Surprise Surprise Surprise

God has many surprises in store for us, and don't we love to be surprised!

Proper 6b 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

We heard in last week’s Scripture readings about how the people of Israel rejected God and asked to have a king instead. Samuel agreed, and Saul became king, but as we can see from today’s reading it didn’t take very long for the glow to fade from this particular rosebud. King Saul enjoyed a very short honeymoon, and things quickly went from bad to worse. It got so bad that God had to step in, and even while Saul was still king, set about choosing someone else to take over when the inevitable total collapse of Saul’s leadership would come to pass.

This is one of the few sections of First Samuel that we have heard in our Sunday lessons, but this time around it comes with a different twist, given the other readings that accompany it. And that twist is about the power of God to surprise even a prophet, even a saint, even the church itself.

The big surprise for Samuel — as we’ve heard before when this passage comes up — is that for king number two God doesn’t want another king like Saul. Saul is a kind of Hebrew Hercules, a strong-man military leader; but this time around, God chooses the runt of the litter, the youngest of all of Jesse’s sons; not big tall Eliab, high of stature, but the shepherd boy David — the one even his own father Jesse doesn’t think is a likely candidate to throw his yarmulke into the ring and call him home from keeping the sheep. But when the boy finally comes, God lets Samuel know that this is the one God chooses to be the new king — and Samuel anoints him in the presence of all his brothers and his father.

In addition to perhaps reminding us of the pile-up of presidential candidates we see around this time every four years, this passage should also remind us of another Scripture about younger brothers and older brothers. We read one, and studied in it in Bible Study not too long ago — the one where Joseph’s dreams are realized and he stands before his father and his brothers as Pharaoh’s right-hand man. Does that ring a bell? This is a theme that runs through Scripture — God favoring the younger over the older: Abel over Cain, Jacob over Esau, Joseph over his brothers and David over his, and even, you might note, Jesus over John the Baptist (though they were more distant relatives than brothers. Jesus was younger than John by six months; and as John himself finally had to admit, “He must increase; I must decrease.”)

Still, in spite of how often it happens throughout the Scripture, this seems to come as a constant surprise — that God is not impressed with age or power or strength, but on the willingness to do as God says, and respond to God’s call. That shouldn’t surprise us, and more than that it shouldn’t have surprised Samuel or Jesse. Maybe it’s just that God knows his children, and that deep down we love surprises. And like a child who never tires of peek-a-boo, so too we always respond to God’s surprising grace, no matter how often God bestows it.

In this game of divine peek-a-boo we do, to a large extent, have our eyes closed — walking by faith and not by sight — so that when God does tell us to open our eyes and behold the surprise, we can rejoice like the children of God we are. For if anyone is in Christ — which is what it means to be a child of God — there is a new creation: we are reborn in Christ. Everything old has passed away; and see — peek-a-boo — everything has become new.

Saint Paul, while still known as Saul, experienced this himself on the road to Damascus; he thought he had God in his hip-pocket and was doing what God wanted by arresting the first Christians and sending them off to prison. He was no better than his namesake Saul the king, who thought God wanted sacrifice instead of obedience — Saul the king and Saul who later became Paul just couldn’t understand and couldn’t follow directions! God gave the second Saul a second chance — showing him in a surprising flash, a flash that blinded him for a time, how wrong he had been about his religion and his God. And, peek-a-boo, the scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight — and he saw the whole new-created world with new eyes. And everything looked new. Not just because it was new, but because he was new: he was reborn.

God is always out to surprise us, and Jesus shows us one more way God does so in the parables of the sower and of the mustard seed. The first parable emphasizes the hiddenness of God’s subterranean working. The one who sows the seeds scatters them — but does not know how it is that the seeds sprout and grow. It happens out of sight. He knows when they have grown, however, and he eagerly sets about the work of the harvest. Now that’s not so surprising, though it does emphasize that the one who sows does so in faith and not by sight — that is, much of the sprouting and growth is underground, and it is only when the stalk, the head, and the grain appear that he can truly rejoice in this new creation.

So Jesus follows up with a truly amazing parable — as if you were to take a mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds, and plant it, but instead of a mustard plant growing up — a mustard plant which is a bush a few feet high — up sprouts a mighty tree so big that birds can build nests in it. I mentioned Cinderella in connection with our readings last week — but this week it’s more like Jack and the Beanstalk! You wake up and look out your window and instead of a shrub you see a gigantic tree reaching for the heavens. As Jim Nabors used to say, Surprise, surprise, surprise! The kingdom of heaven is never what you expect, it is always an amazing surprise.

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Do we still have the capacity to be surprised by the grace of God? Have we become blase or accustomed to the same-old same-old and lost the wonder a child experiences when Grandma plays peek-a-boo — or more importantly, when God brings us a personal miracle, whether of healing from disease, or being delivered from an accident, or just being able to wake up in the morning and get out of bed! Isn’t that a miracle enough to give thanks for — that each new day is a new creation, and if we will let it everything will become new for us in that day? For every day is “the day that the Lord hath made” if we will open the eyes of our faith and behold God at work in every instant of our lives — every day in every way: in our journeys and our resting places, in our sitting down and rising up again. If only we can know of God’s presence, not just in the parts where our eyes are open and we can see, but even, and maybe especially, as we sleep and the deep subterranean work of God goes on we know not how, germinating and sprouting underground but preparing to burst forth in an avalanche of blessing at the harvest time? We may have to, from time to time, cry our eyes out when we go out carrying the seed; but Oh! how we can rejoice when we behold the harvest and bring in the sheaves!

Keep that spirit of readiness, my friends, that willingness to be surprised by the grace of God as it fills and forms your life — for without that grace we can do nothing at all. But with it — surprise, surprise, surprise: all that we do can be done to God’s glory, and to the praise of God’s most holy Name, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The Signpost Up Ahead

You don't have to go to any Twilight Zone to find a world where things are not the way they should be...

Lent 5b 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Now is the judgment of this world, now is the ruler of this world to be driven out; and I, when I am lifted from the earth, will draw all people to myself.+

There is a 1960s TV show that has remained in reruns ever since. It’s not I Love Lucy, though I’m sure you would instantly recognize it from the music of the opening credits just as easily. Perhaps you know the opening text that the host recites as well as the music. “There is a land between mystery and imagination...” Do you remember? It ends, “There’s the signpost up ahead...” as the title comes shimmering into view, “The Twilight Zone.”

Strange things happen in the Twilight Zone; things in the Twilight Zone are not as they should be. But what I want to say to you today is that right here in this world things are not as they should be, either.

Things are not as they should be when people with mental illness wander the streets because hospitals have been shut down, and the small apartments they could afford to live in have been converted into condos for the one percent. Things are not as they should be where people have to live in cardboard boxes over sidewalk grates to get warm. Things are not as they should be where children go without food — not just in famine-stricken deserts or countries in the midst of war — but right here in this city, one of the wealthiest in the world. Things are not as they should be where the government cuts support for food for the poor because some think they might make a habit of eating. Things are not as they should be where corporations are treated like people, and people like commodities; where politicians of both parties sell their favors to the highest bidder, and are more interested in the next election than in doing the job they were elected for in the first place. Things are not as they should be where people are killed by those who are meant to protect their lives. Things are not as they should be where people are beheaded and burned alive, and raped and murdered and all in the name of religion.

No, my brothers and sisters, things are not as they should be right here amongst the swift and varied chances of this world of ours. You don’t have to go to any Twilight Zone to find a world where things are not as they should be. Things are not as they should be right here and now, and many of us are looking for a signpost up ahead to lead us to a better place.

Sometimes people will look backwards, back to that they like to think of as the “good old days.” But when we look to the past with a careful eye, we will find there’s nothing new in any of the problems we suffer today. Homelessness, hunger, violence, crime and crooked politicians, have been a part of human life almost from the beginning. This world of ours never has been what it should be — except maybe during that first afternoon, in those few precious hours in before Adam and Eve decided on an apple for dinner. Ever since God strolled by in the cool of that first human evening, and asked a terrible question, “Where are you?” — ever since, humanity has been a stranger in a strange land, where things are no longer as they should be. So there is nothing new in homelessness: Adam and Eve were the first homeless to walk the earth, when God kicked them out of Eden.

There is nothing new in hunger. When God led the people out of Egypt’s land, and through the Red Sea, were they grateful? No, they grumbled about the pickles they’d left behind, the delicacies of the Egyptian fleshpots. They complained, when God gave them bread from heaven, they grumbled and asked him, “Where’s the beef?” And so instead of leading them into a promised land, God kept that generation of ungrateful people marching in circles for forty years, until all the grumblers were dead.

There is nothing new in political deceit. Prophets tried and tried again through the history of those naughty sisters Israel and Judah, tried to warn the idolatrous rulers of the error of their ways. But did they listen? One or two, maybe, but the rest just tried to shut the prophets up — burning Jeremiah’s scroll and even tossing him down a well. There is nothing new in political corruption and cover ups — why, one ancient politician just tried to wash his hands of the whole sorry business; and you can find a picture from the photo op right over there in the First Station of the Cross: Pilate washing his hands: “It’s not about me!”

And, Lord knows, there is nothing new in violence. Jesus himself came into the world amidst violence and he left it amidst violence. After his birth, the boys of Bethlehem were massacred, as Herod tried to wipe out the rival child king, in one of the great crimes against humanity. And some thirty years later, we need look no further than to the cross itself to see the horror of human violence done upon another human being.

