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.+

Get Up and Go

Combating inertia and momentum is not just a physics lesson...

Lent 2a 2014 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation...”
Have you ever felt so discouraged, so worn out, that you just feel like giving up? I know I felt that way a few weeks back when I heard that yet another winter storm warning had been issued. You reach the point at which you feel like your “get up and go” has got up and gone! Newton’s First Law of Motion declares that an object at rest will stay at rest unless acted upon by some force; and sometimes when you are resting you need quite a bit of force to get up and get going. I know that many of us can likely testify to another scientific fact: that the gravitational force of your mattress tends to increase in inverse proportion to the earliness of the alarm going off! The earlier the alarm, the harder it is to get up. I’m sure I’m not the only one here who found last Sunday, with that lost hour of Daylight Saving Time, that my “get up” only wanted to go back to sleep!

So it is that people will tend to stay put unless acted upon by some force. And in our scripture readings today, on this Second Sunday in Lent, we see forces at work to get people up and going.

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The prime mover, of course, is God. As I noted last week, left to our own devices and desires we will be pulled down by original sin that lies coiled in our hearts, an inescapable gravitational force — more powerful than the most comfortable pillow-top mattress — a force that pulls us down and away from love of God and neighbor, nested in our own wishes and desires, curled up and content to let the rest of the world fend for itself.

Pulling against this force — raising us up — is the power of God, manifest in God’s call — a call that is strong enough to wake the dead, which, if you think about it, is what all of us are until we come to live in Christ, and come to life in Christ.

We see this powerful call of God at work in the Hebrew Scripture passage that we heard this morning — the call of God to Abram to get up and go; to leave his home and his father’s house and travel to a distant land that neither he nor his fathers knew.

And in that call, and by its power, Abram acts. He gets up and goes. Even in this simple act, Saint Paul assures us in that Letter to the Romans, Abraham shows his righteousness. He didn’t question God — “God, why can’t you bless me right here and now, instead of there and then? Why not here in this place I know so well, among my own people and in my father’s house? Why not here on my home turf? I’m so comfortable here, and I hate traveling! Is this trip really necessary?”

No, Abraham doesn’t make any such excuses; he answers the call, like that, trusting that God has a purpose for him, and trusting in the righteousness of God rather than in his own skills or talents — or works. If he relies on anything at all it is simply on his faith, his faith that God will fulfill all that God has promised. And a refrain will take over his life, the rest of his long life: The Lord will provide. That is his faith. He leaves his own father, his own home in the trust that God will indeed provide, and make him the father of many nations. God’s promise itself gives Abraham the greatest gift, the gift of faith, and the power to get up and go.

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Then, in our Gospel passage today we see a different kind of getting up and going. I’ve spoken before about this passage, and how easy it is for to misunderstand the language of “being born again,” or being “born from above.” What Jesus is saying here is after the fashion of an orchestra conductor, saying to the orchestra: “Let’s take it from the top!”It is a charge to return to the beginning and to start again. Being born again isn’t an emotional feeling; it’s starting over.

You know, sometimes if you get lost what you need most to do is retrace your steps and get back to where you started, to at least to find some landmark with which you are familiar, and which you can use to help you reorient yourself. Sometimes, as C.S. Lewis once said, when you find you have gone the wrong way the best thing you can do is turn around and head back!

And one thing I’ve learned when traveling, is that sometimes you need to turn around to see what the signs on the other side of the highway say, in order to realize how far you’ve gone in the wrong direction! Has that ever happened to you? Your driving along and the signs are telling you that you are heading somewhere that you don’t want to go; and so you look back and see, on the other side of the highway, a sign saying Poughkeepsie is that way. I wish they’d had a side on this side saying, Poughkeepsie is back that way; turn around! And we get that in the gospel, don’t we: you have to be born again. It’s a sign saying, Go back, you’re headed the wrong way; start over. Take it from the top!

This is really a big part of what being born again or born from above means. It isn’t that you haven’t gotten up and been going — it’s just that you’re headed in the wrong direction! And to return to Newton’s First Law, just as an object at rest tends to stay at rest, so too an object in motion tends to stay in motion — and if it is headed the wrong way, it requires some force to turn it back again.

This is literally what repentance means — not feeling sorry, but turning around, heading back the way you came, for only by doing so can you find the right path. This Lenten season is given to us all as a time to focus on repentance, on assessing where we are. We are given this time to see, by looking at where we are, perhaps how far we’ve strayed, or how far on the right path we have traveled, to listen carefully and look for the road-signs — including those on the other side of the road — to be sure we are following the call and direction of the one who gave himself for us, and gives himself to us every day.

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For there is one final “get up and go” in our Scripture readings today. It is the greatest “get up and go” that ever happened. Only the one who descended from heaven and ascended there again has made such a trip. God sent his Son, because God loved the world so much that he gave him to us. And this sending has a purpose: to the end that everyone who believes in him might not perish, but might have eternal life. God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

God sent his Son, told him to get up and go, to leave his heavenly throne and descend into the very heart of the world God made at the beginning of time, to be born as one of us — as God with us — so that we might behold him in his innocence and in his glory, lifted up so that he might draw the whole world to himself. That signpost is raised for us at the end of Lent a few weeks from now — on Good Friday, when we will see the greatest sign ever given, when we behold the Son of God upon the cross of shame, which is also the cross of glory. It is through the love of God and the power of God and the call of God in Christ that we are called forth from the sleep of sin, shown the way forward, and empowered to get up and go: to follow him where he has gone before, ascended into heaven, where he again sits enthroned at the right hand of God the Father. So heed the call, see the sign, and get up and go: Turn to him, my sisters and brothers, saved by the one in whom all salvation rests, even Jesus Christ our Lord.

Tipping the Scales

However low you go, or however you go low, God will raise you up.

Proper 25c 2013 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
O Lord, have you completely rejected Judah? Does your heart loathe Zion? Why have you struck us down so that there is no healing for us?

Today we conclude our series of readings from the letters of Paul to Timothy. As we’ve seen over the last few weeks, Paul has been encouraging Timothy in the struggles that he faces with and among the congregation over whom he has charge. People have been caught up in controversies about the interpretation of Scripture, indulging in false teaching, and wandering away into myths. People have been casting doubt on Timothy’s authority, in part due to his relative youth, but also in rebellion against the very gospel message that he delivers. And at every stage at which people have sought to cut Timothy down, Paul has encouraged him to remain strong and to fight the good fight with all his might, to proclaim the gospel fearlessly, and in the knowledge that God’s power is with him.

Now Paul himself, it seems from the passage we read today, is about ready to retire from the combat. As he says, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” Using once more the analogy of a footrace, he portrays Jesus as the scorekeeper and judge who will give him his crown at the end of the race — the race he has run so faithfully.

But not before Paul will have what the English call a bit of a good moan first — you know what that’s about! Sometimes you just feel better when you let it all out and complain for a bit — not to make a habit of it, but just to let off a little steam of frustration. Contrasting the heavenly grace he expects with the earthly problems he has encountered, all the things he has been running through, Paul complains that everyone has deserted him and no one has supported him — except the Lord himself. In fact, Paul is using how low he has been to show just how powerful God is — who can lift up one who has been abandoned and betrayed. The message Paul shares here with Timothy, based on his own experience, is, No matter how low you have fallen in your own confidence, no matter how much you have been cut down by adversaries or problems, God will raise you up.

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Today’s gospel presents us with a different kind of up and down — but ends with a similar message. Jesus portrays two people: a proud and self-righteous Pharisee and a humble and penitent tax collector. I almost picture them standing on a seesaw or teeter-totter: the Pharisee high and lifted up, and the tax collector down in the dumps. For it seems that the very reason for the Pharisee to be so high is because he is so pumped up and proud of himself, because he sees himself in relation to others, whom he regards as sinners worse than he. It is the weight of the sin of those on the other side of the scale that gives that Pharisee his boost, his exaltation, his pride. He has no consciousness of sin in himself, and he plays that off against those whom he regards as “obvious” sinners — thieves and adulterers — or even like this tax collector here.

But enough about him — as I can imagine he learned better when he finally did face the Almighty judge at the end. (And let’s hope he was ashamed of himself and at the last accepted God’s forgiveness!) I would rather focus on that tax collector down there.

