a parent’s voice on that third yell up the stairs, or down the street, or across the hall. That third call to dinner, or to bed, or to get up for school, conveys far more than simple scheduling information. It leaves no doubt as to who is being called, and who is doing the calling. Oh my yes; it carries all the intensity of a warning siren, the strength of a foghorn, the urgency of a fire alarm, and the authority of a police whistle. Speaking of telephone ringtones, perhaps the most effective I ever heard, went off in my office, coming from the side coat-pocket of a young man who was there as a potential bridegroom, for marriage counseling. He and his bride-to-be were sitting there quietly, as I was seriously explaining to them the commitments and responsibilities of matrimony, when suddenly, from his coat pocket, a voice emerged, saying, “Will you answer the phone! Will you just answer the damn phone! Answer the phone!!” Well, whether you are the one issuing that call, or the one receiving it, you know that somebody means business!

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In our reading from the Old Testament today, we heard the story of the Lord’s call to the boy Samuel. Now, notice that unlike most children, Samuel responds immediately to the very first call, and to the second and the third calls, even though he doesn’t understand precisely who is calling him. It is not the child who is ignoring God’s voice, it is the old man, the priest Eli.

Why is that? Why, of all people, can’t the Lord’s priest hear the Lord’s voice? The Scripture tells us, after all, that Eli was blind, not deaf. And yet it takes him three times to perceive that it is the Lord who has been calling the boy Samuel. Only on that third urgent call does the message, delivered through a child, sink in.

Why is it that God chose to speak to the child in the first place, rather than to the old man? Well, God answers that question. He tells young Samuel that he is going to do something that will open up everyone’s ears, and make them tingle to boot! The reason he has spoken to the child Samuel instead of to the priest Eli is simple: Eli has allowed corruption and blasphemy to profane the house of God. He has done nothing to stop his wicked sons from stealing the sacrifices for their own use, and as punishment God will wipe out Eli’s house off the face of the earth. Is it any wonder that God chose to speak to an innocent child rather than a corrupted elder?

No doubt God had tried to get through to Eli, and to his sons Hophni and Phinehas, but finally even God seems to have given up: for “The word of the Lord was rare in those days.” After the third and the fourth and the fifth and the hundredth time yelling upstairs, or down the street, or across the hall, does even God get tired?

No, God doesn’t grow weary; but rather turns his voice in another direction, to speak to those with ears to hear. With the appearance of Samuel, God renews the call, renews the effort to get through, to get the message across. Imagine God’s joy in finally being heard, the joy in hearing that child say, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

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We all of us here are God’s servants, called and commissioned by God to service, in many different ways And God has spoken to us many times over the years, both as a congregation and as individuals.

This church (or the wooden one that preceded it) will have been here for one hundred fifty-six years this July, and the word of God has been heard here often. Nor has it been rare in our day. The servants of God have heard that word, some of them perhaps more clearly than others; some of them getting the message on the first call, some on the second, others not until that insistent third; some of them have answered the call more readily than others when they heard it than others. A very few perhaps over the years have even decided the call was for someone else, letting the phone ring and ring, paying no attention, and drifting off to spend their Sundays with the newspaper or on the golf course or at the mall, or in bed.

But thanks be to God that Saint James Church has survived a few Eli’s and even an occasional Hophni or Phinehas. Thanks be to God for the folk who are loyal, listening and obedient to God’s voice, loyal and obedient Samuels.

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We can continue to be like Samuel in various capacities. We can continue to be like Samuel in his eagerness, responding to the first call even before properly understanding who it is calling him. We can be like Samuel in his perseverance, responding to the second, and to the third call with equal and unfailing fervor, even when someone literally says — Go back to sleep! We can be like Samuel in his patience and attentiveness going back that last time, after we’ve been told to go back and lie down, and placing ourselves at God’s disposal, saying, Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.

But we can do more. This first part was just picking up the receiver, pressing the “answer call” button. The truly awesome task after hearing God’s voice, is doing what God asks. And in this, we can be like Samuel in his commitment and honesty, carrying out God’s command to bear what he must have known would be a heavy and sad message for old Eli, who had been a father to him.

