Inside Out

What do an old book, a ramshackle building, and a broken leg have in common?

SJF • Proper 17b 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The Pharisees and scribes asked Jesus, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders?”+

There is an old story — you have probably hear it — about three women who departed this life on the same day. All three were active in their respective churches. And one was a Southern Baptist, and one a Roman Catholic, and the third an Episcopalian. And as they were waiting in line at the gate of heaven to find out if they would be admitted or not, all three of them looked very nervous and unhappy. Finally the Baptist, who was first in line, turned to the other two and moaned, “I don’t think I’ll be let in to heaven. I was the treasurer of the Shiloh Baptist Ladies Club — and I embezzled the proceeds from the church fair.”

The Roman Catholic woman then sighed and shook her head, and said in a resigned voice, “I’m not looking for any better treatment. When my husband was on a business trip I had an affair with the cable guy.”

Finally, the Episcopalian, who sounded as if she might have perished from a case of what they call “Scarsdale Lockjaw,” looking back and forth and lowering her voice, confided, “I’ve been hiding this secret for years, and I know it will come out now that Saint Peter opens the book and reviews the ledger of my life. Once, at a dinner party, I ate my entree with the salad fork!

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That may seem a far-fetched joke, doesn’t our gospel today looks just as odd when you read it seriously and carefully. Here are the Pharisees and scribes getting all upset about Jesus’ disciples for not washing their hands before dinner. And it isn’t sanitation that they’re worried about. The Pharisees, following the traditions of the elders, believed that washing your hands, and following all of those complicated rules for washing cups, pots, and metal vessels, were not just matters of cleanliness, but literally of Godliness. For them, failing to wash before eating wasn’t just bad manners, or poor hygiene; it was downright immoral. For the Pharisees, eating with unwashed hands, as for our poor imaginary Episcopal Churchwoman eating her entree with the salad fork, was a deadly serious matter. And for the Pharisees it was serious enough for them to come to Jesus and say, “Look at what you’re disciples are doing!”

And Jesus, well, he had little patience with that sort of attitude. He laid it right on the line, and called their concerns lip-service and hypocrisy, abandonment of God’s commandments in favor of mere human tradition. That is strong language. And if any doubt remained, Jesus called the people to him and spelled it out. What comes from outside people and goes in cannot defile them. There is no sin in eating with dirty hands or dirty dishes. Hands and silverware and porcelain have no moral value, and have nothing to do with sin. It’s what’s inside people already that is the problem.

The problem is those inside “devices and desires of our hearts” that creep out when we are off our guard, the roaches and rats of the fallen human nature that come out of hiding, scurrying about when the lights are turned out. These are the things that defile; things that are the substance of sin: not dirty hands but dirty thoughts.

For it is from within the fallen human heart that evil intentions come, and Jesus gives us a whole laundry list or the soiled linens of sin hung out in the light of day for all the world to see — fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. These are the things that come from within, and these are the things that defile a person.

How easy it would be to purchase salvation just by washing your hands and your cup and your plate and your bowl. Even wiping your mouth is not enough: as Proverbs says, “This is the way of an adultress — she eats and wipes her mouth and says, ‘I have done no wrong.’” No amount of scrubbing the outside will make the inside clean. The stain of sin remains when the evil that is inside spills forth, and it cannot just be washed away.

Do you remember Lady Macbeth? After she murdered the old king she went quite mad — no matter how much she washed her hands — rubbed raw — they always looked bloody to her still, spotted and stained with the blood of a guest, and not just any guest, not just a any good and righteous man, but her king, murdered in his sleep. Lady Macbeth went mad, haunted and pursued by the evil she unleashed from her own prideful and ambitious heart, haunted and pursued until she took her unhappy life with those same hands, hands scrubbed raw in the futile effort to remove the stain of her guilt.

