The Real Thing

We stand between what we were and what we shall become, when the Risen Christ is revealed.

SJF • Easter 2015 • Tobias S Haller BSG
God raised Jesus on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.

Alleluia, Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia. That, my friends, is the Easter message, short and sweet; the heart of the gospel and the center of our Creed and acclamation. (Don’t get too excited, though; the sermon will be a little longer...) Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. It is why we are here today, and why we are here every time we gather week by week and year by year — some of us, if we are honest about it, tending more to the year-by-year than the week-by-week! But if you can only be here one day a year — or for the first time in your life! — this is the day to be here: Easter Day, the day of resurrection.

It is fashionable in some theological circles to debate and discuss the nature of the resurrection, asking, Did it really happen? or What was it like? At the furthest reaches of skepticism you have those who suggest that Jesus was not really raised from the dead; but rather, that the power of his personality and his teaching were so persuasive that the apostles decided to continue their teaching and preaching as if he had been raised from the dead. In addition to transforming the apostles into either fools or con-men, does this really make any sense at all? Who would risk their lives to preach a gospel based on a fabric as thin and weak as wet tissue paper? Who would be willing to face down the authorities of Rome and the Sanhedrin on the basis of such a dream or a hope? Who would be willing to die — as most of the apostles did — in defense of a pious memory?

And if the apostles were con-men, if indeed they stole the body from the tomb — as the slanderous rumor would have it — then we are, as Saint Paul once said, of all people the most to be pitied, for having been hoodwinked by first-century con-artists — who, if they were con-artists, weren’t very smart themselves: for they got nothing for their scam but persecution, beatings, imprisonment, exile and death! Who is more the fool?!

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But look at what Saint Peter says: “God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.” Peter is testifying as an eye witness; he’s not making this up; he’s not elaborating a pious memory, or engineering a clever scam. He saw the risen Christ with his own eyes; he and the other apostles ate and drank with Jesus over those days before he was taken up into heaven and exalted at the right hand of the Father. Whatever else one wants to say about the resurrection, Saint Peter affirms that it is real.

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Now of course, you might well say, well, what is real? What is reality? Could someone who died really come back to life — not just resuscitated, like Lazarus, but totally transformed into a person who can walk through walls or locked doors to confront his frightened followers — and we will be hearing more about that in the coming weeks. This risen Christ, this Jesus Christ who was raised from the dead by the power of God, was not merely restored to life, but was given a whole new kind of life. When Saint Paul tries to explain this to the Corinthians, he says, “It is sown a physical body, but is raised a spiritual body.”

The problem with this is that we tend to hear the word spiritual as being less real than the physical. But it is the other way around: the spiritual is more real than the physical. For God is Spirit, and God is the most real reality that is, the reality upon which all other things depend, the Creator of all that is. If God is not real, nothing else could be real!

Christ could walk through the closed doors of those fear-filled rooms, not because he was like a ghost, but because he was ever so much more real, solid and substantial than those merely physical barriers. He could walk through those barriers the way we walk through a puff of smoke or a haze of fog. The stone at his tomb was rolled away not so he could get out — he could have walked through that stone like it was tissue paper — the stone was rolled away to let the disciples see that the tomb was empty; that he had been raised. The risen Christ, in the power of the spirit, was more, not less, real than the substantial world he came to save. We, my friends, are the ghosts: dead in our sin. But the Easter message proclaims: He is alive! And if he is alive, then we who live in him are alive as well.

The spirit, you see, gives life — and compared to what is dead (as we all are in our sins) what is alive is more real,more substantial, more solid, and more full of the energy that drives the universe. That cosmos itself is supported and sustained only by the love of God who created it; the nurturing care of God’s Holy Spirit that sustains it — what the poet Dante so beautifully described as “the love that moves the sun and the other stars.” And that same power — the power that moves the universe - is the same power that raised Jesus from the dead.

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Some skeptics will say this is impossible. But I ask you — who of us here is possible? Each and every person sitting here in this church, each and every person who ever walked this earth, at one point didn’t exist, wasn’t real — didn’t exist at all. Yet here we are! Each and every person sitting in this church, young and old, big and small, and the billions of others born upon this earth came into being from the joining of two cells: one of them smaller than a pinhead, and the other smaller still. That’s reality, my friends. Each of us here started out as a speck no bigger than the period at the end of a sentence, a wiggle no bigger than a comma. And yet here we are.

And our present bodies are as miraculous as our beginning. For as we grew from that little point, we drew substance first from our mother’s womb, then when we were born and came forth into the world with a cry as all mortals to, we grew from the food we ate, the air we breathed — yes, we are built up with material gathered from the four corners of the world — and that world itself is compacted of the substance of exploded stars! What a miracle that each of us can sit here in this church, both it and we made up from elements from the four corners of the universe, from literally billions of miles away, gathered here against all odds to this very spot, gathered from the air that God spreads upon this earth, from the water that flows so freely, from the food from far afield.

There are atoms in my body that once were part of other lives, that swam in the fish off the coast of Alaska, that browsed in the herds of the Great Plains of Iowa, that grew in the fruit groves of Florida. What an impossibly unlikely reality I am, that each of us is: that the substance of the universe scattered to its ends should find itself collected and gathered, here and now in you, in me!

Is it real? Can it be? And can God who works this miracle a billion times over in every human being , not work a single miracle in one human being that is a billion times as great? Can the power of God that works to bring life from such a tiny beginning to its present state, to summon the substance of exploded stars to form billions of human lives, can he not continue the amazing transformation one further step in one very special human being? What if our bodies now stand in the same relation to what we shall be in the resurrection, (when we shall be like Christ in our risen spiritual bodies) as the first beginning of our lives, when we were sheltered in our mothers’ wombs no bigger than a period or a comma — not even as big as a question mark — bear to what we are now? We are only in the middle, my friends, we are in-between what once we were as a tiny speck that was almost nothing, and what we shall be in the life of the world to come: and oh, what a sight it will be.

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For we have been given a promise, my friends, a promise passed down for nearly 2,000 years, a promise first given by our Lord himself and repeated by the angel at the tomb, who reassured those fearful, faithful, women who came to find a body. “He he is not here; he has been raised; but he is going ahead to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

“We will see him.” That is the promise. And it is real. We will not see him as we do now, only in the acts of charity and self-sacrifice done in his name. We will not see him only under the forms of bread and wine, as we see him now. We will not see him only in the icons and the paintings and the stained-glass windows, however beautiful they are they are only shadows of the things that are to come, when the glory is revealed, and we will see him as he is, see him with our own eyes — our own new spiritual eyes seeing him in his super-substantial, and spiritual body — raised from the dead, transformed and glorified for our sake and on our behalf, that we might be led into the way of transformation that will change us too, into his likeness and according to his great love and promise.

So if anyone asks you, my friends, “Is it real?” you can assure them it is the most real thing that is: more real than death, more real than life itself — this new life that is raised from the dead in the power and the glory of God, to whom we give, as is most justly due, all might, majesty, power and dominion, henceforth and for evermore.

Here Comes the Calvary!

SJF • Easter A 2014 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today.

Sending all of the children [to Sunday school] reminds me that when I was about that size — though perhaps a little bit smaller — I used to love watching cowboy-and-Indian westerns and TV shows when I was a boy. I confess I even had my own little cowboy suit (yes they made them that small!). It was a genuine Walt Disney Mouseketeer Cowboy Suit (probably a size zero), complete with shiny buttons and an imitation leather holster with a trusty pot-metal six-shooter cap-gun. What’s more, a couple of years later I had a Davey Crockett racoon-skin hat, and later a Bat Masterson walking-stick that fired caps when you tapped the end against the ground, and then, best of all, a genuine Rifleman toy repeating rifle that shot caps. (And we weren’t even members of the NRA!) Come to think of it, I wish I still had all those things — because they’d fetch a nice bit on eBay! But sadly, as Saint Paul said, when I became a man I put aside childish things, and who knows where all the paraphernalia of my childhood may be today? Maybe I should check eBay?

One thing, though, that stays with me from that period, though, is the spirit of optimism that was such an intrinsic part of those old westerns. These TV shows and movies evidenced an unshakable opinion that however dark and hopeless things might appear, rescue will come and all will be well.

You remember the situations: The family or the farmers are surrounded by evil cattle rustlers, or the wagon train is in a circle fending off the marauding attacks of Indians who are galloping around and around, the little farm cabin bristles with arrows and flaming torches are hitting into the sides of the Conestoga wagons.

And at these darkest and most dangerous moment, suddenly a voice rings out, Here comes the cavalry! The bugle sounds in the distance, and over the ridge there appears the rescuing troop of horses, thundering down the hill with banners flying and guns blazing, scattering the rustlers or Indians or desperadoes, sending them fleeing into retreat.

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Our Old Testament reading this morning carries with it that same spirit of optimism and hope at the darkest and most terrifying moment.

Deep in the past of Israel’s history, is an event that would come to be seen by them as the defining moment in their history, a dramatic scene of rescue unfolds. This one really does have a cinematic air — now wonder it has been put on film a number of times! The children of Israel are trapped between Pharaoh’s army and the Red Sea, caught between a rock and a hard place, or perhaps I should say between the devil and the deep blue sea! The situation looks hopeless, and the people shout curses at Moses for bringing this disaster upon them. “Weren’t there graves enough for us in Egypt, that you have to bring us here to die by the sea?” they cry out — for sure enough there were graves in Egypt,
some as big as mountains for Pharaoh and his family, but even the common workers, even the slaves such as they, had their own little tombs. Archaeologists discovered them not too many years ago, right there in the shadow of the pyramids, little tombs for the ones who built those big tombs, somewhat fancier ones for the overseers, simpler ones for the common laborers. But even such simple graves are much to be preferred to what seems to await the people now: slaughter by the seaside! Here on the shore of the Red Sea, it looks like these folk are doomed to miss their chance at a decent burial.

The Egyptian army draws on, and they get pushed closer and closer to the edge of the water. Then suddenly, the voice of God speaks out, the power of God in the pillar of fire moves in majesty and awe to cut off the Egyptian assault, God’s cavalry and chariots of fire opposing the horsemen of Egypt. Then the command is given Moses lifts his staff. The waves begin to push back as the wind from God blows mightily, and the sea itself begins to part, the water unnaturally flowing back and up, leaving dry land for the Israelites to tread through — as the hymn says, with unmoistened foot — to safety on the other side. Then Moses stretches out his hand once again and those walls of water collapse on the hard-hearted Egyptians, unwilling to allow this miraculous rescue, and themselves instead destroyed and drowned, all those chariots and horsemen.

What a scene, what a drama — it was something to sing and dance about; and that was what the people did, a song of the Lord’s glorious triumph, sung on the other shore. “The Lord has triumphed gloriously; the horse and its rider has been thrown into the sea. The fathomless deep has overwhelmed them; they sank into the depths like a stone. Your right hand, O Lord, is glorious in might; your right hand, O Lord, has overthrown the enemy.”

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Such is the substance of our reading from the Old Testament, summed up in that phrase, “Here comes the cavalry.” It’s what God does, it’s what God favors, this last minute reprieve, this rescue just when things look their worst.

But this would not always be the case. There was a time when God did not send in the cavalry. There was a time when God did not send down ten legions of angels, even though he could have. There was a time when God was silent, a terrible time when a man was dying a most horrible and cruel death,
a man who was far closer to God than Moses was.

That was the terrible truth of Good Friday, that God did not intervene. The silence of God appeared to start in the Garden of Gethsemane. The gospel writers record no response from God when Jesus asked that, if it was possible, the cup might pass from him. (Although one of the Gospel writers couldn’t resist having an angel there to pat Jesus on the shoulder and give him some comfort.) The silence of God continued on up through the scourging, through the journey through the crowded streets, bearing that cross. Even when the nails ran in, the cross was hoisted, and the Son of God hung in shameful pain, there was no bugle sound in the distance, no angelic troop sweeping down through the clouds. Into that silence the man on the cross uttered words of desolation, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Where was the pillar of fire? Where was the staff to part the sea? Where was the legion of angels? No, there was no rescue then. There was no cavalry on Calvary.

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And yet.... and yet, it appears after all that God the master dramatist had a new twist in mind, an even greater rescue than any ever before. And that is why we are here today. That is why we will be here next Sunday, and Sunday after Sunday throughout the year. For God did act, though he delayed acting, delayed his entry into this drama to such an extent that some people couldn’t believe what he did when he did it.

The religious authorities deny it; the politicians immediately tried a cover-up to squelch it — nothing new there! — the women at the tomb trembled in fear even if they were joyful; the disciples doubt their story, one of them even to such an extent that he earned the nickname by would be his forever, Doubting Thomas.

But it wasn’t that God went too far. God went just far enough — though it was further than anyone had ever gone before. To rescue someone from impending death, to deliver someone from the danger of death — why, that’s the stuff of heroism. But to rescue someone from death after he has died! That, anyone could have told you, is impossible. That is not the stuff of heroism, but of miracle.

And so it was. It was impossible, but God did it. For all things are possible with God, working with and in those who believe. With the Lord all is provided, even the impossible, even the unbelievable. The Lord has provided, and the Lord provides, and the Lord will provide! That is just the way God is. God’s cavalry will keep on coming, even if it means working the miracle of resurrection rather than of rescue. God did not rescue his Son from death — he rescued him through death.