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But do that: look a week and a half ahead for a moment; look to Good Friday in your mind’s eye, look to the cross where the Savior hangs dying. Could it be that this is — after all — the signpost we’ve been looking for? I mentioned last week that the byway sign on the highway of our Lenten journey — on our “lighten up” Sunday in mid-Lent — pointed us towards Good Friday. The sign at the middle is the same as the sign at the end. The Good Friday cross stands as it has ever has, since that gloomy afternoon of pain and sorrow. Could it be that this is the signpost up ahead that shows us the way to the world where things are the way they should be? Could it be that this is the signpost up ahead that shows us the One who takes this world that God made, this world that started well but fell, and by the power of God begins to make it right? Could that be it?

It is at the heart of our faith to affirm, Yes, it is! The cross is the signpost where the world turns around and the new creation begins, as the world begins to become what it is meant to be. This is no easy transformation. It took the sacrifice of Christ once offered for the sake of the whole world. For that world to be set right, for that world to turn the corner and become what it should have been all along, the world itself would have to perish. Just as a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies and is reborn in the fruit it bears, so this earth would have to suffer judgment. We are still living in the last days of that judgment, the birth pangs of the new world as the old world dies and is reborn. And let me tell you, it doesn’t want to die; it’s a hard death before rebirth comes — as hard as the death of the cross. Jesus told us, “Now is the judgment of this world, now the ruler of this world will be cast out; and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

He, the homeless one with no place to lay his head, is the signpost up ahead that points the way from homelessness. He leads us to an eternal home with many mansions; but he also teaches us to open our doors to welcome the stranger and the refugee. He challenges us to work and pray and give so that all of God’s children may have decent homes in which to live, in God’s world where things are the way they should be.

Jesus, who fasted in the wilderness, who thirsted on the cross, is the signpost up ahead that leads away from hunger. Not only does he give us his Body and Blood, as spiritual food and drink, but he gives us every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God to nourish us as can no earthly food. And he challenges us to share our abundance — for abundant it is even when we think it isn’t, even when all we’ve got is five loaves and two fish — he challenges us to share our rations with those who have less, or nothing at all, so that all may be filled, in God’s world where things are the way they should be.

Jesus, whom the rulers of this world connived to defeat, to find guilty before a crooked court, this Jesus is the signpost up ahead that points the way to justice. He engraves the new covenant on our hearts, the new covenant that asks that we do justice, love righteousness, and walk humbly with our God, following in the way of the cross into God’s world where things are the way they should be.

Jesus, the one born amidst violence and dying amidst violence — he is the signpost up ahead that transforms violence into peace, by taking the very instrument of violence, the cross, and fooling everyone — including our ancient enemy Satan — as he turns that instrument of death into the instrument of peace and life. This was the reason he came to us, this was the hour for which he was born, this was the judgment of the world, the casting out and the casting down of the ruler of this world; this was the hour when Jesus was glorified, lifted up, to draw the whole world to himself, so that it might become at last God’s world of peace where things are the way they should be.

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Good Friday is just a little over a week away. Keep your eyes on the old rugged cross. It is the signpost that leads the way to life everlasting in the kingdom of God, but also to more abundant life here and now, as each of us disciples of Christ takes up our own cross, day by day, to share what seems to be small and weak and little, but which the grace of God can magnify. Keep your eyes on that cross in the midst of homelessness and hunger and injustice and violence — but also, put our hands to work, right here, right now, to help to make it right. Keep your eyes on that cross and God will give you strength to endure and to do your part in turning those wrongs around, to do your part in the redemption of this world. Keep your eyes on that cross, the instrument of death that is become for us the means of life; keep your eyes on the signpost up ahead, glad to suffer shame and loss, if shamed we must be, but willing to lose all for the one thing of worth: the inestimable love of God; revealed to us in and through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

God's Transforming Call

God calls us... do we follow?

SJF • Epiphany 3b 2015 • Tobias S Haller BSG
Jesus said, Follow me, and I will make you fish for people

Our scripture readings today present us with variations on a theme, and the theme is “Transformation.” The transformation takes three different forms, but all three forms have God as their author. And these three forms of transformation have the advantage of being a version of the “three R’s” — in this case Repentance, Renunciation, and Renewal.

We hear the middle movement of the “Jonah Symphony” this morning. You recall the first movement: Jonah rejected God’s transforming call — to him! He ran away from God and ended up repenting in the belly of a fish. In today’s passage we see him finally doing as God instructed him, and preaching the message of repentance — one which he himself has learned so well, up close and personal, and under water. The great and the small, the folk of Nineveh, respond to the call of God, and repent, turning, each of them, from their evil ways. But notice this: God calls through Jonah, himself called, and himself knowing in himself the need for repentance; and perhaps that is what makes his preaching so persuasive: and the people respond and repent.

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Saint Paul delivers a different form of God’s call to the people of Corinth. He wants people to detach from the normal courses of life because all of life is about to be transformed — the present form of this world, he says, is passing away. So Paul commends a kind of transforming renunciation — acting in a way that takes no mind of the situation in which one finds oneself, whether married, or mourning, or rejoicing, engaging in commerce or worldly matters: because the world itself is about to be transformed, and radically so!

What I’d like to note is that this too reflects some of the backstory about Paul, just as Jonah’s preaching had some relation with his own earlier life. He also had himself gone through a tremendous transformation when God called him out — literally knocked him down and senseless. His old world passed away on that road to Damascus, when God made him realize that all the things he was so sure of, all of the things he believed with all his heart, all his reputation and even all of his religion, were to be regarded as so much rubbish. Next to the call from God, nothing else in this world mattered. He no longer needed to lay claim to being a Jew born of Jews, a Pharisee among Pharisees, a star pupil of a great Rabbi — for the greatest Rabbi of all, Jesus himself, had taught him a lesson, had turned his whole world upside down, leading him in the end to renounce all that was past and to reach out to what was promised.

And so Paul too passes on what had been delivered to him: the transforming power of God to renounce all worldly expectations and values that could stand in the way of proclaiming the Gospel and leading a Gospel life.

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Finally, we come to the gospel itself, which portrays the calling of the first disciples. Jesus passes along the Sea of Galilee and finds four fishermen — he tells them literally to drop everything and follow him. He calls on them to change their livelihoods and their lives — to leave behind the boats and the nets and even their family in order to follow him. And in this call, they will be transformed by being renewed. What was there in them will somehow remain, but be transformed and renewed. Their catch may change but not their way of life: now they are going to catch people instead of fish.

Their catch may change, but not their way of life: and in doing so they will still be sailing out — metaphorically — into dangerous waters, risking their lives and taking a chance. Their fishermen’s skills will be called upon and put to use, but in new ways. They will still need the keen eye that can read the signs of sunset and sunrise, and the sharp nose that can smell a change in the wind. They will rely on the sense of balance that can feel from the movement of the boat where the next big wave is coming from. And above all they will need the patience to wait wait wait in quiet, and then the strength to pull pull pull to haul in the catch. Jesus is calling to these fishermen to go with him in search of the greatest catch the world had ever seen — they are going to cast their nets abroad and catch the whole world itself with the message of the gospel.

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It is the call, my friends, that is important; the call and our response to it, whether it is a call to repent, renounce or renew: God’s transforming call. When we hear God’s call, does it lift our hearts and move us forward to do the work that God assigns? Does it empower us to change our direction if we are heading the wrong way, or to free ourselves from the world’s distractions, and renew our energies? Does God’s voice sounding in our heart, his call and command echoing in our ears, fill us with inspiration and move us to leave behind the safe and the familiar and to follow him, bringing with us nothing but the skills that God has given us in the first place? Or do we allow the complacency and comfort of our condition, or the cares of this world, to limit the scope of our response to God’s call?

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Roland Meredith tells of an experience he once had one night early in the spring out in the country when he was young: In the midst of the quiet night, suddenly he heard the sound of wild geese in their seasonal flight back home. He ran up onto the porch to call everyone out to see them, because the sight of wild geese flying in the moonlight, is one of the great beauties of nature, singing their peculiar song as they fly the night sky. As he was enjoying this beautiful, wonderful sight, he noticed the tame mallard ducks that lived on the family pond. They too had heard the wild call, the honking of the geese, and it stirred up something in their little breasts. Their wings fluttered a bit in a feeble response. The urge to fly, to take up their place in the sky for which God had made them, with the wings God had given them to do so, was filling their little breasts — but they never rose from the water. They had made a choice, you see, long ago; the corn from the barnyard was too secure and satisfying — and fattening — to risk a flight to who knows where. The security and safety of that little pond kept them from fulfilling the call of the wild to that wild and exciting life for which they had been made.

My friends, God is calling us to a wild and exciting life — the mission of his church to the ends of the world. He is calling on us repent our sins, renounce our worldly attachments, and renew our lives; to spread our wings — the wings he gave us; to leave behind whatever might hold us back, and yet to bring with us all the gifts and skills with which he has equipped us all along — the steady hand and the patient heart, the ready will and joy in the spirit; and above all the good news itself which we have received and are called upon to share. This is his rule in all the churches. It doesn’t matter if we are wage-earners or executives, working or retired, single or married, buyers or sellers, rich or poor — whatever our condition God can make use of it through his call.

So will you join me on this quest? God is sending us out from this place to fish for people — to spread the word and to bring in the catch of friends and family, of coworkers and associates, of strangers we meet on the street and the companions of our breakfast table, here, here to the banquet, where we feast upon the word of God in Scripture and in broken bread. It is a high calling my friends — high as the sky and as broad as God’s good, green earth. But God has called us, and his call is transforming, as we repent, renounce, and are renewed: so let each of us resolve to lead the life that the Lord has transformed and fitted us for, and to which we have been called. The one who has called us will not take No for an answer.+

Turn Turn Turn

Walking in the Way sometimes means turning around... the meaning of repentance

SJF • Proper 21a • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The son answered, I will not; but later he changed his mind and went.