Jesus portrays him as being low in comparison to the Pharisee being high. If you picture that seesaw I mentioned there is no doubt that the tax collector is on the heavy end of the scale. We do not know what his sins are — unlike the Pharisee who declares what his sins aren’t and catalogs a few of the things that he imagines make him virtuous, the tax collector does not enumerate his sins — he merely repents. He beats his breast in that ancient act that forces home to me that it is I who am at fault: (for when I beat my breast I am forcibly reminded of my own physical reality and presence! And maybe we all need a little of that spiritual CPR, now and again, to remind us of where we are, and help us rediscover the true meaning of our lives.)

Jesus promises that this man, this man on the low side of the scale, who has humbled himself will return home exalted and justified. And so the message here is that it is by lowering yourself that God will raise you up. As a proverb (3:34) quoted by both James (4:6) and Peter (1P 5:5) puts it, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Or, as someone with even greater authority, Mary the mother of Jesus, put it: “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the humble and meek.”

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So the clear message appears to be consistent through all these readings: whether you have been brought low by others, have fallen low in your own estimation and disappointment, or humbled yourself in the knowledge of your sins — however you came to be low, or however low you came to be, God will raise you up. Let the teeter totter as it may, and swing us down even so low that we can feel the warmth of hell-fire toasting our feet — even then God can and will bring us up again, so long as we turn towards the one from whom our help and rescue comes. Even if we don’t look God’s way with our eyes — for recall that the penitent tax collector was so cast down he dare not even raise his eyes to heaven — even if we don’t look God’s way with our eyes, if that is towards God that our hearts are turned, God, who after all looks into our hearts and knows us better than we know ourselves, will also know that we have turned our hearts towards him, and God will raise us up from where we have been cast down, or fallen, or lowered ourselves.

God is not like that famous statue of Justice — the one who holds the scales but wears a blindfold, blind to the relative weight of sin or innocence, and simply allowing the scale to tip as it may. God is also not like the Egyptian god Thoth, who weighs the heart of the dead against the feather of innocence, and condemns all of those whose hearts tip the scale towards guilt.

No, my friends — and it is a good thing for us — God is neither blind like Justice nor a mere secretary like Thoth recording the result shown by the scale. No, my friends, the good news for us is that God tips the scales in our behalf, for the mercy of God is greater than the justice of God, and although God is just, the heart of God is love and mercy and forgiveness.

When God sees we are cast down by the assaults of others, God will raise us up. When God sees that we have abased ourselves in our own eyes, discouraged or despondent, God puts a powerful arm around us and raises us up. And when we are sunk low in the depths of the knowledge of our own faults and failings, God pushes that lightweight Pharisee from the other end of the seesaw and presses it down with a strong arm and a mighty hand — and O my friends, are we in for a ride!+

The Mind of Christ

Luke’s Passion gives us three windows into the mind of Christ

Palm Sunday C • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave... Who humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.

We return today, as we do every three years to Saint Luke’s account of the passion and death of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The readings from Isaiah and Philippians are the same each year, and each of them highlight the suffering and humiliation that our Lord underwent on his way to the cross and Calvary. But Luke’s account in particular brings out some elements that highlight the nature of the mind of Christ that Saint Paul describes in that Letter to the Philippians. Paul describes the mind that Jesus had to empty himself out in humility and to suffer humiliation. Saint Paul calls upon those who hear these words to have that same mind in themselves, a mind not of pride and self-exaltation, but of humility.

As I said, Saint Luke’s account gives us some of what this means, in part by portraying those who seem not to have the mind of Christ in them — those who instead of emptying themselves and choosing the lowest place, exalt themselves to grab the best seats — like children playing musical chairs, instead of acting as they should as apostles of Jesus Christ.

Yes, it’s the apostles themselves who are shown acting in this way. It is certainly true that all of the evangelists portray the apostles as not fully understanding their Lord and master; but Luke highlights this very strongly by placing some of the boldest examples of this bad behavior right in the midst of the Lord’s Supper. And so it is that right after Jesus has said to the apostles that one of them will betray him, and they all wonder who it could be, the very next thing out of their mouths is a dispute about which one of them will be considered the greatest.

Jesus very quickly reminds them that this kind of political talk is out of place amongst them. It is not that there won’t be leaders and followers, for it is only natural that some will have certain gifts that others lack. But the leader should act, as Jesus himself does, as the servant to the rest. He demonstrates his mind by noting that he is among them as one who serves — and if he, the master, is content to be a servant, so too ought they be willing to serve — even to serve the youngest among them.

Towards the end of Luke’s account of the passion the evangelist provides two other details that are not present in the other Gospels. On his way to the cross, Jesus encounters that group of unnamed women of Jerusalem who are weeping and wailing. And what is striking is that Jesus has some hard words rather than comforting words for them — “Do not weep for me but for yourselves and for your children.” And he echoes the prophets and says that the days are coming when people will be so terrified that they will ask to be buried alive rather than to face the horrors that are coming. He ends with that striking question, “If they do this when the wood is green, what will they do it is dry?”

Now, that is a somewhat odd saying to us. Most of us don’t have fireplaces to burn wood, green or otherwise. It would make more sense if we place ourselves back in those days, and in the context in which Jesus says it. Jesus is warning those weeping women — those who weep for him instead of considering their own perilous plight — by noting, “If this” — meaning crucifixion — “is what happens to an innocent man, just what do you think is going to happen to you who are guilty? Weep for yourselves!” Jesus is offering them no easy word of comfort, but a prophetic warning, to repent and above all to have his mind in them, to have that mind not set on pride and ambition or whatever it was wrong about them and their lives — but on service and humility. Is he hard on these poor women? Perhaps so — but not as hard as it will be for them if they do not take his warning; if they do not get their lives in order.

Finally, and in much the same vein, Luke offers us one more example of the difference between pride and humility. He presents us, as the other evangelists do, with the two thieves crucified on either side of Jesus. But Luke, unlike the other evangelists, presents them to us with contrasting personalities and actions.

Both of them know that they are guilty, condemned for their crimes and getting their just deserts. But one of them seems interested only in being let off the hook — if he really even means what he says at all; for he may simply be joining in with the jeering at Jesus as the rest of the crowd is doing. But the other thief rebukes him, reminding him of their guilt, but then, instead of asking to be delivered from this just penalty, he admits his guilt and asks Jesus for only one thing — to be remembered by him in the life of the world to come. You might say that this man, rather than the other, has truly taken up his own cross and followed Jesus.

He may be the only character in the drama who has even an inkling of the mind of Christ — and the knowledge, and above all the hope, that it is in dying with him, trusting in him, that he has any chance of participating in his kingdom. No one else in the passion other than Jesus and this thief “humbles himself and becomes obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.” And only this man is given the promise that he will be with Jesus in Paradise.

This is Luke’s lesson for us in his account of the passion: not to grab at fame and power, but to submit and serve. Not to weep for others without looking at our own condition first, and seeing where our own lives are out of order, and need to be put back in God’s order. Luke calls us, in the voice of Jesus to the women, to repent and be prepared, to admit our faults and to throw ourselves upon the mercy of the one who suffered for us, who emptied himself and took the form of a slave, who became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross. None of us is likely to suffer anything like this — God protect us if we do. But each of us can humble ourselves, and take the position of service to others that will show by our deeds that we have the mind of Christ. May that same mind be in us as was in him.+

A New Direction

We receive many calls in our lives, in many different directions; only one of them leads us to Jesus -- a sermon for Epiphany 3b

SJF • Epiphany 3b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
When God saw what the people of Nineveh did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

A few weeks ago, just prior to the Iowa caucuses, I was watching a CNN interview with some undecided Republican voters. One of them said something that amused me: “I think the country is heading in the wrong direction. We need to make a 360-degree turn!” You understand, then, that the reason I found this amusing, of course, is that a 360-degree turn puts you heading exactly the same way you were before you made the turn, maybe even a little dizzier than before — what this voter wanted was a 180-degree turn. I can certainly understand how dizzy undecided voters were in the Iowa caucus. In the weeks leading up to it and since we saw an electoral merry-go-round and roller coaster ride of a campaign — and the campaigners! One day one was in the lead, only to plummet on the next. No wonder people are feeling confused!

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But whether you are a voter or a cruise ship captain, if you really feel like you’re heading in the wrong direction, it’s the 180-degree turn you want. One thing I’ve experienced in years of traveling is that it is sometimes the sign on the other side of the street that you have to turn around and look backwards at to see that is the most helpful in getting you turned the right way round. Fortunately in these gymnastics I’m not the one driving!