And he will do the same for us. We all will die, rest assured. But that will not be the end for us any more than it was the end for Jesus Christ. For we have been baptized into his death — and if that were the end, what fools we would be. What fools we would be if all we did was worship a dead god! What fools we would be to gather here week by week. What fools to baptize children into death — and not into life! For we who have been incorporated in him, by a death like his, will also share and rise with him, in a life like his. After our own mortality leads us to the grave, we will ride his coattails on up and out of the grave, whether they be as grand as Mr. Woolworth’s mausoleum up in a Woodlawn or as humble as a grave in a little country church; whether as notable and long-lasting as the pyramids or as anonymous and unmarked as a burial at sea, at the end we will rise with him, lifted up into life again.

Paul wrote, “For we have died, and our life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then we also will appear with him in glory.” This, my beloved sisters and brothers in Christ, is better than any last minute rescue, a reprieve, a deliverance, a continuation of the same old same old. This is nothing less nor other than new life, transformed and remade as a new being, a new creation. This is the hope and promise of Easter, the hope and promise that the Lord provides, as he has provided so much else.

God has given us much for which to give thanks, But this — this promise of life everlasting with him — this is the best. This is really good. And it will last for ever.+

What's Coming

Jesus on marriage, the life of the world to come, and a put-down for the Sadducees on their own terms...

Proper 27c 2013 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold.

Advent, the season of expectation both for Christmas and second coming of our Lord, will soon be upon us. Every year, it seems, the readings appointed for the weeks before Advent always seem to take on an Advent air a bit early, as if the framers of the cycle of readings just couldn’t wait to launch into the new church year — just as the merchants of the secular world can’t seem to wait until Thanksgiving any more to start the Christmas push; they want to start before Hallowe’en!

This tendency to want to jump the gun, to over-anticipate, is nothing new. Whether a holiday, or a holy day, or the coming of the Lord, there will always be someone pushing the calendar impatiently, trying to reach out into the future and drag it into the present.

One of the reasons that Saint Paul has to write a second letter to the Thessalonians is on account of just this eager anticipation. Someone, somehow, is spreading the word — either by spirit or by word or by a letter (even a letter claiming to come from Saint Paul himself) — to the effect that the day of the Lord has already come. Paul is writing to calm the Thessalonians down with a virtual, “hold your horses.” He warns the Thessalonians not to be deceived, and assures them that the day of the Lord will not come before the antichrist is revealed — though he doesn’t use the word antichrist, referring instead to the “lawless one” who pretends to be a god and even seats himself in God’s temple and proclaims himself to be God — of course, that’s exactly who antichrist is! We tend to hear the “anti” in antichrist as meaning “against” — but the antichrist is not some powerful atheist opponent to God or to Christ, but someone who pretends to be Christ, who pretends to be God: a wolf in sheep’s clothing, or in this case, a lawless deceiver who present himself clothed as the Lamb of God. As is often true, the most dangerous villain is the one who looks like a hero.

Paul is concerned for his flock in Thessalonica, and even adds an impatient, “Don’t you remember I told you all this?” Perhaps they do, but perhaps they also remember something Paul it seems has forgotten — that in his First Letter to them he had talked about the coming of the Lord as very likely happening within their own lifetime, urging them to be prepared to be caught up into the clouds with the Lord at his coming, and to stay awake and be watchful for the day of the Lord, that will come like a thief in the night. So it may be that Paul is reaping what he sowed, and trying to put the proverbial toothpaste back into the tube, walking back his words — as politicians have to do from time to time in our own day — because he got them overexcited and over-expectant in his first letter, his second letter has to call them back and calm them down: like the posters in war-time England that said, “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

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There is, it seems, an enthusiasm, an almost inescapable or uncontrollable desire to lay hold of the future and realize it in the present — like children who just can’t wait for Christmas morning to arrive. Give people the slightest hint or encouragement, and they will grab at it and run with it. On the other side, and we see some of them today, there are some people who have no use at all for such a future, who deny it or ignore it, or try to argue it away.

In today’s Gospel, some Sadducees come to Jesus with what they think is a foolproof argument against the life of the world to come, which they don’t believe in. They are among the fundamentalists of their day— they reject the “modern” ideas about resurrection. These notions have only begun to circulate since the Greeks and Romans came to dominate their land. The Law of Moses, as they read it, makes no mention of resurrection. There is no future life, there is no resurrection, no there is no kingdom of God awaiting the virtuous, no heaven. The dead are dead, and that’s it; all that survives when you die is your memory in others — their memory of you; the good are remembered with thanks, and their name endures, the wicked are cursed or forgotten. So the Sadducees believe.

So they try to trap Jesus with what they regard as the absurdity of this idea of the resurrection of the dead, by setting for him a puzzle based on one of the aspects of the law of Moses, an aspect that is very near and dear to their hearts. This is the law that requires a man’s brother to marry his widow if he dies childless — if he dies without children, his brother is to marry her. And the reason for this was precisely so that a memory of the deadman could continue, for the child born to his brother would not be reckoned as the brother’s son but as the son of the dead man. The biological father would be regarded, still, as an uncle. And so the dead man’s name would continue down through the generations.

This fits the Sadducee belief system perfectly: there is no afterlife or resurrection — only the memory passed down through your family, and so it is vital to continue that family, for the family name to continue on, for someone unfortunate enough to die childless; even — and I’m sure this has occurred to you — even to the extent of violating another portion of the Law that forbids a man to marry his brother’s wife. Moreover, the law requiring this exceptional and incestuous marriage also fits their agenda to find fault with Jesus. The Sadducees multiply the problem for him by imagining seven brothers, all of whom die after attempting to fulfill their responsibility. I suppose it’s no surprise that the woman died! The Sadducees set a problem for Jesus that they think is absurd — since the woman, again under the law of Moses, can only have one husband. Under the Jewish law a man can have many wives but a woman only one husband. And so, they are saying to Jesus, in this crazy “resurrection” you talk about how could she possibly have seven? They think they’ve got a “gotcha.”

Jesus rounds on them and he accuses them of trying to put the life of the world in terms of the life of this world. They try to imagine in the life of the world to come something which belongs only to this world — and that is marriage. Now, don’t get me or Jesus wrong about this. Marriage is a wonderful thing, and the love that spouses share can be blessed and beautiful. But marriage, as good as it is, is only a shadow of the all-encompassing love of God that those who are blessed to come to the resurrection will share. The life of the world to come is not just a repetition or continuation of this life, but a transformation of this life into something so beautiful, so surpassing of any joy we can possibly experience here on earth, that all of our former joys — as wonderful as they are, as good as they are — will seem like a snapshot compared to the real thing.

All that being said — which is quite a bit! — Jesus doesn’t stop there, with the teaching that marriage is a state of this life, not the next. For in the next life people do not have to marry and have children because they do not die! In the life of the world to come, life is everlasting. He doesn’t let the Sadducees off the hook at this point, even though he could stop there. He doesn’t let them off on their terms. They want to claim that there is nothing in the law of Moses about resurrection? Jesus says to them, au contraire! You want Moses, I’ll give you Moses.

Jesus goes right back to the beginning, to the book of Exodus, to Moses’ call from God, the moment at which Moses encounters God in that bush that burned but was not consumed (itself an image of the eternal being of God and of God’s kingdom) and the voice of God calling to Moses out of the bush: “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” In this passage the eternal God identifies himself by the name I AM — and so if he is the God of the three patriarchs who died centuries before Moses, then they must still be present to God — that is, they are still alive. For God does not say, “I was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” but “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” Somehow those patriarchs are still alive, still worshiping God, in God’s presence. So Jesus confounds the Sadducees with their own authority: with the writings of Moses himself, which they’ve heard read year after year, and yet it hasn’t sunk in; and it testifies that God lives, and that the patriarchs are alive to God.

I’m sorry that our Gospel reading stops with that verse; because the text continues, “Then some of the scribes answered, ‘Teacher, you have spoken well.’ For they no longer dared to ask him any questions.” Snap!

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The hardest thing, it seems, is to live in the present as the present, respectful of the past, and hopeful for the future. So many seem stuck either trying to relive past glories or joys and thrusting them into the future, or pulling the future closer to us than it really it is. Sufficient to the day is both the good and the evil thereof. Our call as Christians is to rest in the confidence of God, who is everlasting, who is at all times and in all places, past, present and to come; to rest in the confidence of Job — to know that our Redeemer lives, and that our redemption awaits us — and moreover that it is something that we will behold with our newly awakened eyes in the resurrection. With that kind of hope, standing firm and holding fast to what we have learned through the traditions and creeds of the church, handed down to us from the days of Jesus, we continue to trust that at the last he will stand upon the earth, and our eyes shall see — and what is future now will be now then.+

Putting Things In Order

Christ came among us to put us back in our proper place...

Easter 2013 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order.
When our cat Augusta Victoria died last year Brother James and I took our time before we sought a replacement. Finally after some months I looked at the website of a local animal shelter and the picture of one of the cats available for adoption spoke to me. (He said, Meow.) When we went to the shelter the cat himself was most insistent that he be adopted. There is an old saying that you don’t choose a cat but a cat chooses you, and this was very much the case: as he came right up to me and looked me in the eyes through the mesh of the separating screen. And so Sir Bootz Paddington found a new home.

His predecessor Augusta Victoria, as her name would suggest, had been a rather regal and restrained lady, particularly in her later years, and I’m afraid we had forgotten just how energetic a young cat can be, and so Sir Bootz not only found a new home but has very quickly made it his own. There is another old saying that “to cats all the world belongs to cats.” And one of the things that cats believe is that everything high should be brought low. (Perhaps all cats are inspired by the prophet Isaiah!) Placemats, paperweights, coasters and silverware belong not on dinner tables but on the floor. Towels belong not on the towel-rack, but on the floor. Magazines do not belong on an end or coffee table, but on the floor. Seat cushions belong not on chairs — but where? — on the floor. After all, the floor, like everything else, belongs to the cat, and it is his natural habitat. What appears to be dis-order to us is completely orderly to the cat.

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Human beings, in the long run, are often no more in accord with the will of God than with the world-view of the cat. In fact, we human beings had gotten ourselves completely out of order with the will of God — to the extent that God himself had to come among us as one of us to put things back in order. This is what Christ was doing in the incarnation; in his birth, life, suffering, death and — as we observe today — his resurrection. God in Christ came down to our level — a level which we sometimes need to be reminded does not actually belong to us any more than the floor belongs to the cat. (Don’t tell the cat! And if you did tell him, he’d just give you a blank stare anyway, and say, O.K., sure, I know what’s mine...)

Christ Jesus came to put things back in order, to restore things from the disorder into which our ancient ancestor Adam had disturbed and disrupted things — introducing disorder into God’s orderly world. And God did this by coming among us as a human being, in a very orderly response to the disorder: for, as Saint Paul assures us, since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead would also come through a human being.

Now, this is a point on which we need to be very clear — as it sometimes gets a bit confused. I have heard people describe the incarnation — Christ’s coming among us — almost like one of those old stories about a king who wants to discover what his subjects really think of him, by going about among them disguised as an ordinary person. And it is true that Jesus Christ came among us as an ordinary person — but this was absolutely not a disguise. There was no pretense or deception, or mere appearance of being human. Jesus Christ was a human being — a man who lived in the Middle East some 2000 years ago, who exercised a ministry, fell afoul of the authorities, was condemned to death and executed — dead and buried. He was a man.

But he was also God — not just a very good man looked upon favorably by God, — and adopted by God as I might adopt a cat — but God himself, fully divine at the same time he was fully human.
And this addresses the second fallacy of this wrong thinking: God did not need to come among us, like a king disguised among his people, to find out how badly we had gotten things wrong, to find out what we really thought about God. God was only too well aware of just how badly off track we had gone, and the questions posed by God to Adam and Eve about whether they had eaten of the forbidden fruit were purely rhetorical. God knew exactly how far humanity had fallen from the place where God had placed them.

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And it is because Jesus is one person with two natures, human and divine, that he is able to reconcile and repair the disorder that Adam introduced, when he and his wife took and ate of the fruit of the tree that had been forbidden, in their misguided effort to be like God. The tragedy is that they already were like God — they had been made in God’s image, after God’s likeness. If they had resisted the temptation to grab at what in due course God would have given them when they had grown to greater maturity, they would have reached the perfection which otherwise had to await the coming of the perfectly obedient son of God, born as a human being, to share the fate that human beings earned through the fall of their ancient ancestors, but to redeem that fall and put humanity back in order.
And thus the great disorder of death was dealt with once and for all. And from the cat’s perspective — at last — this was done exactly as any cat would do, by putting all things under his feet. Jesus triumphed over that old enemy, death itself.

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And yet, as we look around us, don’t we see that there is plenty of disorder in the world; that although Jesus Christ defeated death on Calvary, people still die? Surely they do, and we know that very well. God help us, though, if we stop at that; if, as Saint Paul observed, “for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” If all there is, in other words, is this life followed by death and the grave; if there is no resurrection of the dead, no hope of the life to come, then we have wasted an awful lot of time and energy. But as Saint Paul said, “In fact, Christ has been raised from the dead.” When the women went to the tomb that morning long ago, the angels assured them that the living one was not to be found among the dead, but that he was risen. And as Peter said to Cornelius and his household, “God raised him on the third day and allowed him to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.”

That, my friends, is the unanimous testimony of Scripture, words from long ago. But there is other testimony closer to us — as close as our hearts, if we will listen to God speaking in them and through them, assuring us that death is not the end. Death is simply part of the disorder that God put right in Jesus Christ. We will all still die — we will see, many of us, our parents, our friends, sometimes even our children, pass beneath the shadow of death. Some of us have already seen these things. But those of us who trust in God rely on the assurance of things not seen — of the hope of the resurrection, the restoration of order where all things were disorder, the lifting up of that which has fallen down, the raising up of that which had been buried.