Starting this coming Friday evening, our brothers and sisters of the Jewish faith will observe the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. In the synagogues they will read the Book of Jonah, a story of repentance both by the ones preached to, the Ninevites, and the preacher, Jonah himself. The Jews call this reading Ha Teshuvah, and it means “The Turning Around.” It can also be translated as The Repentance. But that’s where the problem comes in.

When we hear the word repentance we tend to think in terms of how we feel. We focus on how sorry we are about something we’ve done, how guilty or uncomfortable we feel. But turning around isn’t about feeling; it’s about doing. It is not a state of mind, or disposition of the emotions. Rather it is an act of the will, a movement of soul and body.

Everyone knows you cannot right a wrong just by feeling sorry about it! Even an accidental, unintentional wrong, like bumping into someone, requires at the very least an apology. And if that bump is rather more solid, such as a bump of an automobile, recompense for damages will be in order. It is not enough simply to feel sorry about wrongdoing, regardless of intention — you actually have to do something. You have to act, you have to move.

Think for a moment about the important part physical movement plays in the heart of the Jewish people: start with Abraham’s long pilgrimage from the land of Ur of the Chaldees, then the journey to Egypt in the days of Joseph, then that long Exodus back to the promised land, that forty-year-long wandering in the wilderness, from which we’ve been hearing highlights; then exile to Babylon, followed by another return to the land of promise.

And you know the story didn’t end there. After the time of Christ, after the times described in our New Testament, the Romans finally lost their patience with the numerous rebellions of the Zealot revolutionaries, and they burned down the Temple once again, sending the people into exile, scattered to the four winds. The Zionist movement of the nineteenth century reawakened the urge in Jewish hearts to return; and finally, after the horrors of the Holocaust, led to founding of the nation of Israel, and you need only look to today’s headlines to see how jealously that land is guarded against any critics and all enemies. And every Passover Seder still ends with that prayer, “Shanah haba b’Yerushalayim — Next year, in Jerusalem” so strong is the call in the Jewish heart to return home.

Over literally thousands of years, this idea of returning, turning back, returning to the land of promise from the many lands of exile, became a symbol for departure from the way of sin, for returning to the way of righteousness and peace. Movement, then, is an intrinsic part of the way the Jewish people have understood and understand themselves. Movement is embedded in every Jewish tradition — almost as much as food! — and that includes the Jewish Law itself.

The Jewish Law isn’t just about rules you obey, it is about directions that you follow, it is a Way in which you walk. Sin is described not just as doing bad things, but as straying from the path, or losing one’s way. And righteousness is not about sitting still — to live the righteous life you have to get up and go!

Jesus grew up with this understanding of the law and righteousness, and it is at the heart of his teaching. Righteousness, Jesus teaches us, does not lie in promises, but in performance. It isn’t enough just to collect brochures for the righteousness cruise; you’ve got to get on board the boat and take the journey. You can’t just talk the talk — you’ve got to walk the walk.

And so it is that repentance — returning to the right path when you have wandered astray — is not simply a matter of a change of heart or of mind. Repentance, turning around, goes beyond the change of heart and mind to include a change of direction. If sin is heading the wrong way, then salvation lies in heeding the moral compass, turning around, and heading back towards God, pleading to God, “Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths.”

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Jesus tells a short parable today about two brothers: and the key to the parable lies in that brother who changes his mind and turns back to the task that he had at first rejected. But the fawning subservience of the second son does nothing to fulfill the father’s will. He may at most have gained his father’s favor for a moment, but, as the old saying goes, ‘Wait ‘til your father gets home’ — and finds the work undone and that quick promise broken. He will not be so quick to trust that son the next time he makes a promise to do as he is told!

The other son, after that first refusal, comes to his senses, however. He realizes he’s offended his father by his hasty refusal to do as he was told. But he doesn’t just feel bad and dread the next encounter with dear old Dad. He pulls himself together and not only changes his mind — he goes! And it is only in the actual turning and going, in spite of his earlier denial, that this first son accomplishes his father’s will.

Jesus aimed this parable at those priests and elders who came to him and challenged him. They had a high respect for the Law and many interpretations of it. They knew it backwards and forwards; but they had built what they themselves called “a fence around the Law.” And in the process, they made the Law harder to follow; they made it like a beautiful park fenced off so that it was hard to find a way in or through it. In their hands God’s Law became a monument, rather than a path to walk upon. As Jesus would say to the Pharisees on another occasion, “You do not enter yourselves but you prevent others from entering.”

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You know, there’s a restaurant in Georgia called the Church of God Grill. You probably wonder how it got that name! Well, it started out as a little storefront church — you know the kind I mean; there are dozens of them in every big city. The people of this particular little church would cook up and sell chicken dinners every Sunday after their worship service, in order to raise funds — much like many parishes do. But before long they found that more people were interested in the chicken than were interested in the worship, so they shortened the church service. Eventually the demand for the chicken dinners became so great that there was no time for worship at all, so they just closed the church and opened the restaurant, but kept the name, the Church of God Grill.

A bit closer to home — closer to me anyway, and to Mark [Collins] who studied there and served here as his field placement; and Sahra Harding who also served here and studied at General Seminary — the General Seminary is going through some tough times right now. In fact, it’s gotten so bad that the faculty have gone on strike. It’s a sad story; and I don’t know the details — I just heard about it yesterday.

But I do remember something from my time at the Seminary almost twenty years ago that reminds me of that Church of God Grill. I was having lunch one day in the cafeteria — which of course can’t be called a cafeteria in a seminary; it has to be called “a refectory” — but I’m having lunch, and at the table with me was a member of the administration. She was in charge of financial aid to students — scholarships and grants, which believe me you need when you are going to seminary — and we were just talking about the state of things at the seminary, and she said, “You know, the real problem with the seminary is: we end up spending more on each seminarian than we take in, in tuition and fees. If we could just get rid of all the students we could really have a great school!” The sad thing is she was serious.

That’s missing the point. And how often do people miss the very important points about what things are for — what they are meant to be. How often do they become an institution that is preserved long after the purposes for which the institution was meant are no longer being served? How do you keep that flame alive? Keep that fire of knowing what it is you are for and what it is you are meant to do? what you are called to do? It’s hard to be constantly renewed, constantly aware of the needs that you can serve if you will keep true to the cause for which you were started in the first place. But like that Church of God Grill, and like some people in the seminary, it seems they lose track and become focused on the thing rather than what the thing is for.

And so the same kind of thing happened with the scribes and the elders, with the priests and the Pharisees — at least some of them. They got so caught up with protecting the Law as a thing that they forgot that it was not meant for lip-service, but for action. It was a Way in which they were called to walk, not a thing they were required to admire and study and argue about, but to live. Jesus reminds them that the Law is something living only when you live it. It is not a piece of property to fence about, but a path to be walked; a freeway, not a barricade; a door to enter the kingdom, not a door to be locked and guarded. And so it was that the prostitutes and tax collectors who simply turned around and followed John the Baptist were responding to the spirit of the Law, and walking in God’s Way, while the self-righteous scribes, the elders, the priests who thought that keeping the law meant keeping it fenced in and protecting it, were instead fencing themselves out of the kingdom.

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So it was, and so it has always been. There will always be those who think God needs to be protected, that righteousness is about appearing righteous, saying the right words, rather than walking the path that righteousness requires. There are many who are satisfied with a religion that looks good, a religion that feels good, a religion that sounds good, but which accomplishes little of God’s will, who are big on promise but small on fulfillment, who dress the right way and say the right things, who sit in Moses’ seat, but fail in those important tasks that require them to stand up and get to work — visiting the sick and the prisoner, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and welcoming the stranger.

This is, sisters and brothers, a challenge to all of us. Let us not become the Church of God Grill. Let us receive strength and power from God not merely to honor him with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to his service, and walking before him in holiness and righteousness all our days.+

New Things

Sometimes things are made new by being repeated...

Easter 5c • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”

I have been reminding us over the last few weeks that Easter is not just a day but a season of fifty days running from Easter day itself through the feast of Pentecost. Every season of the church year has a particular focus or emphasis — in part based on some specific event, but also reminding us of how that event is continually alive in the life of the church and has effect upon our daily lives. That’s why we repeat these themes throughout the year.

The theme of Advent is expectation, and we live in that continued expectation of the day of the Lord’s coming, both personal and corporate. Christmastide brings us the good news of the birth of Christ, and calls us to find a way to let Christ be born in us anew each day. Epiphany describes the ways in which God is made manifest — and continues to be manifest in the lives and works of the members of Christ’s body, the church. The season of Lent calls us to examine our hearts, inspiring us — by the story of Christ’s own suffering — to discipline ourselves in obedience to his call. And of course Easter, the season we now celebrate, brings us to the resurrection and throughout the season of Easter we are given continued assurances of the new life springing forth from the grave.

In today’s readings we are specifically reminded of newness — of novel and unheard-of things as well as of renovation, renewal of all things, in particular as promised by the one whom John saw seated on the throne in his heavenly vision: “See, I am making all things new.”

The Son of God can make all things new because he is both the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, or as we would say the A through Z (since Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet). As the Psalmist would say, “All times are in your hand.”

God is the source of all that is new, of all novelty, all restoration, all renovation and renewal. And he gives this new life to any and all who thirst for it.