I raise all this because our readings today strike the note of the second theme of Epiphany. The first theme, about which we talked last week, was belief. And in response to belief comes this second note — conversion, or tousethe classic word, repentance.

We see this perhaps most vividly in the story of Jonah — although the first part of Jonah’s story isn’t part of our reading today. You will recall that Jonah had tried to run away from God when God first gave him the task of preaching to the people of Nineveh. He headed 180 degrees in the opposite direction from Nineveh, out into the Mediterranean Sea. He learned his lesson in the belly of the great fish. Then God commanded him, as our reading begins this morning, a second time to do as he was told and to preach repentance to the people of Nineveh. And when he did head the way God commanded, and preached repentance, the people believed him — that’s the note of belief that we sounded last week. They believed, but not only did they believe him but they too repented. And I mean major repentance! The whole population of that great city — a three day’s walk across — a lot bigger than the Bronx! — fasted and dressed themselves in rags as a sign of humility and repentance. And then — surprise, surprise — even God changed direction — changing his mind and withholding the calamity he had said he would bring upon that wicked city for all its past sins.

This wonderful story of changing directions tells us three powerful truths: you can’t run away from God; you can change your ways and turn your life around; and even God will change in response to your repentance and amendment of life.

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When we turn to the reading from the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians we hear Paul sounding a bit like Jonah himself, announcing that the time has grown short and the end is near as the present form of this world is passing away. But while Jonah called for clear repentance — a complete 180-degree turnabout — Paul seems tobedescribing a somewhat different new direction. He does not tell people to walk away from their wives or their sorrows or their joys or their possessions or their businesses. Rather he counsels all of them to adopt what I’d call “an alongside attitude” towards all these things — more of a 90-degree relationship, or like parallel lines — continuing alongside all of them but at a little distance, perhaps arms’ length. For all these things, Paul assures them — everything about life as we know it — will be fundamentally changed by God when God comes. The change of direction is more in an attitude of detachment, than in actual movement in the opposite direction. The world, it seems, is to be taken with a grain of salt — not clutched to the breast, but held lightly. We are called to travel lightly through this world.

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Our gospel passage also involves taking a new direction. Jesus starts, again much like Jonah, preaching repentance to the people by the Sea of Galilee. But then he encounters Simon and Andrew and something changes in the nature of the call he issues. He offers a call to go in a totally new direction. Unlike the call of Jonah to the people of Nineveh, this new direction does not involve sorrow or repentance for what is past. Unlike the urging of Paul to the Corinthians it does not involve keeping a light hold on what is now. The call of Jesus is a call to let go of what is now and walk into the unknown future that is not yet. He calls Simon and Andrew and then James and John to come and follow him into a new life, in a totally new direction into a totally new world unlike anything they have ever known. He calls them, in short, into the kingdom of God. This is a call to a higher life. Not any kind of degrees — 360 or 180 — not left or right, or north, south, east or west; but up — up into the life of Christ, being, as John said,“born from above.”

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We all receive different calls in our lives — the calls can be like all of those we heard about this morning. When we have done wrong God does call us to make that 180-degree turn and repent — and has promised to forgive when we do so.

We are also called, as Paul called the Corinthians, to sit lightly with this world, this world that is passing away: our relations and our possessions are only ours for a time and we will one day have to part with all of them — and they with us — when we pass from this life — and so best to cultivate that sense of detachment, as Saint Gregory the Great once said, “To possess the things of this world without being possessed by them.”

Finally, God also calls us through Jesus Christ, in his own direction — towards him who is the shepherd and master of our souls. We have all received these different calls in our lives. But this last call — the call to the new life in Christ — that’s why we’re here this morning. Jesus calls us to follow him as surely as he called Simon and Andrew, and James and John. He calls us to walk in his way: he makes us his disciples and equips us to make disciples of others — to fish for people, as he told those fishermen.

Brothers and sisters, we share in that apostolic work as fishers of people. Even as we are drawn along in the great net cast out by those who have gone before us, we too can reach out our hands to offer help to others to bring them with us too. We may not be able to tell them with a certainty where we are heading. The only certain thing is that if we follow Jesus we will be with him where he is. And where ever that is, isn’t that the place you want to be? With all your heart and soul, with Jesus? Idon’t know about you, but as the old song says, “Where he leads me I will follow... I’ll go with him, with him, all the way...”+

One Mind One Heart

Having the mind of Christ -- a sermon for Proper 21a.

SJF • Proper 21 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Be of the same mind, having the same love being in full accord and of one mind. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.

In last week’s sermon I spoke to you about the double-mindedness and indecision of Hamlet the melancholy Dane, in contrast to the relative single-mindedness of Saint Paul the Apostle. Just as Hamlet wrestled with the question, “To be or not to be,” so too did Paul wrestle with the question of whether it was better for him to give up his life and be with God or continue to struggle along with his fellow Christians to build up the church for which Christ died. And it didn’t take him long to come to the decision to do the latter.

This theme of single-mindedness or decisiveness — making up your mind and then following through on your decision — lies at the heart of all of our Scripture lessons today. It’s important to hear those lessons because making decisions and being firm in your own mind once you’ve made a decision can be very difficult.

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with or recall comedian Jack Benny — he was very popular in the days of radio comedy, and I have to admit I am just old enough to remember his popular early TV show from my early childhood. Over the years he had created a character notorious for his stinginess — he drove a car that was at least thirty years old, and squeezed many cups of tea from a single teabag he would bring to restaurants where he would order a cup of hot water.

One of his most famous comedy “bits” — one involving making decisions — was broadcast on his radio show. He’s returning home after an evening rehearsal — walking instead of taking a taxi, of course, because he’s too cheap — when a mugger comes up to him and says, “Your money or your life.” This is followed by several moments of silence, as the studio audience begins to giggle and chuckle; finally the mugger repeats, “Say, Mister, I said, your money or your life!” To which the cheapskate Benny finally replied, “I’m thinking! I’m thinking!”

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Most of us would not have to stop to think about such a matter — and of course that’s what makes Benny’s comment comical. And yet most of us face situations in our lives where reaching a decision simply isn’t all that easy. You may recall another favorite comedy portrayal of indecision with a character having a little angel on one shoulder and the little devil on the other shoulder — each of them a miniature replication of the person him or herself — and both of them arguing in one ear and then the other the various urgings of what to do or not do. So foreign and yet vivid can our own thinking become that we may project it out onto such imagined angels or devils on our shoulders. Sometimes indecision can feel like that — and the more important the matter the more likely we are to find ourselves in such a quandary of double-mindedness.

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It is a distressing situation in which to find ourselves, Because we want to know what it’s best for us to do. Sometimes we do know, but don’t really want to acknowledge it — which is why Ezekiel has worked himself up into such a temper addressing the house of Israel: surely they know better, well aware that the transgressions they have committed are transgressions. After all, they’ve had the Law of Moses for a thousand years and the words of other prophets for hundreds of years by that time, and they have the own sorry example to look back on, their own history — what happened time and again when their leaders turned aside to worship false gods. From Solomon on, most of the leaders forgot the Lord and turned aside to do what ought not be done. And the land and people suffered for it.

And so Ezekiel appeals to them to turn from the folly of their transgressions and make up their mind to follow the Lord — who, in all fairness, will save and restore them if they mend their ways. For when they have set their mind on God they will also have a new heart and a new spirit — one mind, one heart, devoted to God.

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Today’s gospel presents us with another form of double mindedness: those two sons who, when their father tells them to get to work, both have a change of mind, a change of heart — one for the better and one for the worse. It is important to note that neither one of them is a picture-perfect son to their father. That would be one who would both say he would do what he’s told to do, and then do it. But surely Jesus favors the son who changes his mind for the better and does his father’s will in the end, in spite of that initial back-talk. It is after that example that the tax collectors and prostitutes have turned towards God at the preaching of John the Baptist, changing their minds about their bad decisions, and turning their lives around to devote heart and mind to God.

Meanwhile, the chief priests and elders are caught in a two-minded dilemma. They failed in their ministry of inspiring the people to righteousness, and wrote off the tax collectors and prostitutes as beyond salvation. Along comes the layman, this unordained uneducated man John, whose powerful preaching cuts to the heart and soul and inspires those deemed hopeless sinners by the self-righteous to change their ways.