Although the cat might like to see all things brought down to his level, God will raise up all that has been brought low. Our Lord Jesus Christ stooped to pick us up from where we had fallen, and will do so again, and again, with each death, new life will come one day, on the great day of resurrection, when the trumpet sounds and we are raised incorruptible, restored to the likeness we once shared with God himself in Jesus Christ. To God be the glory henceforth and forever more. Alleluia, Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia.

Death Before Life

Our song shall be sung to eternity, in the Spirit -- a sermon for the observance of All Saints Day.

All Saints’ Sunday • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG Some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb and said, “Take away the stone.”

Today is the Sunday after All Saints Day, on which it is our tradition here at Saint James to remember not only the great saints of Christian history but also our own personal saints — our friends and family members who have died and rest in Christ. We remember them with images: the icons at the altar representing the saints in glory who meant so much to the universal church, and the photographs on the bulletin board here, representing our loved ones who have meant so much to us, and to this particular church.

These images are a help to our memory — and whenever a dyed-in-the-wool fundamentalist Protestant challenges me with, “Why do you have pictures of saints in your church?” I am always happy to reply with the question, “Don’t you have pictures of your loved ones in your house or at your work? Well this is the House of God, and the place where the work of God begins, and so we keep pictures of the members of God’s household and workforce to remind us of the fact that they belong to him as much as they belong to us! They remind us of the core of the Christian faith: that death is not the end.”

No, my friends; death is not the end. In a very real sense death is the beginning. That may sound a bit odd, as we are usually accustomed to thinking about life leading up to death. Many people, in fact, think that death is the end — atheists who have no belief in God at all, or those who believe that there is no more to us than simply the physical stuff that makes us up, and who see death just as the ultimate breakdown of the human machine, like a car whose engine has stopped working, with four flat tires, goof for nothing but the junkyard.

As I’ve noted before, the stuff that makes us up — what our bodies are made from — is constantly changing, even though we experience continuity in who we are. Every breath I take, I draw in oxygen from the atmosphere, and I exhale carbon, each little carbon atom neatly ushered off by two oxygen atoms. When I eat, I take in nitrogen and carbon and phosphorus and who knows what other chemicals that used to be part of some other plant or animal, and they become part of me. And as cells in my body die and are replaced, I am in constant flux and change. The “me” of today is literally physically not the “me” of yesterday, nor will it be the “me” of tomorrow. Most of the cells that have made up my body down through the years died a long time ago — and even some of the ones I carry around now, like the ones that make up my hair — or what is left of it — and the outer surface of my skin, are dead now and just waiting to fall out or rub off. This is the nature of biological life. Each of us is in constant transition.

This conveyor belt of life is the biological life that ends at death. Ultimately all of the cells that make up “you” and “me” will die, and “you” and “I” will be clinically dead before that, since it takes the these cells and systems working together to keep us alive with what the doctors call life. Some of our cells will keep on trying to work — for minutes or even hours — after our hearts have stopped and our brains have stopped functioning.

Yet we know that this is not all there is to life — just as there is a “you” or a “me” that somehow continues to exist in spite of the changes in our bodies. I spoke last month of that long-running play about young lovers, “The Fantasticks.” That play ran for 42 years, and you can well imagine that the actors who played the young lovers

on opening night eventually had to be replaced with even younger actors, as did the older actors too. And yet the play continued to be the play — it continued to exist as such in spite of the change in the actors who made up the cast. Our bodies are much like this: new cells coming into existence to replace the old dying ones every minute of every day.

Now, you might well observe, that just as the play always has to have actors — so too don’t we have to continue to have a body if we are to continue to exist? And the Christian answer to this dilemma has always been Yes. Some religions and philosophies think of the soul as a disembodied ghostly sort of thing that floats around and only temporarily “inhabits” a body. But that isn’t the Christian faith: our creed makes no reference to the immortality of the soul, but rather speaks of the resurrection of the body. Some in the early church insisted that the body that would rise would literally be the body you happened to die with — like Lazarus. The problem with that being that much of what goes into making up one person at any given moment also becomes part of someone else’s body through the very air we breathe. Some in the early church, like Saint Augustine, recognized this problem, and surmised that God would make up the difference by creating new bodily substance — but of course that goes against the whole idea of it being the same body.

Rather than getting tangled up in such speculation, even on the authority of someone like Saint Augustine, it is better to follow the Scripture — isn’t it always? — and follow Saint Paul’s understanding of this, as he wrote to the Corinthians: what dies — when we die — is a physical body, but what rises — when we rise — is a spiritual body. And spiritual here does not mean something less real or less substantial than the physical — but more so. It is the Spirit that gives life.

What is spiritual is strong enough to last for ever — this is why death is the real beginning, the beginning of eternal life, the life that lasts, the life of the Spirit we share with God himself, for as Jesus told the Samaritan Woman, God is Spirit, and as Saint Paul assures us, when we are raised we shall be like him. This is why death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things — the merely physical things of which the cosmos and everything in it is made— will have passed away. Scientists tell us that all matter will one day dissolve, and the physical universe will fade into nothingness as even protons and electrons give up the ghost; and the physical will cease to be. But the Spirit, and what is spiritual, will endure. God in Christ will make all things new — including the gift of new spiritual bodies that will give new life to our being and loving and doing in and with the power of God, who is Spirit.

I mentioned that musical play, The Fantasticks, but this continuing existence in spite of the change in physical make-up is equally true of any play or piece of music. Bach’s Partitas for Violin have been played on countless violins; Beethoven’s symphonies have been played and will be played by countless different orchestras — and each of us is a precious creation of God, more precious than the most important composition by any great composer. You might say, that the cosmos, the physical world, is the mechanism by which God makes souls. The physical body is the first draft, the working score, so to speak; the spiritual body is the eternal performance.

We will at our death take a rest from being performed, but will at our rising in the Spirit find our song sung out to eternity, in the holy city, the new Jerusalem. Death is only the intermission, and the new life that comes at resurrection will begin the true and lasting concert of real life, as we join with all the saints who have gone before, in song around the throne. This is the life that will never end, where the goodness and uniqueness of each one of us, perfected by God and refined by means of this earthly life, like gold as though by fire, will run like sparks through stubble, as we join to sing to Christ the Lamb of God who is the light of the City: as the old Appalachian hymn sings so well, “And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on; and when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on. And when from death I’m free I’ll sing and joyful be, and through eternity I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on, and through eternity I’ll sing on.”+

The Good News

There is one old story that never grows old, and it has an effect however often it is told. -- a sermon for Easter 2012

SJF • Easter 2012 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which you also stand, through which also you are being saved.+

Happy Easter! We come once again to the glorious morning on which we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord. In the midst of the celebration, the flowers and the festivity, we might sometimes be tempted to miss the centrality, the vital importance, of this day. This is the day that makes Christianity what it is — the day on which God affirmed that Jesus was his beloved Son by raising him from the dead. And the fact that Jesus was raised from the dead is the heart and soul of the gospel, the good news.

To look at the teaching of some Christians, you might think it was otherwise. For some, the emphasis appears to be on the cross, the crucifixion, suffering and death of Jesus. And surely that is important, as I said last Sunday, “crucially” important. But as with a story that you understand only when you have read it to the very end, the importance of Good Friday depends entirely upon what happened on Easter.

Think about it for a moment: if Good Friday, and Christ’s death on the cross had been the end of the story, if the women had gone to the tomb and found it closed but perhaps recruited a helpful friend to roll the stone away, and then just went about the sad business of anointing the dead body of their dear friend with spices and then sealing the tomb back up — — in short, if Jesus had not been raised from the dead, I don’t think we’d be here this morning. As tragic as his suffering and death was; even as comforting as meditating on his passion and death has been down through the years for many suffering, wounded, or injured people — if that had been the end, then little note would have been taken, there would have been no resurrection to witness, no preaching of the gospel, no good news — the best news and the greatest gospel: that an innocent man who suffered and died was vindicated in being raised from the dead, and more than that: that he gave power and promise to all who believe in him to share in a life like his. This, my friends, this is the good news — not just that he “was crucified under Pontius Pilate” but that “the third day he rose again from the dead.”

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We need to be reminded of this, just as the people of Corinth needed to be reminded, as Saint Paul did in fact remind them. This good news is not just something told once, and then filed and forgotten. This is good news that never grows old — even as it becomes the “old, old story”— this isn’t like some story on CNN that gets told over and over again to fill the 24-hour news cycle, but is forgotten as soon as some other item rises to the surface and grabs our attention. Last year, didn’t we all get tired of watching that offshore under-water oil-leak, week after week, as CNN became the “Oil Leak All the Time Channel”? But the leak was quickly forgotten once it was stopped up, and people are right back on the drill-baby-drill bandwagon!

No, the good news of the resurrection of Jesus Christ is not like that. This is good news that never grows old, except in that wonderful way of really good, old stories. The Good News is news we can hear over and over again. We can hear the old, old, story, that is always new, the one we love to tell, and we tell it out because it tells of glory. Not just death on the cross, but life, new life, triumphant.

And not only does it tell of glory, this gospel, this good news: it has an effect upon us, a saving effect. For the story of salvation is salvation itself. It is told so that we may believe, and believing, have eternal life.

Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if all that news “coverage” of that oil-leak could actually have covered the oil-leak and made it stop? But it didn’t. The story of the resurrection, however, the gospel of the good news of God at work in Christ Jesus — the story of salvation actually saves. For it is in hearing the good news, and believing it, that we are saved.

Saint Paul reminded the Corinthians of the process: of the good news that is first proclaimed to them, which they in turn received — for what good is a message if you do not receive it! But there is more: it is good news in which also they stand; that is, they hold on to it and stand on it and by it — which is to say they put their trust in it, their faith in it. And so it is through that message of the good news they are being saved. They have not believed in vain, but to a purpose and an end.

This is the fruitfulness, the productivity of the gospel message: Christ rose from the dead not just to rise from the dead, but so that we might be saved through him, through that proclamation, reception, holding fast and standing by that message. The gospel, and the gospel alone, bears the fruit of salvation.

Compare this with an earthly message, say, about that oil-leak. You can proclaim it — surely CNN did so hour after hour, day by day and week by week. I can receive it — and with cable TV the reception is pretty good, in HD no less. I can even believe it — after all, there’s the live under-water oil-leak-cam running in the lower corner of the screen, day and night, twenty-four hours a day, and seeing is believing.

But that’s the end of it. This news bears no fruit, does nothing for my immortal soul one way or the other.

Only one news story ever had the fruitful effect of bringing everlasting life, and you heard it once again this morning, as we do each Easter. It is a message first delivered to some frightened women, at first so frightened that they didn’t spread the news. But as the Gospel tells us, eventually they did, and Jesus himself began to appear to others, showing himself to have been raised from the dead. And the good news spread, from east to west, that sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.

So, my friends, do not let this Easter morning be the end of that good news, as good as it is for you. Even if this is the first day you’ve been in church for a season — do not let it be your last. And more importantly, become news-bearers yourself: Continue to tell the story, the old, old story of the good news of Jesus and his love, how he was raised from the dead, and through his resurrection brought salvation to the world. Alleluia, Christ is risen; the Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia.

To Be or Not To Be

Choosing life over death -- for the right reason. A sermon for Proper 20a.

SJF • Proper 20a • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
To me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard-pressed between the two; my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.

In this morning’s reading from the prophet Jonah we encountered a rather petulant man prepared to die almost out of spite. Jonah is angry at God on two counts: for letting the wicked Ninevites off the hook because they repented in response to Jonah’s own prophetic warning; and more immediately and selfishly because the bush that shaded him from the harsh desert sun has withered at God’s command. Jonah the Impatient is not one to put up with such things, and one hopes he learns better by the end of the story. At that point Jonah appears to have been struck speechless in response to God’s final question putting things in perspective. He should, after all, be happy that his prophecy was heeded and saved an entire city.

When we turn to our Epistle there is no doubt that we are dealing with a much more positive assessment. In Saint Paul’s Letter to the Philippians we behold the efforts of a committed servant of God to wrestle with the issue of whether it is better to live or to die, but for the right reasons — not choosing to die out of spite, or even out of a desire to be with God, but choosing life instead in order to serve God’s people.

Living or dying: to be or not to be. That is the issue with which the melancholy Dane Prince Hamlet wrestles, though in very different circumstances from either Jonah or Paul. As you may recall, Hamlet is a philosophy student entangled in the midst of a family drama with supernatural overtones — his father’s ghost has appeared to him and told him that he was murdered by Hamlet’s uncle, who has since married his widow.

Shakespeare’s play is among the richest and most complex ever written, and the character of Hamlet can be played in many different ways. Sir Laurence Olivier’s version resonates most with our readings this morning — in weighing the question of life and death. You may recall that the film begins with Olivier’s voice-over introducing the theme, “This is the story of a man who could not make up his mind.” That is the heart of Hamlet’s dilemma, and it lies in that most famous of Shakespearian speeches, the one that begins, “To be or not to be.” That is, as Hamlet observes, the question — the one that faces him, and Jonah, and Paul, and ultimately every thinking person. Is it better to live or to die?

Hamlet’s short speech is a brilliant summary of the philosophical arguments for and against choosing death over life, or life over death, laying out an “on the one hand this and on the other hand that” kind of argument with himself.

Hamlet really would like to just end it all — in modern terms we would probably say he is suffering from clinical depression. Life itself has just become too much of a burden — especially with his father’s ghost getting into the picture and planting seeds of suspicion — and Hamlet doesn’t know if the ghost is telling the truth or if the ghost is trying to tempt him into committing the murder of an innocent person! So Hamlet is looking for a way out, and is even contemplating suicide. In an earlier speech he has already expressed the wish that he could just die — that his “too, too solid flesh” might simply melt and evaporate and disappear; but he immediately recalls that taking any action along those lines himself has been forbidden, as the Almighty has fixed his law “against self-slaughter.”