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We get a glimpse of thirsty people receiving something they don’t even know they need in that reading from the Acts of the Apostles — or rather, we hear Peter’s account of what happens when he tries to explain himself to the Jewish Christian believers who are scandalized by the fact that he actually went into a Gentile home, a Roman home, and even sat at table with Gentiles — people unclean by definition. Peter explains that he had been prepared to respond to this invitation from Cornelius, the Roman soldier, by a heavenly vision that came to him. He sees what sounds to me like a trampoline being let down from heaven and full of all kinds of animals, many of them classified as unclean. That would mean that they are forbidden by Jewish dietary law, and since all of the first Christians are Jewish, from Christian tables as well, as Peter reminds the heavenly voice when it commands him to kill and eat; even being so bold as to say to the voice from heaven, “By no means!” Peter protests, but the voice continues to remind him that what God has made clean he ought not call profane. As with Jesus’s instructions to Peter on the beach from a few weeks back — you recall, the ones about feeding the lambs and sheep, and about whether he really loved him — Peter gets another triple lesson. (Maybe Peter is just one of those people who needs to be told things three times before he gets it!) But as he says, the vision is repeated two more times together with the instruction not to call profane what God has declared clean. And so Peter finally gets to understand this, just as he finally got to understand — with those repeated statements about feeding the lambs, feeding the sheep — that Jesus wasn’t talking about him being a shepherd of literal sheep, but about people, the people he would serve. And so too with this vision he finally comes to understand that is not about food but about people — God is about to do a new thing, and no people are to be called unclean or profane; God is about to open salvation to the Gentiles, which is indeed exactly what happens.

Now this was a new thing that some would never quite accept — they had been taught and believed that only God’s chosen people merited salvation, and that the Gentiles were a people unclean by definition and as much to be avoided as Gentile food. But Peter, and later Paul, would both demonstrate how ancient prophecies that salvation would come even to the Gentiles — those people “who in darkness walked” — that those ancient prophecies had been fulfilled in Jesus, and in this particular incident God set a seal upon it through the descent of the Holy Spirit. Peter witnessed the Holy Spirit descend upon these Gentiles, this Roman soldier Cornelius and his family and his household, the same Holy Spirit that came upon the apostles and the other Jewish believers at Pentecost; and it happened before Peter could even finish his sermon; even before he could finish telling them the good news, the Holy Spirit came down upon Cornelius and all in his house. God, it seems, is more eager to save, that we can ask or imagine.

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Finally, in the gospel today, we step back before Good Friday and Easter to the Last Supper. Judas has already left the table to go about his sinister business of betrayal, feet have been washed, and as we know from the other Gospels, bread has been broken and the cup of the new covenant in his blood has been shared. And in this still and reflective moment Jesus pronounces that, “Now” is the moment of his glorification; and he gives the disciples a new commandment.

So what is this new commandment? He does not hesitate to deliver it, but states it immediately, “That you should love one another.” Perhaps he pauses for a moment, as no doubt the disciples are a little startled — not that they should be commanded to love one another, but that this commandment should be given as something new. Had not God always commanded that his people are to love God, and to love their neighbors as themselves? Are these commandments not the same as the ones that go all the way back to Moses.

We can well imagine the disciples wondering at what Jesus means by calling this commandment “new.” Would you not have been as much surprised? So what does he mean?

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It is plain that the commandment to love one another is not new in the sense of never having been given before. But that is not the only meaning of the word new. Sometimes a thing is new because it is a re-issue of something that is old.

We hear in that passage from Revelation this morning of a kind of renovation, in the description of the new Jerusalem. Jerusalem has been reborn, has been made new, and is descending from heaven like a bride adorned for her husband. The old, faithless city has been redeemed and made new. I must say that when I hear that passage I am reminded of an old joke by James Thurber, one of his famous cartoons, in which the caption was, “She’s always living in the past. Now she wants to get a divorce in the Virgin Islands.” But with God all things are possible. The faithless city Jerusalem is made new, is restored to her status of innocence, and clothed afresh with her bridal gown to welcome her husband, Christ himself. With God, newness can always come, even when things have fallen so very low.

As I say, sometimes it is not a new thing itself, but something that has been made new, something restored, or in the case of the book, republished. Even the resurrection itself partakes of this quality of old being made new. For it was the body that suffered and died that rose from the grave, given new life, still bearing the marks of the spear and the nails.

I am reminded — thinking of books — of the epitaph that Benjamin Franklin wrote for himself when he was young (although I’m sad to say this is not the one that actually appears on his grave). His youthful idea of what his epitaph should be reads:

The body of B. Franklin, Printer, like the Cover of an old Book — its Contents torn out and stripped of its Lettering and Gilding — lies here, food for worms. But the Work shall not be lost; for it will — as he believed — appear once more in a new and more elegant Edition revised and corrected by the Author.

(A little long for a tombstone!) That is the sense in which this new commandment is new —it is a command newly issued. And don’t we need to be reminded of that commandment to love one another over and over again. It needs to be made new every day, repeated so that we can take it into our hearts. It needs to be repeated just as Peter needed to be told three times to care for the flock and later to be told not to call profane what God has declared clean.

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But there is another and deeper sense in which this is indeed a new commandment, in the sense of not having been given before — for Jesus adds, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” So the commandment is not only repeated, but transposed to a higher key, with a more sublime example in the love that Jesus himself shows by giving himself up for them, the greatest love that anyone can show, to lay down his life for his friends. And so the commandment is no longer simply “love your neighbor as yourself,” but “love your neighbor as Jesus loves your neighbor” — loves your neighbor, and you, to the point of sacrificing himself on the cross for you, for your neighbor, and for the whole world. In this great love Jesus gives himself completely and utterly to suffering and death for universal salvation, to the end that all who believe might be saved.

This is not only new, it is earthshaking. It is revolutionary. It is nothing less than the work of God, in which we are invited to participate as the second edition of the people of God, not replacing the first edition, God’s chosen people, but supplementing it, as God has opened salvation to us Gentiles, in a new chapter beginning with that ancient Christmastide and coming to its fulfillment in the never-ending Eastertide in which all of humanity is invited to join, Jew and Gentile. In our obedience to this new commandment, may God our Lord and Savior be glorified and praised; henceforth and to the end of the ages.

Old and New

Good night to 2012... hello to 2013: all with God.

New Year’s Eve • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.

There are many ways in which I could greet you this evening. I could, for example, begin with the obvious, “Happy new year,” even though the actual beginning of the new year, the start of New Year’s day at midnight, is still just about a half an hour or so away. Perhaps it would be better if I used the term familiar in the West Indies, and said, “Happy old year’s night.” For we are still in the old year — as I said, still half-an-hour to go.

However, this being a church and all, I could also observe the official feast day and wish you a happy Eve of the Feast of the Holy Name — or to use the term from the old calendar, the Eve of the Feast of the Circumcision; since on the eighth day after his birth every male child of the Jewish people was circumcised and given his name, including Jesus. And even though I’m not very good at math, I can tell it’s been eight days since the 25th of December.

I could also, of course, continue by saying simply, “Merry Christmas,” since Christmas is not just a day but a season 12 days long — why, there is even a song about it; though given the fact that as I said I’m not very good at arithmetic I tend to get lost amongst all those maids a-milking, and Lords a-leaping, even if I can keep track of those five golden rings and the other things you can count on one hand.

But what I’d like to think about in this meditation on this evening, this end of the year, harks back to those first terms I mentioned, Old Year’s Night and New Year’s Day. For this is a night of the old and the new. It is a time for looking back as well as a time for looking forward. Although you don’t see them as often as you used to, there was a long tradition — and I’m sure many of you remember it — of portraying the old year as a wizened old man with a long white beard carrying a scythe — kind of an Old Father Time figure — and portraying the new year as a baby with a banner strategically wrapped around him proclaiming his number — in this case 2013.

So let’s contemplate that old guy for a minute or two — certainly a year such as we have lived through is worth a minute or two of contemplation. What a year this has been! The old man with a scythe has been through a lot — and he’s just about as described by the morose author of Ecclesiastes, who described old age in household terms: the guards of the house trembling, the strong men bent, and the women who grind have ceased working because they are few — and in case you’re haven’t got the imagery, that’s the arms, and the legs and the teeth — and it won’t be long before the silver cord is snapped, and the golden bowl is broken, and the pitcher is broken, and the wheel is broken, and the dust returns to the earth as it was.

Bad enough, I suppose, as a portrayal of old age, but I think if we were to portray this past year as an old man, he wouldn’t just be old and bent over and leaning on his scythe; he would likely have broken a couple of limbs, have a concussion — and even more tragically several gunshot wounds.

It almost seems like these last two months have been trying to make up for lost time in terms of disaster and tragedy. That horrific storm, one of the worst ever to hit this region, was followed by a human storm, a rain of bullets striking down over two dozen innocent people, most of them children — a horror as senseless and seemingly as arbitrary as the unleashed forces of nature that brought about that horrible combination of a hurricane and a nor’easter.

However you look at it, this has been one hell of a year. I’m sure I’m not the only one who will be happy to turn over the page on the calendar and say, “Enough.” I want to be encouraged — and I want to encourage you — as I look forward to a new year. And there is cause for encouragement — even after such tragedies, hope is still a reality; even the ironic hope of saying, “Well, it couldn’t get any worse!” But there is hope indeed, real hope, such hope is only really makes sense when things are going bad. For there is that baby.

And I don’t mean the baby dressed with a banner marked 2013. I mean the baby born eight days ago — in the church’s eternal reckoning by its cycling calendar. That baby is new — and he makes all things new. He is the beginning and the end, he is the Alpha and the Omega, or as we would say, he is A to Z. Even though a child, he compasses it all, for he was before it all, and came to us in these latter days as a light shining into our darkness, coming into our darkness from the realm of light in which there is no shadow or darkness at all, for the glory of God is its light and its lamp is the Lamb. That Lamb, the Lamb of God — is Christ — he has come to us to bring us his own light, by which we all have the opportunity to walk.

Some no doubt will refuse to walk by that light in the coming year just as some refused to walk by that light in the year that is drawing to a close. People cannot be made to see when they refuse to see; and as the old saying goes, “There is none so blind as them that won’t see.” Many people will care for and nurture their unbelieving hearts as they turn away from the living God, hardened by the deceitfulness of sin that they think makes their life easier but in the end makes it harder in every sense of the word.