Samuel’s eagerness and perseverance, his patience and attentiveness, and his commitment and honesty, are a model for us as a church. Like Samuel we can seek the Lord with eagerness and perseverance; like Samuel we can wait upon God with patience and attentiveness, and like Samuel we can do as God asks of us with commitment and honesty.

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It sometimes takes a Samuel to hear and then bear the voice of God to others in a tone that they can hear. It takes the eagerness and perseverance, the patience and attentiveness, and the commitment and honesty of a Samuel to reach out to those who can not hear the good news of hope for the future because they are so caught up in the sins of the past or the confusion of the present.

Sometimes it will take the voice of a Samuel, a young prophet filled with patience, peace, and charity, a prophet who is not afraid to challenge those who are set in their ways, and may even think they’ve got God on their side, even though they haven’t really heard his voice for a long, long time. Martin Luther King was such a prophet. He confronted systems as corrupt as the temple was under Eli and his blasphemous sons. But Martin confronted those evils of a land that considered itself a democracy, and yet was so unfair; a land corrupted by self-conceit that we were better than anyone else. Martin Luther King confronted those evils, those misperceptions, those sources of pride, with the witness of a Samuel, the clear and persistent, but nonviolent and loving witness of one who seeks the well-being even of those who hold him in contempt; who, in short, followed our Lord’s command to love even those who hurt him.

We may not be called to be Samuels in the dramatic way Martin Luther King was. But to respond to the call from our Lord will mean setting aside some things that may have preoccupied us. Not that they are unimportant, but that they may not be what God wants us to be spending our time on just now. God may have other plans for us, if we will pause for a moment to hear his voice.

If we earnestly seek to hear God’s voice, things that seem so terribly important will come into perspective. We will see greater things than these, these things that have so occupied us. We will see new visions, new possibilities, new opportunities for mission and ministry that we were too busy to notice before. If, like Samuel, we seek the Lord with eagerness and perseverance, wait upon him with patience and attentiveness, and follow through on his commandments with commitment and honesty, he who is faithful will not forsake us. We will hear God’s words of promise; we will see great things. Truly, truly, I say to you, if we follow God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, with eagerness and perseverance, with patience and attentiveness, with commitment and honesty, if we, seeking, trust, we shall, trusting, find: not only shall we hear, but we shall see; we will see the heavens opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man, who is our Savior, even Jesus Christ our Lord.+

To Live Faith

SJF • Proper 15a • Tobias Haller BSG
Jesus said, “Great is your faith; let it be done for you as you wish.”

Our gospel today portrays a woman with both great faith and great perseverance. Her story reminds me of my favorite film, also a study in perseverance, by the great Japanese film-director Akira Kurosawa. It’s called Ikiru, which means “To Live.” I was just telling a some members of the parish about it at coffee hour a few weeks ago, and I want to share something of it with all of you today, as it speaks very eloquently to our gospel message.

The main character in the film, Mr. Watanabe, is a civil servant in the public works department of a big city. The time is a few years after the Second World War, when Japan is beginning to rebuild from its devastating defeat. Watanabe spends his whole life working — but he accomplishes very little. His days consist almost entirely of shuffling papers from the in-basket to the out-basket, dutifully stamping each of them with his rubber stamps, but accomplishing nothing at all of practical use. Most of the folks who come to his department get the run-around and are sent off to a different department in City Hall. (Does any of this sound familiar?) Watanabe’s staff have given him a nickname, The Mummy — and he looks like one and has just about as much joy out of life.

Then, one day, he discovers he is dying, and has only a few months to live. He doesn’t know what to do — so he tries different things, going through all the stages of the process of coming to terms with this new reality: denial, anger, and fear. He gets drunk and sings sad songs about how short life is; he tries to reconnect with the son he loves but can’t relate to — but he finds no any answers.

Then one day he has a revelation, and it is as if he has been reborn. A young woman from his staff, who had quit working in the office when she couldn’t take the boredom any more, has gone to work at a toy factory. She shows the old mummy one of the toys she makes, and says at least she knows that somewhere a child will be made happy because of something she has actually done. And in a flash, Watanabe realizes that he can do something with his life, he can make a difference in these last few months that he has to live; he can really live, and do something.