So in the more famous speech Hamlet returns to the question, Is suffering a thing that makes you more noble and virtuous by enduring it, or is it something you should overcome or avoid? Who after all would suffer if it were an option simply to end your life in an instant, and plunge into that endless sleep? But in that sleep of death what dreams might come? Ah, as Hamlet observes, “There’s the rub!”

In the end it is the unknown — what comes after death in that “undiscovered country” from which “no traveler returns” — that keeps Hamlet alive: not a positive will to live and a commitment to act, but fear of the unknown and the consequences of action. As he concludes, “Conscience makes cowards of us all.” So Hamlet continues on the course of his tragedy, only able finally to act against his murderous uncle when he finds a way to be sure the uncle is guilty — but too late to save himself or his mother, or his prospective father-in-law or his fiancée, or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or anyone else, from a swift journey offstage to that undiscovered country, death.

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Saint Paul, on the other hand, is not a man of doubt and double-mindedness, but of faith. He weighs the options, true, but he comes to a very different conclusion, and that right quickly. And this is because unlike Hamlet he is fully confidant of knowing what awaits him beyond the veil of death. He has absolutely no fear of what dreams might come. He does not regard death as an undiscovered country from which no traveler returns, but a land to which one indeed has gone to prepare a place for him, a land in which there are in fact many dwelling-places prepared, and from which that same one has returned, when the bonds of death were not able to keep him down. You know who that is, of course: Jesus Christ, the one in whom Paul places all of his faith. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is at the heart of Paul’s faith, Paul’s gospel, and it informs everything about his life and his ministry. It is his trust, his faith, his knowledge that he is assured of passage into the new life with Christ. In fact, he longs for it — not as Hamlet did as a kind of oblivion and end to his troubles — but as a positive desire to be with Christ. But Paul also knows that he still has work to do among the faithful — and though it is hard work and will be a sea of troubles for him, though it will mean suffering and pain, he commits to stay with it. His conscience is at work, but not to make him a coward, but to make him a hero — one willing to suffer for and with others rather than to take the easy way out. He chooses this course, convinced that remaining in the flesh — that is to say, remaining alive — is for the benefit of the struggling Christians to whom he writes. Even though he longs to be with Christ, he chooses to remain in service to and with his spiritual children.

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In the Buddhist tradition there is a figure known as the Bodhisattva. This is a person who has gained the Buddhist equivalent of sainthood — they have risen to the level of spiritual consciousness where they no longer need to suffer “the slings and arrows” of life in an endless cycle of reincarnation, but have broken through to the pure land of nirvana, the land of bliss — and yet, instead of going off to that endless bliss, the Bodhisattva chooses to remain, to stay in the flesh to help guide and teach others in their spiritual journey.

This is the kind of choice that Saint Paul makes — no quite the same, but a similar choice: not to depart and be with Christ in bliss, but to stay in the struggle, a struggle he voluntarily shares with the Philippians, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.

Paul chooses to be rather than not to be: to be in the flesh as long as the flesh is useful to himself and to others, and only to go Christ in glory when the time is right — when God has made full use of him and the cup of suffering endured in faith has been drunk down, and the vessel is empty and he has finished his course in faith. May we also serve so faithfully, working together as long as we have life, till by the grace of God this mortal life is ended and what is mortal is laid down to rest to wait for the day of resurrection, through Christ and in Christ, our redeemer and advocate, who lives and reigns for ever and ever.

By All Accounts

SJF • Easter 3a 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom our God calls to him.+
 One of the more interesting characters in television history is the inimitable Doctor Who. I don’t know how many of you are old enough to remember the low-budget Doctor of the 70s, you may perhaps be more familiar with the up-to-the-minute CGI and high-tech spectacle of the new Doctor. I mention this sci-fi TV series for two reasons. First, one of the unique qualities of this series is the way in which they’ve been able to explain having many different actors — three alone in the recently revived series alone — portraying the same character. The explanation is that the Doctor, while not precisely immortal, is very hard to kill; and when he is seriously injured, instead of dying, he “regenerates” in a new body, which may be quite different from the old body. It’s a very handy way to deal with actors who tire of playing the role and want to move on. So more than a dozen actors have come and gone, but the Doctor remains.
My second reason for mentioning Doctor Who is that the show is all about time-travel. The Doctor, you see, is a Time Lord, able to travel from the beginning of time to its end in his trusty blue box, the TARDIS, which because of a malfunction in its camouflage circuit is stuck looking like a 1960s London Police Box. Actors portraying the Doctor may come and go, but the TARDIS is always a blue Police Box — though in the last season I’m happy to note it regained its St John Ambulance First Aid sticker on the door, a detail for which I, as an officer of the Order of St John, am very grateful! The sticker is a fitting tribute to the Doctor, and that’s why it’s there, for he spends most of his time saving planets across the universe — including the earth — in one way or another, and so the TARDIS is a kind of cosmic emergency rescue vehicle.
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Now, you are probably beginning to wonder why I am talking about Doctor Who. Well, the reason I do so is related to the two things I noted about the series. Let me — as a demonstration of the point I hope to make — take the second first: time travel.
Our Scripture readings today present us with a very tangled time-line. Things are out of chronological order. Two of the accounts come from Saint Peter — and in both of them he is himself a time traveler, out of the normal sequence of things. The first reading shows him standing boldly and proclaiming the Gospel truth to the people of Jerusalem. Now, those of you who know your Scriptures will recognize that this is an event from just after the Pentecost descent of the Holy Spirit — the event that gave Peter the courage and the words to speak out. But our Pentecost celebration won’t come for five more weeks; and our Gospel reading also casts us back to Easter, two weeks ago in our time. It is set, as it says, “that same day” as two of the disciples are heading out of Jerusalem to the suburban village of Emmaus. In the verse just before this passage, we are told that Simon Peter has been to the tomb and seen that it was empty. But by the end of the Emmaus story Luke informs us that the Lord has appeared to Simon Peter. (And, as a side note, isn’t it interesting that Luke’s account does not recount the actual encounter between the risen Lord and Peter? It happens somewhere offstage — while Luke shifts his focus to these other disciples headed out to the suburbs and Jesus who walks with them. That appearance of the Lord to Peter is not in Luke’s text.)
But however it happened, the encounter of Jesus and Peter was not on its own enough to transform Peter into a powerful evangelist, ready to go out and address the people of Jerusalem and proclaim the Gospel. The beginning of Acts records him taking some leadership among the eleven, and praying, and proposing the selection of someone to fill the empty seat of Judas the traitor — but more has yet to happen to Peter to transform him into the dynamic leader who would proclaim the Gospel openly and fearlessly. That would take the coming of the Holy Spirit. We’ll hear more about that on our Pentecost Sunday. That is still a few weeks away, as we time-travel by what it seems is the only way we can — day by day and week by week!
But as we open the Scripture accounts before us, Peter seems able to move from time to time as easily as Doctor Who and his companions in the TARDIS. And in the second reading, from much later in Peter’s ministry, one of his letters, we can see him share his cosmic experience of the depths of time: not his personal experience, but his testimony to Christ, who is the true Time Lord (and Space Lord if it comes to it) — the one who saves not just a planet here and there, but the whole universe all at once — and who needs no blue TARDIS to do so. Peter affirms that Jesus is the one destined before the foundation of the world — and as the original text says cosmos that means more than just the earth — he is the one who at the end of the ages is revealed, and who was also there at the very beginning. It is through him that those who follow him have been born anew — regenerated — as Peter says, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.
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Which brings me to that other point: the continuity of the character of Doctor Who in spite of the dozen-plus actors who have played the part. It is worth noting that the account of the road to Emmaus is a bit like one of the episodes in which Doctor Who regenerates, but in which it takes even his companions a while to realize “Who” he is. But more than that, as Peter reminds us, in both the account of his Pentecost proclamation in Jerusalem, and in that first epistle written later in his ministry, we too are regenerated in the baptismal gift of the Holy Spirit — given new life, being born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, by the living word of God.
So it is by all accounts — Peter’s two testimonies and the story of Emmaus, we are given the opportunity, through these proclamations, to set aside the foolishness of the past and allow our hearts to be set on fire by the power of God’s word, working in us, and to know him in the breaking of the bread.
We shall soon be sharing that bread as we have this morning been sharing the word — and isn’t it just another reminder of the way the timeline can be woven into braids to recall how Jesus quoted Deuteronomy, to say, that “one does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God?” We have received that word this morning, in our hearing and meditation and reflection, and soon the bread will follow — not simply earthly bread any more than the word was simply an earthly or a human word — but as it was the word of God, so too this bread will be the bread of heaven, the Body of Christ, accompanied by his blood shed for us, the precious blood of Christ, the broken bread and the precious blood that saved the cosmos from destruction.
We have traveled in time this morning, sisters and brothers, from before the foundation of the universe to the end of the ages — in which we are blessed to live — accompanied by the One Who Is, by all accounts, the savior and redeemer of the world, even Jesus Christ our Lord.+

Sleight of Hand

Now you see him, now you don't! — an Easter Sermon, accompanied by infants awaiting baptism!

SJF • Easter 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Set your mind on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.+

It will come as no surprise to anyone here, when I observe that Harry Potter has become a household name. The series of novels and the series of movies based on the novels are phenomenally popular. Almost everybody knows Harry Potter — though I’m curious to know how many of you here know the name of the author of the novels or the name of the actor who plays the role in the films? Show of hands?

My point is that it’s not the actor or the novelist, or even the character of Harry Potter himself, who is at the heart of the fascination and popularity of the books or movies. It is magic — magic itself: that is what draws such an attentive and loyal and fascinated audience.

Now, it may seem odd for me to be mentioning magic in the context of an Easter sermon — but surely there is something magical about the resurrection, isn’t there? In fact, there was an English stage production of a very old English play — one of the first English plays — about the resurrection — the play dating from the 15th century, and the production from just a few years ago, in England, at the Young Vic — in which the director staged the resurrection scene precisely as a magic act. The body of Christ was placed upright into a wooden cabinet, and chains were wrapped around it and locks placed on the chains. The soldiers stationed at the tomb shivered in their boots — they were costumed as British riot control officers, complete with helmets with visors, truncheons and transparent plastic body shields — and then at a great clap of thunder and flash of light and cloud of smoke, the four sides of the upright cabinet fell down flat to reveal that the body was gone!

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Surely, there is something magical about the resurrection — as there is something magical about so much of life, and death, and life again. It is no accident that there is an overlap between the magical world and God’s world. Even the magicians’ spell, “Abracadabra,” is said to be derived from a Hebrew phrase that only God could properly speak, “abara k’davra” — I create as I speak. Only God has the power to create — to bring into being that which is not — and to do so simply by saying the words, “Let there be...” With those words all things came into being. More than that, God appears to employ a kind of sleight of hand in dealing with the people of God both as audiences to his magic and as the object or props in that magic. God uses the magician’s standard tool of misdirection to deflect and distract the enemies of his people, dazzling them with pillars of cloud and fire, while keeping his people safe in the palm of his hand; hiding them in the wilderness before bringing them to the Holy Land; preserving them in Babylon until ready to be pulled from his sleeve, or like the rabbit out of the top hat, and returned to the land of promise.

And isn’t it a classic example of a magician’s skill for God to say, as he does through St Paul, “Keep your eyes on heaven, not on earth” and then suddenly to reveal Christ to our startled eyes, standing in our very midst? We’ll see Jesus perform that very magic act next week when he suddenly appears to the cowering disciples in their locked and bolted room, and hear how the disbelieving Thomas misses the first show.

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But this is Easter, and we have before us the first startling reappearance of Jesus after his death and burial. It is almost as if Jesus is trying the trick out on Mary Magdalen before he decides to debut it with all of the disciples. The stage is ready — the stone has already been rolled away, and Mary, seeing it, runs off to fetch Peter and the other disciple — the one Jesus loved. But even when they return they still do not find Jesus — only the linen wrappings and the cloth that had covered his head. Just as in the magic act, all they know is that he has disappeared: he was in the tomb and he isn’t there any longer. Mary even thinks that perhaps someone has stolen his body.

And then, just as in the magic act, he comes walking into the spotlight from off stage. Mary is still so blinded by her tears, so caught up in the fear and sadness that his body has been stolen, that she doesn’t even recognize him.

And then he speaks a truly magic word — not an abracadabra or an alakazam or even a presto change-o — but the truly magic word as personal to us as our own name; in this case, “Mary.” And then she recognizes him. The magic of hearing her own name called in a familiar voice opens her eyes to see what was already there — her teacher and her risen Lord. Such is the magic of God. None of us in this life is likely to hear the voice of God call our name quite so clearly. That will have to wait until the great day when the Lord calls us each by name and we rise from our graves to stand before him, and be welcomed into the life of the world to come. But even so, and even while we are here, we catch glimpses of the power of God and God’s magic. At the baptism of a child, which we will witness today, we call the child by name, and mark that child with the Triune name of God himself: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And that double naming — the naming of the child and the invocation of the name of God — brings about a transformation more magical than any work of any earthly magician. It delivers the child from a bondage more deadly than any strait-jacket ever escaped from by a Houdini. For baptism brings that child new life — new life in Christ — and it transforms the mortal body of the child by incorporating the child into the mystical Body of Christ, the blessed company of all faithful people. The child is born again — as each of us was at our own baptism — born again of water and the Holy Spirit, and anointed with the name and power of God.