So Jesus puts the authorities on the spot with his pointed question — one they cannot answer without incriminating themselves. For if John was God’s agent, why didn’t they accept him? And if John was simply acting on his own, how to explain the people’s acclamation of him as a prophet who has changed their lives? Either way the evidence is against them. And so the ones who should be teachers are stumped like the dunce in the corner.

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Finally, Paul offers us the best way forward: the best answer to the double mind is to have in oneself the single mind of Christ. For the mind of Christ, which becomes ours through the Spirit of God and our adoption in baptism — does not equivocate, does not balance on the one hand this and on the other that, is not pulled from side to side by contrary temptations and urges for good or for ill.

Some of you may recall another figure from the 1950s, Harry Truman, who became President of the United States just at the end of the war, succeeding Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and then was elected President. At one point in those tumultuous post-war years, the country was going through great economic problems and realignments — not unlike what we’re going through today. And Truman called upon a series of economists to get advice about what he should to — again, much as we find today. And the economists came to him and said, “Well, you could do this on the one hand, or on the other hand you could do that.” Time and again it was the same message. “Well, on the one hand, you could do this; but on the other hand, you could do that.” Finally Truman famously said, “Will someone please bring me a one-handed economist!”

Now, far be it from me to compare Harry Truman with Jesus Christ. But there is another famous thing that Harry Truman said that does apply: “The buck stops here.” He had that on a little sign on his desk in the President’s office. And “the buck stops” with Jesus. He is the One to whom we are all called to turn — both as our Savior and as our Example, in single-mindedness.

The mind of Christ moves right forward — doing the will of God the Father without veering or delay or detour. And that same mind can be in us, the mind of the one who though he was in the form of God did not grasp at divinity to exploit the powers that were his by right, but emptied himself, in a single-minded decision, to the cause for which he came among us: to live and die as one of us, in obedience to his Father’s will, to save us and redeem us. If we have that mind of Christ, then God will be, as Paul said, “at work in us” as God was at work in him — giving us with one heart, one mind, the hope and assurance of salvation. To him, Jesus Christ our Lord, be the glory, now and for ever.

God of Love or Logic?

SJF • Lent 4c 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The son came to himself and said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!”

The Parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the great, memorable passages of the Gospel, familiar even to many who may never crack the pages of a Bible — it was even made into a ballet with music by Prokofiev, first performed in Paris by the Ballet Russe in 1929, and at the New York City Ballet many times since!

But in spite of how familiar it is, this parable still bears our close attention, as our familiarity can cause us to miss details revealed by taking more time with it.

We’ve just heard it, so I won’t repeat the story. But I want to remind you of where it comes in the Gospel of Luke. This will help us to understand who Jesus is speaking to, and what he is getting at, why he told the parable, and what he means by it.

The fifteenth chapter of Luke begins with Jesus teaching and preaching, and tax collectors and sinners are gathering round eagerly to hear him, like people starving and thirsting for a gracious and generous word. The Pharisees and scribes, with their focus on salvation through personal propriety and righteous observance of the law, grumble among themselves and tsk-tsk that “this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” In response to these clucking tongues, Jesus launches into a series of three parables — all three of them dealing with recovery of something that has been lost: a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son. All three accounts end with a celebration — though in the parable of the lost son, the most elaborate and detailed of the three, the celebration comes in the middle.

For though the celebration begins shortly after the prodigal son’s return, and the recovery of “the lost,” that isn’t the end of the story. There is an additional character, mentioned only in passing at the beginning of the tale, but making his full appearance at the end: the angry elder son. He complains about the celebration, and the manner of his complaint suggests he’s stored up quite a few resentments about how he feels he’s been treated by his father. And yet, the father assures him that he loves him as well, and that his inheritance is secure — but that they must celebrate and rejoice at the repentance and return of the younger son, rather than grumbling about it.

Now, given the placement of this parable in the gospel, and those to whom it was told, and why, it is abundantly clear that Jesus intends the younger son to represent the sinners who have turned their lives around and come to hear his preaching, and the older son to represent the scribes and Pharisees themselves, with their grumbling complaint about the “sinners” being paid any mind at all, including Jesus eating with them.

This is perhaps the gentlest rebuke to the scribes and Pharisees in the whole Gospel — certainly unlike the strong condemnations with which Jesus greeted them a few chapters earlier. Here the parable presents even the Pharisees with some Good News, assuring them that they too are “always with the Father,” and that “all that is his is theirs.” Perhaps this is Jesus’ last effort to reach out to them, to get them to see that they do not need to occupy themselves with judgment of those they deem unworthy, they need not be lost in their own self-righteous anger but can break free of it and find their way home, and come to join the celebration, rejoicing in the breadth of salvation, in which all who are lost are ultimately found!

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That is an important lesson in itself. However, I’d like to note one more thing about this parable. We tend to romanticize the younger son — even if we don’t make his story into a ballet! We tend to see him as a figure of heartfelt sorrow and repentance. But look closely at the text and I think you’ll see instead something more like calculation than sorrow, even if it leads him to change his mind and come back home. He’s spent all his money, taken the lowest job you could imagine for a Jew — feeding pigs! — and realizes what a mistake he’s made, comparing himself to the hired hands back home and seeing how miserable he is. He is sorry — but mostly because of the mess he’s in, sorry about his own discomfort more than for the pain he caused his father, more sorry for the consequences of his action than for the act itself.

So he makes an entirely pragmatic and practical decision to go back home — motivated not so much by love for his father, as by hunger in his belly. He makes a quick calculation that he couldn’t be any worse off as a hired hand, so it’s well worth taking the chance of returning home.

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The thought of calculation reminds me of another young man’s story — a real one this time, but with a similar theme. Blaise Pascal was a 17th-century French scientist and philosopher, famous among other things for inventing one of the earliest mechanical adding machines before he was twenty years old. He is also known for his having undergone a religious conversion and for his adherence to a strict sect of very pious Roman Catholicism.

Now, as you know, it is not common for scientists to be fervently faithful or embarrassingly pious, so it is no surprise to find that in addition to his fervor and mysticism there is also a more calculating and rationalistic side to Pascal’s faith. He knew as a scientist that he could not prove that God exists, but as one of the originators of probability theory, he had to admit that God might exist. And so, in what came to be called “Pascal’s Wager” he calculated that if God exists, it is wisest to win eternal life by placing your bets on God — for, if God doesn’t exist, you’ve lost nothing, but if God does exist you stand to win everything! It’s a compelling notion, and it has held up well for over 300 years. A modern form of this wager is the comment of a believer to an atheist: “If I am wrong about God and life after death, I will never know; but if you are wrong, you will!”

There is a similar kind of calculation in the younger son in our parable. “Better take a chance on my father welcoming me back, rather than starve to death for certain, here.” But you can also hear the wheels clicking in the mind of the older brother, too — though to a different calculation: not the younger brother’s “it can’t get any worse so what the hey, let me go home”; but the colder calculation of the older brother’s carefully tabulated column of resentments — “Working like a slave for years, never disobedient, never got so much as a goat to have a party with my friends...” I can picture him, red-faced and angry, perhaps about to burst into tears. How long has this good obedient son been holding in this catalogue of resentments and injuries? Storing up all the debt he things the father hasn’t paid him?

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And perhaps that touches something in the father, too. But it is not simply a response to the calculus of resentment, any more than his response to the younger son was based on a calculus of repentance. This isn’t about calculus, or logic, or anything like that. It is about love.

The father doesn’t love the younger son because he repents, or the older son because he remains loyal, but because they are his sons. It is not about calculation: either the calculation of a gamble that you might be forgiven, or the calculation that if you tote up enough obedience and loyalty you will get a rich reward. Like the generous employer who gave the workers in the vineyard the same wage regardless of how long or short their work-shift, the generous father in this parable loves his sons not on the basis of what they’ve done or failed to do, but because they are his children. It is not about calculation, but relationship; not about logic, but love.

This, ultimately, is the message Jesus wanted to get across to those scribes and Pharisees, the message the tax-collectors and sinners had already understood, the message that the God of Love intends for us. God’s love is not based upon what we do or fail to do; God’s love is not something we earn by being good or lose by being bad. God’s love is a gift that came to us, reconciling us and the whole world to God, even while we were yet sinners — not counting our trespasses but forgiving them, wiping the slate clean and cancelling the debt, hitting the delete key on the whole spreadsheet of human sinfulness.

Christ did not save us because we were good, or because we repented, but because we needed saving and he loved us so much that nothing could stop him from saving us, even at the cost of his own life, by which he showed us the greatest love.