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So is there any hope? If washing our hands or our outside is of no use, and our inside is chock full of terrible and nasty things, what are we to do? Have you ever had an old favorite book that you’ve read so many times that it is starting to fall apart? When it reaches that state, the only thing that can be done to care for it, to save it, is a new binding: not just cleaning the outside, but putting on a whole new outside: a spine and covers, rebinding it carefully. Or what do you do when a building is in such bad state that it is in danger of falling down? You put up scaffolding and set to work on the walls and the roof! You know we went through that here five years ago: replacing our 143-year-old slate roof with a brand new one. It was tempting to just want to patch up the inside, to plaster over the holes where the rain came through, and then give them a lick of paint. But a lick of paint would not have solved the problem. We had to start on the outside first, and even there not just putting down a new layer of tar, but stripping off all that old decaying slate and wood and starting afresh. And we also had to build a scaffold so the workers could get to the roof and do their work.

So too when we look to our own moral and personal renovation, we need to do more than just try to think happy thoughts to drive out those darker thoughts in our hearts. There is nothing we can do on our own to change our inner human nature: it is part of our heritage, whether you want to look at it from the religious angle as the legacy of Adam and Eve, or take the secular view that the drive to self-preservation, the source of success and survival, is also the source of selfishness and competition, and all the evils that dwell within.

But we can get a whole new scaffolding outside to help this feeble and sin-weakened body stand up against the wiles of the devil; not just a cleaning, but a renovation, becoming a new creature.

Saint Paul calls this new outside “the armor of God.” It goes on the outside but it helps the inside to stand up. It’s like the cast that goes on the outside of a broken limb to help it heal from within. And it is healing we need. We will never overcome our inner evils just by washing our hands: we need the armor of God to mend our broken hearts. We need the scaffold of God’s support to rebuild our ramshackle selves, to make them whole and fill them with the love of God so that there is no more room for all that nasty stuff that hid there.

If we are willing, God will fasten the belt of truth around us, the truth that acknowledges our weakness and casts its whole dependence upon the one who alone is the living Truth.

If we will let him, he will put his righteousness on our chests like a breastplate, the sign of a righteousness not our own, but loaned to us to protect us and give us confidence to stand tall and proud with our chests out and shoulders square.

If we let him, he will give us shoes of readiness to proclaim the Gospel for our feet, shoes to protect our soft soles — that’s s-o-l-e-s — from the ruts and rocks and broken glass on life’s road.

If we let him, he will put a shield of faith on our arm, not our faith in him, but his faith in us, strengthening us by this act of confidence, as the presence of any proud parent in the bleachers will spur on the child to greater efforts in the game.

And he will crown us with a helmet of salvation — and remember that helmets in Saint Paul’s day didn’t just cover the top of the head, but came down over the nose and the cheeks, with eye-holes to look out of: so the helmet of salvation doesn’t just protect us, but it directs our view straight ahead towards the prize for which we are competing.

Lastly he will put the sword of the Spirit in our hands, which is the living Word of God, living and active, cutting both ways and searching out the inner realities and secrets of our human heart.

Clothed from above like this, given a whole new outside to support us by the Lord of Glory himself, we need fear no evil from without. Strengthened to stand in the armor of God, we need fear no evil from within. Like a fragile old manuscript newly bound, we can be put back into circulation. Like a damaged building given a new roof and walls, we can then open our doors in hospitable welcome. Like a person with a broken limb that has been healed and strengthened, we will be able to stand and bear witness, clothed with the armor of God against all evils, with confidence that nothing from within our now-
cleansed and rehabilitated insides will ever be able to do usor others any harm.

To God who has thus remade us and armed us in his spiritual power against all evils from within or without, to him be the glory, henceforth and for evermore.+

Speak for your servant is listening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five Kings

SJF • Christmas 2 2008 • Tobias Haller BSG
Herod secretly called for the wise men…and sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage…”

In the dark early days of World War II, in the midst of the blitz and the Battle of Britain, leading politicians in England wanted to send the royal family away somewhere safe, away from London, which was well within the range of German bombers and the even more frightening terror-weapons. Some suggested they go to the country, to Windsor, or even further North to Scotland, others argued they would really be safest in Canada. The Royals refused, however, and the Queen — whom most of us would later know as the “Queen Mum” — won the hearts of the Eastenders when, after Buckingham Palace was bombed, she said that she finally could say in all truth that she was a Londoner, and look the East End in the face.

And look she and her husband the king did. Not only did King George VI and his Queen stay in London, but they went to the East End and the docklands to inspect the damage done by the bombs and rockets that had ravaged the heart of London’s port and center of trade. One day when King George was inspecting a bombed-out building, sympathizing with the survivors and mourning their losses with them, a frail old man came up to him, and after looking carefully into his face for a long while, pronounced his judgment: “You are a good King.”

