Spirit of Adoption

Trinity B 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.

Most of us learn early on where babies come from. Our parents may have tried to keep us in the dark for a time in our early childhood, with stories of deliveries by stork or finding children under the leaves of the cabbage patch, but soon enough we are ushered into the company of the birds and the bees, if not something more explicit. The long and the short of it, as we ultimately learn, is that babies come from their parents — from their father and mother. This is the most elementary of the “facts of life.”

As far as we know, there are two only exceptions to this rule, and both of them are in the Bible. The first appears in the second chapter of Genesis. It tells us that Eve — whom Adam calls the “Mother of all living” had no mother herself; she came from Adam’s side. You all remember the story: God saw that it was not good for Adam to be alone, and cast him into a deep sleep; then God took that rib from his side and made it into the one designed as Adam’s companion — bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.

The second exception to the general rule about fathers and mothers concerns the second Adam — Jesus Christ. Just as Eve came out of Adam without a mother being involved, so too Jesus was born of the flesh of the Virgin Mary without no earthly father being involved — he was conceived by God, of the flesh of the Virgin Mary, working through the power of the Holy Spirit.

These are, as I said, exceptional instances. Everyone else who has ever lived is born of a father and a mother, and in many cases — perhaps most, but certainly not all — children are also raised by their father and their mother. There are many circumstances in which children are not raised by one or both of their biological parents. Tragedies can happen, leaving the child as an orphan. Other unfortunate events can also take place, and many families experience divorce or separation which often leaves the children in a painful and delicate situation. And in both of these and in many other cases, the concept of adoption comes in. Someone who is not the child’s biological father or mother takes the child as their own — in some cases joining with a remaining biological parent, or in some cases with a new couple replacing both of the child’s original parents — and in each case putting the child under their protection and in their care. This is legally recognized, an action that has existed in many human cultures for thousands of years — for the reality that children are sometimes left without one or both parents has been true for as long as there have been human families.

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But just as there are few exceptions to the rule of parenthood and the facts of life, there is one exceptional human family into which no one is ever born, and in which every single member is adopted — and that is the church, the family of God. Although people will sometimes say, “I was born an Anglican,” that is not literally true. No one is born a Christian of any sort — you become one through baptism. As Jesus says in John’s Gospel, you join that household of God by water and the Holy Spirit; that is the way into this “kingdom of God.” All of us are adopted into God’s family, the church. None of us is here by nature of our birth. (Although it does help if our biological or adoptive parents — your family, your grandparents — are already members of the church, and they, together with the godparents, see to it that you are baptized — brought into the church at an early age; so the earthly family is important in extending the heavenly family.)

Becoming a member of the kingdom of God is not like being born the citizen of a nation — that is more or less automatic. If you are born in the United States of America — with a very few special exceptions, like a diplomat from another country whose wife may have a child here in the US — with those few exceptions you are automatically a United States citizen. But becoming a member of the household of God, the family of God, the kingdom of God, is a process more like that required to become an American citizen if you were born in another country. All us born in this earthly realm have to apply for citizenship in the heavenly one. We need the water and the Holy Spirit to become citizens of the kingdom of God.

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I mentioned that our biological or adopted family, and the already existing family of the church, play a role in this process; the most important role — for it is through this family that the family grows. But supporting this work, the work of God which we could not do on our own — is the work of God working through us, through the power of the Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit: which is one of the reasons that that’s how we baptize — those are the words we use. We baptize in the name of the Holy Trinity, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and the Holy Spirit. For the Holy Trinity is the major worker in this — we’re just the assistants.

That short reading from the Letter of Paul to the Romans sums this up in a few choice words. Notice how all three persons of the Holy Trinity are involved. The Holy Spirit is the primary agent in this work — and I use the word agent as I would to describe someone who assists me in obtaining citizenship or arranging for an adoption. Any of you who have done either of those things knows the amount of paperwork you need to go through, and how helpful and even necessary it is to have an agent working with you, to help you in that process. The Holy Spirit is our great helper: we sing about “God our help in ages past, our hope for years to come...” Well, the Holy Spirit is the primary helper, the Comforter, the one who works through us and with us to help us do all God aks of us. And that begins, right at the start, at Baptism. The Holy Spirit helps guide through the process, to set up all that is needed. The text of Romans uses the term “adoption” specifically — and it is the Holy Spirit that Paul calls “the spirit of adoption,” the one who cries out through us, naming the one whom we desire to be our parent — one who is not our parent by nature but only by choice and adoption — as the Holy Spirit, working in us, gives us the power to call out, “Abba! Father!” to God above — something we would have no right to do on our own, if the Holy Spirit were not working within us. This is a cry that is part of the testimony, the documentation, in order to be adopted by our new Father in heaven, becoming God’s children.

And, so the text tells us, if children, then heirs — heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. Just as an adopted child becomes an inheritor in the estate of her adoptive parents, so too do Christians become inheritors along with their new brother, the only-begotten Son of God, Jesus Christ, who becomes our brother when we are joined into his family through baptism.

So it is that all three — God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit — are involved in this work of adoption, and it is through their action — working through the church, the family of God — that we are added to this great assembled body that is the Body of Christ; the kingdom of God, the family of God.

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And this action of the church, the family of God, through which God acts by means of the Spirit, brings me to my last point. Once you have become a member of this new family, you are expected to take on new responsibilities— there are chores to do in any household, and the household of God is no different.

And it isn’t as if some of us were the natural children and all the others were like the step-children, like Cinderella who got all the dirty jobs and no chance to go to the ball — until she was aided by her fairy godmother (and isn’t it interesting that even in a fairy tale the language of baptism makes its way into this story of a girl who starts out cleaning up the fireplace, but rises to become a princess! The godmother is the crucial figure in that story.) No, in God’s family all of us are stepchildren, but all have also been blessed by the Holy Spirit, the BGE: the Best Godmother Ever, and raised from the cinders to the throne, brought into the family of God, heirs with Christ, joint-heirs, princes and princesses each and every one of us in the kingdom of God.

But we still have work to do — chores in this household, even for the royals, such as us. You’ve seen them on TV: Harry and William have their jobs to do; they’re out there dedicating supermarkets, opening bridges, christening boats — everybody’s got a job no matter how royal they are. And that counts for all of us too, in this royal kingdom of God, in which we are part of the royal family.

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Fortunately the Spirit continues to help us in this work. The Spirit may be like a wind that blows where it chooses, so that we hear the sound but cannot tell its source or destination, but when we are moved by that Spirit we share in its motion, we can sense its direction. You can’t tell where the wind is blowing all by itself; but if you see a leaf flying through the air, you can tell that’s the way the wind is blowing. And so it is with those who are moved by the Spirit — when we are moved by the Spirit we can tell where we are moving, and we can tell where we are going. That’s what God does for us: invisible and yet made seen by the movement of the church itself.

The primary chore of this church, this royal family, is to serve as God’s hands and feet, as each of us, filled with and empowered by the Holy Spirit, spread God’s word and bring others into this household, this royal family, helping the kingdom to grow by acting as agents ourselves, agents of God filling up the number of those to be adopted. Our task is to assist others to be made citizens in God’s kingdom, new princes and princesses in God’s royal family — the one into which no one is born, but where all are welcome.

This is our task, my friends — you and I and all of God’s children by adoption, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ — to spread the word as free and as far as the invisible wind. This is our mission — our assignment and our task, our chore in the household of God. May the Lord find us hard at work when he comes in the glory of his kingdom.+

Withholding the Water

The waters of baptism reach the Gentiles as Peter learns a lesson.

Easter 6b 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”

One of the major issues facing the world today involves changes to weather patterns, known collectively as “climate change.” To a large extent this is about water — too much water in some places, where either the rains have increased or the sea level is rising; and too little water in other places, where the drought seems to be unending. So the problem isn’t with water itself, but with where the water is — or isn’t. There has been a good deal of discussion concerning water in the state of California. Much of that state is very dry even in the wettest of seasons, and when there are several years of drought — as has been true for the last four years — the amount of water available can fall far short of what is needed. The snow in the mountains that used to pile up many feet high — and feed the valleys below as it melted — has been measured in inches instead of feet. And so the valley thirsts.

Many in Los Angeles have been upset to have to withhold water from their lawns so that the people growing fruit and nuts in the central valley can water their orchards — and much is made of the fact that it takes a gallon of water to grow a single almond! The problem is that agriculture is a major contributor to the economic health of the whole state of California — and the produce from California is served in the salad bowls of much of the rest of the country — so the effect of this drought will be felt far and wide.

In short, this issue of water is something that touches everyone. Water is essential to life — not just drinking water, without which one cannot survive for more than a few days — but the water that grows the plants that nourish us: water which is with us literally from soup to nuts.

In our reading from Acts this morning, we hear of another life-giving aspect of water — the water of Baptism. And what might seem strange to our ears is the fact that Peter even suggests not baptizing the Gentiles to whom he has been sent in response to a vision from God. Isn’t baptizing the very thing the church is meant to do?

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Well, this is one of the many things about which the leaders of the early church had to be enlightened and instructed bit by bit. It was a lesson they had to learn. As I said a few weeks ago in one of my sermons, God informs and educates the church, through many means, bit by bit, story by story, in poetry and prose, by vision and revelation, and by the experience of the faithful. What we see in our reading from Acts is one step in that process of enlightenment — as baptism is extended to the Gentiles.

As I’ve reminded us in the past, all of us here are Gentiles by birth, and so the idea that there might have been a time when the water of baptism was withheld from us seems odd. This gives me an opportunity to remind us all once again of the essential Jewishness of Jesus and the earliest church. Jesus was a Jew, and so were all of the apostles. And baptism — a ritual by which water is used in a symbolic way as a cleansing from sin — was and is a particularly Jewish ritual. Now, of course, Jews are not the only people in the world who have given a symbolic meaning to washing with water as a way to cleanse from sin. We are reminded of this forcibly every year in Holy Week as the Gentile Pontius Pilate washes his hands as a way of cleansing himself of any responsibility in the death of Jesus. But for Jews of the time of Jesus, this ritual washing was a central part of the observance of the Law of Moses, which spells out numerous circumstances in which washing with water is required, as a means to restore them to the status of being ritually “clean.”

I remember a couple of years ago, there was a TV special about the Dead Sea community that lived outside of Jerusalem — a Jewish community of just before the time of Jesus. And their concern — being in the desert — was to have enough water so that they could carry out the rituals of what is called the mikvah: the cleansing tank where you would walk down steps into a pool of water and then up the steps on the opposite side. The archaeologists have excavated all of the water-works that were used in that ancient and now abandoned city. Water was central to the understanding of their rituals and their laws.

And for many Jews of the time of Jesus, there would be no point in a Gentile doing these exercises of washing — going down the steps into the pool and then up the other side would mean nothing for a Gentile — Gentiles are unclean by nature; you can wash and scrub and rinse and spin-dry, and from a Levitical standpoint a Gentile will be just as unclean after as before. What’s the old saying? “Beauty is skin deep, but ugly goes to the bone!” Well, from the standpoint of the Jews of Jesus’ time, Gentiles were sin, not just skin deep, but right to the bone. So washing them would make no difference. And this way of seeing things would have been as true of Peter as of any other Jewish man of his time.