This is how the lost are found, how the dead are restored to life; this is how new life begins, how new creation starts, and this is why we celebrate — as we must — and keep the feast, through Jesus Christ our Lord.+

Little Girl, Get Up

SJF • Proper 8b 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means Little girl, get up.+

Death is unavoidable. Each of us knows, even as we try to avoid thinking about it, that a day will come that will be our last. In a hospital bed after a long illness, in the sudden shock of an automobile accident, surrounded and supported by a loving family, or alone in a cold room — each of us will die one day. But before that day comes, each of us will very likely be touched by death in another way. Almost everyone first knows someone else’s death before our own day comes. Who hasn’t lost a loving grandparent, perhaps a distant relation you perhaps saw only rarely, or a father or mother, a beloved friend, a husband or wife — most of us will be acquainted with death before we experience it personally. And acquaintanceship with death, though it makes it no less painful, can blunt the edge of sorrow with familiarity.

Some deaths, however, will still find us unprepared. And of all such un-looked-for passings, the most keenly felt is the loss of a child. For while to an old man or woman rich in years death may come as a gentle and familiar friend, bringing easy transition to the next world, to a child death is a stranger, and to the parents a traitor and thief who has snuck in before his time.

This was true even in days long gone by, when the death of children was far more common than it is now. The blessings of technology and medicine have greatly reduced infant and child mortality. The Psalms, written some three thousand year ago, assure us that, “The span of our life is seventy years, perhaps in strength even eighty” — about the same as today. But in those ancient times the death of children was so common, that they weren’t even counted in the average — to get to that seventy or eighty figure, which only applied to those who made it to adulthood.

And most of us need not look back that far to the past, to the times of the Psalms. Take a look through the front pages of an old family Bible. You will probably find as recently as two or three generations back the names of great-aunts and uncles whom you never knew, who died at seven or eight, or ten, all in childhood.

Still, however common such childhood tragedies might be, in biblical times or in the days of our grandparents, to the parents of a sick or dying child it would have all been as if nothing else had happened; it was something new, a hard sharp pain striking them then and there as keenly as anyone would feel it today. The knowledge that pain is common or widespread doesn’t really make it any easier to bear; and though misery loves company, it is no less miserable.

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So we can be sure that the ruler of the synagogue, Jairus by name, was fearful and in pain for the life of his little daughter. Though he may have had a dozen other children, that would not lessen the grief of this particular loss. For this was his little daughter, twelve years old, and at the point of death. When the others came with the news, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?” it was easy for them to keep a “stiff upper lip.” “He has other children, a good wife and many years ahead of him,” they might have thought. “Why trouble the Teacher any further?” But for Jairus, this was his little girl, just twelve years old, his little gazelle, his own dear little child. Would those sweet brown eyes never smile at him again, never twinkle with mischief, never glow with delight at the little gift of a beaded necklace from Sidon? “Why trouble the Teacher any further?”

Did Jairus shrug, nod, and turn away? Did he look at Jesus with hope, or with despair? We do not know. Because whatever Jairus did, Jesus did something as well. “Ignoring what they said, Jesus said... ‘Do not fear, only believe.’” A moment before the bottom had fallen out of Jairus’ hopes. He had heard of the wonders performed by this Teacher from Nazareth, the healings performed in Capernaum. His hopes had been high as he fell at Jesus’ feet, imploring his help, so that he might lay his hands on his little daughter and restore her to health. Then the word had come, the word he had dreaded hearing all along. “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?” But then, into the midst of that empty, cold loss came a voice that said, “Do not fear, only believe.” And his hopes revived.

When they came to the house, they saw the crowd weeping and wailing, the cries of the professional mourners, still common in many cultures to this day. This was not the deep, sorrowful silence of heartbroken parents. The professionals and the neighbors were doing their part, weeping and wailing loudly, tumultuously grieving in the ritual style that is as ageless as human civilization, as the community expresses the grief that the family itself is too numb, and too drained to express. But such ritual mourning is rarely from the heart. And it does little to fill the empty void left by the loss of the loved one.

We see how conventional this formal mourning was by how quickly it turned into sarcastic laughter. When Jesus gave the great good news that the little girl was not dead, but only sleeping, the crowd laughed in his face.

But the father and mother, standing by in the silence of grief, too numb to put on the show of conventional mourning — did they suddenly look up, look into the eyes of this man from Nazareth, this wonder-worker? Was the silence of their grief broken by a sudden gasp of hope? “Not dead, but sleeping!” So Jesus took this father and mother, and his disciples, into the house where the child lay, dismissing everyone else.

Imagine how quiet it must have gotten. The laughter has died down; perhaps a few whispers are going through the crowd outside; perhaps one of the flute players is keeping up a somber tune. But in the house, there is an intense silence. The parents have their eyes fixed on Jesus; the disciples wonder what is going to happen next — they have seen so much these last few weeks.

Into that silence a voice speaks. It is a voice filled with power, a voice filled with command. It is the voice that called all of creation into being, the Word through whom all things were made, “God’s all-animating voice” who calls from above, as our hymn put it. But that voice, a voice from beyond all time and space, here is a voice speaking gently to a little girl. “’Talitha cum... Little girl, get up.’ And immediately the little girl got up and began to walk... and he told them to give her something to eat.”

+ + +

That voice still speaks to us today. We have all fallen asleep in the death of sin, and that same voice calls out to us to awaken, to get up. We are not dead... we are only sleeping, lulled by the siren song of the world, the flesh and the devil. And Jesus says to each of us, Wake up, Get up!

This startling command stills the weeping and wailing of merely conventional repentance, the excessive display of grief and breast-beating.

This startling command silences the cruel laughter of those who would rather keep us dead, just so they could be proved right, those of the sour looks, and the judgment of others.

This startling command shakes people out of that deep despair at the sense of their own sin, lost in the false belief they are beyond forgiveness.

This startling command brings us back from the edge of death, from the shadow of death and the valley of tears: Jesus assures us we are not dead but asleep.

And he tells us to get up. Just as he called that little girl from the sleep of death, he calls us from the death of sin. “Get up, little girl; young man, arise; woman, I say to you rise up; come, Mother, take my hand; stand up, Grandfather.”

He quiets the mourners with a blessed assurance. He touches us with forgiveness, and fills the depth of our empty grief out of the abundance of his love. He lifts us from the sleep of death, stands us on our feet that we may walk and follow him, and feeds us with the spiritual food of his own body and blood.

Touched by that love, awakened by that voice, healed by this forgiveness, fed with this food, we can face anything — even bodily death itself — in the sure and certain knowledge that nothing in the universe can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.+

Do you hear the voice?

Saint James Fordham • Advent 2b • Tobias Haller BSG

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid…+

In today’s readings from the Holy Scripture a number of voices speak out to us, from the dialogue portrayed in the prophecy of Isaiah, through the sage advice of the Apostle Peter, and concluding with the proclamation of John the Baptist. And while these voices speak different words, they bear a single message.

The effect is like that of a chorus from Handel’s great oratorio Messiah — and who can hear that passage from Isaiah without thinking of Handel’s setting? He must have particularly loved this passage, for there are about six sections of his masterpiece that come from just this one text! You know how in these choruses the various voices enter at different times, each singing its own melody as the fugue twists and turns its way. But then, suddenly, of the voices all come together on a single phrase of the text, all of the voices lining up — “For the mouth of the Lord has spoken it” — with one clear message. Well, our lessons today have the same effect, and out of the richness of all these voices, there emerges a clear message that speaks to us today after that long gap of nearly two and a half thousand years. Be comforted, be patient, and repent. This is the message God is sending us through his messengers Isaiah, Peter, and John the Baptist.

+ + +

Isaiah says, Be comforted, for your prison term is over, and your Lord will gather you up as a shepherd carries the young lambs in his arms. Peter says, Be patient, because the Lord is giving everyone time, as much time as is needed, to come to repentance. Which brings us to John the Baptist, who says, Repent and be baptized, that your sins may be forgiven.

These messages weave together in a single strand, depending on each other, because there is no use repenting unless there is comfort and hope that repentance will lead to salvation. If the situation were hopeless, if we were simply dead in our sins, if the prison door has clanged shut behind us forever already, then there is no point either in repentance or good behavior. That is why the message of hope and comfort from Isaiah and Peter is so important.