But they have an opportunity, just as we have the opportunity — as they do if they would only choose it — to open our eyes to his light and our ears to his voice, not to harden our hearts as in the day of rebellion, but to soften them — with our tears if need be, but soften them nonetheless and by any means necessary — and so become partners with Christ, cooperating with him in the gracious work of salvation, beginning with ourselves. This is work with which we are charged as God’s agents here on earth — his colleagues, his coworkers. We are called and commissioned to help spread the word, to spread the light, to shed the light, to let people know that however hard the past year has been, there is hope for those who believe.

We are, in short, ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us. And we entreat all who hear on behalf of Christ to be reconciled with God. He came to us at our darkest hour — and surely this past year has been dark enough to qualify — as he always comes in the darkness before the dawn. He came into this sinful world so that we might become his righteousness. It is in his strength that we work, together with him, urging ourselves as well as others — for surely we all need encouragement when the going gets tough — but urging ourselves and others to accept the gracious gift of God that is presented to us each and every time we ask. The grace of God is the gift that keeps on giving — an inexhaustible fountain where the golden bowl is never broken, the pitcher is never cracked and the dust itself is breathed upon and given new life.

And when does this happen? Not just at the turning of the year, my friends. Not just at some zero hour fixed by the earthly calendar, whether of the sacred or secular. No, my friends, grace comes in every instant from God for whom it is always Now. When is the day of salvation? Not just on Christmas — even all 12 days of it — but every day is the day of salvation; every time is the acceptable time. Brothers and sisters, holy partners in a heavenly calling, this is the acceptable time —
— the time to accept the grace of God that is given anew in every single instant.

We need these reminders — as God comes to us in these moments of prayer at the end of a terrible year; when God comes to be with us, to wipe the tears from our eyes and to whisper his promise that death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more; for these past things are over and done with.

Will there be more sorrows to come in the new year? Yes, I’m sorry to say there will. As long as we are in this mortal life we face the reality of mortal pain. We will grow older, fall ill, and come to an end of this mortal life one day or another.

But we will not be alone. In all these sorrows, as well as in all our joys, one will be with us holding us by the hand so long as our hands are open to receive his touch. Even out of the depths of sorrow the Psalmist cried out, “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits for him; in his word is my hope — my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning.”

Beloved, morning is coming. And what is more, the Lord is already here — he has never left us. For though we celebrate in our human way these annual cycles as if God came and went — God the constant, the ever-present Savior, does not come or go — God has never abandoned us and never will. There is no place in time or space, in height or depth, in old or new, where God is not. His light is there if we open our eyes, his voice is speaking if we shush and still our souls, making them as quiet as a child upon its mother’s breast, and listen. And then all we need do is reach out and take his hand.+

A Man Like John

SJF • Advent 3b • Tobias Haller BSG

When the priests and Levites from Jerusalem asked him, “Who are you?” he confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.”+

As it comes round every year, we’re back to “Rejoice Sunday” again, regular as clockwork. And this year we really do get to hear some readings that sound like something to rejoice about! That reading from Isaiah is full of wonderful promises to Jerusalem — wonderful promises... You know, I can’t help but think, with all of the rhetoric of the not-so-long-ago presidential campaign echoing in my ears, how much this could sound like the exaggerated promises of a politician, if you wanted to hear them in that way: two chickens in every pot and two cars in every garage.

Look at the promises Isaiah relates — everybody will live to be over a hundred years old, and reap the rewards of their labor. They shall not plant and another reap; even the nature of wild animals shall be changed in God’s peaceable kingdom; the wolves and lambs will eat from the same trough, and lions will learn to do with hay.

Surely such promises only could come true in the kingdom of God, in the new Jerusalem. No earthly politician would dare to promise such peace and prosperity, such a complete reversal of things as we know it. I mean, what kind of politician would dare to say, “My friends, I’m going to make everyone wealthy!” Well, some might...

Even so, the promises seem very high, when we look at the economic situation of our world, the state of war and terrorism. It is so very easy to see how far we are from the promised new Jerusalem of which Isaiah speaks. And it would be tempting to turn to follow a prophet or politician who promised us everything, assured us that straw can be spun into gold, and that wealth will somehow miraculously trickle down — not from God, but from the wealthy, so that everyone will have their share. How tempting to think that universal health care will somehow just happen, that there will no longer be an infant who lives but a few days, or an old person who doesn’t live out a lifetime.

Those are the kinds of promises people want to hear, the kinds of promises they look for in a politician — or a prophet. And many will give in to the demand, and tell the people just what they want to hear.

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But not John the Baptist. John was different. The people wanted to fit him into their box. They were looking for the Messiah, and they wanted John to be the one. But John knew his limitations. He knew who he was, and who he wasn’t and what his task was: to prepare. He was sent by God to challenge the people, to shake them from complacency, and begin the process of reestablishing a just and humane society. He made no impossible demands, and he made no impossible promises: he just told people with a closet and pantry full of food and clothes that they should share with those who had none. He assured the people he was not the Messiah, but was the one sent with a message to prepare, and call the people to live, so far as they could, righteous and generous lives, for the good of all.

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I am old enough to remember another John, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, though I was in grade school the year he was elected, and in junior high the day he was assassinated. I still can see the face of Mr Stakem, my civics teacher, poking his head through the doorway into algebra class. I sat right along the wall, so all I could see was his head sticking into the room, and saying, “Mr Elliott, I’m sorry, but I have something very important to tell the class. The President has just been shot.” And then disappearing. And a half-hour later the announcement came over the PA system that the President was dead, and we were all sent home. Quite a day...

So I remember John Kennedy; and even as a youngster, I could see he was different from the other president I’d consciously known; though being very young I really didn’t know him very well — Dwight Eisenhower, known as “Ike.” Ike was an old man with a bald head, often in the hospital because of his heart problems; but John Kennedy was a young man with a full head of hair, strong and handsome and athletic. Ike and Mamie Eisenhower looked like folks from my neighborhood, like my great-aunts and uncles; but John and Jackie Kennedy looked like movie stars.

John Kennedy spoke differently, too. And I don’t just mean his accent — after all, though I grew up in Baltimore my Mom was Boston Irish, so I was used to hearing the sounds of “why doncha go pahk the cah.”

It wasn’t his accent, but his words themselves, not just how he spoke but what he said. As young as I was, I could hear the challenge and hope in his voice, together with his realism — not empty promises, but a call to responsibility. How powerful that challenge was: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” His voice echoed with others of his generation, the voices of Martin Luther King Jr and John’s brother Bobby. These were prophetic voices, like John the Baptist, not saying,
“I’m going to do it all for you” or “Don’t worry about anything, it will all take care of itself” or “If we just help the rich to stay rich some of the crumbs will fall from the table and everybody will get what they need.” No, these were voices that said, “I’m not your savior, but I’m here to challenge you to do the right thing. I’m here to tell you to get your act together and work with me to build a just society. I’m here to shake things up, and unworthy as I am, to challenge you to do all in your power to make the world a place prepared for God’s coming kingdom — to prepare the way of the Lord, to make his paths straight. I may not get there with you, but I have a dream today...”

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I don’t need to tell you that I heard a similar voice speak out in the campaign leading up to the election, and I’ve heard that same voice since. It is the voice of the man our nation chose, by a significant margin, to be our next President. He too could have offered the easy promises of wealth to the rich trickling down to us below; of health care provided universally but without cost. But he has taken a page from John’s book — John the Baptist and John Kennedy — to be straight with us, to challenge us, and call us to stand up to the challenge. It isn’t about him. It is not he upon whom we’ve pinned our hopes — except the hope that he will inspire us to do our best, not to ask what he can do for us, but what we can do for each other, working together, helping to turn our hopes into action to make this land, this world, a better place.

He is challenging us to “make straight the paths” of this land so that the poor and weak do not stumble. He is calling us to sacrifice and contribute to the good of all so that a fair and equitable health care system can be instituted, so that, God willing, no more shall there be an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live a lifetime. He is calling us to a world in which one does not plant while another harvests the crops, to a world in which the worker is compensated fairly, without regard to age or gender or race, and in which the laborers receive the fair return of their labor. He is calling us to a world in which those with much will indeed be challenged to share what they have — as John the Baptist did when he said that the one with two coats should share with the one who has none, and the one with plenty of food should do the same: and that’s not socialism; that’s the Gospel!

Barack Obama is no more the Messiah than was John the Baptist — but both of them call us to our better selves, to responsibility and willingness to bear each others’ burdens, so that all might benefit. We live in difficult times no less than did John the Baptist, times of war and want, of poverty and need, and of greed and selfishness. We cannot by our own efforts bring about the kingdom of God — but we can make straight his paths. We can prepare the way. We can all be men and women like John.

I give thanks to God, and pray for his continued blessing, upon our new President, who we hope at last can succeed in calling us to this high — and I dare say it — holy — endeavor. Let us work together with him, with our congress, with our fellows throughout the world, brothers and sisters, to hasten the day when justice, freedom, and peace, shall be the watchwords of our nation and our world. Let us make straight our Lord Messiah’s path, and rejoice at his coming, even our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.+

Debuts and Renovations

SJF • Epiphany 1 • Tobias Haller BSG

See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before the spring forth, I tell you of them.+

Many cultures around the world have developed ways of recognizing important transitions in young people’s lives. Some of these are social, and some are religious — and some are both. A Jewish boy, for example, can look forward to the day of his bar mitzvah — the day on which he becomes responsible for observing the Jewish law, at about the age of 13. In many Latino cultures, a young woman looks forward to celebrating her 15th birthday with a Quinceañera — often a lavish party that looks a little like a junior version of a wedding — and like a wedding, can set back her parents a pretty penny!