Back in the office, he grabs a paper off the top of his stack, and he sets about trying to accomplish something in City Hall — getting a fetid swamp drained, one that has been making children sick in a local neighborhood, and having a playground built in its place.

Of course, no one else at City Hall is interested in doing anything either. But ultimately they can’t resist this persistent toothpick of a man looking at them with huge sad eyes — sitting opposite their desks and refusing to move until they pull out their own rubber stamps to sign off on the aspects of the work under their control, and needed to proceed.

In one scene, Watanabe confronts a mob boss who has a politician in his pocket. The big yakuza in the shiny suit looks down at this dried-up little shrimp of a man and says, “Don’t you know I can have you killed.” And Watanabe looks up at him, and breaks into a huge smile — he has no fear of death, you see; he knows he’s going to die but he has just begun to live. This completely freaks out the mob boss, and gives him such a start that he relents. The playground is built, and Watanabe lives just to see it completed, and then dies, knowing he has accomplished something: he has lived.

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Our gospel today shows us another example of such persistence, persistence and faith even in the face of resistance. And the resistance comes from a surprising place, for it shows us Jesus in a light that is so unlike him it may take us a while to appreciate what is going on in this passage. A Canaanite woman cries out to Jesus asking him to save her daughter. Jesus gives her the cold shoulder — not saying a word. The disciples complain, and Jesus says, essentially, “Not my people, not my problem.” She kneels before him, refusing to give up, and begs for his help. And he then says something so shocking it is hard to believe it comes from the lips of our loving Savior, “It isn’t fair to give the children’s food to dogs.’

Yet still she persists, this unrelenting woman with the sick child, who will be driven away neither by silence, by complaints, or by insults: she reminds Jesus that even the dogs get scraps. And finally, after ignoring her, shrugging her off, and even insulting her, Jesus relents, and acknowledges her persistence — and her great faith; and her daughter is instantly healed.

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Great faith — an interesting contrast to our gospel of last week, where Jesus dealt with Peter’s “little faith.’ How interesting that Jesus should find little faith in his own disciples, but great faith in a Canaanite — one of the remnant of the hated people whom God had told the Israelites to cast out of the promised land. One cannot help but compare Saint Peter, untrustworthy Saint Peter, the one who would deny his Lord three times before the cock crowed, with this poor pagan woman who persisted three times in imploring help for her sick child. Who has the greater faith? It’s easy to see, and Jesus confirms it by responding to her appeal.

In the same way, years before, Isaiah had assured people who thought they had no hope, and no reason to hope, for inclusion in the life of salvation, that their faith too would be rewarded. To the eunuchs and the foreigners — outsiders and outcasts, people not allowed to be part of the assembly of the faithful, not allowed to set foot on the Holy Mount and enter the courts of God’s Temple — where the sign said, “No Gentiles Past This Point” — Isaiah assured them that God would give them a special blessing, a monument and a name, and accept their sacrifices in a house that would not just be for the children of Israel, but a house of prayer for all people.

And then, years later, Saint Paul would write to Gentiles in Rome, with much the same message — assuring them that the littleness of faith shown by those of his own people who had not accepted Jesus, was only so that mercy could be shown to the Gentiles — themselves once people of no faith, now blessed to be included in the wide embrace of salvation. Where before only the children of Israel were assured of a life in the world to come, now others would be ushered in, brought into the kingdom and the wedding banquet by the Son and Bridegroom himself.

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So why was Jesus so hard on this Canaanite woman — was it to test her, and the disciples, to see what she and they would do, to see whose faith was stronger — and perhaps to shame the disciples’ little faith with her great faith? We do not know, but I think that’s as good a guess as any. Jesus knew Isaiah backwards and forwards — you recall he read from it at the beginning of his ministry. He knew that salvation was not just for Israel, but for all the scattered flocks — all of them God’s creation, the God who hates nothing that he has made.

So just as Jesus at first, before feeding the multitude, challenged the disciples to give them something to eat, when they just wanted to send them away, so to here he has an eye on the disciples. And isn’t it striking just how often the disciples wanted to send people away? When people brought children for Jesus to touch — send them away! When the hungry crowds hungered for food — send them away! When people were doing works of power in Jesus’ name even though they weren’t part of the apostles’ band — let us call down fire from heaven to destroy them! Those apostles sure seem to have thought that less is more, the fewer the better, even though in each case Jesus tried to show them a better way.