Except that Jesus had given Peter some of that “information” I referred to — a lesson, — a revelation that came to him in a dream, also recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. Peter was taking a nap before lunch and in a vision saw

a great sheet lowered from the sky, full of all kinds of animals, clean and unclean, and a heavenly voice had commanded him to kill and eat the unclean with the clean. When he protested that he had always “kept kosher” a voice from heaven chided him by saying, “Don’t call unclean what God has cleansed!” And to strike the message home, this dream was repeated three times. Didn’t I remind us a few weeks ago that God is a patient teacher who will repeat the lesson as often as is needed? Well, Peter needed three “reps” to get the point of this one. And he finally realized it wasn’t about what he was going to have for lunch, but about the mission on which he would soon be sent, to visit a household of Gentiles who had found God’s favor.

Now, these Gentiles — the Roman Cornelius and his household — had also been alerted by a vision, and had been promised that salvation would be coming to their household. Yet they know, as Peter acknowledges, that Jews want to have nothing to do with Gentiles. But Peter also says that he has understood this vision from God to mean — not that he should feel free to eat a ham and cheese sandwich — but that he was no longer to consider any human being as unclean by nature. God is not concerned with food, but with people.

So the stage is set; and when the Holy Spirit ratifies God’s direction in all of this, descending on the gathered Gentiles even before Peter can finish his sermon, he knows that he is called to baptize them — not with the old baptism, the baptism that he had used for most of his life as a Jew, a washing from ritual uncleanness that would have to be repeated again and again the next time he became unclean by touching something he shouldn’t have touched, or doing something he shouldn’t have done. Not the old baptism, but the new baptism in the Name of Jesus, the baptism that Jesus had told them to do (as Matthew records in his Gospel), going to all nations (and the word we translate as “nations” is the word the Jews used for the Gentiles — the goyim — which means the all of us!) the commandment to go to all nations and to baptize them. Even though Jesus had told them this was their missionary task as apostles, it took that additional trio of lessons on the rooftop to get Peter to understand. It took the vision of the great sheet of animals let down from heaven — three times; it took the heavenly voice. Finally it took the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Gentiles as they listened to Peter preach — it took all these lessons to get Peter to understand God’s message that salvation is for all, for every human being who can become a child of God through this wonderful grace — flowing as freely as water itself; whether a tidal wave washing over a continent, or a bare trickle of life-giving water welling up from a spring in the middle of a desert.

This is the water that gives life, the water of baptism that doesn’t just cleanse from sin, but incorporates the believer into the Body of Christ. For it is not just the water alone — as John the Apostle attests — but the water and the blood. It is not the water alone, but the Spirit of truth who testifies to the power of God. God’s power and greatness are at work in unexpected places, among unexpected people, among those from whom the pious might be inclined to withhold their blessing, but among whom the Spirit has shown itself not only pleased to dwell, but to manifest the signs of God’s presence — so that, watered with the nourishing water of baptism, they may bear fruit, fruit that will last, to the everlasting glory of God, and in praise of God’s most holy Name.

Lift High the Cross

The cross he bore is life and health -- to us -- though shame and death to him.

Lent 4b 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

Today we reach the midpoint of our Lenten journey. It marks a turning point and a resting place. I’m sure we’ve all seen the signs on the turnpikes or superhighways alerting us to the service area coming up, or those spots that are set aside for the long-distance truckers to pull off the road when they find themselves getting drowsy. We are also familiar with the sign announcing a scenic view — a spot off the road set aside for people to pull over and appreciate the countryside, the lake, or the mountain view. All of these special spots are indicated by a sign of some kind.

One of the signs that marks this Sunday as special is the color code — we switch from purple to rose for this Fourth Sunday in Lent. We might think of it as the color of a rosy sunset, before we plunge into the deeper evening darkness of the last half of the Lenten season leading up to the terrible events we commemorate on Good Friday, when the sky grows dark and the Son of God breathes his last.

But what points us towards Good Friday is the very sign we are reminded of today: and that is the cross itself. Jesus tells the crowds that just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so too the Son of Man will be lifted up. To fill in the background we are treated today to the passage from the Book of Numbers. This passage that gives us the backstory about this serpent that Moses lifts up. The wandering Israelites become inpatient, and complain about the quality of the food that God has provided (notice how foolishly ungrateful and inconsistent they are when they say there is no food — and we hate this food!). God punishes them by sending poisonous serpents to bite them, and when Moses intercedes, God instructs him to make a bronze replica of a poisonous serpent and set it on a pole. And when anyone who has been bitten by one of the real serpents looks at this bronze replica they will be healed and live.

Jesus applies this incident to himself — he promises that the Son of Man will be lifted up, so that whoever believes in him will be saved and have eternal life. He is referring, of course, to the cross upon which he will offer the supreme sacrifice of himself for the sake of the whole world. Why? Because, as probably the most quoted verse of Scripture puts it, “because God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved through him.” This is what Jesus came for, this is what Jesus was born for, and this is why he will die — not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. The world has rejected God’s gifts and been stung by the poisonous serpent of ingratitude, and it is only by looking upon the Son of God, given for us as the greatest gift, that we can be healed. And the sign that marks this gift, this saving gift for the good of the whole world, is the cross.

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Sometimes a sign indicates ownership or possession. Along many a country road you will see signs on the trees saying, “no trespassing.” And you might well wonder, what are they so worried about out here in the middle of nowhere. Sometimes the sign of ownership or possession is symbolic and consists in planting a flag — why, there’s even a flag up on the moon; and I can guarantee you there will probably be no more trespassers there than there are in most of those remote country woods.

The sign of the cross fulfills a similar function — especially when we use it in baptism. Every time I baptize a child, I also mark their forehead with holy oil, making the sign of the cross and saying, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.” I like to think that when I make that same sign of the cross on people’s foreheads on Ash Wednesday that I am dusting for God’s fingerprint — the cross is already there and those ashes only make it show up so that it can be seen: truly a sign that tells you something about the one who bears it. It tells us who we belong to — the one who bought us with his own precious blood; the one who gave us life by his death, who healed us by his wounds.

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As the old hymn says, “The cross he bore is life and health” — to us — “though shame and death to him.” We were worse than just snake-bitten — and I can tell you from personal experience, a lot worse than cat-bitten! — we were, as Paul told the Ephesians, dead through our trespasses. We had not just pouted and frowned and complained about the food. We were Gentile sinners — by nature children of wrath, as Saint Paul puts it. We were not just occasional lawbreakers but renegades and outlaws, without any hope of salvation or even all that much interest in it.

Yet God, “who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.” And this is all by grace, all by a free gift from God to us; not because of anything we did or anything we deserved, but just because God loved us, so loved us that he gave his only son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. And God set up the sign for all who choose to turn towards it to see and behold — — that Good Friday two millennia ago when the Son of Man was lifted from the earth, so that any and all people could behold him in his sorrow and his glory.

Signs do many things. I’m old enough to remember the signs for the fallout shelters when everyone was worried an atomic war might break out any day. There are signs that tell you to stop and there are signs that tell you to yield. There are signs that tell you where to get a good deal on a used car, and there are signs that warn you not to drink the water in the pond because it is deadly poison. A sign can save your life.

The cross is such a sign. It is a shelter from the stormy blast, whether that blast is an atomic bomb or a frigid wind. It is a sign that tells you to stop — to stop your foolishness and look and listen and see and hear that the train is bearing down on you and will wreck you if you don’t get off the tracks. It is a sign that tells you to yield to the one to whom all obedience is due. It is a sign that points you to the best deal you will ever get in your life — salvation for free, without a price to be paid by you because someone else has paid it for you, with his own shame and death.

It is the cross, upon which the Son of Man was lifted up. May we who bear his name as Christians never fear to bear that cross, and trust in it, as the emblem and sign of our redemption and salvation. Lift high the Cross, my friends, lift it high, every day of your life, every way that you can — for in doing so you may call others to this banner, where they too may find shelter, peace, and life.+

Dressed for Dinner

One garment can save your life... and it is free for the asking!

SJF • Proper 23a • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
When the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe… +

Have you ever gone to a dinner party or social function and arrived to find that you were not, as the signs outside some posh restaurants say, wearing “proper attire?” Depending on the degree of the inappropriateness, this can be either mildly annoying or intensely embarrassing! Some fancy restaurants will keep a stock of ties or sports jackets on hand for the sake of gentlemen who show up deficient in one category or the other. Snooty they may be, but they are not so foolish as to lose business by turning away potential customers. Still, you might well risk getting a haughty look and a gesture towards the door, if not a helping hand from a bouncer. And if it’s a private function, you have no recourse, but to endure “the eye” from all the other guests.

It is very uncomfortable to feel out of place, and since, as the politically incorrect saying goes, “clothes make the man,” few things in polite society make one feel more out of place than being improperly dressed for the occasion.

And there are times when being improperly dressed can be more than an embarrassment. It can be a matter of life and death. You probably know the various TV reality shows that consist of amateur video of terrible accidents and disasters. It’s not the kind of show I really care to watch; not because it’s violent — I mean, I like a good action picture as well as anybody — but because unlike the fictional tales of Bond or Bourne, these videos are real, real tragedies of real people in horrible situations, and I just don’t like the idea of real tragedy being transformed into entertainment.

One of them, though, a terrifying one that I did happen to see, starts calmly enough. What you see through the camera is a group of skydivers jumping from a plane; and the camera follows them because the cameraman is one of them. As they descend towards the distant ground they are weightless, and you see them do a wonderful ariel ballet that forms all sorts of lovely patterns, then one by one they open their chutes and disappear.

But then, something goes wrong. The camera starts to shake uncontrollably, then begins a free-fall of its own, tumbling and twisting dizzily as it plummets to the ground, occasionally as it spins catching sight of a terrified man twisting in the air. In the excitement of the filming, the cameraman himself has forgotten his parachute. The most important thing to wear, the thing that would have saved his life is still sitting up on the plane, where it can do him no good.

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Yes, indeed, what you wear can save your life. In today’s gospel we have just such a story of how serious failing to dress properly can be. This isn’t just any old dinner party; this is a royal wedding banquet. And here is one of the guests sitting, as it were, in cutoff shorts, a tank-top, and flip flops. No wonder he is speechless when the king confronts him! What can he say? Before he can say a word, he is bound hand and foot and tossed out into the darkness outside the brightly lit banqueting hall, there to weep and gnash his teeth.

We are apt to sympathize with this poor guy. After all, he wasn’t one of the original invited guests — they refused to come, and they also faced the king’s rage. This man without a wedding garment is one of the second-string guests, the stand-ins, the ordinary folks who just happened to be in the neighborhood going about their business — or lack of business — when the king’s slaves gathered them all into the banquet hall. How could he be expected to have a wedding robe?

Yet that seems to be just what this unreasonable king expects, and out the poor guy goes. As with so many of Jesus’ parables, it doesn’t seem fair. He hadn’t been invited the first time around. He hadn’t asked to be invited the second time around. Yet he is treated as if he deliberately chose, with full notice and plenty of opportunity, as if he had received an engraved wedding invitation stating what proper dress would be, to come to the wedding without the proper attire.

So what is this parable all about? In particular, what is this wedding robe, that makes it so important? The man in question, after all, isn’t the bride or the groom, or a groomsman or the best man; he’s just one of the guests — invited at the last minute at that. What is Jesus teaching us in this parable? What’s is it about?