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Before I close I want to mention one other magical phrase that has some bearing on our life in Christ; and that is, “Hocus pocus.” As strange as it may sound, this magician’s phrase also has its roots in the language of the faith. For it is based on the Latin phrase that translates the words of Christ at the Last Supper, “Hoc est corpus” — This is my Body. We celebrate that great magical mystery every time we gather at Holy Communion, as we do this Easter morning. As he instructed us, we take the bread that in this sacred mystery has become the body of Christ, and we eat the bread which is the sign and celebration of our membership in that body — a membership that begins in baptism.

And we do this because of that Easter morning so long ago when Jesus was raised from the dead and appeared first to Mary and then to the other disciples. The story of God and God’s relationship with his people did not end at the cross. The cross was the turning point, the close of one chapter before the beginning of the next. Jesus was hidden away for a few days between his crucifixion and his resurrection; hidden only so that he might be revealed in greater glory at his rising. It is not simply magic that we celebrate but majesty; not simply something wonderful to behold but miraculously to hold — to hold in our hands, like a newly baptized child, or like a fragment of bread: both of them a sign of the presence of God and the risen life of Jesus. And even more, just as a child is received into the body of the church, so too we receive the body of Christ in the bread of the Eucharist into our own bodies, and Christ becomes one with each of us as we are one in him.

And if that isn’t magical and wonderful, then I don’t know what is! Alleluia, Christ is risen!+

Valley of the Shadow of Life

Three foreshadowings of resurrection, from the valley of bones, the tomb of Bethany, and the hope that is in us... a sermon for Lent 5a

SJF • Lent 5a 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.+

The season of Lent is fast drawing to a close. Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week and the slow walk to Calvary, to the garden tomb, to the Sabbath rest of Holy Saturday, and then in the midst of that dark night, the shuddering and sundering shaking as the stone rolls aside and the Risen Christ is manifest to the dawning light of Easter.

In today’s Scripture readings we begin to see the glimmerings of that light, a preview of coming attractions, as all three speak of life emerging from death, of the power of God to give life even to what seems past hope of living. In these passages we walk through the valley of the shadow — not of death, but of life. And this is not just any old kind of life, but miraculous life, resurrection life, life of the power and the presence of God. It is not simply the reanimation of the flesh, but the new life in the Spirit. Even more than that, it is the power of God’s own life: God’s own Holy Spirit.

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Arrayed before us, then, are three shadows of life, three reflections of the great resurrection — two foreshadowings, and one still a hope.

In the first we stand in a scene of utter desolation: the valley of dry bones. I imagine it must have looked a bit like the coastal fields of Japan a few weeks ago, littered with broken bits and pieces of anything and everything caught in the unstoppable flood from the tsunami that swept ashore at Sendai and so many other coastal towns: a scene of utter devastation. But here not boats but bones: bones piled on bones, and all of them dry after baking in the hot sun. Surely this is a valley of the shadow of death, and not of life! And yet, at the prophet’s word, spoken at God’s instruction, those bones begin to rattle and to move, and bone joins to bone — just like in the old song. Sinews and ligaments and muscles begin to form on those old dry bones, and skin covers them up as limbs and bodies form. And yet...

And yet there is still no breath of life in them. So God gives the prophet another instruction: a call to the breath from the four winds, which is the spirit of life, the spirit of God. And the breath comes upon those newly reassembled bodies, and they stand up on their feet, and they live and breathe by the power of God. God has opened the graves of the people of Israel, the very ones who thought that all was lost when they had been taken away to captivity in Babylon, the very ones who had given up hope; and God has raised them up from their graves and restored them to life as his people, on their own homeland, their own soil. The Spirit of God has brought them life. This is the first shadow of life in this valley of shadows.

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And the second is even more startling, because so specific. This is not a quasi-legendary event from the time of the prophet Ezekiel — a tale which even the rabbis could not agree upon, as to whether it was an historical event or a symbolic prophetic parable. But this second shadow of life is about an individual, not an anonymous collection of skeletons of the valley, but a man with a name, a household we’ve already come to know through the gospel. This is Lazarus and his two sisters, practical Martha the busy and hopeful Mary the prayerful, living in a specific town with a name we know, Bethany. We even know where it is, just two miles from Jerusalem. This is Jesus and the disciples. This is not, as Peter would later write about his own experience of the Transfiguration, “a cleverly devised myth.” This is not an allegory or a symbolic parable, but an event, recorded with all of those human details of misunderstanding, disappointment, sisterly concern and human questioning — and above all weeping: the weeping of the sisters and the crowd of mourners; and even the weeping of Jesus — such is his love for this friend, who suffered death, not because he was worse than anyone else or a greater sinner than anyone else. But just as the man born blind was given his sight precisely so that God’s glory might be revealed, so too God’s power is revealed in that cemetery of that little town of Bethany when Lazarus returns to life: and to the end that both the disciples and the whole community might see, and believe. This shadow of life is meant to prepare them all to understand the resurrection of Jesus when it comes — as come it will, and soon enough.

Soon enough the Passover will come, and Jesus will share a last meal with his disciples, and be betrayed, and be crucified and be buried. And not four days, but just shy of three he will lie in his own grave, borrowed though it be, and another stone will be rolled away, and the glory of the Risen Lord will be revealed: and all flesh shall see it together.

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But that is not yet... We are still in our Lenten journey amidst the shadows of that risen Life, though our reading from Saint Paul does carry us forward and beyond, to present us with a prophetic shadow not of Christ’s rising, but of our own. And yet our rising from the dead partakes — as it must — of Christ’s new life as well, for there is no life apart from him. It is, as the old hymn says, “because he lives” that we can face the tomorrow of our own deaths and the day after tomorrow of our own rising to life again. For just as the dead of Israel passed through that valley of dry bones before they were raised up, and just as Lazarus went through the valley of the shadow of death into his stone cold tomb, and just as Jesus himself would suffer on the hard wood of the cross for our redemption and die a mortal death as any mortal does — so too we creatures of flesh, feeble and frail, even as we have the mind of Christ and the Spirit of God, we too will one day face our mortality just as all these others did — including Christ himself.

The difference, as Paul assures us, lies in where Jesus stands in relation to us. Ezekiel had to call for the spirit from the four corners of the earth to breathe into the bones in the valley where they lay. Christ had to call on God to send his power down to raise up Lazarus, and had to call Lazarus forth from where he lay dead and bound in strips of cloth. God had to reach down with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm to roll aside the stone that blocked the tomb where Jesus lay.

But we — we who are in Christ as he is in us, since the Spirit of God dwells in us, as Paul says, “though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”

And that, my friends, is not a mere shadow of life, but life itself. God’s spirit of life and of love is within us and among us, thanks be to God. And so let us give glory to God, whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Glory to him from generation to generation in the church, and in Christ Jesus our Lord.+

By the Dawn's Early Light

SJF • Easter 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
On the first day of the week, at early dawn, the women who had come with Jesus from Galilee went to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body.

It is an experience common to most of us, so common as barely to require comment, that things look different by the light of day as opposed to how they appear at night. Driving down a wooded country road at 50 miles an hour by day may seem quite leisurely — but that same road at that same speed in the dead of night may feel like a reckless thrill-ride. And speaking of wooded country roads, what child hasn’t learned that the gnarled old tree that looks so terrifying by night, is by day revealed to be nothing more than a harmless old tree. The light of day makes all the difference. We even have made the difference proverbial, by saying, “It’s like night and day” to mean almost complete opposition — far more different than “apples and oranges” or “chalk and cheese”!

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One day nearly 2,000 years ago a small group of women came to the tomb of a dear and beloved friend who had died a horrible death just two days before. He had been buried that Friday as the shadows lengthened and as the sun began to set — it had already been a day of strange and remarkable weather with clouds gathering through the afternoon so that the light of the sun was darkened even then. They watched from afar, and then as the hours passed and the friends beseeched the body from Pilate, that they might give it a decent burial, the women followed after at a distance, and saw to whom his body was commended and how his body was laid in the tomb as the darkness of night began to engulf the land. The Sabbath had begun. Then they went to prepare the spices and spent that Sabbath night and day in accord with the Law that commanded rest from all labors, and on into the second evening that ended that Sabbath day.

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But then, ah then! How different things appeared by the dawn’s early light, when they returned to the tomb the following morning. They had seen the stone set in place — only now it had been moved. They had seen only Joseph of Arimathea and the other disciples; now they saw two men in dazzling clothes — so dazzling that they terrified them! This is one time when even broad daylight had its terrors!

And the angels — for that is what they were — immediately challenged them with a question as astounding as their very presence: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

The reason, of course, was simple: In the gathering shadows, they had seen the dead one laid there, had seen the tomb sealed, had seen the others walk away with their heads bowed, had walked away with their heads bowed themselves, mournful and sorrowful. They had prepared the spices in those evening hours and now they were back with them, to do with them what they would do for the dead: gently washing the body and sprinkling it with sweet-smelling herbs and spices.

By the fading light of that evening, that is what they had seen; but by the dawn’s early light none of it looked the same. As the angels assured them, the dead was dead no longer, but living; they gave them the message, short and sweet: “He is not here, but has risen.” Everything had changed in the light of that great dawn.

Never before or since has something looked so different between night and day; never before has something been so different between night and day! Never before have people so deeply saddened been given such cause for joy. It was truly night and day!

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What difference a day makes! Will this Easter Day 2010 make a difference for you? None of us here came to church this morning expecting a funeral — unlike the women who came to the tomb, we expected a celebration. And so we are having one.

But what about the rest of our lives — are we living in the twilight, or maybe even in the deeper shadows of night, or have we stepped into the light of day, the dawning light of new life in Christ? Are there things in your life like those gnarled old trees on a country road that make the hair on the back of your neck stand up in fear? Let the light of Christ shine on them and they will be shown to be just old trees after all.

Do things sometimes seem to you to be moving so fast that you have lost all control and you can’t be sure where you are heading, like a bouncing night-time ride down a country road, swerving and twisting in the late-night hours, startled by the high-beams and then plunged into shadow in confusion? Let the light of Christ shine upon your journey and be a lamp unto your feet, and that ride may be transformed from an agonizing and gutwrenching terror into a joyful pilgrimage walked in the way that Christ has gone before us — into new life, redeemed life, risen life.

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Evening and morning — they are as different as night and day! You may know that for the Jewish people the hour of sundown, the beginning of evening, is very important, particularly the evening that marks the beginning of the Sabbath, the division of ordinary time from that extraordinary day of rest. Knowing the hour of dawn is similarly important, for the offering of particular prayers of benediction and thanksgiving for the dawn of each new day.

Once, in order to test his pupils, a Rabbi asked them how they thought it best to tell when dawn’s earliest light had come. One suggested, “When you can tell from across a field if a beast is a dog or a sheep.” The Rabbi said that was not the best answer. “Some city folks cannot tell a dog from a sheep even at midday!” Another pupil offered, “When there is enough light to see if a tree is a fig tree or an apple tree.” “That is good,” the Rabbi said, “but not good enough, for some cannot tell an apple from a fig, or a myrtle from a cedar!” Another suggested, “When you can lay a black thread against a black cloth and see the thread against the cloth!” The Rabbi laughed, “Ah, Moishe the tailor knows something! But there is still a better way.” “What is it?” the students asked. The Rabbi paused, and said, “When you can look any man or woman in the face and know that you are looking into the face of a brother or sister. For if you cannot do that, if you cannot look at anyone and know they are your brother or sister, it is still night indeed.”

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The dawn’s early light of Easter gives us all the opportunity to look into each other’s faces and see, and know, and recognize each other as sisters and brothers, as children of one Father in heaven, who raised our Brother Jesus from the dead. This dawn, this day, this light makes all the difference. We need no longer be afraid of shadows. And more importantly, we need no longer be strangers one from another, in this dawn’s early light, but sisters and brothers all.

May we rejoice in that light not just today but every day for the rest of our lives and on into the life of the world to come, where we will join our Lord and Savior and Brother in the never-ending daylight of the everlasting Eastertide.+

Good News for Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

True Bread

SJF • Proper 13b 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”+

When I was a child one of our local bakeries in Baltimore installed what must have been one of the first automated systems in any kind of factory. Their slogan was, “The bread untouched by human hands.” They had a grainy black and white TV ad that showed robot hands at work kneading the dough and shaping it into loaves before it was baked. One of the local Baltimore TV personalities who was kept busy doing many different things at the TV station — he hosted “Dialing for Dollars” in the morning, he was the weatherman in the evening, and, in the after-school hours in between, he played Bozo the Clown on the kiddie cartoon show. It was there, I think, that he made fun of the bread company and its slogan, “Untouched by human hands,” by cutting to a grainy black-and-white film of a chimpanzee dressed in a baker’s costume furiously pounding on the dough! I hope he didn’t get fired for offending a sponsor.

In any case, clearly, there is bread, and then there’s bread. And where and who it comes from makes all the difference.

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In our Scripture readings today, we hear about three different kinds of bread. First of all, there is earthly bread — and let’s not ask about who it was that baked it! This is the earthly bread that the Israelites in the desert have run out of, and the bread that Jesus multiplied to feed other Israelites in a different desert. One might observe that the touch of his human hands worked wonders!

Then there’s that miraculous bread from heaven — the bread that God showered on those Israelites coming out of Egypt in a form that at first they did not recognize as bread — who, after all, would recognize that a light dusting of frost on the ground is something you might gather and eat. And so they called it manna — which means, basically, what’s it? So it was that God fed them withwhazzit scattered through the camp every morning, through those forty years.