So too here no doubt he had a watchful eye on them to see if their generosity might be awakened by this persistent woman’s plea, or his refusal. Of course, just as they complained that there wasn’t enough to feed the multitudes, that it was annoying to have all those children coming to Jesus, or that people were doing works of wonder even though they weren’t part of the “in crowd,’ so here they complain about the woman bothering them — their little faith showing in every move they make, every step they take — and Jesus is watching them.

As I say, we cannot get into Jesus’ mind, or know for sure why he did what he did. I find it hard to believe he was being intentionally cruel to this poor woman — it seems very out of character. And we know he set many tests for his disciples, and perhaps this was one of them. Ultimately only God knows.

What we do know is that long ago a mother cried out for someone to save her child, and she persisted in her cry, and her cry was heard, and her child was healed. Great was her faith, and great the blessing that it brought her.

May we too show such faith, both in seeking the help of our Lord and God without resting, persistent in appeal and great in faith — but also in doing better than the disciples did — and helping all those in need, both near and far, our own people and people from afar: all of them God’s very own. For we have been given the power to live — the power to make a difference in other peoples lives and our own, rather than to spend them shuffling papers from the in-box to the out-box of our lives. Let us take courage in the knowledge that though our lives are limited, our days numbered, while we live them they are ours to use — to live or to waste. Let us then, share abundantly in the life that is not ours alone — not just the scraps and the crumbs, but the full course meal of loving fellowship: shared with all from near and far in this house of prayer for all people — the house of God, to whom we give honor and glory, now and for evermore.+

Heirs of the Spirit

Saint James Fordham • Lent 2a • Tobias Haller BSG
What is born of the flesh is flesh, what is born of the Spirit is Spirit.+

As you know, this is Black History Month, and various programs on TV and elsewhere have been sharing some of that rich history with us. Another way you can look into that history is by going on-line to the Archives of the Episcopal Church, where you can visit an exciting exhibition called “The Church Awakens: African Americans and the Struggle for Justice.” (You can find the internet address in today’s bulletin.)

However, this year, due to Lent starting so early, and overlapping with Black History Month, we are also given the opportunity to reflect on some powerful Scripture lessons in the context of our heightened awareness of race and kinship. These are the matters of flesh and blood that offer so much promise and yet have caused so much division and led to so much injustice and anguish down through the years.

And the problems with racism are apparent from the very foundation. For right there in the book of Genesis, we are shown God choosing Abram, making him the father of a great nation, a “chosen” people — a clan to be given God’s special care and attention, who would pass that inheritance down in the flesh of their bodies, carrying the blessing in their blood, and literally marked in their flesh with the sign of circumcision. As to the Canaanites who live in the land that Abram’s people will possess, well, they’re expendable second-class citizens in this view of things. They will be wiped out as inferior people, pushed aside to make room for the chosen ones, the blessed ones who will spring from the seed of Abram. For it is to his offspring, and to his alone, that God promises the blessed land.

This was a view that many Israelites found comforting in the years that would follow. Surely it is true that believing yourself to be blessed is a comfort when you actually find your life not going well. When you’re down and out the memories of a golden age when your ancestors were on top can help salve your wounded pride. Race pride, pride in your kin and your heritage, in this sense, is a sort of consolation prize.

And this promise of being chosen comforted the people of Israel through their slave years in Egypt; it kept them going in their captivity in Babylon, and it inspired them when the time came to rebuild the temple in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah.

But something else began to happen to the Jewish people while they were in Babylon. Slowly some of them began to find their perspectives broadened as they saw new things in this bigger world, beyond the old borders of the Holy Land, and their minds were stretched by a small group of inspired men and women who were touched by God’s spirit and given the gift of prophecy.

Now, as I believe I’ve said before from this pulpit, prophecy is not about making predictions like a psychic friend or supermarket tabloid! Prophecy isn’t something you can get for $1.95 for each additional minute! On the contrary, prophecy is about being able to see the world clearly, to be able to see the truth and to speak it boldly, even when it means getting into trouble for it.