In high society circles in Europe and the United States there used to be an event in the social calendar each year when young women from the leading families would make their first appearance in polite society, usually at a ball or some other formal function. This would be their debut, and so they were called “debutantes.” This was the time when a young woman — who had up till then lived a fairly private life in her father’s house — was presented to all of the eligible young men to begin the process of matchmaking leading to marriage — and her transfer to her husband’s house. Although I’m told this still goes on in some circles, I think we have moved rather far from the days of Jane Austen and Scarlett O’Hara!

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In today’s Gospel, however, we hear of another kind of debut. It may seem odd that in just two weeks we have jumped all the way from the birth of Christ in Bethlehem, and the visit of the Magi last week, to his baptism in the River Jordan at about the age of 30. But it is no secret that the Gospels tell us almost nothing about Jesus from the time of his infancy to the time of his baptism — the only exception being Matthew’s passing reference to the fact that Jesus lived in Nazareth, and Luke’s account of that visit to Jerusalem about the time of Jesus’s own bar mitzvah, when he worried his parents, and to calm their fears said he must be about his Father’s business.

It appears, though, that he took his time in preparing for that business, for from the age of 12 or so until he was about 30, the gospel record is silent. Many people have offered speculations about Jesus’ childhood, youth, and young manhood; but the speculation remains just that. All we know from the gospel itself is that Jesus reached the rather ripe age of 30 or so without making any particular kind of splash in the world.

Until that day at the River Jordan. And what a splash that was — and what a debut! Perhaps the most interesting thing about this incident as Matthew describes it lies not so much with Jesus as with John the Baptist. For John immediately recognizes Jesus as someone very special — Matthew’s Gospel suggests he recognized Jesus as the very one who’s coming John had prophesied! And he recognizes this without Jesus having done anything spectacular for those 30 or so years of his life in Galilee. Even before Jesus has begun to teach or preach or work a miracle, John the clear-eyed prophet can see the importance of what is going on right in front of him, and recognizes the one who comes to him. He immediately perceives Jesus to be the bringer of grace, the bringer of blessing, the one who is to come to make all things new, the one who will begin the great renovation, not just of the house of Israel, but of the whole world.

And so John and plays his part, like the good matchmaker he is — after all, John would later call Jesus the bridegroom, and John knew he was not the center of the story — John steps aside. John is like the manager of the banquet hall who sets up the Quinceañera or the bar mitzvah or the sweet sixteen party, or the coming-out ball for this season’s debutantes; and then steps aside and fades into the background, as the proud father — in this case the Father in heaven — beams with delight in his beloved Son and pours out his Spirit upon him, visibly descending like a dove.

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Does that sound familiar? We’ve all seen fathers or mothers at parties such as the ones I’ve described — at a graduation or a prom, or a wedding, beaming with pride and delight as their child steps forth into the world as a new person.

And so we shall see that today — for baptism is itself the fundamental great new beginning and it makes those who are baptized into new persons: it is both debut and renovation, all in one. Although we aren’t at the River Jordan, still the baptism here will be like the baptism of Christ; for these children here today at Saint James Church will be baptized into Christ, in water like the water in which he was baptized, and they will be anointed with the same Spirit with which he was anointed: God’s Holy Spirit. And the parents and godparents here will beam with delight, a delight that God himself shares — for God will have gained new children by adoption this day.

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I said last week that the Epiphany season is about the manifestation of Christ to the world. His baptism marked his own first step into that world — the debut of his active ministry, emerging from the shadows of those 30 years of quiet life in Nazareth of Galilee. And the baptism of these children here today will mark a new beginning for them; and it will also be a manifestation of the presence of God. They will have become members of Christ’s body, the church. From now on, where ever they go, whatever they do, they will do so as members of the Christian family, marked as Christ’s own, forever. As they grow to maturity, they will do so within that context, in that environment: for their parents and godparents will promise that they will, with God’s help, bring these children up “in the Christian faith and life.” And all of us here will promise that we will, by our “prayers and witness help these children to grow into the full stature of Christ.”

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We have come to the beginning of a new year, and it is so fitting to celebrate baptism at this point. We celebrate both the baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the baptism of these children. In their debut, we find renovation. For it provides us an opportunity to make a new year’s resolution of a very particular sort. We will in a few moments renew our own baptismal vows even as we support the vows made on behalf of these children. That renewal is an invitation to renovation, for all of us and each of us.

And we will pray for God’s blessing, and we will sing of God’s redemption, and we will give thanks for the gift of water — through which the world was created, and judged, and redeemed. And these children, and all of us, will begin a new life on this day — brand-new or re-newed: our common life as members of the household of God, all of us children of a loving Father in heaven who pours out his Spirit upon us.

“See, the former things have come to pass, and new things are now declared! Before they spring forth, I tell you of them.” In the power of the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit may we all become anew God’s servants, his chosen ones, in whom his soul delights.+

Only One Thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Three R's

SJF • Lent 4c • Tobias Haller BSG

In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ...
About a month ago we ended the Epiphany season and began our Lenten pilgrimage by reflecting on the three virtues: faith, hope and love. This morning, I want to speak about three basic elements of the Christian faith — the three R’s, if you will — repentance, reconciliation, and renewal. These are the actions that put those virtues into practice. Surely they are appropriate subjects for the Lenten season of self-examination, forgiveness, and preparation for the ultimate renewal — Easter. So it is fitting that we all review these “Three R’s” and see what application they have to our lives as Christian disciples.

Repentance has suffered a fate common to often-used words. It has been confused with the similar-sounding words, penitence and penance. So for many today, repentance means feeling sorry over some past action. It is primarily an affair of the heart and mind: a matter of how you feel and what you think — a mental and emotional state.

When we hear the command to “Repent!” we tend to respond by sitting down and, like Fagin in the musical Oliver, “reviewing the situation.” In this process we think about the things we’ve done and left undone. We engage our emotions, and we experience a twinge of regret. Perhaps we say to ourselves we’ll do better in the future, then sigh, get up and go on about our business, feeling pleased with ourselves for being such sensitive, moral persons.

Or perhaps our feelings do go deeper. Perhaps we are conscious of some far weightier matter, some sin that truly troubles and weighs on our hearts — and yet that’s as far as it goes — we feel bad but simply remain in our bad feelings.

The problem with both responses: feeling good about ourselves for feeling humble, or feeling bad about ourselves because we are so awful, is that neither has much to do with the Gospel concept of repentance. In the teaching of Christ, feelings or thoughts, whether in the form of patting ourselves on the back or beating ourselves black-and-blue, do not represent repentance.

Now, I’m not saying we should not use our intellect to review our shortcomings, or that we should not engage our emotions and feel sorry for our failings— but feeling good because we’ve felt sorry is obviously shallow; and feeling so miserable that we are beyond redemption is surely presumptuous! And neither is true repentance.

What then is it to repent? What is Jesus looking for when he calls us to repent? While the repentance described in the Gospel does employ the intellect and engage the emotions, it culminates in another faculty of the human soul altogether: the will. Gospel repentance means not just that you are aware of your guilt, or even sorry for your actions, but that you turn around and act. C.S. Lewis once noted that the best thing to do when you find you’re going the wrong way is to turn around and head back! Or as the old anthem said, “Turn back, O Man, forswear thy foolish ways!” And it is the deliberate act of turning around that is true repentance.

To show us what he means by repentance, Jesus tells the story of the Prodigal Son. At first we appear to be on familiar ground: This young man becomes mindful of what he’s done, stuck in the middle of a pig-sty far from home, he reviews his situation and feels totally miserable.

But — and this is where repentance begins — he doesn’t stop there, with thoughts and feelings, moping to himself and feeling sorry.His sorrow and regret spur and spark him to his true repentance, which consists in getting up and turning around and heading back home.

The young man starts his journey, probably going over his confession in his mind as he goes. And here the story takes a surprising turn. The Father doesn’t wait to hear his son’s confession. He doesn’t wait to find out if the son “feels sorry.” He doesn’t wait on the porch in awful silence for the son to finish the long walk home under his unblinking eye. No, as soon as this loving Father sees his son coming, while yet far off, the Father runs to him and embraces him. For the culmination of repentance is God’s outgoing ingathering. Repentance leads us to reconciliation, our second “R.”

Now just as repentance is more than feeling sorry, so Gospel reconciliation is more than a handshake and a “Let bygones be bygones.” And reconciliation in the Gospel isn’t like reconciliation of a checkbook or an account — where the goal is to have the plusses balance the minuses. No, in Gospel reconciliation, God always tips the balance to the surplus of grace, for God is more ready to give than we are prepared to receive. God would never make it as an accountant! Reconciliation is the act of a gracious and loving God, reaching out to save what has been lost and to set things right, out of the abundance of his grace.

I need to note here, that in Luke’s Gospel, two other parables immediately precede that of the Prodigal Son: The Lost Sheep, and the Lost Coin. In all three, repentance is intimately tied up with God’s gracious perseverance in seeking out that which is lost, going beyond the expected to do the astounding. Whether God is portrayed as Good Shepherd, Careful Housewife, or Loving Father, the power of reconciliation resides with God. The Shepherd could have said of the lost sheep, “Leave him alone and he’ll come home, wagging his tail behind him.” The Housewife could have said of the lost coin, “I’ll probably find it some day down behind the sofa cushions.” And the Father could have stayed on the porch, and when his son finally reached him, said, “Well, I see you’ve finally come to your senses. But since you’ve spent your inheritance, the best I’ll do is take you on as a hired hand. And you’ll have to sleep in the barn; ‘cause we don’t allow the help in the house.”