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First let me note that not all of Jesus’ parables are what’s called “allegories” — that is, a story in which each aspect of the story symbolizes something definite. Most of the parables are not like that; they are intended just to make a single point. And it misses the point in those cases if you try to explain each detail as if it corresponded to something else. But some of Christ’s parables, such as the story of the seeds falling on the different kinds of soils, which we heard earlier this year, do call for this kind of interpretation. Jesus himself demonstrated that by explaining what each kind of soil, or lack of soil, represented. So too this parable of the Wedding Banquet, and the Guests and the Wedding Robe is worth looking at point by point.

Those who refuse to accept the king’s invitation, for instance, represent those who refuse the Word of God. It may well be that the ones who kill the messengers, and have their city burned as punishment, represent the leaders who refused to heed the prophets and whose hardness of heart, according to Jewish tradition, was responsible for the capture of Jerusalem and its destruction in the days of Jeremiah.

In the second part of the parable, the church is portrayed, the church with open doors, where all are invited to join in the feast. But — and here’s where the wedding robe comes in — the heavenly banquet hall is not a fast food franchise. It is serious business, this kingdom of heaven, and there are no “dress-down Fridays” to say nothing of Sundays!

But don’t for a minute think that Jesus is talking about a dress-code for Sunday worship! As Jesus’ brother James reminded the early church, don’t turn away someone from your church who may be dressed poorly; Jesus loved the poor, and he spent most of his time with them. So this is not a parable about us dressing up for Sunday worship.

But remember, at the same time, the symbolism; the elements of the parable are symbols, not to be taken literally. This isn’t about literally dressing up, it’s about a wedding robe that here doesn’t represent a wedding robe: it’s a symbol of something else. The wedding garment is a symbol here: it represents the clothing from above, the new self that is put on in Christ.

One who sits at the Lord’s table is expected to have been clothed anew with the white robe of baptism, the robe that covers all our other clothing, just as Christ’s death covers all our sins. A few of us, on Sunday, literally do wear that ancient white baptismal robe — the ministers who serve at the altar here — you can see them all, dressed in these long white robes. In the early church, that was the kind of robe that would be put on someone when they went to be baptized. (And don’t we still today dress up even little babies in a little white suit, or a little white gown? As I sometimes say, there’s sometimes more fabric than baby, when I’ve done some baptisms here!) So this white baptismal robe is called an “alb” from the Latin word for “white” — as in albino! This alb is what we now have as a relic of that wedding robe. It represent new life that begins when you are baptized, the new self that is reborn in Christ.

For Christ has removed the shroud of death that covered all nations — he has swallowed up death for ever. And instead of that old winding cloth, that old shroud, he has given us this new garment of life. That’s why the man gets into trouble because this garment is available to all, this new creation in Baptism — that’s why the man without a wedding robe had no excuse — the free gift of God in Baptism is available to all who chose it, and the banquet table is open to all who are baptized. God’s heavenly banquet is like one of those restaurants that keeps a supply of neckties and sports jackets to provide for anyone who comes to the door not wearing one — there is no excuse for anyone not to abide by that dress code. The waters of baptism are available to all without cost, flowing freely for all of humanity — available — but not just “available” for Jesus wants all the nations to be baptized in those waters, as he sends out his disciples at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, telling them, Go and baptize all nations; baptize them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. The church received those marching orders, and it has a mandate to go to all the world, to open the doors and invite everyone in, in to the baptismal waters, and the heavenly banquet.

To be baptized into God’s righteousness: That is what it means to be properly dressed for God’s table. It’s not about the clothes you wear, it’s about the new life that comes from above. As that great old prayer says, “We do not presume to come to this thy table trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.” Those manifold and great mercies take the form of the wedding robe of baptism, into which all are invited to come. The chiefest mercy is the gift of grace through the death of Jesus Christ our Lord, into whom we are buried in baptism, with whom we share in this heavenly banquet, and in whom we rise to everlasting life. We dare to approach this table because we are clothed in the wedding robe of baptism, we are wearing protective garments, the armor of God, the new creation that comes in baptism.

The new garment of the baptismal self is more than proper attire; it is more than a jacket and tie, it is more than a tuxedo — it is even more than a parachute! It is the uniform of the blessed children of God, the robe of state of the royal children of God, the vestment of salvation — it is being clothed with Christ. Beloved sisters and brothers here today, however else we may appear to be clothed, in our ordinary clothes or in our Sunday best, or these ancient relics of earlier days, however we are dressed in physical clothing, let us give thanks to God that we wear as well the wedding robe of baptism. It is the garment whose one size fits all, and is given away for free — but nonetheless it is fit and proper for those who join the chorus of praise at the Lamb’s High Feast, the king’s great wedding banquet. +

The Humility of God

There is no place God will not go to seek out the lost

SJF • 1 Epiphany A • Tobias S Haller BSG
John would have prevented Jesus, saying, I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me? But Jesus answered, Let it be so for now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.

Some years ago I remember a bishop who was the guest preacher in a parish — not this one — say something that really bothered me. He said, “There are some people with whom God will not associate, and some places God will not go.” Perhaps you can see why I was bothered! I didn’t say anything, until a friend of mine who had been at the same service came up to me at coffee hour and said, “I am so tired of bishops coming to my church to preach their favorite heresy!” I wouldn’t go perhaps that far, but surely I believe the bishop who preached those words was wrong. For if the Gospel teaches us anything it is that there is no one and nowhere that is beyond the reach of God; that God will seek out the lost and find them no matter how far they have strayed. This is “the humility of God” and it is nowhere so clearly laid out as in the incident recorded in our Gospel this morning, Matthew’s account of the Baptism of Jesus.

In this Gospel Jesus does something so startling it even surprises his cousin John the Baptist. John has been baptizing for some time, proclaiming baptism as repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Now, this was something new, not the same as the ordinary Jewish baptism, or ritual bath that people undertook whenever they became ceremonially unclean; that is, whenever they violated any of the purity laws of the Torah. The ordinary ritual baptism of Jewish law had nothing to do with sin in our sense of the word; it wasn’t a question of morality, but of impurity. Sin could only be wiped away by a sacrifice; sin could only be wiped away by blood. But impurity could be wiped away with water. And these were matters of ritual impurity: did you accidentally touch a dead body? are you finished having your period? have you been healed of a skin condition? did you just give birth, and have you waited the required number of days? These are all ritual matters going back to the years of desert wandering, and they had more to do with public health than the moral state of one’s soul.

So John the Baptist introduces something new, a new twist on this. He comes to see sin itself as something that needs to be washed away. He calls on people to be baptized not to wash away the outward impurities caused by touching something ritually unclean, or by coming into contact with bodily fluids; John calls on the people to be baptized in token of their inner transformation and cleansing release from sin.

So when the one person who can have no use for such a baptism approaches John one day, John understandably says, “What are you doing here? You should be baptizing me!” Like that Bishop with the odd opinions about where God would go and not go and who God would associate with or not, John the Baptist doesn’t see why Jesus, whom he recognizes as the sinless one, is lined up ready to be baptized as a token of the remission of sins. He doesn’t have any sins; he doesn’t need to be there. But Jesus will not hear John’s protest, and says, “Let it be for now; this will fulfill all righteousness.”

The question, of course, is, What does Jesus mean by that? What does righteousness mean in this regard. To answer the question I’d like to tell you a story I first heard told by a priest friend of ming, Fr. Gray Temple, Jr., whose father was a bishop who I believe always stayed on the right side of doctrine. And Gray told this story, a nice summer story for a cold, damp winter day. This story will take us back in our imaginations, to a warm summer day, about eighty years ago in Arkansas.

Imagine we’re in a small country town on a warm mid-afternoon. The name of the town isn’t important; thousands of little towns like this one dotted the Midwest in the 30s; maybe they had a few paved streets in the center of town, but the rest packed dirt. Picture that town square with its courthouse, the church, and the schoolhouse surrounding the little patch of green that could stand up to the summer’s heat; maybe there’s a bandstand in the center, like one of those little towns from an episode of “The Twilight Zone.” This is a town where people have worked hard, but they have suffered a lot. The effects of the Great Depression are visible, and many of the poorer folk from what the better-off call “the wrong side of the tracks” are just scraping by by the skin of their teeth. Well, to make matters worse, and to burden these poor folk even more, an outbreak of lice has struck their part of town, out on the wrong side of the tracks. The county health officials sweep in and go from house to house with a fumigator.

To add insult to injury, all of the people from the affected area have to come to the town square, to line up outside a big white tent they put up just for this purpose, right outside the courthouse, right across from the church and the school. There all the poor folk have to go through an inspection and delousing one by one, there for all to see. You can imagine the humiliation, especially for the children. To be seen in the louse-line means you are one of “them.” These are proud people, poor but proud, and to have to stand in line in the hot sun waiting for the medical examiner to pronounce you “clean” or worse, “infested,” is a terrible embarrassment and humiliation. Well, the local minister, opposite the tent in his white-shingled church on the side of the square, notes all this, as he sits fanning himself with a palm fan, trying to concentrate on next Sunday’s sermon. He sees the people lining up, feeling literally and figuratively lousy, and his heart goes out to them. He looks at the children hanging their heads in shame, as their parents try desperately to hold their heads high with a kind of “It doesn’t matter” sort of attitude — the closest thing this small town will ever see to a New York, “What are you looking at?”

The minister looks out and sees that miserable little line of people, and then he sets down his palm fan, gets up from his desk, puts on his coat and hat, walks out into the square, and joins the end of the line. A little boy, the last in the line up till then, looks sheepishly up at him, and his eyes grow large as he sees this dignified man in his neat suit, standing in a line in which everyone else is dressed in overalls or gingham. A couple of the local matrons out in front of the post office eyes grow as big as saucers, the ribbons of their hats quivering in astonishment, and through their good efforts, within twenty minutes the whole town has heard the news that the minister is in the louse line. Within another twenty minutes the line has grown by a few more people, among them the judge and the schoolmaster and the town doctor; and within the next hour the line extends all the way around the square, and even includes the matrons in their ribboned hats, looking a little uncomfortable, trying to make smiles in faces that look like they are going to shatter, but smiling and there, nonetheless.

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Jesus did not come to John to be baptized because he needed baptism, any more than the minister joined the louse-line because he had lice. Jesus joined the line of sinners waiting to be baptized by John in order to fulfill all righteousness — for only righteousness that has submitted itself to judgment can be called truly righteous. Righteousness that stands apart, alone and by itself, is only self-righteousness; and Jesus, the man who above all lived for others, would not establish his righteousness apart from making all others righteous, too, by being with them.

Believe me, that Bishop was wrong. There is no place that God will not go, there are no people so fallen that God will refuse to be among them; such is the humility of God. Jesus, himself sinless, joins the line of sinners waiting to be baptized by John because joining himself to sinful humanity is exactly what he came to do. Jesus did not come — the first time — to judge the world; that he will do when he comes again in glory! But at the first, Jesus came not to judge the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved. And he saved it by becoming part of it, by joining himself to the suffering, the sinning, the weak, the helpless, the outcast; getting into the louse-line of our fallen human nature.