Finally there is a third kind of bread, and it appears in John’s Gospel. It is neither bread from an earthly oven, nor some previously unknown dusting of a mysterious substance on the ground, appearing with the morning dew. This third kind of bread, Jesus says, is the true bread. This true bread, the Bread of God, comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.

The people who followed Jesus still didn’t understand what he meant and they ask to be given this bread. And then Jesus tells them that he is that bread. In many ways they were like the Samaritan woman who appears a few chapters earlier in John’s Gospel, and she’s right there in our stained glass window. You will recall that Jesus tells her that he has a source of living water; and thinking this is literal water she asks him to tell her how to get it so she won’t have to go to the well with a bucket. And then Jesus reveals to her that he is the source of living water, the Messiah, “the one who is speaking to you.” That moment is preserved in our stained glass window there, as Jesus reveals himself to her and she looks up, in that instant of being startled and amazed, before she turns to go back to tell the rest of the people in her town the miracle that has happened.

Both she and the people who came to Capernaum looking for Jesus are like a third character in John’s Gospel — this is a consistent theme in John: Martha. Remember how after she affirms her belief in the resurrection, telling Jesus she believes her brother will rise again at the last day. Remember what Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

In all three of these instances Jesus proclaims himself to be what the people are looking for; he proclaims that we who also seek him, we who bear the name of Christian, through faith, believe him to be: he is the son of God, he is the source of light and life, he is the satisfaction to all our earthly hunger and thirst. He is resurrection and life. Just as I said last week that we cannot have unity and peace in this boat we call the church without Jesus being on board with us, so too we cannot have eternal life and release from hunger and thirst without him: the One who is the true source of life and nourishment.

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So it is that we have been told what the true bread is. It is not the bread we bake ourselves, nor even the earthly bread that Jesus multiplies when the people turned it over to him. Nor is it even the miraculous bread that nourished the Israelites for the years of their wanderings, but which ceased upon their arrival in the land of promise. No: it is Jesus himself: the true bread who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world, such that whoever comes to him will never be hungry and whoever believes in him will never be thirsty.

As I’ve tried to show, this is a particular angle of John’s Gospel — whether living water, or the life of the resurrection, or the bread of life — it is all about Jesus. He, John says, is the answer to all our questions.

But I would like for a moment to relate this to what I said about our Gospel from Mark from last week: Mark’s account of that rocky boat ride, stabilized only upon Jesus’s arrival. For it seems to me that the message for the church is the same in this case, in Mark and John: it is only in Jesus that we will find our peace, our life, our nourishment.

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And yet, how many appear to spend their time whining about the lack of bread, like the Israelites in their hunger in the desert? Or how many scan the ground seeking some other miracle than the one God offers? Or how many think that they can make do with merely earthly bread — bread that grows stale and fails to satisfy even as it eaten?

Paul writes of this latter sort, who try to turn back or away from the Lord, or cling to their former way of life: the life that did not give them life. They are like the Israelites who longed for the fleshpots of Egypt, and who were ready to turn back to slavery rather than to accept the freedom God offered them through Moses. It was bad enough to live that way when they had not heard of Jesus — but once they had, how much worse to turn away and go back to that former way of life, that old self, corrupt and deluded. When offered the opportunity to be clothed in a new self created according to God’s own likeness in righteousness and holiness — who would turn back to the disorder and disaster of merely human life, a life untouched by divine hands?

Unity and peace in the church will not come about through our doing — neither our bread nor the bread we gather from the hillside (even when it comes from God) will unite us. Unity and peace in the church is rather only through God himself in Jesus Christ, true bread come down from heaven and given for the life of the world. Our unity is in Jesus Christ — and he has given us the means to share in that unity by his own everlasting promise: when he took bread and broke it and gave it to his disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you.” That bread: his Body.

Unity and peace in the church will come through our participation in the holy meal at this holy table, and all the other holy tables set up throughout the world and consecrated to the unity for which Christ gave himself, and gives himself: Unity through communion. This is a miracle greater than the manna that fed the children of Israel; this is a miracle greater than the broken bread that fed the multitudes that followed Jesus in the wilderness; this is the greatest miracle — that Jesus Christ should come to be with us in, with, and under the form of visible and edible bread, bread we take into our hands, place on our tongues, and eat, in fulfillment of his commandment: take, eat. He is the bread of life, the Bread of God from God’s own hands, and it is here at God’s table that we unite with him, and become one with him, in communion with each other through communion with him.

Let us pray. Heavenly Father, give us this bread always, the bread of your Son Jesus — bread which earth has given, and human hands have made, but which through your gracious gift has become for us the bread of life; for it is in sharing this bread that we are both nourished and built into his Body; so that at the last we shall hunger no more, and thirst no more, but sit at your table in your heavenly kingdom for ever; 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.

+ + +

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.+

WIthout a Doubt

SJF • Easter 2b 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”+

There are all sorts of little sayings you hear in the church, little sayings that are said so often that people come to accept them as if they were Holy Writ. The problem is that many of these little sayings aren’t in the Bible, and worse than that they aren’t even true. One of them is, “Jesus said, ‘Love the sinner but hate the sin.’” Whenever I hear that one I always ask for chapter and verse; for, of course, Jesus said no such thing, at least as far as the Scriptures record. But that’s for another sermon.

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Today I want to look at the little saying that goes, “Doubt is the prelude to faith.” At least that’s one form of it. Alfred Lord Tennyson put it more poetically (which is fitting for a poet), “There is more Faith in honest doubt than in all the creeds.” Well, as someone who says the creed every day and twice on Sundays, I want to challenge that little saying, and on the contrary assert that doubt is the enemy of faith, something to be overcome; not an essential prerequisite or prelude to faith, but a poison that can infect or destroy faith.

Of course I acknowledge that doubt exists, but I affirm that faith survives and triumphs because it overcomes doubt. Many great Christians have had moments of doubt, moments in which they felt they’d made a terrible mistake, dark nights of the soul when they’ve felt so abandoned by God they began to doubt God’s providence, maybe even God’s existence. However, they survived those doubts; they regained their faith. We should hardly have heard of them if they had remained doubtful, certainly not as great Christians! In the same way people can survive deadly diseases: but that doesn’t make disease a beneficial stage towards a healthy life! Health comes with the end of the disease. And while it may be true that a healed broken bone is stronger than one that has never been broken, that is hardly a recommendation to go out and have all your bones broken!

No, I’m afraid that doubt remains a detriment to faith. It is something to be overcome, not embraced. Jesus puts it plainly when he faces the doubter Thomas, in five sharply pointed words: Do not doubt but believe. You can’t do them both at the same time!

As for Tennyson and all the others who have sung doubt’s praises, to be fair to them, what they’re talking about probably isn’t doubt at all, but ignorance. And those are two different things. Doubt is the enemy of faith, as much as suspicion is the enemy of trust. You can’t really trust them if you are suspecting them at the same time. The doubting skeptic will deny, until he is given reason to affirm. He tries to subsist in the world of “wait and see” — and “show me the money” — and since there are many things one never can or will see or be shown, things which must betaken on faith or the testimony of others, the doubter may spend an eternity waiting. Doubt, then, is thinking that something is false until proven otherwise; it demands first hand evidence.

Ignorance, on the other hand, keeps an open if not an empty mind: ignorance is simply not knowing — and given our human limitations, ignorance is a major part of our human condition: there are many things we do not know of a certainty, yet in which we have faith. To put it another way, Ignorance can be informed, but doubt must be convinced.

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Let’s look at our lessons for today, because they can help us see the difference. Peter addresses the people of Jerusalem, those responsible for the death of Jesus, in a moving speech that shows just how far God will go to forgive. He tells the people that they rejected Jesus; they chose to have a murderer go free, and killed the Author of Life. But he goes on to call them “friends,” and tell them that they “acted in ignorance.” As Jesus himself had said, “they know not what they do.” This ignorance, this clouding of the mind as Paul would later say, was necessary in order for God to fulfill what had been foretold through the prophets, that the Messiah must suffer. And Peter calls on them to repent and accept the truth of which they had been ignorant.

Peter is an eyewitness to the resurrection, there to testify and convert their ignorance into knowledge and bring them thence to faith, from unbelief to belief. And many of them accept his testimony.

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In comparison, consider doubting Thomas. For years those who want to cherish their own doubts have tried to exonerate Thomas. They want it to be okay for him to have doubted the reality of Christ’s resurrection, to have doubted the witness of the other disciples, and swear he had to see with his own eyes and feel with his own hands before he’d believe their testimony. After all, once he would see, their testimony would be superfluous. And although skeptical Thomas went on to do great things — tradition tells us he went as far as India, the apostle to bring the gospel into Asia — he couldn’t have done that if he had remained Doubting Thomas. Had he remained Doubting Thomas there would have been no gospel for him to preach, only his empty doubts.

Thomas’ doubts were not okay. They were something to be gotten rid of, to overcome. They would have killed his faith were it not for our Lord’s extraordinary willingness to put up with this disbelieving apostle, this disbelieving skeptic, and pay an additional visit to that upper room.

Jesus had shown his wounded hands and side to the other disciples, but he invites Thomas to go further. He invites the skeptic to poke and prod, to touch the risen flesh, delivered from death by the power of God. And he says to him, Do not doubt but believe.

There are paintings of this famous Gospel scene that show Thomas sticking his finger in the Lord’s wounded side. Personally I find that very hard to believe, nor does the Scripture tell us that Thomas accepted the invitation to handle Jesus so roughly. No, the text simply tells us that Thomas answered his Lord’s invitation with, “My Lord and my God.” And I picture him shocked and hardly daring even to look up, let alone to poke at Jesus’ wounds.

Even then, Jesus doesn’t let him off so lightly, he doesn’t let the beam of his severe attention drop. Okay, so Thomas now believes because he has seen. His ignorance, which should have been informed and dispelled by the witness of the other disciples, had hardened into doubt, had calcified into skepticism and it took a personal appearance from Jesus to wipe that doubt away: that first hand evidence, as Canon West used to say, of a hand with a hole in it.

And so Jesus goes on to say, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Blessed are those for whom the news of the gospel, lightening their ignorance, is enough. Blessed are those who only need to hear the good news, to gain the knowledge of God’s saving mission to humanity. Blessed are those whose faith rests not on the foundation of a ruined doubt, but on the solid rock of plain honest ignorance enlightened by the testimony of the Gospel.

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The evangelist John wants us so much to understand this. That’s why he wrote the Gospel, after all: to tell those who would come after what had happened. Doubt is not good. It can kill faith as much as jealousy can kill love; as much as suspicion can murder trust. Ignorance, on the other hand, is not our problem; it is our condition. The evangelist John, to make this point, steps forward for a moment at the end of the reading we heard, he steps forward as the author of the gospel to remind us, his readers, that there are many other signs Jesus performed “which are not written in this book.” He repeats this author’s note in the very last verse of his gospel, when he states that if everything Jesus had said and done were written down the whole world could not contain all the books it would take to tell it. In short, John is saying, I don’t have space or time to tell you everything. You are still ignorant in part. But you don’t need to know everything. What I have told you is enough. It is sufficient. The Scripture you hold in your hands, the Scripture you hear with your ears, is enough so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you might have life in him — and blessed are you who have come to believe.

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This is our condition, my sisters and brothers in Christ. We don’t know everything about Jesus. We don’t know how tall he was, what his voice was like. We have probably lost any number of his teachings and sayings along the way, things he did or said that no one ever wrote down. We are in partial ignorance; as Saint Paul said, “we know in part.” But, as Saint John reminds us, we know enough — and are blessed in that sufficient knowledge: like the daily bread that is enough for each day; we have enough.

We do not need to poke at the nail holes and the spear wound. We do not need even to see our Risen Lord as did his disciples in that upper room. We are among those blessed with limited knowledge, but also blessed with abundant faith, blessèd ones who though we have not seen, yet we have believed through the words of John and the other witnesses. For though we now can touch the Lord’s body only through the outward forms of bread and wine; though we now can serve the Lord only through our ministry to each other, and to the downtrodden and the needy, yet in our faith, our faith that thrives in the knowledge and the love of God, in our faith we are strengthened to proclaim that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and believing in him, to have life in his name; and in his name we pray.+

Already Rolled Away

SJF • Easter B 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome ... had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.+

One spring morning nearly two thousand years ago, three women headed to the tomb of a beloved friend to pay their last respects. He was one who had been judged a criminal by the state courts, rejected by the religious authorities, executed, and then buried in haste and without ceremony. So three women who had followed him in life came to the tomb to do the proper thing, to anoint his body and see to it that their dear friend might have at least and at last that final dignity.

But on the way to the tomb, something they’d forgotten came suddenly to mind. Perhaps in their urgency, perhaps in their sadness and grief, they had forgotten that a large stone had been rolled in place to seal the tomb. Now, on the way to the tomb to carry out their merciful task, they suddenly remembered, and said to one another, Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?

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That question echoes down the corridors of time. Who will roll away the stone? That stone was and is the symbol of death and finality, the seals and shuts away the dead, out of sight if not out of mind. The burial place is the end of the line, the terminal point towards which all life tends.

As I’ve mentioned before, it’s no coincidence that if you take the subway that runs northward just outside the doors of our church, you end up at Woodlawn! End of the line; last stop; everybody out. I was not entirely surprised some years ago to see a law firm’s office in one of those small buildings huddled under the elevated station at the last station stop on the Jerome Avenue line, up there at Woodlawn. The name of the law firm is Lazarus and Lazarus — I can only say they’ve chosen an excellent location.

We are, all of us, on a train the ends at one Woodlawn or another. With April 15 looming, it might be wise to remember the old saying, “The only things certain in life are death and taxes!” You may get a tax cut or an economic stimulus once in a while — but death awaits us all. It is one journey we all must make, some day, that journey to the grave.