But that isn’t what happens in any of these parables. In each case the reconciliation is extravagant - it goes well beyond the expected, and tips the balance generously. The Shepherd doesn’t just find the sheep, and doesn’t just lead the sheep home, but carries it home rejoicing! The Housewife doesn’t just find the coin and put it in the sugar bowl and go about her business; she calls the whole neighborhood to celebrate — and probably spends more on the party than the coin was worth. And the Father doesn’t stand in the doorway waiting for his son to apologize; he runs down the road and meets him and embraces him before he can get a word out.

This is the glory of grace, its extravagance, that God comes to us in compassion while we are still on the road home— while we are yet sinners. It is not we who reconcile ourselves with God, it is God who reconciles us, and the whole world, to himself, in Christ Jesus, taking no account of past sins. And this brings us to our third “R”— Renewal.

We’ve turned around, forswearing our foolish ways — that’s repentance. We’ve been met on the road and embraced by our loving God — extravagant in his gracious forgiveneness — that’s reconciliation. But note that the Father in our parable doesn’t seem to pay any attention to his son’s confession; he doesn’t even say, I forgive you. No, he simply takes no account of past sins. I said before, God is no accountant — he always juggles the books in our favor. But we know who’s been keeping account, right? We know whose been keeping careful track of things. The older brother: he’s stewed over this for a long time, he’s made his list and checked it twice, and he rattles off the whole list of offenses to remind his father of how badly his kid brother has acted. But the father isn’t interested in this account of past sins. He’s too busy ordering up the fatted calf, the best robe, the new shoes, the ring. He’s completely caught up in the fact that the lost has been found, the dead restored to life. He is going to strip the dirty coveralls off that boy, hose him down to get rid of the last relics of the pigsty, dress him as a prince and hold a par-tay! — and that’s renewal.

Paul catches the same excitement in the passage we read this morning: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; the old has passed away,
behold the new has come! All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.” We too have been reconciled — had our dirty overalls stripped off. We’ve been hosed down and washed clean in the waters of Baptism. And we’ve been dressed up — not as hired hands — but as ambassadors of Christ! We, who once moped in the spiritual pig-sty of sin have been given the ministry of reconciliation. We who once languished in a pigsty in a foreign land, have been commissioned as ambassadors of our true heavenly country!

And, as with repentance, thoughts or feelings are not enough to carry us through in our work as ambassadors. It is not enough to be well-informed about the needs of the world. It is not enough to feel sorry for those who have not yet heard the good news. It is not enough to pity the homeless, the hungry, the poor, and the sick. We are called to action. Just as awareness of and sorrow for our sins is the spur to move us to repentance, so too the pity we feel for the sick, the hungry, or the poor is meant to spur us on to charity.

It is all too easy to feel sorry for someone. We do it when we see a drama on T.V. or at the movies, and those are just fictional characters! Our work as ambassadors of Christ, as ministers of reconciliation, must consist of more than feeling sorry. For just as with repentance, feelings of compassion, unless they are followed by acts of compassion, are worth nothing. If we are to be true to the one whose gracious action, in giving himself to death on the cross, saved us from the power of sin, then we too must act. God has brought us to this fourth “R”— righteousness. In Christ we have the power to become the righteousness of God to people far and near.

This righteousness is ours only as a gift— a gift of grace, which we receive like the prodigal himself, who was restored not because he felt sorry for himself, but because his father loved him so much.

For the Father did love the Son, and loves us too, so much so that he gave his Son to the end that we might not perish, but have everlasting life. By making him to be sin who knew no sin, God canceled the debt of sin, nailing it to the cross, deader than a doornail. God has rolled the stone of our disgrace away, as surely as the stone was rolled from the tomb in which our Lord and Savior lay.

And grace has been with us every step of the way. God’s grace spoke in our hearts, bringing us to repentance. Grace led us on the road of return, and fed us with the manna of reconciliation on the way. Grace renewed us and clothed us in garments of righteousness, and grace will see us through on our mission as ambassadors of Christ. Let us therefore celebrate, and invite everyone, near and far, to the celebration, for that which was dead has come to life, and the lost has been found. +

The Quality of Mercy

SJF • Proper 5a 2005 • Tobias S Haller BSG

Jesus said, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”
Mercy is one of those words which we hear very frequently, but which I fear we do not always quite understand in all of its fulness. At its simplest, I’m sure most of us think of mercy, or being merciful, in terms of letting someone off the hook, not punishing someone for something they’ve done — what the courts call leniency. But mercy of this sort, the lenient sort, usually tells us more about the one who is let off the hook than about the person who is lenient. The reasons for mercy have their origin not in the quality of the one who is merciful, but with the nature of the crime, or the mitigating circumstances surrounding it. The poor woman who stole the loaf of bread because her children were starving is given a job instead of a prison sentence; or the criminal who has to care for his elderly mother is given a reduced punishment. These examples do show us that the judge is not callous or unfeeling, but the focus is on the needs of the one to whom mercy is shown.

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What about the one who shows mercy? What is mercy like in and of itself? One clue is in our reading from Hosea, which Jesus quotes at the end of our Gospel today. You’ll note that the translators of the New Revised Standard Version from which we take our readings chose the phrase “steadfast love” for the Hosea text, and “mercy” for the Gospel text, to translate the very same concept. And this is an important clue for a fuller understanding of the nature of mercy — especially as the Jewish people understood it. We Christians need constant reminders that Jesus was a Jew, born and raised in a Jewish household, as a child and man growing up in a Jewish culture.

The Jewishness of Jesus is important because our present day concept of mercy comes more from the Romans than from the Jewish or even the Christian tradition — from Roman culture and Roman law, and the Roman language, Latin. in which the word for mercy is misericordia. Some of us here remember when Our Lady of Mercy Hospital up to the north of us went by that name! It tells us how the Romans felt about this concept. For the Romans’ word for mercy means, literally, heart-pain. It is not far off from the similar Roman concept of compassion — suffering-with. So for the Romans mercy is basically about feeling bad for someone, having a heart-ache for somebody, knowing how they feel, and taking the matter to heart. This is the mercy and compassion, the misericorida and compassio of “misery loves company.” And surely this kind of soft-heartedness has its place; surely we are called to feel sorrow for those who suffer pain — even when the pain is self-inflicted. None of us likes to hear, “What a fine mess you’ve gotten yourself into!” And if we are to do as we would be done by, we will allow our hearts to be touched by suffering, even when we might be tempted to be judgmental instead: for we shall all be judged with the judgment we give, and be forgiven even as we forgive.

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But there is even more to the idea of mercy than this Latin view suggests. The older Jewish concept is steadfast love, which gets translated as “mercy” once the Romans get hold of it. This is about — not less — but more than feelings, more than soft-heartedness or compassion or sympathy. Steadfast love sets that false cliché from the book and movie Love Story, on its head: real love means not less, but far far more than having to say you’re sorry, or feeling sorry for someone else. That kind of mercy is good as far as it goes, but it often doesn’t often go far enough! The true steadfast love that God shows always goes the limit — that’s the steadfast part; and it is always loving — which as we know from the teaching of Jesus is intimately bound up with the very nature of God. As the Psalm says, “the steadfast love of God never ceases.” Steadfast love is as much beyond mere soft-heartedness as the power and love of God is beyond mere human capacity.

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We have just such a comparison in the passage from Hosea this morning. The people who erred and strayed from God’s ways acknowledge their guilt, and promise to return to the Lord. After all, they say, God’s mercy never ceases; God is as reliable as the spring rains! And God picks up this weather-reporter’s metaphor and responds that the Israelite’s love is like a morning cloud, like dew that evaporates even as the sun comes up, unreliable and transitory. God, Hosea assures us, does not want such transitory fly-by-night and gone-by-day love. God is not interested in a one-night stand! God wants his people to show him the same steadfast love that he shows them. When God pours out his showers of love, what does he ask in return? A morning mist, an evaporating cloud? No: as another prophet, Amos, said, God wants justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream. Hosea and Amos both maintain that God is not interested in sacrifices — no amount of burnt offerings can weigh in the scale as much as steadfast love, enduring love, a merciful heart that not only feels the pangs of another’s suffering, but moves out to help and lift up those who suffer. The mercy of God, the steadfast love of God, or — as Coverdale translated this same word for his English Bible, in the form still preserved in the Psalms in the Book of Common Prayer, the “loving-
kindness” of God — does not simply weigh the victim and find him pitiful, does not simply feel sorry in a pang of the heart, but stoops down to lift up the fallen, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked and visit the sick and the prisoner. The steadfast love, the mercy of God, binds up all wounds and brings healing and restoration.

And it does so out of a deep sense of relationship and covenant: the love of God for humanity is portrayed throughout the scripture in the image of a spouse caring for his beloved. God’s love for us is steadfast not simply because we may be miserable and God is merciful, but because God is faithful and true and enduring — and because, as I reminded us on Trinity Sunday, we are made in God’s image, and so capable of loving God in return. Mercy, steadfast love, is thus a double blessing.

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The greatest English poet wrote of mercy using just such language. It is not hard to imagine that Shakespeare had in mind this passage from Hosea, and indeed the incident from the Gospel, when he wrote the Merchant of Venice. You may recall that the main character, the Jewish merchant Shylock,isout for vengeance. He is a wounded man, a wronged man, but he is incapable of getting past his own hurts to understand the hurt of others. He hardens his heart, much as the Pharisees portrayed in our Gospel, apparently unable to understand generosity in others, or show mercy himself. As the court gathers to render judgment, Portia, disguised as a young attorney, appeals for mercy in these famous words:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
’Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The thronèd monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly pow’r doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
deeds of mercy.

This was Portia’s appeal to Shylock, and it is the appeal that Jesus made to the Pharisees, when they saw him break the rules and eat with sinners. He was showing them the power of God to forgive, and inviting them to do the same. Those who think themselves righteous, those unaware they too are “standing the need of prayer” — in short, those who have forgotten or ignored the mercy and steadfast love shown to them, and hence are unable to show mercy or forgiveness or steadfast love to others — will not enter the banquet, not because they have been excluded or kept out, but because they will not come in; they will not sit with those they condemn even though God himself is there with them.