Be comforted, Isaiah says: and that’s a little hard for us to understand, because for us “comfort” has to do primarily with mattresses and easy-chairs. But that’s not really what comfort means when Isaiah says, “Speak comfortingly to Jerusalem.” It doesn’t mean coziness, but encouragement, strengthening the heart and soul to stand up and endure, not lie down and go to sleep! Take courage, Isaiah is saying, your prison sentence is over, and you’ve been released, given a second chance to start again, a new life, a life in which the obstacles are being leveled, the mountains torn down and the valleys filled in; you can begin a new life in which God himself will lift you over the hard spots, carry you in his arms if you will let him, over the rough spots you are not able to cross on your own. This is the voice of encouragement so sorely needed by anyone who is discouraged, in their life, or by their sins.

Some folks, even in the church, think it’s enough to make people feel bad about themselves because they’ve failed and fallen. But that is not repentance; that is only remorse, and unless the message gives some hope, some comforting encouragement, beating people over the head with their sins will only lead them perhaps as far as remorse, but it may also lead to despair. The church’s true task is not simply to tell people they’ve sinned and fallen short — as indeed we all have — but that there is hope, there is a promise, there is a way out and a way forward. There is, as John the Baptist promised, a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and there is, as Peter promised, time in which to take advantage of that opportunity. The prison door has not clanged shut, it has swung open, and it is up to us to lift up our heads and walk forward into a new life.

That is what repentance is all about: not wallowing in sorrow for the past, but turning around towards the hope of tomorrow. And sometimes all that is needed is a comforting word, an encouraging word, a voice that speaks to us in our sin and our sorrow and reassures us that all is not lost; that it is not too late; that there is hope; that there is a way forward, a way out of our past errors, freedom from the prisons of our own devising.

God’s voice is the voice of comfort and encouragement, that calls us to patience and repentance, to accepting our redemption rather than despairing in our sin. The voice of God is the voice that tells us we are not worthless creatures, but beloved children, precious in his sight. And our joyful response to that voice, that voice that warms our hearts and renews our spirits, is repentance, the acceptance of our salvation.

+ + +

There was once a little girl of eight named Mary Ann who felt awful about herself. Mary Ann was born with a cleft palate and a harelip. It affected her speech, it marred her looks, and since she’d started school her life was a misery as she saw the faces of her classmates curl in imitation or twist in disgust. When some of the more charitable youngsters showed concern and asked her what had happened to her lip, she would make up a story and say that she’d fallen on the sidewalk and cut herself on a broken bottle. That didn’t change how she looked, but pretending it was an accident, something that had happened to her, not something about who she was made it fell a little less awful.

Mary Ann felt terrible most of the time at school, and was sure that nobody liked her. There was someone, however, whom she liked very much, Mrs. Leonard, the second-grade teacher, a short, plump lady with a wonderful smile and bright eyes that sparkled with their own inner light. Mary Ann was too shy to say much to her, though, fearing that even Mrs. Leonards’s bright smile would fade if she were forced to look too long into Mary Ann’s face.

Well, every year the school held a hearing test. This was some time ago, in the days before hi-tech equipment, and the test consisted of a simple screening procedure. Each student would come into the empty classroom and stand at the back of the room facing the wall, turned away from Mrs. Leonard who would sit at her desk at the front of the room. She would whisper some short phrase, which each child would then repeat back. Nothing complicated, just some short phrase like, “The field is green” or “The cat chased the mouse.” And if the child repeated the phrase correctly it was deemed their hearing was o.k.

When Mary Ann’s turn came she entered the room and stood with her back to Mrs. Leonard, facing the wall at the back of the room, glad Mrs. Leonard couldn’t see her face, glad she could simply stand and listen for the words, repeat them, and then be out from under what seemed like a terrible focus of attention. Moments passed as she waited to hear the words, words she would later realize that God had placed in Mrs. Leonard’s mouth, seven words that changed Mary Ann’s life, right then and there. Into the stillness of that room, Mrs. Leonard whispered, “I wish you were my little girl.”

+ + +

“Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,” God tells his prophet. “Speak tenderly.” Comfort here, strengthen her; give her a new life. God’s tender voice is the voice of comfort and encouragement, the voice that calls us to patience and repentance, the voice that calls us to accept our redemption rather than to despair in our sin. God’s voice is not a voice that beats us into the ground, that tells us we are unworthy, stained from birth with original sin,
worthless, hapless creatures scarcely worth his notice. No, God’s voice is a tender voice of comfort and encouragement. God’s voice says to each and every one of us, not only do I wish you were, but You are my own beloved son, you are my own beloved daughter, you are my own beloved child.

May we hearken to that voice, patiently listening for it in the midst of the turmoil and noise of this world. May we listen patiently, in the knowledge that God is seeking us out, as we await the words that can change our lives, words of comfort and encouragement, so that we might repent and accept our salvation, and “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity.”+

The story of Mary Ann Bird is freely adapted from her book, The Whisper Test.

The Prison of Oneself

SJF • Proper 9a • Tobias Haller BSG

For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.

+In a film of a few years back, The Statement, Michael Caine plays an aging French Nazi. As a young man he had participated in the massacre of fellow villagers who were Jewish. He himself is a devout Roman Catholic who has been shielded by the church — moved from monastery to monastery around the country — because he belongs to a mysterious organization, a “church within the church,” similar to if not identical with Opus Dei — the group given a rather fantastic interpretation in another more recent film, The Da Vinci Code. He is constantly on the run and lives between the terror of being assassinated or abducted to Israel to stand trial, and wallowing in emotional outbursts of repentance.

In one particularly telling scene, he is kneeling in his tiny apartment, resting his arms on a small table adorned with various devotional objects, weeping and wailing his heart out in a paroxysm of repentant anguish. At the end of this emotional display he seems a bit calmer and relieved; but as he stands he almost trips over his old dog, lying on the floor all this while behind him. Suddenly possessed with a savage rage, he begins kicking the dog mercilessly, cursing at the top of his lungs. And whatever sympathy the audience might have had for him, it disappears in a flash.

More importantly, the problem with this Nazi isn’t just that he can’t escape his past, it is that he can’t escape himself. He is not just a good man who did a bad thing once years before and has yet to pay the price — he is a bad man who thinks his bouts of repentance will make up for the fact that his heart has not changed in all those years: the heart that led him to betray his fellow villagers in order to preserve himself. In fact, he isn’t even really repentant — he just doesn’t want to get caught; self-preservation is still the rule. The irony is that he is already caught: he is free only in the sense that he is not in a prison made of stone and iron — his real prison is his own self - the very self he so earnestly wants to preserve.

+ + +

Saint Paul has a similar problem, but finds a better solution. He too has done something awful when he was younger, as a persecutor of the church who arrested Christians up and down the country, and even saw to it that some of them were put to death. But even after his conversion he realizes that not only can he not escape his past — even though he has really repented of it — but that he cannot escape himself. He keeps on sinning: he knows what he ought to do, but he doesn’t do it; he knows what he shouldn’t do, but he still does it. As he says, “When I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.”

Now, Saint Paul is not unique in this: in fact, this is pretty much the human condition when it comes to good behavior. None of us is perfect, and all of us fall off the wagon from time to time — and even if we are able to avoid the sins of intention, the ones that we have to work at (such as pride, envy, and hatred) it is difficult if not impossible to avoid the sins that derive from the emotions, such as anger — the sins that arise unbidden and almost irresistibly.

The boundary between who we are and what we do is open and easily crossed — you don’t need a passport to go from one country to the next: and it is sometimes hard to tell the difference or make the distinction between being and doing. The late science fiction author Kurt Vonnegut once observed, “Socrates said, ‘To be is to do.’ Jean-Paul Sartre said, ‘To do is to be.’ And Frank Sinatra said, ‘Do be do be do.’” Our being and our doing are intimately connected, however you sing the song. As I noted in my sermon a few weeks ago, the sum of who we are is largely determined by the choices we make and the things we do in our lives — and we do not always choose rightly even if we want to, and we have to deal with the consequences of our wrong choices as much as we enjoy the rewards of our right ones.

+ + +

But to get back to Saint Paul: even as he complains about his situation, he doesn’t stop there wallowing in his own inability to be perfect, his own inability to escape himself, his own flesh and members, which seem to be a law unto themselves and lead him to do the very things he doesn’t want to do. He knows that there is someone to rescue him from what he calls “this body of death” — and isn’t that a powerful phrase to describe the prison of oneself, the Death Row of ones own body?