You may remember the film in which a man has a terrifying recurring dream: a hearse drives up to him, and the driver leans out and says, in a cheerful voice, “Room for one more, sir!” And then one day, he’s about to get on a crowded bus, the bus driver looks at him and says, “Room for one more, sir!” — and it’s the man from his dream! He is so startled he steps back and doesn’t get on the bus, and then watches in horror as the bus pulls away and crashes in a terrible accident.

Well, the fact is, as far as each of us goes, there is always room for one more, room for each of us in death’s carriage. How does the Scripture put it? All flesh is grass, its beauty like the flower of the field; the grass withers, the flower fades. And who will roll away the stone?

And it isn’t only literal death, you know. There are those little deaths that come before the final death; those little deaths that wither and fade the dignity of God’s children, seemingly without help or deliverance. Despair, prejudice, racism, hatred and fanaticism roll stones of obstruction into the lives of men and women and children every day. And some are impeded, and others are crushed.

Who will roll away the stone of anger and diminishment that leads people to despair — such despair, despair so bleak they feel that they have nothing to do but buy a couple of guns and kill as many people as they can before they end their own despairing lives in death. What can you do when anyone you see may be ready to lash out? Who will roll away the stone?

Who will roll away the stone of fanaticism, when people are so sure that they alone have the truth that they actually imagine it to be an honor to blow themselves up if only they can take with them as many of unbelievers as they can? Who will roll away the stone?

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Who will roll away the stone? The women asked themselves that as they came to the tomb that Easter morning. It is the question we each ask many times in our lives, not only in response to death, but as we see or experience despair, injustice, prejudice and hatred. Who will roll away the stone?

But beloved sisters and brothers, note this: Saint Mark tells us that when the women reached the tomb the stone was already rolled away! The one who was buried in the tomb wasn’t there any more. Christ was already risen from the dead!

That was good news, brothers and sisters. And that is good news. Not only was Christ risen, but Christ is risen! Who will roll away the stone? What do you mean? The stone is already rolled away!

Who will roll away the stone of injustice? The stone is already rolled away by the one unjustly executed. The one who suffered injustice has triumphed over injustice; he has given us hands and hearts to roll away any stone of injustice we may encounter. Injustice may flourish for a time, but it will not triumph in the end. The stone has been rolled away. The one imprisoned through injustice is imprisoned no more. He is not there.

Who will roll away the stone of prejudice and hatred and ideology and fanaticism? The stone is already rolled away by the one mocked and spat upon and nailed to a cross by the power of hate and envy and fanaticism, but raised from the grave by the power of God. He is not there!

And we who are in Christ, are with him where he is — not where he isn’t — not in the tomb, not in the grave, not sealed shut: but alive and active and able and equipped and empowered to do his will.

In our baptismal covenant — which we will reaffirm as we welcome some new members into the body of Christ — we will promise to honor the dignity of every human being. In fulfilling that promise, we the people of God can do all in our strength to roll away the stones of hatred and prejudice that still block the light, that still imprison, that still cause the little ones to stumble and the weak to despair. Prejudice and hatred still wield some failing power to captivate and crush in this world; and yet they cannot and will not triumph in the end. The stone has been rolled away. The tomb is empty — he is not there.

Who then will roll away the stone of death? That stone has already been rolled away by one who died and was raised from death. We who have not yet died, yet are day by day approaching it, recall, as Saint Paul said, “dying, but behold, we live.” We know that the journey does not end at the tomb at Woodlawn or anywhere else — the tomb is only a stop-over on our true journey.

Emily Dickinson once wrote:

Because I could not stop for death,
he kindly stopped for me,
the carriage held but him and me
— and Immortality.

That third passenger, Immortality, is made real and complete in Jesus Christ, and that makes all the difference. Death may drop us off at Woodlawn, but Christ will raise us from the dead. After all, he’s the one who can truly say, “Been there; done that!” The stone was rolled away and the tomb was emptied, emptied once and for all — once, for him; and in him for all of us. We who have died with Christ in baptism, we who have been raised with him, who seek the things that are above where he sits at God’s right hand, know of a certainty that we will one day rejoice with him at the heavenly banquet. The stone has been rolled away. The tomb is empty. And Christ is alive. Though Woodlawn looks like the end of the line, though death invite us into his carriage, we have a better hope, and a better promise, for Christ is with us on that journey, which does not end at the grave, but goes on into the risen life of our Risen Lord.

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Some years ago a Sunday School teacher gave the children in her class an assignment for Easter. Each was given a plastic egg — you know the ones, from L’eggs panty hose, collected by the women of the church over the preceding months. The children were given the assignment to find something that represented Easter, put it in the egg and bring to class on Easter Day. The day came, and the teacher gathered all the eggs and then opened them one by one. “Oh, what a lovely flower! Who brought the flower?” And a little girl stood to take credit, saying how the flower reminded her of the new life that comes in the spring. The teacher opened another egg, and found a pebble. Another child rose to say it was like the stone that was rolled away from the tomb. The teacher opened a third egg, but there was nothing inside. “Oh,” she apologized, “I must have mixed this in from the ones I hadn’t given out,” and reached for another egg.

But one of the younger children shouted out — in that unselfconscious way that children can — “That’s my egg!” The teacher thought the child hadn’t understood — he was very young, the youngest in the class — and said, “But dear, it’s empty.” And the child nodded vigorously and answered, “Yes, just like the tomb. Jesus isn’t dead any more.”

What’s the old saying, Out of the mouths of babes?

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Three women went to a solitary tomb two thousand years ago, and then recalled it was sealed with a stone. When they got there, they saw the stone had been rolled away. The one they sought was not there — the tomb was empty, except for the angelic messenger — for Jesus had been raised from the dead. What was true then is true now: The stone is already rolled away, and Jesus isn’t dead any more.

Being raised from the dead continues to happen in a million ways, big and small. Even in the midst of suffering and injustice and prejudice and hatred, we can find the stone is already rolled away and new life has begun, that we too aren’t dead any more.

And even in the midst of death, even in the midst of the fear that the stone has rolled over us and is ready to crush us, and even when we finally do — as do we must — face that final journey, we will soon after discover that the stone has been rolled away, that Christ is alive, and that we are alive in him, victorious over death, our tombs as empty as his. Which is why, brothers and sisters, even at the edge of the grave, we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.+

Cost of the Promise

SJF • Lent 5b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.+

Well here we are on the last Sunday in March, the fifth Sunday in Lent. How many of us can remember back to Ash Wednesday and the days following, and recall the promises we might have made to ourselves concerning our Lenten disciplines, what we were going to give up for Lent? Have we kept those promises to ourselves? Or go back even further to New Year’s Day: how many new year’s resolutions have evaporated more quickly than the champagne stains left on the coffee table?

The sad thing is, we find it hard to keep promises, even promises we make to ourselves. There’s always an out-clause, a mitigating circumstance that we feel lets us off the hook. Either we made the promise in haste, or without realizing what we were doing, or, in the case of a promise made to someone else, we may convince ourselves that the other party hasn’t kept his or her part of the bargain, and so it’s quite all right for us not to keep our part in return.

If we are honest with ourselves and each other, it seems that many of what pass for promises in our world today are not commitments, far from binding contracts, and really not much more than good intentions. And we all know, as the old saying goes, what to the road to hell is paved with.

But the road to heaven — now that’s another thing. Thanks be to God that the road to heaven doesn’t rely on our good intentions, our failed promises, our neglected responsibilities. No, thanks be to God that the road to heaven does not rely on us at all — we didn’t build the road! It doesn’t rely on our failed promises or our broken covenants. No, thanks be to God that the road to heaven relies upon God, and upon none other. Thanks be to God that the road to heaven relies upon God and God’s promises, who is faithful and true and who keeps his promises to us even when we fail in keeping our promises to him.

+ + +

And yet the promises God makes to us do involve us, they do affect us. And thanks be to God that they do, for if it were not for the power of God working in us to help us we would be truly lost. Yet the fulfillment of these promises is not about our keeping the promise to God, but about God making the promise real in us. This promise of God is not the casual promise of a new year’s resolution, nor even the more piously considered promise to take up a Lenten discipline. This is the promise of grace: the costly promise of God, a promise not carved in stone but on human hearts, the human hearts upon which God wrote his promise, a promise made because God so loved the world. Neither was this costly promise of God made with merely spoken words, but in the word made flesh, the human flesh that Jesus took upon him when he shared our human nature, with all its pains, with all its struggles, and finally with its death.

Jesus tells his disciples that this promise, this costly promise, requires death before new life can come. This promise of new growth is the costly promise that every farmer knows of and trusts in, when he casts the grains of wheat upon the earth. If he keeps the grains of wheat in burlap bags in the storehouse, they will never grow. Each grain will just remain a single grain.

But if he takes that risk, if he rips open those burlap bags, dumps out the grain, and scatters it upon the earth, where he must trust and risk the promise of the rain and of the sunlight God will send, only then, only trusting in that promise, that costly promise, can the farmer hope his grain will bear much fruit.

In your imagination, for a moment, go back to the early days of human history when someone first got the idea to plant grain instead of eating it. Up until then people lived as hunters and gatherers, almost like the grazing creatures of the field, just moving from place to place as food sources were gradually exhausted. But then one day, perhaps some unknown woman — and I say woman because usually among people who hunt and gather for their living, the men hunt and the women gather — some unknown woman, noticing that food plants grow from the seed they bear, decides to take a chance. Say she has gathered a few handfuls of grain in a little wallet made from skins, and is ready to go back to the camp and grind it up to make porridge. And on the way she gets this amazing idea, as she passes those other growing plants. Instead of eating the grain, she is going to put it in the ground. She picks up a sharp stick and starts to make shallow furrows in the ground. The other women look at her as if she’s lost her mind and popped a gasket. They are even more outraged when they see her place the grain, a few seeds at a time, in those rows, and gently cover them with earth. “What are you doing?” they ask. And the woman can’t really explain — there are no words yet in her language for ideas like “plant” and “harvest” — and so she points to the other growing plants and says, “I think this is where they come from.” That was a turning point in human history — the beginning of civilization — because once you can grow your own food you don’t have to move around from place to place hunting and gathering. That was the beginning of civilization, and we don’t know the name of the woman to whom we owe it.

+ + +

But at the other great turning point in human history, we do know the one who took the action, who in a sense planted himself in the earth of our human condition knowing that only thus could humanity itself be redeemed, and come to new birth. Jesus embraced the human condition, learning obedience through what he suffered, embracing the costly promise of his Lord and God, the promise his Father made to him, when he begot him before all worlds; the promise his Father made to him when he called out in thunder on the mountain, reminding him that God’s name would be glorified through what the Son of God suffered; the promise that his Father made to him when Christ was lifted from the earth upon the cross, the signal of salvation hoisted for our good and at his cost, drawing the whole world to himself; and finally the promise his Father confirmed once and for all in raising him from the bonds of death, in freeing him from bondage to mortality so that we too might be free, free not just for a season or a time, but free for ever.

Such is the promise of God, the costly promise of God, the promise he made to us, confirmed and realized in his Son. For after all is said and done, it is not our ability to keep the promise that saves us — given our performance, we would be in a sorry state if it depended on us. It is rather upon God’s promise to us, God’s rock-solid promise to us, upon which our sure and certain hope is set. So for centuries people have gone forth trusting in God’s promise; so for generations have farmers cast their grain upon the ground; so for ages have servants followed him, trusting him and him alone, not knowing where they go, but knowing that where he is, so too there is where they choose to be.

The worldly-wise may scoff at this trust and call it “blind faith” — but blind faith sees and knows things worldly wisdom can never behold or understand. Blind faith is the wisest response to one whose promises are certain and sure.

+ + +

Some years ago, there was a terrible fire in an old two-storey wood-frame house. We hear of such tragedies every year here in the Bronx during the winter, as people knock over illegal kerosene heaters, and whole families perish as the flames devour their humble dwellings. Well in this case, the family managed to escape the house — or thought they had, until the father did a quick count of the children on the sidewalk, and then heard that most horrible sound: one of his children, his little boy calling to him from the second floor window, as the smoke billowed around the boy, blinding him so that he could see nothing. His father rushed over and stood beneath the window, calling up to his little son, telling him to jump, assuring him that he would catch him. The terrified child, his arms stretched out before him, his eyes clenched tight shut against the stinging smoke, yelled out, “But Daddy, I can’t see you; I can’t jump.” And his father shouted back, “It’s all right, son, it’s all right. I can see you!”

+ + +

God can see us, even when we do not have the strength or the skill to see him. God speaks to us, calls out to us, again and again, giving us yet another opportunity to hear and understand, even when we swear that all we hear is thunder. Still he speaks, still he calls us, calling us each by name to leap into his loving, waiting arms.

And God will keep his promise to us even when we have broken ours to him. God will catch us and save us when we take the leap of faith, as he redeemed his own son from the bonds of death in our sinful flesh, when he raised him from the dead. God has kept his promise and he will keep it again. God will keep his costly promise to us, without counting the cost. God has already paid the price, has planted the seed of his love in the earth of our human nature, and the Son of God has paid the price in his own flesh and blood. And having paid the price, we had better believe that God will keep his promise. +

As those who have no hope

St James Fordham • Proper 27a • Tobias Haller BSG

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.+

Out in the hot, dry, Arizona desert, there are 27 dead people waiting for resurrection. They aren’t the inhabitants of a Christian cemetery, waiting as all the faithful departed do for the coming of that great day when the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised incorruptible. No, these are 27 people who have had themselves put into a deep-freeze of liquid nitrogen in the hope that science will one day find a cure for whatever it was that ailed them, as well as a way to restore their frozen tissue without irreparable damage.