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Epiphany means “showing forth.” Over these next few weeks, as we travel through the season after Epiphany up towards Lent, our Scriptures will “show forth” different aspects of Christ and his relation to us. It is fitting that this first Sunday after Epiphany begin with Christ’s baptism, where, faced by an astonished John the Baptist, Jesus shows forth perhaps the most important thing about himself that he can show: his humility. He is one of us; he is Emmanuel, God-with-us; and he cares enough for us to leave his heavenly throne and join our assembly, thereby raising our hearts and our spirits to that place where he sits at the right hand of the Father Almighty, now and forever.+

Sheep's Clothing

What does it mean to be clothed in the vesture of the Lamb?

Easter 4c • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
One of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one who knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

I’m sure you are all familiar with the old phrase describing a villain or other mischief-maker who disguises himself so as to move freely among those whom he hopes to rob or injure: a wolf in sheep’s clothing. So disguised, a wolf can move into the midst of a flock, and then attack and slaughter almost at his leisure. So much for a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

But what about a sheep in sheep’s clothing — that is, a sheep in its natural coat of wool, just being a sheep without any pretense of being anything other than a sheep? What does it mean just to be who you are, like one of those actors whose names appear at the end credits of a movie or TV show with the words, “And as himself...” What does it mean to be a sheep in sheep’s clothing?

Well, for one thing, it means to be easily identified as such; and not only easily, but honestly, with no pretense or fraud. Such was the manner in which Jesus came among us — as exactly who he was, as himself, with no pretense, not in disguise — as I noted a few weeks ago, not just as “God in human vesture,” but as an actual, real-live, flesh-and-blood human being — but also God with us, Emmanuel, the Word made Flesh, the Messiah appearing in Messiah’s clothing, exactly as the prophets had foretold, doing just as they said he would.

We behold him this morning in the gospel taking a stroll in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. And the leaders of the people gather around him, demanding that he no longer keep them in suspense but tell them plainly if he is the Messiah. Jesus responds with some exasperation, no doubt, that he isn’t hiding anything, that he has made himself manifest as the Son of God his Father, plainly in his manner and in his works, the Messiah in Messiah’s clothing. And what is more, he tells them that the reason they do not recognize or believe in him is that they are not his sheep. In one sense, he is saying, it takes one to know one. In short, one must be among the flock of his sheep to recognize the Lamb of God. Such are those who belong to the Shepherd who is himself a Lamb; who hear his voice, who know him as he knows them, and who follow him into eternal life from which no wolf or thief — however dressed or disguised — can snatch them.

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We catch two glimpses of some of these sheep in our other Scripture readings this morning. First, in the Acts of the Apostles, we meet Tabitha, also known as Dorcas, the seamstress of Joppa, who made tunics and clothing for the people of her community. This passage is particularly touching for me, as it was used as one of the readings at the funeral of our departed sister-in-Christ Monica Stewart, whose hand was put to work making vestments and paraments for the altar here at Saint James Church. Unlike Monica, who rests in peace and awaits the final resurrection, Tabitha experienced an early raising from the dead, when the apostle Peter called her by name, and the people of Joppa rejoiced and many came to believe in the Lord.

The second glimpse of the flock of Christ is more spectacular, a vision not of the here and now, but of the great there and then of the kingdom of God. And this is not just a single seamstress, or even a select group, but a great multitude that no one can number. It is an international assembly, standing before the throne of God and before the Lamb their Shepherd, robed in white. These are sheep in sheep’s clothing — for they are the ones who are clothed with his clothing, for they have shared with the Lamb in their sacrifice, dressed in robes washed in his blood.

For recall that in John’s vision the Lamb of God is no sweet fluffy stuffed animal. This is a Lamb that has the marks of slaughter upon him; for he is none other than the Christ, who died, and yes, who was raised, still bearing upon him the marks of his passion — the wounded hands and feet and side, and the steady brow marked with the wounds of the crown of thorns, and his back with the marks of the whip and the flail.

This sheep’s clothing is not pretty — as Isaiah had said of the suffering Messiah, he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; without any form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter. Such is the appearance of the Lamb of God, the great Shepherd of the sheep — and his sheep are clothed as he is in robes they have washed in his blood, in the blood of the Lamb, the blood of their own martyrdom joined with his.

Saint Paul wrote to the Romans, “If we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (6:5) It is as if to say, if you want to be a sheep of his pasture you need to be dressed as a sheep — and he will then know you and you will know him. Does this mean the blood of martyrdom? No indeed — although we know that the martyrs rejoice in the presence of God because they so perfectly join themselves to the sufferings of their Lord and Savior. But each of us at our baptism is also joined into the death of Christ our Lord — through water if not through blood. As the evangelist John also testified, it was water as well as blood that come from the spear-wound in our Savior’s side, and we are washed in that water, the water of baptism from that wound. It prefigures salvation through baptism into his name, into his death, so that we might rise with him.

Moreover, we have the example of people before us like Tabitha, known as Dorcas, the seamstress of Joppa — a hard-working woman who loved the church and served by making tunics and clothing; and was herself clothed with good works and acts of charity. Perhaps the only blood she shed for the church was when she pricked her finger as she was sewing vestments. And yet she is among the blessèd, even given a foretaste of the resurrection by being called back to life by the apostle Peter. It is not that her good works earn her salvation, but that they reveal she has been saved — she is clothed with the works that show her as she truly is, a sheep of Christ’s flock — wearing not a disguise, but a uniform.

So too may we be clothed with works of generosity and charity, the uniform of the sheep of God’s pasture; let us do God’s will with busy hands and loving hearts. As Jesus was known by the works he did in his Father’s name — works that testified to him being who he was — so too may we be clothed in grace and in the works of generosity, so to be recognized by our Lord as sheep of his flock. By our baptism into his Name, attested by our ministry and work to his honor and glory alone, by our being clothed upon with grace that comes from him, the Lamb of God, who alone makes us worthy to be sheep of his flock; to him be glory for ever and ever. Alleluia, Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed, alleluia.

From Start To Finish

How the new life is propagated: a sermon for Proper 6b.

SJF • Proper 6b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Thus says the Lord God: I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar; I will set it out; I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind.

When I was a child growing up in Baltimore there was a bit of a craze for growing African violets. My grandmother and all of her sisters — all of my great aunts — all had shelves of African violets; as did the elderly landlady who rented my family a portion of her sprawling Victorian home. Perhaps calling it a craze is a bit much — as these mostly elderly women could hardly be called crazy! But they were enthusiastic about these houseplants, and every home seemed to have at least a few African violets growing in a shady corner away from direct sunlight. This species had only been discovered in Tanganyika about 70 years before this, but they had become by this time extremely popular around the world.

There are of course a number of reasons for this: they are a lovely house plant, with sweet smelling flowers that will bloom all year long if you care for them properly, and they are very easy to propagate.

And it is that propagation that I was reminded of by our reading from Ezekiel this morning. For just as the Lord promises to create a whole new cedar tree by taking a sprig from an existing tree and planting it — so too the way you propagate African violets — and let me add that the craze was so intense that I was thought this in my third-grade class — is by taking one of those fuzzy leaves with a long stem, and suspending the leaf through a hole in a piece of waxed paper bound with a rubber band over the top of the jar with water in it, the tip of the stem immersed in the water. The stem will grow roots in a few weeks, and then can be planted, and soon you will have a whole new African violet plant — though not large enough for birds to nest in the shade of its branches!

The spiritual truth behind this imagery of the cedar sprig, and of the two parables Jesus tells in this morning’s gospel passage — the seed that grows night and day, and the mustard seed — is that life springs forth out of life. Whether it is vegetative propagation, by which a new plant grows from a part of an old plant, a sprig or cutting; or whether it is growth from seed: plants don’t just come out of nowhere; the earth does not in fact produce “of itself” — there has to be seeds, or a cutting, or a sprig. Plants don’t come out of nowhere any more than money grows on trees or you can get blood from a turnip. New life comes from old life, as some part or bit of the old is remarkably transformed into something wonderfully new.

Modern science has made many breakthroughs and discoveries. We understand a great deal more about the genetic code and about the nature of living things. But life itself still remains very much a mystery. We can study how things live, but we have yet to create life. We have learned a great deal about how life works, but we still do not have all the answers, and are not much better off than the man in the parable who sowed seeds and saw them sprout and grow as he slept by night and woke by day, without knowing how they did so. The one thing that the early farmers learned was that a seed or a cutting was necessary — and they quickly learned which plants could be grown from seed and which from cuttings. And one thing was certain to them: that new life comes from old life.

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There is a slight irony in talking about African violets in this context, because as I only learned as I was working on this sermon, the scientific name for African violets is Saintpaulia. Now, they are not named for Saint Paul the apostle, but after the last name of the man who discovered the plant. But Saint Paul the Apostle new something about this spiritual botany: that new life comes from the old life. The new creation that he talks about in the Second Letter to the Corinthians — the new life of the new person born anew into Christ — is not started from scratch,

but transformed from the old self. That really is the point of salvation, isn’t it? Not that one generation will simply be wiped out, as in the days of the Noah, and a newer and better one started. Even then God did not really start from scratch, making new people out of more clay from the riverside. No, God took Noah and his sons and their wives to repopulate the world by propagation.

Similarly, the way God chooses to deal with us is to take us and remake us, to transform us with a new life like his. God starts with us as we are, but then, like a seed or a cutting, plants us where we can grow and be transformed under his watchful care. And the place we grow is in him — joined with Christ and in Christ because we are in and part of his body, the church.

For if the stem of the violet leaf isn’t reaching the water in the jar; if the seed that is scattered does not fall on good soil — no new life will spring forth. It is not enough just to be a seed or a cutting — or a human being — in order to grow into the new life, the transformed life of the new creation, you have to be planted in the right place. Then you can grow. After you are watered, of course (sometimes right here in this font!). Then, planted in the church, watered, cared for, we can all grow and become the marvel that we can be.

You know, mustard seeds do not normally grow to become plants so large that birds can nest in them. Jesus is playing here with that passage from Ezekiel: for of course a cedar sprig can grow to become a cedar tree if you plant it. And cedar trees do grow big. But for the mustard seed to do that — to grow to become a shrub with branches that the birds can nest in — that requires more than just growth. For a mustard seed to grow into a tree instead of a shrub, it requires the miraculous transformation of its very being by the power of God.

This new creation is not simply a repeat of the old — the new life is not just the same old same old. It is amazing, it is astounding, this new creation. It is exciting!

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if instead of an African violet craze we could have a gospel craze? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone were to devote their energy and time to propagating the word of God, planting that good seed out in the hearts of human beings, and watering it with care, and brining them up into that new creation the new creation? Wouldn’t that be wonderful! You know, God created Adam to be a gardener in the beginning. We can join with the New Adam, Jesus Christ, by helping to cultivate our families and our friends and our co-workers, nourishing them with the word of God’s love and care. You know, this is not a bad message for Father’s Day. This church can be a seed-bed for the flowering of the new creation, a nursery for the growth of new plants to bring in a rich harvest. You and I are not just here as plants in the garden, but as gardeners. May God equip us all to do that work of cultivation and propagation, that his church on earth may grow as a cedar, as a tree that shades the earth and its creatures, under the promise of care and love of our dear and loving God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Come To The Water

The nature of a sacrament, and its effectiveness in doing what it says: a sermon for Easter 6b

SJF • Easter 6b 2012 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” So he ordered them to be baptized.