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Today’s gospel tells us of several kings of different sorts, but only one of them is truly a Good King. We have “five kings” in our gospel today. King Herod the Great, the tyrant sitting uneasily on his throne in the very last years of his long and terrible reign; the so-called “Three Kings,” the wise men — who really are not kings at all, and the Scripture doesn’t even actually say there were three of them — and finally the newborn King, Jesus the Christ Child. And although only he deserves the title of Good King — since he is truly a king and truly good — we can learn something from all of the characters in our gospel story today.

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First the King who isn’t good: Herod the Great, he was called, and I guess he’s a fine example of how one can become great without being good. He ruled his land with an iron fist; he reconstructed Palestine along the model of a Graeco-Roman imperial state. He rebuilt the Temple in all its glory. He built mighty fortresses and palaces up and down the length of the country — including the great palace fortress at Masada that many years later would become the last holdout of Jewish rebellion against Rome.

But alongside all of these great works, you have to set the character of the man who worked them: and this is where all question of goodness evaporates. Herod the Great was a heartless murderer: so paranoid about his throne that he killed his own son when he thought he posed a threat. The Roman emperor Augustus, contrasting Herod’s murderous capacity with his surmised observance of Jewish food laws, said, “I’d rather be Herod’s pig than his son!” And we know from our own Scripture the terrible story of what Herod did when the Wise Men didn’t come back to give him the precise identity of the Christ Child: he murdered all the little boys of Bethlehem, horribly slaughtering the innocents to protect the throne he was so fearful of leaving, the throne where he died. He was a king, all right, but very far from being a good one.

The lesson for us in this, is always to keep clear in our minds the terrible difference between being great and being good — that fame and power gained at the expense of others will bring only grief and pain in the end.

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Then come these wise men — these magi who are clearly good, but who definitely aren’t kings. First of all, note that unlike Herod, who is so jealous of his throne that he won’t leave it, and sends out agents to do his dirty work — the wise men travel: they move. They’ve got the virtue of get up and go! When they see the sign of the star, they follow it; and they only rejoice when they reach their goal, when the star finally stops over the house where the child is found.

So the first part of their goodness is reflected in their willingness to change, their willingness to move, and their unwillingness to stop until they reach the goal, until they come to the feet of the one before whom they kneel in adoration and homage. The second part of their goodness is shown in what they give up: unlike Herod who didn’t want to give up anything, they freely offer their precious gifts to the Christ Child, they open their treasures and offer them, freely and without compulsion. Finally, the third part of their goodness is shown in how they keep the secret. Contrary to Herod’s explicit instructions, they do not return to him, but go back to their homes by another way, rejoicing they have been blessed, and unwilling to collaborate with evil against good.

The lesson for us in this is plain: God wants three kinds of freedom for us: freedom from being so attached to things that we cannot move where he calls us, freedom to give up our treasures for his use, and freedom to disobey the evil powers of this world when they seek to co-opt us to their ends.

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Finally the Christ Child, the center around whom this whole story revolves: he is the one who is both a King and Good. And I want to relate his goodness back to the king with which I started this sermon: King George VI, who remained in London through the blitz, and visited the East End to be with his people. Jesus the King of Heaven came to us his people in the midst of the war of sin, he came to be with us at our lowest and our worst, came to us bombed out and injured, wounded and incapacitated by sin, came to be with us and to lift us up out of the disaster into which we’d gotten ourselves.

He did not remain isolated from us, in glory at the right hand of the Father, dwelling in light inaccessible; but he came to us, the wisdom and revelation of God, to enlighten the eyes of our hearts. He did not leave us as orphans, but came to us to be our brother, so that we too could be adopted children of his Father in heaven, the one he taught us to call “Our Father” too. And as heirs with him of eternal life, he endowed us with the riches of his glorious inheritance.

The Good King came to us in our need, when we were beset by sin and troubled by the tyranny of evil; the Good King came to us as a child, as a brother, came to our rescue and our aid. Let us give thanks to him this Christmastide, and through the whole year long, praising his holy Name, now and forever, even Jesus Christ, our Lord.+