Such is their hope. And the cost? They’ve paid a pretty penny for this deep-freeze, $120,000 each — except for a few of them who decided to save a bit, and took the option, for a mere $50,000, to have had only their heads frozen. Talk about cut-rate pricing! If I want a brain freeze I can just drink a Mickey D milkshake too fast. I suppose these particular blockheads — I think it’s no insult to call them that now, is it? — I suppose they were the most optimistic among the “frozen people” since they expect science will be able to grow them new bodies or build them one like Robocop.

+ + +

Saint Paul wrote to the church at Thessalonica, “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” Now, the frozen people in Arizona clearly had hope before they died and were deposited into their giant Thermos flasks. They had the hope that they would one day be thawed, healed or repaired, and live again.

But what a foolish hope, and what a pointless promise. Even if they could be thawed, reanimated, and healed, how much longer do they imagine they could live after that? Bodies may live a long time, but they don’t preserve the vigor of youth. However well we care for our bodies, they weaken and fail. There’s a lesson in the fable of the man who was granted his wish of eternal life but forgot to add eternal youth and was cursed to become a dried up husk of a creature scuttling about the passageways of his great-great-grandchildren’s palace. Until, the legend tells us, the gods took pity on him and transformed him: and that’s where the grasshopper came from! A long life without the health to enjoy it is not a blessing, but a curse.

And even beyond that, even if these newly thawed-out bodies could be kept young forever, what does “forever” mean? After all, the world is going to end someday! And I don’t just mean in a biblical sense based on ancient prophecy, but in cold simple scientific fact. Some day our sun, and every sun that shines in every corner of the universe will either explode or cool down to a cinder. Some day billions of years in the distant future, science assures us, the whole universe will die in the cold embrace of entropy, as all energy drains away and even the atoms that make up everything in the physical universe collapse from sheer exhaustion and decay into the virtual nothingness of a cold, absolute zero. Those who hope for immortality in the physical world through science are cheated of eternal life by that very science: they may live a long, long time, but not for ever. Nothing physical lasts forever — all matter is corruptible, and all flesh is as the grass of the field — and flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven — and those whose hope for immortality is based simply on the survival of their physical bodies are doomed in their ignorance. Haven’t they ever seen a zombie movie — dead bodies walking, but falling apart even as they walk?

+ + +

Saint Paul counsels us, “We do not want you to be uninformed about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” Our hope, hope for ourselves as well as all our beloved who have died before us, our hope does not rest upon the some-day maybe-if-we’re-lucky promises of science but on the eternal, absolute and make-no-mistake-about-it assurance of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. What does the old song say? “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness!” The one we hope in doesn’t wear a white lab-coat, but a crown of thorns, and Jesus Christ doesn’t just offer us opinions and options and possibilities but a sure and certain hope — and all other grounds are sinking sand.

Jesus Christ is our secure hope. Because he’s been there. Jesus descended to the dead and rose again the third day. He knows what it is like to feel life drain from him, with the blood he shed on Calvary. This was no near-death experience. Jesus didn’t just come near death. He died! He was buried, and lay in the tomb for a sabbath rest, until by God’s power he was raised from the dead.

Because we share in his death through Baptism, we will also share with him in his resurrection; which is not the reanimation of a corpse, but a whole new creation in the resurrection body, the body that is more than flesh, full of the eternal power of the Spirit, alive with the life that comes from above.

Saint Paul describes the scenario, and whether it happens next week, next year, in a hundred or a thousand or a billion years, this is how it will happen. The Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, and the trumpet shall sound, and those who have died in Christ will rise, and those who are alive will join them, caught up into the mystery of the new life, transformed into his likeness without ever even having had to leave the old one behind.

“The Lord will descend with a cry of command.” And do you know what his command will be? Can you guess? Don’t you think it will be, “WAKE UP!” Christ will call to life all those who have died, and call those who live to new life in him. “Wake up!” will be the watchword, and the trumpet blast and the cry of his voice will be loud enough to wake the dead, literally! As was said to me recently, “On that great day there’s gonna be a whole lot of earth turned up at Woodlawn!”

“We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” Our hope as Christians is not that we will simply be thawed out, simply be mended to walk about as reanimated corpses, but that we will be given new spiritual bodies, spiritual bodies that can live for eternity long after the merely physical universe decays into the thin gray neutrino soup that scientists foresee billions of years from now. Long after this universe has dissolved, what is eternal shall remain, God and his children, wakened at the sound of the trumpet, and at the call of his Son, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.

+ + +

Winston Churchill saw his nation through the terrible war years when he was at an age at which most people are happily retired. In addition to being a statesman and world leader and amateur oil-painter, he was also a devoted churchman and staunch believer in the promises of our faith. There is a persistent unverified rumor — which I have done nothing to discourage! — that his mother, Jennie Jerome, whose father used to live across the road now known as Jerome Avenue in his memory, was baptized here at Saint James Church!

Churchill’s faith and hope were reflected in the funeral service he planned for himself. It took place in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, which had stood throughout the Battle of Britain and the Blitz as a testimony to the church’s presence in a world gone mad, its great dome rising above London’s flames and smoke, defying Hitler’s bombers and rockets. Churchill, as befits a military man, arranged that as his funeral neared its end, a lone bugler high in the dome of the cathedra would begin to play the universal signal for day’s end, the tune we know as “Taps.” I’m sure that melody brought tears to many eyes that day, as it has in so many other places and times.

But old Sir Winston had a more profound message to convey in his funeral. Before the last notes of Taps had faded, another bugler at the opposite side of the dome began another tune, another melody with a very different message: the other bugler played “Reveille”!

“We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” Our hope, and the hope of countless Christians who have gone before us, all the saints, prophets, apostles and martyrs, all our dear beloved friends and family in Christ, our hope is that at the end the last melody will not be Taps. It will be Reveille! Those who have fallen asleep will wake at the trumpet blast. Those who have died will rise. And, as Saint Paul wrote, those “who are left will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.”

When He shall come with trumpet sound,
O may I then in Him be found;
Dressed in His righteousness alone
Faultless to stand before His throne.
On Christ the solid Rock I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand —
All other ground is sinking sand. +

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.+

Chosen and Precious

Saint James Fordham • Easter 5a • Tobias Haller BSG
…like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house.—1 Peter 2:5

Today we are called to think about one of the strangest ideas in all of Scripture: living rock. Remember your high school geology class: igneous rock comes from lava, sedimentary rock is made of layers of clay, and metamorphic rock arises from the action of heat and pressure on the other two kinds. That’s your science refresher course for the day! But whatever kind of rock you’re talking about, rock is as dead as dead can be.

In fact, there are countless legends and fairy tales of people cursed by being changed into stone. It is a fear buried deep in our collective unconscious as a symbol of death, coldness and finality. You may remember Medusa, the young lady who was so beautiful that her pride led her to think herself more beautiful than the goddesses. Mistake. They cursed her so that she ended up nut just ugly but ug-LY! As they say, she had ought to stop chasing parked busses. How ugly was she? Well, she could turn you to stone if you got one look at her ugly mug and serpentine hair-do. She was ugly enough to petrify — literally.

On the other hand, there are the stories about statues coming to life, marvelous legends, myths and fairy tales, where the curse is reversed by a blessing. My favorite is The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which actually formed a part of my reconversion to Christianity as a teenager. Perhaps you saw the film version a few years ago. The imaginary land of Narnia is enthralled by a wicked witch who has cursed the land so that it is always winter but never Christmas, and she has punished anyone who opposes her by turning them into stone. Her prisoners return to life when the Great Lion comes to breathe upon them and lick them back to life, like a mother cat licking her kittens.

+ + +

So perhaps it isn’t so strange after all that this idea of living stone should be in Scripture. As with all else, it starts with Jesus, whom Peter, in our reading this morning, describes as the cornerstone for God’s temple. And the building-stones of that temple are ourselves, our souls and bodies, reasonable and holy, transformed into building blocks for God’s house. We are called to be living stones!

This is what Easter is all about: life coming to what is dead. The dead stone is rolled away, and the living Rock of Ages is revealed. And just as Jesus Christ is the Church’s one foundation, the cornerstone chosen and precious, so we are called, through Baptism, to be the living stones building up the New Jerusalem.

+ + +

I began this sermon by reminding us where rock comes from. Let’s revisit that a moment. One particular kind of rock is built up from sediment. Dust of the earth, or sand of the hills, and fragments of organic matter, washed away by rainfall, flow downstream to the sea, settle and become a deposit of clay. And over the years, that clay hardens into sedimentary rock. You need look no further than our own slate roof, which millions of years ago was a lake-bottom in Vermont.

The surprising things is that as more time goes by, and shale or slate or sandstone that lies deeper in the earth is compressed further, and heated by the pressure of the layers above, it can change into yet another kind of rock: it undergoes metamorphosis. Sometimes, if all the factors are just right, the compressed and heated sediments become precious rock — gemstones, jewels — diamonds and rubies and sapphires.

Now, as we are reminded on Ash Wednesday, we are dust, and to dust we shall all return. We are also clay taken from the riverbank, molded, and given the breath of life by God himself. And water flows over us — the water of Baptism flowing from the same living rock that quenched the thirst of the children of Israel as they wandered in the wilderness.

They doubted God could give them water from the rock, no doubt a reasonable doubt. But God is not particularly fond of reasonable doubts or reasonable doubters, and that generation was punished by not being allowed into the Promised Land. They put God to the test, though they had seen with their own eyes all the mighty works he had done in Egypt and at the Red Sea. If he made the sea into dry land, could he not do the reverse, and bring water from the rock?

But not only did that Rock become the source of water, of life and salvation for all who believe, it also became the head stone of the corner. The stone that the builders rejected — the stone that didn’t fit their plans, that seemed to big or too small, or the wrong shape — became the very heart of the building.

+ + +

Peter was the first to proclaim Christ as Messiah, head and cornerstone of the new Israel. And Jesus reminded him that his name “Peter” means “the rock” — and a few verses later Jesus called Peter “a stumbling block” too! Surely these words must have been in Peter’s mind when he wrote the Letter from which we heard today! Peter was one of the twelve foundation stones of Christ’s Church, but he had also been a stumbling block. He is a perfect example of the old advice, If you can’t be part of the solution at least don’t be a problem! Get with it or get out of the way! Be of good use, not just an obstreperous obstacle.

This is a warning for us as well. Just as Peter got in Jesus’ way, just as the children of Abraham, the chosen people precious to the Lord, doubted in the wilderness, we too — people of God by adoption, people who “once were no people” — could stumble if we were to fall into “malice and guile and insincerity and envy.”

To help us avoid this Peter reminds us of the wonders to which we are called in Christ. Chosen and precious, a holy priesthood, a chosen race, a holy nation, we declare the wonderful deeds of the One who gives us life everlasting. Each of us is unique, chosen and with something precious to offer — a greater purpose to serve other than just getting in the way. Each of us is marked out with our own special place, just as each stone in this church has its own place, its own shape and size.

Back in the nineteenth century there was a craze as wealthy businessmen, hungry for antiquity in this new land, bought castles and cloisters in Europe, had them disassembled, crated up, and shipped to America for reassembly. As the castles were taken apart stone by stone, each stone was labeled and marked, so that each could be put back in its place when the time came. We are like that, each marked as Christ’s own forever in Baptism, and each with our own place in the new Jerusalem, a place which no other stone can fit so well as we. For the stones at the top of the wall couldn’t be there if it weren’t for the stones under them holding them up — each has its place and its function. Well, Jesus, by his grace, takes us lifeless stones and raises us up as children of Abraham and children of God! Each of us is unique, yet all work together in the new building plan. Once we were no people, but now we are God’s people, children of Abraham by adoption.

And like the wandering Israelites our spiritual ancestors, we are in the presence of the living Rock Jesus Christ. We have passed through the Red Sea of Baptism, and have been washed in the stream of living water that flows from the side of the Rock. Through the incomparable gift of grace, we have stand in the presence of the One who is a temple that was destroyed and rebuilt in three days — the temple of which we are invited to become part, living stones built into a spiritual house, the cornerstone of which is the Rock of Ages, the Rock of Salvation.

+ + +

This is our call: to be living stones built into a spiritual house. But we often feel, in moments of distress and depression, that we are still just dust and clay. How can we be living stones, as he is?

Through the movement of water, bits of earth and clay are broken off and washed down to very deep places. Pressed with the weight of the earth, these bits and pieces are transformed into rock, and sometimes into gemstone. In time, further washing of water uncovers the rock and exposes it to the light of day. This is death and rebirth, the death and rebirth that comes to us in Baptism by water and the Holy Spirit. Baptism breaks us up and washes us down to the very depths, in unity with Christ’s death. The heat and pressure of the Holy Spirit continue to form and shape us, metamorphing us into the image and likeness of Christ, the living Rock. In moments of grief, frustration or depression, we can remember that throughout our lives God is working to mold us, to break us, to form and reshape us.

For God does not just create us — God recreates us, redeems us and makes us new — no longer dust but living stones.

The dust that is buried becomes the rock that emerges, or the gems that are quarried and mined. The stone and gems are brought forth from darkness into the marvelous light. The stones — living stones, all of us, you and me and all the saints of ages past and yet to come — are carved and polished and set in precious metal. A new temple, a New Jerusalem, is built, with firm foundations, a house with many mansions, with each of us in our place — a place appointed us from before the foundation of the world — with Christ the head and cornerstone, standing bright and clear in the eternal light of a never-ending Eastertide. Alleluia, the Lord is risen. The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!+