Paul knows that as bad as he is, as harsh is the sentence he deserves, he has been saved — rescued, quite literally from death, delivered from solitary confinement in the prison of his own incapacitated self, a self that without Christ Jesus can look forward to nothing but condemnation and destruction and death. The rescuer has come.

No wonder daughter Zion rejoices greatly, no wonder daughter Jerusalem shouts aloud — the cavalry has come to the rescue! Or perhaps I should say “Calvary” in this case, for this isn’t about horses and chariots, but about the Son of God come in the likeness of sinful flesh, to deal with sin, by nailing it to the cross and sealing the new covenant in his own blood, and then to rise in glory.

It is this new covenant, the covenant of the Spirit in the blood of the Savior, ratified by God in his rising from the dead, that allows us to escape the prison of our selves. He put the power of the flesh to death in his own flesh, so that those who walk according to the Spirit can find both life and peace in him; rescued and reprieved, and pardoned, to rise with him.

And you will notice that Paul’s teaching on this is fully in keeping with Jesus Christ’s own assurance on the subject. He calls us from the weariness of carrying the heavy burden of our selves — our sinful flesh weighed down by the burden of the law, which cannot save but only makes us more conscious of how low and sinful and weary we are, as if, like villagers in some medieval town, we had our sentence carved on heavy wooden signs to carry around our necks.

He has taken that heavy, weary burden upon himself — borne the weight of the sins of the whole world, and in exchange has placed upon us only his easy yoke and light burden, easy and light enough that the weakest and weariest can bear it.

And what is that burden? Of what does the yoke of Christ consist? Not an endless quest after perfection; not a repetitious wallowing in emotional bouts of repentance that may bring momentary relief but can offer no permanent escape from the prison of self. No, what he asks of us is simple, so simple that the wise and intelligent sometimes miss it, and it is up to infants to proclaim it — what he asks is summed up in that one word, Love: to love our God and our neighbor.

Like any good yoke this one is balanced: it has two arms, and you cannot use it unless both sides are engaged — have you ever seen villagers carrying two pails of water with a yoke? It’s no good trying to carry one, or one full and one empty! So too with the yoke of the Spirit, the easy yoke that Jesus places upon us, so that we may walk in his way, bearing only the light double burden of love — a burden that steadies without wearying, for love never fails nor grows weary.

The double love of God and neighbor delivers us from the law of the flesh, from the prison of ourselves, because it turns us from ourselves towards others — towards God and our neighbor. We are no longer obsessed with seeking forgiveness for our sins in bouts of repentance — our sins have been forgiven, not because we earned their forgiveness, but because Christ died for us. “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set us free from the law of sin and death.” We remember and confess our sins here in church week by week not to earn God’s favor, but to remind ourselves of his love for us in having forgiven them already. In that knowledge we are strengthened in the Spirit to return that love to him and share it with our neighbors.

This is the means by which are liberated from the prison of ourselves — when we recognize that the door has been opened, the chains have been cut, the locks unlocked and the gates flung wide. The King of glory has entered in and done his work in rescuing us from sin and death: his incarnation has reversed our incarceration! All we need do now is walk through the door bearing his yoke of love, and walking in accordance with the Spirit. Let us take his yoke upon us and learn from him, the one gentle and humble in heart, yet strong to save: Jesus Christ our Lord.+

Can't Hide From God

SJF • Epiphany 3a • Tobias Haller BSG
Lord, you have searched me out and known me; you know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You trace my journeys and my resting-places and are acquainted with all my ways.+

Last week I was away on retreat with my Brothers, and we spent much of the retreat meditating on and discussing Genesis 3:1-7. So that ancient tale of the fall of our distant ancestors is very much in my mind. So I want to begin my sermon by casting our thoughts back in that direction.

From the time that Adam and Eve first ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and discovered that they weren’t dressed for dinner — indeed not dressed at all! — and hid themselves in the shrubbery so that God might not see them, people have been trying by one means or another to get away from God. Well, as Adam and Eve learned, and as people ever since have learned, you can’t get away from God. God has his eye on you, on me, on every single person on this world of ours, and there’s nowhere you can go to hide, no hiding place from the Lord’s piercing vision. And this strikes us most, we most keenly feel the relentless watchfulness of God, when we’ve done something wrong.

When I was about four and a half years old, I took it into my head one day when my parents were out of the house to disassemble my mother’s wristwatch, which she left on the dining room table. I always was an inquisitive child — I had tiny little hands perfectly designed for mischief — but unfortunately I was no watchmaker: I could take the watch apart all right, but I had no hope whatever of putting it back together. And I realized this fact with that awful sinking feeling that must have been very much like what Adam and Eve felt when they experienced the cool evening breezes and realized they weren’t wearing anything. And so, knowing of course that I couldn’t hide myself, I decided to hide the watch — or what was left of it! Going into the living room, I reached up as high as I could and put the watch, or I should say the remnants of the watch, up onto the mantlepiece over the fireplace, out of sight.

Out of my sight, that is. For of course, as soon as my parents got home, they found the disassembled wristwatch lying in pieces in plain sight at a very convenient level for them to see — I could hardly have chosen a more obvious place to display my misdeed. Well, suffice it to say I went without dinner that evening, and got a good whupping in addition. And I did, I hope, learn my lesson. And the lesson I learned wasn’t to pick a better hiding place, but to respect other people’s belongings!

+ + +

Sadly, down through human history, there are plenty of people who haven’t learned their lesson, who haven’t learned that you can’t just do what you want and not expect the consequences, who think that their misbehavior will remain out of sight and out of mind. The examples come so frequently one need only pick up the newspaper or listen to the TV news. Most recently, it seems, some people have forgotten that you can erase as many e-mails as you like, but eventually things will catch up with you! In fact, the supposedly missing e-mails more than anything else call attention to the problem, as glaring and obvious as a dismantled watch sitting on a mantlepiece. Yet so many times people will act like children who cover their own eyes and say, You can’t see me. Well, that just doesn’t work: you can’t hide from God, you can’t get away from God.

The prophet Amos reminded the people of Israel that not only could God see them, but that of all the families of the earth, God most particularly had his eye on them. And Amos called out to them in that ringing series of questions, questions that challenge us even today with a resounding, Who do you think you are? Don’t you know God has his eye on you? Don’t you know God has kept his appointment, and is here to judge you? Don’t you know that God is roaring like a lion in anger over you because he’s caught you? Don’t you know you’ve stepped in the bear-trap, and that disaster is coming to overtake you? Tremble, tremble: for God has his eye on you, and you can’t get away from God!

+ + +

The people of Corinth, now they tried a different approach to get away from God. They played a sort of a theological Three Card Monte, a kind of ecclesiastical shell game, choosing up sides and dividing themselves into subdivisions according to whom they liked the best, hoping, one supposes,

that God would get confused with the shuffling between allegiance to Apollos, or Cephas, or Paul, or yes even Christ, who in that congregation just became one more option among many. And the Apostle Paul, like the Prophet Amos, confronted them with a ringing series of questions. Do you think God is divided up among you? Don’t you know into whom you were baptized? Don’t you not know that Christ was crucified for you? Don’t you realize that Christ is our unity, not our division? Tremble, tremble: for God has his eye on you, and you can’t get away from God!

+ + +

Yes, brothers and sisters, it’s true; and we can’t get away from God, either. But we need not hear that as bad news; indeed we need only hear it as bad news if we are set in our ways to perdition, if we insist on persisting in wrongdoing — for those who choose that path it is indeed a frightening thought to know that there is no escape, that they can’t get away from God. Those who are trying to hide from God, to get away from God, will hear as bad news the fact that God knows where they are.

But we are not trying to hide from God. We’ve learned our lesson, and know it’s pointless trying to hide anyway. What we’ve come to understand is that we are not hiding, trying to get away from someone, but lost. And that changes everything.

If you are lost, the one thing you want to know most of all is that someone is looking for you; better yet, that someone knows where you are, that someone has his eye on you, and is coming, not to judge, but to rescue.

That makes all the difference, doesn’t it? You could look at Psalm 139, which we sang in a hymn version today, as the complaint of some guilty person who has been found out, someone who has tried to get away from God and found that however much he tries there is no escape. And perhaps with our obsession with the right to privacy (no doubt going back to Adam and Eve!) it is natural to read this psalm in this way. But think about it in a more positive light, and you will see that it is not a song of a guilty criminal confessing, “You caught me fair and square.” No, it is the song of praise to God, who is so vigilant and watchful that he will not allow a single one of his children to be lost, no matter how far they stray, to the ends of the earth, the far reaches of the sea, the height of the dawn or the depths of darkness.