For God came to show his mercy, to show his steadfast love. He came to lift the fallen, to bring the healing of forgiveness to those who, sick with sin, had come to think of themselves as beyond cure, beyond hope, beyond redemption. This, my friends, is the mercy and the steadfast love of God, from which we have all benefitted, and which we are all, each of us, invited to share. May we, this day and always, rejoice that God has saved us through his steadfast love, and showing thanks and love in return, spread the Gospel of his mercy to the ends of the earth.+

For as in Adam...

SJF • Lent 1a 2005 • Tobias S Haller BSG

If, because of one man’s trespass, death excercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who received the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ... Just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.

We come once more to the first Sunday in Lent, that season of preparation and penitence that the church sets aside for us each year, a time to prepare for Easter and a time to review our faults and failings, and take the gracious opportunity offered us, to renew our commitment to follow our Lord.

We heard today a reading from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans, and we will hear more from this important scripture over the next weeks. This is the longest of Paul’s letters, and it contains his mature and careful analysis of the human condition and the divine response to it. So over the next weeks I will focus on Saint Paul’s teaching in my sermons, and I hope that by doing so we may find encouragement and renewal and hope as we hear what Saint Paul called “his Gospel” — which is nowhere clearer than in this letter to the Romans.

The passage we heard today lays out Paul’s argument in miniature: sin and death came through Adam, and forgiveness and life come through Jesus Christ. He will go on to develop this through the following chapters of his letter; but let us follow his example and begin at the beginning.

We are helped in this by having in our first reading what filmmakers call “the back-story”. This story takes us back to the garden, and the first gardeners! And in that passage we are reminded once more of that literally fatal decision to take the advice of a snake in the grass instead of following the commandments of the Lord in the heavens.

Saint Paul takes this story, and argues that sin does not just lie in people doing what Adam did. None of us are given the option to turn down the fruit that Adam and Eve ate. Rather, Paul shows us that sin is something we inherit, a kind of genetic predisposition to a fatal disease, a contagion that spreads and kills. Paul says, “As sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin,... so death spread to all because all had sinned... Death exercised dominion even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam.”

Now we are apt to see this as unfair. It is hard for us to see why all should suffer because of one, that all people should be condemned to death because of the mistake of one person. We want to think in terms of individuals taking responsibility for their own actions, good or ill. But is that how the world actually works? Of course not. Don’t we know that the crimes committed in society touch us all; and that the wrongs we do touch others, more than we know sometimes? Saint Paul is right: sin is not just about individual choices; it is a disease that spreads, that infects even the innocent and corrupts even the good. We are all connected; we are all in this together.

I was reminded of this a few weeks ago watching Laurence Rees’ PBS documentary about the horrors of Auschwitz. What happened in that horrific place is literally beyond imagination, which is why it is so important that these documentaries continue their testimony — especially as the last generation of eyewitnesses is dying out.

This documentary was different from any other on the topic I’d seen, in that, unlike most such films which simply deal in black and white, good and evil, this film also covered the uncomfortable shades of gray. What the film made manifest was the way in which the evil of the Nazis infected everything they did, but also everyone they touched — even some of their victims.

For this documentary, in addition to showing the familiar and hard to believe horrors of the murder of infants and children and old women, also set before us interviews with Jewish men who were co-opted into the killing system, and German men who thought they had managed to slip through these horrors with their morality intact.

In order to conserve their manpower, the Germans picked out able-bodied Jewish men to do the dirtiest work: these Sonderkommandos, or “Special Units,” as they were called, were forced to herd the other prisoners to the pens where they stripped off their clothes; to conduct them into the gas chambers; and then, after the horrific screaming ended in twenty minutes or so, to open the doors and haul the bodies up to the ovens or the open pits. There thousands upon thousands of children, women and men were reduced to smoke and ash. Day in, day out, for month after month, the killing machine ground on. These Jewish men knew that if they resisted — as indeed from time to time some among them did resist — they too would get a bullet in the head, or even worse find themselves on the other side of the chamber door, huddled and naked and waiting for the sound of the poison gas pellets to drop down the chute — one task the Nazis reserved for themselves.

One of these Jewish prisoners, Morris Venezia, was interviewed in this film, and he revealed how the evil had infected him. In the last days of the war, the Nazis, eager to cover the evidence of their crimes, shipped out as many of the prisoners as they could. They were loaded on trains to be shipped off, much as they had arrived. Crowded and cramped in the train, Venezia managed to find a seat on the floor of the car. A German prisoner, probably a criminal who’d ended up in Auschwitz along with the other thousands determined undesirable by the Nazi state, offered Venezia a few cigarettes in exchange for being allowed to take his place sitting down for a few minutes. When, at the end of those few minutes of rest he refused — or was too weak — to get up, Venezia and his friendssat on him until he suffocated, and then threw his body from the train.

The shocked interviewer asks, “You murdered another prisoner, just to be able to sit down?” And the answer comes, “What? He was a German. His people killed thirty, forty members of my family. So he gave me a couple of cigarettes — for that he should live?”

It is not for the interviewer, or for you or for me to judge this man. Who knows what choices you or I might have made in the situation in which he found himself — where the only way to preserve his own life was to become a cog in the killing machine; where a seat on the floor of a crowded train car is worth a few cigarettes — or a human life.

It is for us all, however, to see how the choice of oneself over another, or one’s own people over other people, can poison and infect all that comes after— the hissing of the serpent is still loud in our ears, and the taste of that fruit is still cloying at the back of our throats. Death has spread through the human universe, and exercised dominion over us all — even though we have not sinned in the same way Adam did, we have inherited that tendency to look out for ourselves and our own, to preserve our own lives at the expense of others, even at the risk of disobeying God, and even knowing that whatever we do, we too must one day die as well.

This is the situation that Saint Paul sets up for us: the state of human life after the fall. And a dark and seemingly hopeless situation it appears to be! The good news, Paul’s Gospel, consists in the other half of his message. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. Just as we didn’t get ourselves into this horrible mess, so to we don’t have to get ourselves out of it! Jesus Christ has done it for us. Christ’s faithfulness unto death has undone death, the one giving his life for the many has removed death’s sting and healed us from the fatal disease of sin. “Just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” There is light, glorious light, up ahead, no matter how dark it seems at present.

This is the word of hope that I will take up next week as we continue our Lenten journey and our reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans. But I want to end today with one glimmer of redemption that was also part of that PBS documentary. One of the persons interviewed throughout the film is a German man named Oskar Gröning. He was a young soldier serving at Auschwitz. In the interviews he tries to distance himself from any responsibility for the horrors that went on there. But the film-makers provide the harsh details he tries to soften. True, he was not one of those who poured the poison pellets down the chutes, nor one of those who divided the arriving prisoners to the left or right — the leftgoing to the labor camp, the right, mostly women and children and old people, off to be killed immediately. No, the 22-year-old Oskar Gröning, who had been a bank teller before the war began, had the simple task of collecting all the money stolen from the arriving victims, tallying it up in neat columns and bearing the loot to Berlin every few months. He was a cog in the machine of death, and even though he personally killed no one, his hands were red with blood money.

After the war he managed to avoid prosecution for war crimes. He kept his participation at Auschwitz secret, and became an ordinary prisoner of war. Posted to a prison camp in England, he joined a choir of German prisoners who traveled the country giving concerts in Anglican churches, billeted in English and Scottish homes. As he said, “Everybody wanted to have a singer stay with them, so we had a good night's sleep and got a good breakfast and the next morning we were taken back to our gathering point and off we went to the next place. It was great.”

I watched these comments with growing anger as the filmmakers documented Oskar’s happy and contented life unfolding — getting a good job as a factory personnel manager, sunning himself on the beach with his family, snoozing on the back porch with his dog in his lap. My anger was roused as these happy scenes were intercut with interviews with Jewish survivors who lost everything but their lives at Auchwitz — their families, their property, their self-respect, even for some the sense of their own humanity. And I kept wondering, is there no justice? Is there no redemption? Will Oskar Gröning ever understand?

And the good news? Yes, the good news is that finally Herr Gröning did understand. For there was one thing he would not stand. Not too many years ago a few German historians — if you can call them that — came forward and began to deny that the holocaust had ever happened, that while a few Jews here or there might have been killed or deported, the stories of Auschwitz were massive exaggerations, part of a Jewish plot to defame and insult the German people.

And that is when Oskar Gröning came forward. He’d kept his secret all those years, never letting anyone know he had even been at Auschwitz — not even his wife or his children. But faced with the monstrous lie of the revisionist historians, he stepped forward: He said, “I see it as my task, now at my age, to face up to these things that I experienced and to oppose the Holocaust deniers who claim that Auschwitz never happened. And that's why I am here today. Because I want to tell those deniers: I have seen the gas chambers, I have seen the crematoria, I have seen the burning pits — and I want you to believe me that these atrocities happened. I was there.”

This took a change of heart, this ability to confess and testify. And it renews my hope that even in a world infected by sin, the truth can sometimes shine forth. I cannot and I will not put Herr Gröning’s act at the level of heroism or virtue — but it was the beginning of repentance and a recompense, a first stepfor him on the pilgrimage back to true humanity.

How much more powerful is the free gift of the truly innocent one, the one who had done nothing wrong at all, when he offered himself on our behalf? Beloved, let us think on these things this Lent, how far we have fallen, how much we owe, and above all, let us give thanks to our Lord Jesus Christ, the one whose abundant grace and free gift of righteousness exercises dominion in life, now and to the end of the ages.