Last week and this we’ve heard paired passages from the earliest period of the church, both of them concerning the water of baptism. Last week, Philip opened the Scriptures to the Ethiopian eunuch, who accepted Jesus in his heart, and cried out, “Look, here is water. What is to prevent my being baptized.” And this week, after they heard the good news at Peter’s proclamation, the Holy Spirit blessed the household of Cornelius the Centurion, and they began to speak in miraculous tongues. Whereupon Peter cried out, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people?”

In both cases the baptism that followed these exclamations was an extraordinary step — for both the Ethiopian and the Roman and his family were foreigners and Gentiles. These events marked the next great stage in the expansion of the mission, committed to the church by its Lord: to baptize all nations.

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So it is from the very beginning that baptism has been seen as central to what it means to be a Christian. Even after the Ethiopian accepted Jesus in his heart, even after the miraculous descent of the Holy Spirit on Cornelius and his family, still the apostles understood the water of baptism to be an essential element in the process of entering into full fellowship with Christ and his church.

And part of the reason for this is the public and objective nature of baptism. What goes on in ones heart, even what one says with ones mouth, is essentially personal — and only you and God will know if what you do in your heart or say with your mouth is true. But baptism is a public and external act that happens outside a person, and more than that, between persons — more than one person is involved: baptism is a sacrament.

How many of you remember from your Catechism or Confirmation Class the answer to that question, “What is a sacrament?” I won’t put you on the spot. The language most of us grew up with put it this way: it is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us; ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive this grace, and a pledge to assure us thereof.” If that sounds a little too much — particularly the “whereby” and the “thereof” — if that sounds a little too much like something you’d find in fine print in pale blue ink at the bottom of a mobile-phone contract, our present Prayer Book puts it in somewhat more up to date language, declaring that the sacraments are “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.”

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That’s a bit of a mouthful, too, I admit, though I think it is a little easier to understand. Let’s look at it bit by bit, as it applies to baptism. First of all there’s that objective, external element I referred to: baptism is an outward and visible sign. You’ve all been to baptisms — at least your own, though you may not remember it — but you surely know that baptism includes words that are publicly spoken and water that is poured, and that it takes place in the presence of witnesses. Even so-called “private baptism” — just involving the family and godparents — does involve the family and the godparents, as well as the minister who performs the rite. Baptism is not something you can do on your own; it requires the presence of the church. Baptism isn’t just something going on in your head, or in your heart. It is something that happens which others can see and participate in.

In fact, I’m reminded of the old joke of the Anglican bishop who was once challenged by a non-conformist Anabaptist asking, “Do you believe in infant baptism?” The bishop responded, “Believe in it? Why, man, I’ve seen it!”

The second thing to note about sacraments is that they are given by Christ. Jesus told his disciples both to baptize all nations with water in the name of the Trinity, and to celebrate the Holy Eucharist, when he said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” The other things that are sometimes called sacraments, the “sacramental rites” like marriage, confirmation, ordination, confession and anointing don’t rest on the authority of Jesus, but on that of the apostles. This doesn’t mean they are unimportant, and they do form important steps in the Christian life — but unlike baptism and the eucharist they fall into that category of “all may, none must, some should.”

The final thing to note about baptism — and this is true of the eucharist as well — is that it is productive of an inward and spiritual grace. As I said last week, it is not something that goes forth empty; it goes forth to bear fruit. There is grace that comes about because of the act of baptism, because of the act of receiving the eucharist. And more importantly, perhaps, this grace is certain and the sacrament is the means by which the grace is conferred. The outward and visible sacrament both certifies and conveys that inner and spiritual grace for which it serves as both sign and means.

Most things in our common experience don’t work that way. Take, for example, a driver’s license. It is a public and physical affirmation that you are allowed to drive a car, but it doesn’t buy you a car or teach you how to drive. It may certify — indeed I hope it certifies — that you know how to drive and have shown you can by passing a driving test. But the license does not convey any inward change in you — it merely permits you to do something.

But there is in our daily experience something that is a bit more like a sacrament — I mentioned it earlier in talking about the fine print on a contract or a lease. The thing to note about signing a contract is that it is your signing it that also makes the contract take effect. It is not merely a symbol of something, a sign, but it actually has an effect; and it is in one and the same action: when you sign the contract, the contract comes into effect. The outward and visible signing actually conveys what the contract represents, in some cases, as in real estate, actually “conveying” the property in question into your ownership.

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Now, perhaps all this reference to leases and contracts seems, again, like dry legalism. So let me try one more analogy — one that actually speaks to the central aspect of baptism. And that is the fact that baptism is what makes us children of God — baptism is, in effect, our adoption papers, testified to by the Holy Spirit, no less. Perhaps it is fitting, on this Mothers’ Day, as we recall our biological mothers, also to recall our spiritual mother, the church, through whom we are all adopted, by baptism, into God’s household. It is true that John says, we become children of God by loving God and obeying his commandments — emphasizing as John always does that commandment to love. But we dare not neglect the witness of the other evangelists, who affirm that Jesus also commanded his disciples to baptize, and to celebrate the feast of the Holy Eucharist. Thus God comes to us not in water only, but with the water and the blood — and let me add, with the bread that comes down heaven, to give life to the world.

All of these physical, outward and visible signs point us to and impart to us the marvelous and spiritual grace that God gives us so abundantly. Who would dare withhold these gifts from anyone, seeing that God has provided them with such abundance. So let us, brothers and sisters in the faith, rejoice in our own baptism, and call others to the water, and celebrate the communion we share in the Body and Blood of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ, joining with our newfound family of faith — all of us adopted as God’s children through water and the Holy Spirit — let us gather as the new family of God and celebrate together this heavenly feast.+

Cutting a Deal

The covenant sealed in flesh and blood: Abraham's, Christi's, and ours... a sermon for Lent 2b

SJF • Lent 2b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
God said to Abraham, I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised.

On this second Sunday in Lent we come to the second great Covenant of the Hebrew Scriptures. Last week we witnessed God’s first covenant — the promise that the he would never again wipe out the world by a flood, and it was sealed with the sign of God’s own name in the heavenly rainbow. I noted last week that a covenant has two parts: an agreement between the parties, and a sign of that agreement, noting that the covenant with Noah was more or less one-sided: God made a promise to Noah and put the rainbow in the sky as a sign of that promise.

In the covenant God made with Abraham, however, we see a covenant in its complete form. God promises Abraham that he will be a father of nations, and promises him the land in which he dwells as a perpetual heritage. And this time around, the covenant is to be signed by Abraham in his own flesh, and the flesh of all of his descendants forever. I’m tempted to say that this time the shoe is on the other foot, but this sign involves an entirely different portion of the anatomy, and the less said about that the better. In fact, the editors of the lectionary were so sensitive and perhaps even squeamish about this that they actually left out all of the verses referring to circumcision, to Abraham’s side of the deal. But I have chosen to include them, however, because I think it is important to see that this covenant has a sign in addition to a promise — and the sign this time was a sign in flesh and blood; literally cutting a deal — which is the way the Hebrew authors consistently refer to making a covenant: a covenant is something you cut — and a cut almost always bleeds.

It is important, however, that we note that more flesh and blood is talked about here than merely that directly connected with sign of circumcision. Remember that the promise that God makes is that Abraham and Sarah, as old and barren as they are, and who are given new names as part of this covenant arrangement, will have flesh and blood descendants, starting with the son promised to Sarah. This couple, childless until their very old age (although Abram had fathered a child through Hagar, Sarai’s servant), would soon have a son of their own, Isaac, through whom the covenant blessing would continue, a sign of the promise revealed in flesh and blood.

There is a great promise here, a promise from God, but it costs Abraham something — it costs him and his descendants forever some pain and some blood, as a sign of the covenant which is to be marked in their flesh forever. It is a covenant that requires some personal sacrifice.

And so it would also be with the covenant that God establishes with us in Christ Jesus. In the Gospel passage today Jesus tries to explain to his disciples just how costly salvation will be — costly to him, as he endures suffering, rejection and death, before he comes to the resurrection in that crowning glory. Peter tries to rebuke him — this is too much for him, too much of a sacrifice, even though it is not he who is making it — but Jesus insists in no uncertain terms that there is a cost to this new covenant, this New Testament in his blood. The cost that he will pay is his life, and he tells Peter and the other disciples that this is the cost to them as well. If they wish to save their lives they must lose their lives for his sake and for the sake of the gospel. They must deny themselves, their very selves — who and what they are in every sense of the word — and take up their own cross and follow him.

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As you know, every time I baptize a child here at this font I also mark them on the forehead with oil blessed by the bishop, saying, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.” As the hymn we just sang says, “Each newborn servant of the Crucified bears on the brow the seal of him who died.” The early church regarded this anointing with oil and baptism with water as our Christian version of circumcision — an unbloody circumcision marked not in the flesh but by the Holy Spirit. And so it is that even the youngest infant, baptized into this new life, takes up his or her cross to begin to follow Jesus, even before they can walk, as a sign of their own baptismal covenant.

This should not seem so strange to us who worship as our Lord one who first came among us as an infant in a manger. Just as a child was promised to Abraham and Sarah, a child was promised to us, a son given to us, who lived as one of us and died as one of us, but then rose victorious from the grave; and it is through him that we also share the promise of that rising from the dead. Abraham signed this covenant with his own blood; and God signed this new covenant, this new baptismal covenant through Jesus Christ — God signed this covenant in his own blood, the blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

We bear the mark of his suffering — his cross — on our foreheads, perhaps invisible as it is marked with holy oil, but it does show up when we are signed with ashes at the beginning of Lent — the minister acting almost like a detective dusting with ashes that reveal God’s fingerprints upon us — each and every one. It is a sign of the covenant we have with God, and God with us, the sign of the cross. That sign is always there, even if you cannot see it, the sign of God’s covenant with you, and you with God, in Christ Jesus our Lord — it is the sign of the saving cross, marked on your own body. Remember it, take it up every day; remember him, and follow him, who is our Lord and our God, who suffered for our salvation and rose from the dead that we might have new life in him. To him be the glory, henceforth and for evermore.

Not Watered Down

water on its own can do little other than removing stains -- to have power it must be raised to new heights by the sun, or moved by the wind of the Spirit -- a sermon for 1 Epiphany 2012

SJF • Baptism of Jesus • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSGJohn said, I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.

Today is the feast of the baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ, always observed on the first Sunday after the Epiphany. We observe the baptism of Jesus in this way, at the beginning of the year, to start things off — for although Jesus Christ began his life on earth at Christmas, his ministry begins with his baptism as he emerges into our gospel history from that period of obscurity — that time from his childhood through young adulthood — about which we have no record apart from Saint Luke’s short account of the Holy Family’s trip to the Temple when Jesus was about 12 years of age.

But it is with the baptism of Jesus that his public ministry begins, and the first Sunday in the season after the Epiphany — which means, “showing forth” — appropriately commemorates this first public “showing forth” of Jesus.

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Baptism is clearly a time of beginning — a time of starting things off. And you might well say, what better way to start things off than with that short Scripture reading from the Old Testament: the opening words of the book Genesis, the very beginning of absolutely everything.