And it is the same God who seeks the lost who comes to us in Jesus Christ, as he came to that land of Zebulun and Naphtali, that far off province of Galilee, a land looked upon by the other tribes of Israel as no better than a suburb of the Gentile Philistines and Phoenecians, people who, as far as they were concerned, were sitting in darkness, in the region and shadow of death. Jesus came to what the people of his day thought of as the most God-forsaken part of Palestine, in part to make the point that no place on earth is God-forsaken. There is no place that God will not go, no place that God’s Spirit will not penetrate, no place that is beyond God’s reach.

And whether that hand of God is reaching out to punish or to rescue will depend to the greatest extent on whether you are looking for a judge or a savior — for God is both! You can’t get away from God, either by running or hiding, or by getting yourself lost. Christ comes to the backwater of Galilee, and starts his ministry of recovering the lost ones, calling fishermen who will fish for men and women and children and bring them in, in to where God wants them to be.

We can’t get away from God — that is the good news of the kingdom, the cure for the disease of fear, the remedy for the sickness of hatred, the antidote for the poisonous debility of division, the healing balm for the malady of loss and despair.

And so let us rejoice, sisters and brothers, in the knowledge that God has his eye on us, he knows where we are when we stray, and will guide us back on to the right way; God is with us whether we walk in the light or in the dark, whether we walk with open eyes or closed, and his amazing grace and holy Spirit will seek us out and bring us home, and heal our sin-sick souls. We can’t get away from God, thanks be to God! +

Fire Insurance

Saint James Fordham • Advent 1a • Tobias Haller BSG
You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to awake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.+

“You know what time it is.” With these words, Saint Paul assures the Romans that the cosmic alarm clock has gone off, it is time to wake up; that the night is far gone and the day is near, by which he means the day of the Lord. And every three years, as the church works through its cycle of Scripture readings, we hear these same words on the First Sunday of Advent.

Immediate urgency is the theme of Advent, whose watchword is Watch! Wake up! Be on your toes! But because we hear these words of warning over and over year by year, we risk losing the sense of immediate urgency they are intended to convey. The events of the last few years have shown us that we had best indeed be on our toes — who would have thought that such a terrifying apocalypse would come falling upon us from the skies one sunshine-bright and peaceful Tuesday morning in September? And yet we risk becoming complacent, as the government continues to issue vague warnings about possible terrorist attacks, color coded but unexplained, with no specifics as to when and where or what or how. And our weariness at being constantly on the yellow or orange alert causes us to lower our defenses instead of raising them, and we become numb instead of sensitized.

We risk the same with Saint Paul’s message, and the even more chilling message of the gospel. We risk falling into a spirit of complacency because, after all, these warnings were given 2,000 years ago and nothing’s happened yet — or so we think. But look at the horror of the Gospel message, and see if it doesn’t relate to how you felt that Tuesday morning six years ago; see if it doesn’t awaken some of that feeling of terror.

People are going about their lives, minding their own business, just as in Noah’s day. They are busy at their places of work, in the field or in the home. And then the attack comes, the attack from on high, and the mortality rate is fifty percent, one of every two is taken! Doesn’t that fill you with dread, dread of the judgment ready to fall and you haven’t got your case in order; dread of the fire to come, and you don’t have fire insurance?

+ + +

Well, brothers and sisters, the good news in all of this is that we do have fire insurance, fire insurance against the judgment and against the fire of hell. It is the fire insurance that Saint Paul describes as the armor of light. With this armor we can fight fire with fire, fight the fire of hell with the fire of love. For the fire of love burns hotter and brighter and longer than the fire of hate and evil. The fire of love is fed by the power of God, the power of Love which fulfills the Law that spelled out death and judgement for us in letters of stone; the fire of love that transforms the dead letter of the Law into the living spirit of action and charity.

It is by the firelight of love that we stay awake and watch for the coming of our Lord. We keep that fire burning, that protecting light that keeps at bay the monsters of the night, the evil that seeks our hurt and harm, the evil that dwells in the darkness of human hearts, including our own. It is into that darkness that the light of the fire of love must shine if we are to be armed and ready with the armor of light in the strength of Christ, to be prepared for his coming. For the fire of love does not just illuminate, it cleanses and purifies and protects.

When a forest fire threatens to destroy a town, what do the brave fire rangers do? We saw them do it just a few months ago out west. It is something that seems illogical at first: they start another fire! They lay down a new fire in the path of the fire they want to stop, a controlled fire to burn up the fuel and create a barrier against the uncontrolled fire that is threatening to destroy the town. This is how you fight fire with fire, fight the fire of hate and hell with the fiery armor of light, the fire of love.

Do you have the fuel of resentment in your heart? Put it in the fire of love. Let the fire of love consume the fears and angers that nourish the fire of hate. Do you have a loved one enslaved by drink or drugs, a husband with a wandering eye, a wife that’s a trial to you, a job that you hate, a child that has strayed from the right path, or parents that quarrel and never seem to stop fighting, a friend or family member with whom you’ve had a falling out? Do you have any of these painful resentments, of these hurtful quarrels or jealousies, stored up in your heart?

Well, put your pain and resentment in the fire of love, and let love consume the fuel of resentment that nourishes the flames of hell. Let the fire of love create an armor of light to protect you and shield you from the power of evil, the power that destroys.

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Let us look well to ourselves, for we cannot control the acts of others — we can only choose not to resent, not to curse, not to respond in kind. We can choose rather to walk away from quarrels and contentions, to return harsh words with words of welcome and truth, and to look within our own hearts and burn up and away all resentment and hurt.

And as we look into our hearts, we will see and know far more our own guilt, our own wrongdoing, as we look to the dark spots in our own hearts, where there is plenty of fuel to burn. Shakespeare, the greatest English poet and dramatist, captured this human task in an unforgettable scene in his most famous play, Hamlet. The Prince was striving to raise his mother’s consciousness to the evil she had done, allowing herself to ignore the obvious murder of her husband, and worse, to marry his murderer. And Hamlet implored his mother to look into her own heart. When she did, she saw her sins and wept, and said to Hamlet, she felt as if her heart was being cut in two. At which Hamlet gave that sage advice, advice that echoed the Gospel warning, to throw away the worser part.

We are challenged this Advent, and every step of our Christian journey, to look into our own hearts and find what is wrong there, then to cast off that dark work, to tear out the worser part and burn it, along with all resentments, in the fire of love.

Do I nurse thoughts of hate? Do I place myself first in pride, taking another’s place just because I want it? Do I take more care of myself than my neighbor, taking advantage instead of giving freely? Am I inwardly divided in myself between what I know is right, and what I want in spite of it all?

Jesus tells the disciples, that of the two men in the field and the two women at the mill one will be taken and the other left. And we, as we wrestle with our own inner faults, are we not each of us like two people, two people wrestling to do good but wanting to be bad? Aren’t our hearts sometimes torn in two by our desires at war with our better conscience? So as Hamlet said to his mother: throw away the worser part, let it be burned in the fire of love. If we place all of our fears and failings in the fire of love, it will burn them up, to protect us and insure us against the fire of hell.

Whatever is wrong, whatever is a work of darkness, resentment or quarrel or jealousy, strike it down and burn it with the fire of love, the refiner’s fire that purifies.

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Look at the world. We hope for peace, yet the conflicts still continue; the world is torn asunder; nation lifts sword against nation like nobody’s business. Many have fallen into complacency, satisfied with half measures, for this is the way of the world, eating and drinking, making love and making war, unprepared for the coming end which will sweep it all away, just as in Noah’s day.

We have no excuse to be unprepared. We have received not only a warning, but a promise. For the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never overcome it and never shall, for the light of God burns bright with the fire of love. And we have been offered the shining armor of light that reflects God’s glory, a glory in which all of us can share through Jesus Christ, a glory into which we are baptized and sealed by the fire of love through the Holy Spirit.

God has revealed his glory to us, and given us a share in that glory, that fire of love that destroys the fire of hell, that armor of light that ensures our salvation, and overcomes the darkness of fear and death in the far gone night and the day drawn near, to reveal God’s glory in the face of Christ, the glory of the only begotten Son of the Father in heaven, full of grace and truth — and in whose Name we pray, Come, Lord Jesus, come!+

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. +