And the truth that began to dawn in the minds of the prophets, most especially the prophet Isaiah, was that there had to be more to God’s plan for the earth than just blessing this small tribe of Israelites. The prophets began to see that Israel was not to be the end of salvation, but the beginning, and that from Israel light would spread to enlighten all the nations of the world. The prophets began to see that it wasn’t a matter of just one race and clan, but of the whole human family — whose common kinship after all traced its way back to Adam and Eve. It wasn’t just one people who were the object of God’s redeeming love and care, but all people everywhere.

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Such was the message of the prophets, but, as we know, the words of prophets are often ignored. And sure enough, after the end of the captivity in Babylon,

when Israel got back home and started rebuilding the Temple, they soon fell into the old “us-versus-them” mindset that has plagued racists and nationalists of whatever complexion or clan from the very beginning. One of the first rules they put in place, for example, was “no intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews.” Laws as strict as the old anti-miscegenation laws of the American South, Nazi Germany, or Apartheid South Africa were put in place, to restrict and nullify such “impure” marriages, such “race mixing,” especially when Jews had married women from the hated remnants of the Canaanites and Moabites who still eked out a sad existence on the fringes of Jewish society.

It took another anonymous prophet to raise a voice at that point in history, and we only know this prophet from the story this wise person recorded, a very short story in one of the shortest books of the Bible, so small it is easy to lose it between Judges and Samuel— the story of Ruth. This wise prophet told that story to remind all those so keen on stopping intermarriage that Ruth, the grandmother of the great king David himself, had been a Moabite.

Sadly, this beautiful story of love and inclusion was lost on the nationalistic zealots, and the racists had their way, rebuilding the Temple, ultimately defeating the hated Greeks and establishing a Jewish state once more, until the Romans dealt the final crushing blow to Jewish pride in Jewish ancestry and blood.

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And it was in those days of Roman rule that once more voices began to be raised, one voice in particular, that of a humble carpenter who lifted up the prophecies of Isaiah and dared to suggest that they were being fulfilled even then. Jesus dared to challenge those of his day who regarded Samaritans as less than human outcasts — and we’ll hear more about that next week! In today’s Gospel, one of the Jewish leaders comes to Jesus by night, curious to hear more about this radical message that seems to overturn so much that he held dear.

Now, to give Nicodemus his due, at least he makes the effort. Later in the Gospel he would be bold enough to speak out to defend Jesus, but at this point his confidence in Jesus is partial, so he comes to him in secret.

I can’t help but think of Nicodemus as I would of a well-meaning white liberal coming to visit Dr. Martin Luther King during the bus boycotts; some white Montgomery businessman with his heart in the right place, but worried about his reputation, offering to help — as long as nobody finds out!

But Jesus answers Nicodemus as I’m sure Dr. King would have answered such a well-meaning but fearful person. What is born of the flesh is flesh, what is born of the Spirit is Spirit. You must be reborn from above, from the Spirit. You’re still hanging on to that flesh of yours, full of pride in heritage and blood, when what is truly needed is liberation in the Spirit, freedom to move where you will and say what you think and stand tall and proud not because of who your earthly parents were, or where you were born, or where you went to school, or how much money you make, or what color you are — but because you have a Father in heaven who pours out his Spirit upon you.

This is the Gospel message: that salvation does not lie in race or in matters of flesh and blood and heritage; it does not lie in who your parents are or where you were born; it doesn’t even lie in the works you do or the laws you follow. Abraham showed us that, he whose faith — not his works — was reckoned to him as righteousness. No, salvation comes by grace through faith, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the new birth as a new person who is a child of God by adoption, not descent. Only one has come down from heaven, Jesus the Son of God, and it is he in whom all our racial, ethnic and national differences are swallowed up in salvation, when we are baptized into him by water and the Holy Spirit.

For in him there is no east or west, no north or south, black, white, yellow, brown or red. In Christ there is one great fellowship throughout the whole wide earth, in which, thanks to the grace and mercy of God, through the generosity and abundance of his Holy Spirit given in baptism, we have been blessed to find ourselves numbered. And so to him, whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine, to him be glory from generation to generation, not in the flesh, but in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever.+