However, the reason the liturgists who assembled these readings chose the passage from Genesis is not that it is about beginnings. Rather it is the mention of the Holy Spirit — which I’m sorry to say the translation we use unfortunately chooses to designate as “a wind from God.” But this is the spirit of God. What the translators obscured, however, the liturgists sought to clarify and highlight, by coupling this reading from Genesis with the passages from Acts and the Gospel of Mark, which are explicit in highlighting the importance of the Holy Spirit.

And what those two readings demonstrate is that water alone is not enough. John’s baptism was a baptism with water. John was continuing and expanding on the Jewish custom of ritual bathing by which one would figuratively wash away impurity with water. Every Jewish town had a bathing pool — a mikvah — for precisely this purpose. I saw a TV program about the Dead Sea Scrolls community at Qumran a few weeks ago, and the archaeologists excavating that site pointed out that the people in that community — who lived out in the Judean desert — were very careful and concerned and spent to have well-constructed aqueducts, conduits and cisterns to bring water to those ritual bathing pools and an ample supply of water — water used solely for this ritual bathing, even in the middle of a hot, dry desert. They expended a considerable amount of their resources in constructing and maintaining this impractical but ritually vital construction. So we can tell that this ritual bathing was an important feature of their religious life.

John the baptizer — also a voice in the desert — called on people to come to the River Jordan to wash themselves. This was not just a washing from the ritual impurities that would occasion the more-or-less routine trip and dip in the municipal or village bathing pool — but a washing from the deeper and more troublesome faults and wrongs that cling to the human heart: John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance.

But as John himself confessed, his baptism was still only a baptism with water — even if it was the cold and chilly water of that historic Jordan, rather than a domesticated bathing pool. Water is water, but the one who would baptize with fire and with the Holy Spirit was yet to come.

The point in all this, and the reason for including that passage from Genesis along with the one from the Acts of the Apostles, is to show that water by itself is not enough. Water, as we know from that other account in Genesis — the story of the flood — water can destroy a world. But water by itself cannot make a world. Water by itself will just, as we know from our grade-school science class, or from a leaking roof, water on its own will seek its lowest level. It’s true that ingenious human beings have found ways to harness the power of falling or downward-flowing water, with mills and dams and dynamos. But the water itself, once it has reached its lowest point, cannot do anything of itself. It will just lay there in a pool or a puddle.

What is needed is that wind from God — that Holy Spirit of God — to move over the face of the waters and stir them up with waves of energy. And, as we also know from our science class, what is also needed is the heat and light of the sun, shining on the waters and changing the water — evaporating it — into vapor that rises and rises and rises up on high until it condenses into clouds, and falls again as rain to water the mountains and fill the streams that can pour down once more, once again full of power and energy it was given by being raised up, to go through those cascades down to the sea, in the meantime driving the mills and dynamos. But the water itself doesn’t have the power, it only gains the power by being raised up by the heat and light of the sun shining on it, to the point where it can flow down once again. It is the spirit of God, not the water, that is the creative force in Genesis, bringing light and life to the world. And it is the Son — that’s S-O-N — who is the active principle in creation, the one through whom all things were made.

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And it is that same spirit and that same Son of God who makes the baptism in his name — the name of Jesus — different from the baptism of John. John’s baptism was about removing old stains of sin — and water can be a pretty good stain remover! But there is more to Christian baptism than simply washing away one’s sins — even Original Sin — more, not less, since it includes that washing-away as well.

But Christian baptism also imparts light and heat: Sonship in Christ and the fire of the Holy Spirit to the one who is baptized. The Spirit of this re-creation is the same Spirit that moved over the waters at the beginning of the first creation, and the Son of God is he through whom all things were made. Christian baptism does not merely wash away the old; it imparts the new — the new life in Christ. It renders those who are baptized new citizens of a different land than the one of their birth; and it admits those baptized into a new family — the family of God’s household, the church. This is what the Son and the Spirit do as only they can do: giving life, a new life that is not simply watered down, but built up, renewed, restored, revived.

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We will very shortly welcome three new members into this household through this wonderful sacrament of baptism into the Son by water and the Holy Spirit. I do not expect them to speak in tongues or prophesy as happened in that account from Acts. They may make a little noise - and that’s alright: it is a joyful sound. But I do know that they will have been well and truly baptized and anointed and marked as Christ’s own forever. And I hope that you in the congregation will speak out loud and strong when at the end of the baptism we come to that part of the liturgy where we welcome the newly baptized. Welcome them as if they were your own long-lost children who had wandered far from home but have found their way back by seeking the light of Christ. Welcome them with the open arms and hearty greeting you would give to a hero returning home from a foreign war. For in this baptism these young children become our brothers and sisters, in this baptism they have returned to the home that God has prepared for them from before the beginning of the world — from before the time the Spirit first hovered over those waters and the light was separated from the darkness. This is the power of God working through the church and its sacraments, committed to the care of the church by its Lord, Jesus Christ. He is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit, and it is by that Spirit that we are — all of us — children of the Most High.+

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!+

In the beginning

SJF • 1 Epiphany A 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ: He is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced.+

January is the month of beginnings. We inherit from the pagan Romans the notion that it is the first month of the calendar year. Even its name, January, derives from Janus, the two-faced Roman God of doorways and gates, who simultaneously looks to the past and to the future. In the secular world, January is the month of inaugurations. Even in this era of rapid transportation and communication, and even though we elect presidents, senators, representatives, and governors in November, we don’t put them to work or into office until January, usually with a ceremonial inauguration and oath-taking.

And so it is that the church similarly commemorates the beginning of Christ’s ministry every January. The church telescopes the thirty years between his infancy portrayed at Christmas and Epiphany — his birth in Bethlehem and the visit of the Magi to offer gifts to the newborn king — right up to his baptism in the Jordan River, so that our commemoration of the beginning of Christ’s three-or-so-year ministry always falls within the first two weeks of January, on the Sunday after January 6.

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Now, part of the reason for the telescoping of those 30 years is that apart from Luke’s brief account of the 12-year-old Jesus in the Temple, the Gospels are silent concerning what Jesus did, where he went, or who he knew during that whole time. It is with his baptism at the river Jordan that the story picks up again — remember that for both Mark and John this is where their accounts of the Gospel begins; only Matthew and Luke give us what film-script writers call “the backstory” — and both of them take it all the way back to Genesis, as they trace out the lineage of the House of David!

But the Gospel really becomes the Gospel with the beginning of the proclamation of the message of the Good News, as Peter says in Luke’s account in Acts, “beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced.” It is this baptism that marks the inauguration of Christ’s ministry, with St Peter like a newsboy from the last century shouting out the Good News, a headline in only five words: “He is Lord of all.”

That headline is the heart of the Gospel, later reduced by the copy-editor Paul to just three words: “Jesus is Lord.” And it is at the Baptism of Jesus that this lordship is revealed — the first “epiphany” or “showing forth” of that divine truth, in fulfillment of all righteousness. For it is at the Baptism of Jesus that the heavens open, the Spirit of God descends, and the divine voice speaks out loud and clear. “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Has any president ever had such an inauguration? Has any monarch ever had such a coronation? Has even any bishop or pope had such a consecration? All of these earthly ceremonial beginnings are mere shadows compared to the glory of God in majesty sending the Spirit of God to descend on Jesus Christ the Beloved Son of God, and literally speaking those words of blessing and benediction, a somewhat wordier proclamation of that same Gospel truth: Jesus is Lord.

That is the message — that is the Gospel — the apostles were sent to proclaim. As Peter says in today’s account in Acts, “He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead.” And his baptism is the first sign, the first epiphany, of that “ordination.” It is at the baptism that it all begins, and we ought to look to that beginning, that root and origin, if we are to grasp the significance of what Jesus Christ means to us.

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As you likely know, the study of word origins is called etymology. It looks to the roots and origins of the words we use, to show how words evolve over time, sometimes from one language to another, but often retaining a trace of their origins in spelling or form.

Let’s take that word gospel, for example. In its form and meaning it comes from two English words from the dim reaches of the Middle Ages: gode and spelle. Gode means “good” — that one’s a no-brainer — and spelle means “message.” (Nowadays the only spelle you hear about with any even distant connection to this original meaning is the kind of “spelle” cast by a Harry Potter. Although we New Yorkers may be familiar with the Yiddish equivalent for a salesman’s sales-pitch, spiel!)

So gospel comes from a Middle English phrase gode spelle meaning “Good Message” — thought perhaps in NY I could say, “good spiel” or as we say today, “it’s the Good News.” It is a literal translation of the Greek word that the Gospel writers used to describe their writings: evangelionev meaning “good” and angelion meaning “message” — for the angels were God’s messengers. This is where our English word evangelist comes from: one who spreads the Good Message, the Good News. They are the newsboys of the Gospel, carrying it out into the street and shouting, “Listen! News! Good news! Jesus is Lord!”

So much for our language lesson! For if it is meaningful to look to origins to understand words in human language, it is equally appropriate for us to look to origins to understand Jesus Christ, the Word of God. And as the scripture assures us, it is at the Baptism of Jesus that his identity as Lord of all is confirmed and articulated, by the voice of God himself speaking from on high.

That voice affirms three things about Jesus: that he is God’s Son, that he is Beloved, and that God is wellpleased with him. God’s glory descends with God’s Spirit upon Jesus, which shows us, in Isaiah’s words, that this Beloved Son, with whom God is well-pleased, is Lord, for God proclaims through the prophet Isaiah, “I am the Lord, that is my name, my glory I give to no other.” What clearer indication could we ask, what better inauguration could we hope for, than these words of promise from the Lord God speaking from heaven, this pure distillation of the Gospel, not news delivered by messengers or intermediaries or evangelists in this case, but by the very voice of God giving his glory to Jesus as Son of God and Lord of all; doing precisely what Isaiah promised that God would not do for anyone else.

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That message of the Lordship of Jesus has spread not only through Judea but through all the world — though still there are some who have not received it, and even many who do not believe it. And so it rests for us to continue that task of spreading the word, not only with our lips but in our lives: becoming messengers of God ourselves, each in our own way. And I will say that our lives and works are often more eloquent than our words — for if you are known to be a Christian, how you act will reflect on Christ himself. As St Francis of Assisi once said, “Preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary use words.” If we say that Jesus is Lord, then we must always seek to act in accordance with his lordship over our lives, our souls and bodies. Actions do speak louder than words, you know. Let us do his will in all that we undertake, now at the beginning of this year and through it and beyond, and we will by our actions — especially those actions of love, service and fellowship — proclaim that simple gospel message, Good News for our own good and for the benefit of others: the message that was sent to the people of Israel, and throughout the world, preaching peace by Jesus Christ: He is Lord of all.+

Living Faith

SJF • Proper 22c •Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The righteous live by their faith.+

Although the Old Testament reading this morning ends with encouraging words, “the righteous live by their faith,” the lead-up is far from comforting. Who can hear this passage about terrible destruction and warfare and not feel that the prophet is talking about our own times rather than the ancient years gone by. The sorrow and terror is kept alive by the continuous wars and rumors of wars in the Middle East, in Afghanistan and even the actual land of the Chaldeans the prophet refers to — Iraq. Even into the most innocent-seeming things in our lives — baseball!

Did any of you see Ken Burns’ documentary this past week, the last episode of his documentary history of baseball, aired just this past week? Even there we were treated to images of the fall of the towers on 9/11. And seeing those images again, and hearing word of past and present destruction, the falling towers, the burning, the warfare, the continuous threats of further terror — why, I just heard this morning there’s a travel advisory on for Europe — I felt like the prophet, when he lamented to God — or at least would like to speak out to Ken Burns! — “Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise… Be astonished! Be astounded! For a work is being done in your days that you would not believe if you were told.”

How many of us, on those dark days nine years ago, felt such feeling of disbelief as we watched the TV news coverage, thinking, “this simply can’t be happening; this can’t be real”? I felt like it again this past week, watching the baseball special — seeing those towers fall once again. And how many times since, watching the evening news, do we shake our heads, astonished and astounded at the horror, that such behavior can be carried out, much of it in the name of religion.

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The prophet complained to God, much as we are tempted to do, Why is this happening, Lord? “How long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?” Why do you look on the treacherous and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?” How many of us have said or thought such things ourselves over the last years? How many times have we wanted to plant ourselves on the rampart, and demand an answer from God.

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And yet God is not silent. God does give us an answer, as he gave an answer to the prophet Habakkuk, the same answer now as it was then. It is an answer for the ages. It is an answer so important that God tells Habakkuk to write it in letters so big that even someone running by will be able to read it, we might say, to post it like a giant billboard by the superhighway so that no matter how fast the traffic goes by the message will not be missed. And the message is this: Justice will prevail. The unrighteous proud will fall; but justice will prevail. “If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay… The righteous live by their faith.”

That is God’s everlasting promise, the promise of the power of faith over evil, of right over wrong. Faith will triumph in the end; although it may be delayed, it will not be denied. Faith is life abundant, and nothing can ever conquer it. Faith is what we live by, the source of our trust in the God who is our life. Faith endures.

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So what does it mean to say we live by our faith? Doesn’t it mean that our faith is an actual source of our life, something that keeps us alive, because it is alive?

To look at the other side, I am reminded of a short scene in Shakespeare’s comedy, Twelfth Night, in which Viola asks the joker Feste what he does for a living. He says, “I live by the church.” She responds, “You are a churchman, then” — meaning a minister. He answers, “No, I do live in my house, and my house is by the church, and so I do live by the church.” That is not what the prophet means when he says we live by faith: faith isn’t just something convenient in your neighborhood, something you can pick up or put down as you please. No, faith is not just near you, it is in you, inside you, the source of your life, something without which you would be dead.

And because faith is living, because it is alive, faith can be passed on.

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The Saturday after the 9/11 attack I baptized a child right here in this church, right there in that font — though it was over there at the time! That child is still here, still coming to church week by week, coming to this altar rail week by week to be fed with the bread of heaven. And that simple action then and that continued action now says to me the same thing: even in the midst of tragedy and wrong, the tragedy of almost a decade ago and the tragedies that have happened since, life goes on: the life that is nourished and fed by faith. The life of faith goes on, the new life in Christ that begins in baptism goes on in the Holy Communion, and can never ever be taken away from us. Faith is alive! Write it in letters a mile high, my sisters and brothers: faith is alive and we live by it and through it.

It lives in us, and what is more, we pass it along to those who come after us, who make up the church make up the living body of Christ on earth, the blessed company of all faith-full people. And neither the Chaldeans nor the terrorists can stop it, no matter how much they try.

The life of faith goes on, passed from hand to hand like the sandbags that hold back the flood of evil from swamping the world. Faith lives, and is transmitted by the faithful. Paul reminded his own young disciple Timothy of this, reminding him about how his faith first lived in his grandmother who passed it along through his mother and on to him. And Paul recalled Timothy to that faith, as we today are recalled to our faith in the face of much opposition: called to rekindle the gift of God that is within us through Baptism with water and the Holy Spirit, “for God” as Paul told Timothy, “did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”

This is the miracle of faith and this is the power of faith. Faith lives, and is passed on generation to generation, even as the older generation passes away. Faith lives and is passed on from person to person, as the church takes on new members and grows in strength and power, fed with the bread of heaven and nourished with God’s abiding presence.

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Now it is true that sometimes we may not feel as strong in our faith as we would like to be. We are challenged, the world faces us with sinister evils sometimes. We look around, as Habakkuk did, and tremble and maybe even doubt. How many people lose their faith amidst the storms, and cast about seeking a savior other than the One Lord? How many turn to the cheap substitutes that seem to offer the ready answer rather than the living faith that endures and in which alone salvation is found? How many refuse the faith when faith is all that can truly give them life?

One such doubtful man once fell off a cliff, but happened to catch a tree limb as he fell. He hung there a while, yelling out, “Is anyone up there?” A voice came back, “I am here. I am the Lord. Do you have faith in me?” The man called back, “Yes, Lord, I have faith, but I can’t hang on much longer.” And the Lord replied, “All will be well; if you have faith you have nothing to fear. Just let go of the branch.” The man paused, then called out again, “Anybody else up there?"

It is no good calling for other help when faith in God alone will save us. We live by faith, and not by sight — faith that God is up there on the cliff as we hang from the branch, even though we cannot see him; faith that God is below us to catch us as we fall, even though we cannot see him; that God surrounds us — above, below, to our left and to our right — and will never let us go. Other helpers have we none: we depend on God alone, our faith in him is our life in this present time and is our life beyond death, beyond the grave, into the world to come. The righteous live by their faith.

And it doesn’t take a whole lot of faith, you know. Just that little bit the size of a mustard seed. For that little seed gets planted and gets watered in baptism. And when I sprinkle the congregation with water from that baptismal font four times a year on the festival days, and I preach God’s word week by week, I hope to water your faith — and mine too — so that it may flourish and grow and become so large that the birds can nest in its branches.

For we bear the word of God in our hearts, and we hear the word of God each week, not just to divert ourselves from our daily lives during the week, but to give those daily lives the faith-full meaning they would never have without that weekly reminder. Faith is what we live by. Even if it is as small as a mustard seed, the power of God’s Word and Sacraments will help us to grow, reminding us all of our own part in Christ’s church, as we too pass that faith along to others. By that faith we will do the great deeds that are required of us all in these violent days. Such is the power of faith, and such is the power of our Lord and God. He will not stand idle, nor remain silent. If he seems to tarry, wait for him; he will surely come, he will not delay. He will increase our faith within us, and give us the assurance of his justice and his power to save.

So let us, as God said to Habakkuk, write our assurance large, let us write our faith in letters big enough for runners to read them, big enough for the people caught up in the rat-race of this world to pause and be recalled to the truth and life and light of salvation. Let us shout from the ramparts so that all can hear. Above all, let us each and every one wear our faith in our faces, our faith shining with trust in our salvation, so that when we go forth from this place, we may be lights those who dwell in the dark places of fear and violence, to bring the hope and power of faith to those who need to know the greatness of our Lord and God. To him be ascribed all might, majesty, power and dominion, henceforth and for ever more.

The Difference of One

How one life makes a difference, and covers all our differences.....

SJF • Proper 7c 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
They will look on the one whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child… On that day a fountain shall be opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity.

Those of you who have seen my Christmas tree know that I am among those who can legitimately be called a “Trekker” — all of the ornaments come from Hallmark’s “Star Trek” series — though I stop short of dressing up as an alien and attending Star Trek conventions. I belong to the generation that grew up watching and enjoying the original “Star Trek”— and I’ve remained a fan of Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future through its various film and TV versions. One of the reasons I’ve done so is that“Star Trek” often deals with issues of serious social or theological significance, using the fantasy world of the distant future to hold up a mirror to our own times, in which we can see our own faults and virtues reflected, and sometimes learn a thing or two thereby. I mentioned one of these just the week before last, in reference to the character Data wanting to become fully human — an important theological theme!

Another such theme comes up in one of the early “Star Trek” movies, as the passionless Vulcan Mr. Spock sacrifices his life for the sake of the crew. As he is dying, he tells Captain Kirk, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.” And he dies a heroic death to save his crewmates, one life given to save many. And, indeed, at his funeral Captain Kirk extols him as the most “human” person he had ever encountered.

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This sort of heroism, this sort of self-sacrifice, is noble and true, and you don’t have to go to the realms of science fiction or fantasy to find it. Many a soldier has performed an act of heroism to save his squad; many a doctor or nurse has risked contracting a deadly illness to continue to minister to the sick in the time of plague. And when one hero gives his or her life to save many, giving their life as a gift, then the equation makes moral sense, and we honor that giver as a hero: after all, “Greater love hath no man than this...”

But where the equation doesn’t make sense, where it all falls apart, is when the decision to sacrifice one for the sake of the many is made by someone else — is made by one of the many, instead of the one choosing to sacrifice him or herself — when someone decides not to perform a noble act of self-sacrifice, but to sacrifice someone else whom they consider expendable, or inexpedient, making them a scapegoat. Then the death of one for the many becomes the cold calculus of Caiaphas: not the free gift that shows the greatest love, but commercial capitulation to the demands of power. It was that the high priest Caiaphas who said it was better that one should suffer instead of many. He had no intention of suffering himself, of offering to sacrifice himself, of course, but to hand Christ over as a victim for the Romans to execute. Caiaphas, in doing this, rejected the teaching of his own faith in favor of the calculating philosophy of utilitarianism. For the great Jewish Rabbis had taught the supreme value of every human life. They had taught that human beings are not to be weighed by the pound in the balance of expediency; instead, they taught that “to save a single life is to save an entire world.” If you’ve seen the powerful film Schindler’s List you know just how important that teaching is.

Caiaphas chose the other way, however, and took the cold path of political prudence, turning Jesus over to be crucified, offered up as a scapegoat in order to prevent further problems with the Roman government. And ironically, his choice to reject the Son of Man, to turn him over to be killed, did indeed lead to life for many, for the death of this One was for the life of the whole world. As I’ve often noted, God can take our worst mistakes and turn them into something good.

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God through Christ was able to turn Caiaphas’ cold-blooded calculation into something positive, into the most positive thing that ever happened, something that saved the whole world. And Christ did this by accepting the cross, taking it up, and not rejecting it. Instead of being a scapegoat he became an offering — “a sacrifice of himself once offered for the sins of the whole world.” Had Jesus gone to the cross kicking and screaming, it would not, it could not, have been the means of salvation for all. Had Jesus used the power that was at his command to summon legions of angels to deliver him from death, he would never have died, and salvation would not have come. Instead, Jesus took up his cross willingly, obedient to his Father’s will that he should drink the cup of human sadness and frailty, and suffer death as one of us. And by taking it up instead of rejecting it, through his obedience, Jesus transformed Caiaphas’ selfish act into redemptive action of self-sacrifice. His life was his to lay down for his friends, and he did so — and Caiaphas and the Romans were thereby transformed into the instruments of his self-sacrifice, no more in control of the situation than the grenade upon which a hero throws himself to save his squad.

So it was that they looked upon him whom they had pierced. And three days later a fountain of grace opened as a stone rolled away from a tomb and the Son of Man was raised from the dead in glory. The one who gave himself as a ransom for many triumphed over death so that the many might not perish, but have everlasting life. Such is the difference of one, the difference one makes, the one who makes a difference, all the difference in the world.

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We are part of that many affected by that one — we gathered here today, together with all the believers who have walked this earth since the days when Jesus lived and died and was raised from death. We are the many, but we are also one in him. We who have been baptized in Christ have been clothed with Christ: we have put on Christ like a garment. Thus washed and newly dressed, our many individual differences are cleansed and covered because of the difference he made when he died for us. There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female any more, but all are one in Christ Jesus — the One who made a difference. Jesus has wiped away the old differences by which, according to the tradition, only Jewish men thought themselves special in the eyes of God.

For every day the pious Jewish man of those times would arise and say this prayer, “I thank God that I am not a Gentile; I thank God that I am not a slave; and I thank God I am not a woman” — and that’s the prayer Saint Paul was responding to point by point in his Letter to the Galatians. Paul was challenging the neat little world that the a Jewish man of those days — such as Paul himself before his conversion! — believed God had carved out for him from the rest of the world, a world of difference from all of “them” — thank God I’m not one of them, and thank God I’m not one of them, and certainly thank God I’m not one of them!

Well, Jesus upset that neat little world as surely as he wiped out the expedient politics of Caiaphas. And Saint Paul confronted that world in his Letter to the Galatians, a world in which Paul knew one could not find salvation through race or class or social position or gender, but in which salvation depends only on the one — only in God, and Christ: the one who saves us all. For with the coming of Christ, and with his “sacrifice of himself once offered,” all human beings are empowered to become the children of God, all the many to become one in the Risen Lord, the personal differences covered over with the garment of salvation, the garment of baptism, all of the individual differences covered by that spotless robe, so that it doesn’t matter any more if you’re black or white, male or female, slave or free, Jew or Greek, gay or straight, young or old — none of these things make a difference any more — all have been baptized into the one Lord through the one Faith in the one baptism, a baptism whose waters spread from the fountain that opened two thousand years ago, to cleanse us and make us one in Christ.

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All that remains for each of us — for all are together, but each is called — all that remains for each of us is that daily putting on of the Christian garment, that fits each of us like a glove no matter how big or small we are, no matter how wide or narrow, or tall or short. It is the only garment on which the label reading, “One Size Fits All,” is absolutely and completely true. And the really strange thing is that this Christian garment doesn’t look like a garment at all.

It looks like a cross, a cross each and every one of us must take up anew each day — and each of us has his or her very own cross to bear — and we are not to judge how well or poorly our neighbor might be carrying his or hers. We can only answer for our own lives — our own lives that we give to God for God’s purposes — and that it more than enough to keep us busy!

It is in taking up the cross that we join Christ in his act of self-sacrifice. In Christ we transform the assaults of the world, the attacks of the devil and the thorns of the flesh, into opportunities for grace, as Christ transformed the calculation of Caiaphas into the fountainhead of salvation, by means of the cross.

This is how we too make a difference, each and every one of us. All our individual differences fade away in the light of the cross, all our personal differences fade to insignificance. When we put on that cross-shaped garment, we no longer even look like ourselves any more, but like Christ, who offered himself for us, and for the sake of the whole world. In Christ there is no east and west, no north and south, no black and white or brown or yellow or red, but only the whole humanity of the children of God. Let us rejoice in this, brothers and sisters of the faith, brothers and sisters of the cross, that we have been clothed in Christ, anointed in baptism and marked with the sign of his cross, which we take up day by day as we learn to make a difference through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, to whom we give all praise and thanks, henceforth and for evermore.+

That is My Name

SJF • 1 Epiphany 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Now when all the people were baptized, and Jesus also had been baptized, and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove; and a voice came from heaven....+

Suddenly, it got awfully quiet. Moments before there had been splashes of water, the loud voice of John the Baptist, the clamor of the crowd. People waiting in line had asked those ahead of them how cold the water was, and some complained, even those used to walking barefoot, about how the rocks hurt their feet. Others were too full of emotion to speak, too aware of their past failings, too full of hope for a new beginning to pay much mind to the chatter around them. Then, after the baptisms, when the crowd had settled on the shore, some talked quietly among themselves about what it was like. Just as people who have just seen a movie talk with each other about their favorite parts, the people on Jordan’s bank talked about how it felt when John had held them firmly by the shoulder, then pushed them under the cold, clear water. They recalled how all the normal sounds had disappeared to be replaced by a humming burbling pressure as they held their breath and waited for John to let them back up. They could hardly make out his words through that humming pressure: “I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire!” They came up sputtering, blinking, and feeling and knowing that something great had happened to them: they felt new-born, re-born. “That’s what it was like,” they said to each other as they sat on the shore, drying in the warm sunlight, resting a little before the long walk back home.

Then something unexpected happened. A deep voice spoke, just loud enough that everyone could hear it, like distant thunder: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Then, silence. Everyone looked around. Who said that? Where did it come from? A little way down the stream a man was sitting by a rock, praying. “What is that on his shoulder?” someone said. “A dove?” “And why is John the Baptist looking at him so intently, so excitedly?” There was a good reason. For in John’s heart a question and a hope began to form: “Is he the one?”

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Is he the one? We might well ask, Who is this “one” about whom John wondered and hoped? For what — or for whom — had he been waiting and watching? It had been a long wait, you see, longer far than John’s own life. Hundreds of years before John was born a promise had been given to the people of Israel. A deliverer would come, one chosen by God, an anointed one, a Christ (for “Christ” is simply the Greek word for “one who is anointed,” which in Hebrew is Moshiach — Messiah.) This chosen one, this anointed one, this Messiah, this Christ, would not only deliver Israel, but establish justice on the earth.

But who was he? Was this prophecy about some individual person, or symbolic of Israel as a whole, personified? Was it Cyrus the Persian king, who would indeed be called God’s chosen and anointed one, to return the people from exile in Babylon? Return them Cyrus did — that prophetic detail came true — but still injustice held sway on the earth... He was not “the one.” Time passed; other prophets spoke, other kings ruled; wars were fought and won and lost. And still, justice was not established on the earth, and Israel was delivered from bondage only to be conquered yet again a few years later by another earthly power.

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But lately in the days of John the Baptist, in the days of the latest occupation, by Rome, a new hope had arisen in Israel, Could John the Baptist himself be the one? Well, John answered them directly: No. He was merely the forerunner, the advance man for the one who was to come. He, too, had been given a personal assurance: “The one upon whom you see the Spirit descending..., is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.”John 1:33

John understood he had been given a prophet’s task, the task I’ve spoken of before: Prophets point — and not to themselves! Prophets bubble with holy enthusiasm that cries out, “Look! Behold!” Prophets aren’t interested in starting a cult; true prophets point people to God.

I reminded you a moment ago about what people do when they’ve enjoyed seeing a film together. No doubt you know this from your own experience. What’s the first thing you do when you’ve experienced something wonderful? Whether it’s a book that you think is the best thing you’ve ever read; or a movie that delighted you; or a fascinating exhibit at the museum. What do you do? You tell people about it, of course. And the way you tell them is filled with special kind of enthusiasm. You can’t wait till they’ve seen it, or read it, or been there. And as I mentioned, we all know that special extra delight, the added pleasure in discovering that someone else has already read the book, or seen the movie. That’s when the real fun starts. “What part did you like best? Wasn’t that a great scene? I’m going again next week! Want to go together?”

Prophets and enthusiasts both point at something else, not at themselves. They don’t say, “Follow me!” but “Come with me!” And if for some reason they can’t go along, like John when he was in prison, they say, “Go, follow him. He is the one. I told you I wasn’t the one; I was only preparing the way.”

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God, in this as in all else, is different. God also points things out, directs our attention, shows us the way; but God does it differently. God does say, “Follow me!” Not only that, but God says “Don’t follow anyone else!”

Compare for a moment: listen to John the Baptist’s humility: “One who is more powerful than I... I am not worthy to untie his sandal...” Then hear the emphasis in God’s description of his coming chosen one, the Messiah. Notice how much God uses the first person singular! “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him... I am the Lord, that is my name...” We might say that God is “the first person singular” — for when Moses asked for God’s name, he was told, “I AM.”

Names are the point for naming is perhaps the most important way to point something out, of giving it an identity, and directing our attention to it. When God spoke at Christ’sbaptism, the great “I AM” gave Jesus a name too, “My Son, the beloved.” Names identify both the person, and the person’s relationship to others. We have a “given” name, given to each of us after we are born, and a family name as well, the name we arere born with, the name that was there before we were born. One name belongs to us, the other name says we belong to something else: a family. At his baptism, Jesus (the name he was given when he was born) received a new name, a name that describes his relationship to God: Jesus belongs to God: he is God’s beloved Son. He is Christ — God’s anointed one.

The same is true for us in our baptism. We receive our baptismal name, our “first name” as we say; we receive our family name, officially as it is pronounced over us; but we are also given a name, a hallmark, like the thumbprint a potter presses into the bottom of the pottery he makes, to mark it out as his very own creation. We too are anointed, “Christened” as we say, and given a mark and a name that transcends both our individuality and our family, a mark that doesn’t say so much who we are but whose we are. We are “marked as Christ’s own for ever” and we are given the new name “Christian.” We belong no longer to ourselves alone, but to Christ, who is Lord of all. We are his, because we bear a new name, Christian.

As we come up from those cold Jordan waters, blinking and sputtering, perhaps (I can tell you from experience) gasping and crying and perhaps wriggling around, we are given a new name, we are marked with an owner’s mark, in the shape of a cross — right here. Baptized into Christ’s death, we share in his resurrection.

And we have a job to do. The Baptismal Covenant is our Christian job description — and we’ll have our annual review in just a few moments. Among the accountabilities in that job description is the task to “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers,” which is what we do here each Sunday. But we are also assigned the task “to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.” It shouldn’t be hard to do the latter when we’ve done the former. Isn’t life everlasting better than the best novel you ever read, the most exciting movie you ever saw? Isn’t the Lord’s table the greatest feast? Isn’t the Word of God proclaimed the most important thing you could ever hear? Can you leave this time of worship with a glow of enthusiasm; filled with excitement? Can you tell your friends about it? You are the evangelists and prophets, sent to proclaim the word: you are the messengers of Christ at work in the world.

And when you spread the word of what you have seen and heard, of what God’s saving grace has meant for you, of how you have heard his word, known his forgiveness in your heart and been fed at his table, when you have shared this good news, of God’s presence in and with the church on earth, you can always end by saying, “I’m going back next week! Do you want to go together?”+

Real Refreshment

SJF • Lent 4b 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.+

The fourth Sunday in Lent goes by a number of different names. One of them is the Latin name Laetare, which basically means “lighten up.” That’s one of the reasons I change from purple to rose-colored vestments on this day, which is also sometimes called “Rose Sunday.” Coming as it does about halfway through Lent it’s meant to be a bit of a “stop to catch your breath” during the long march through an otherwise penitential season. For that reason, it is also sometimes called Refreshment Sunday. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re going to have refreshments at coffee hour — at least not like the splendid luncheon we had last week courtesy of the choir. I’m happy to say, that luncheon raised$288 towards the church building fund. Now that’s refreshment!

The real refreshment in this Sunday celebration rests in the good news that we hear this morning — good news not only in the gospel where we expect to hear good news, but also in Saint Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. As I hope you recall, the last couple of weeks have had some pretty heavy messages about discipline and responsibility — about the work we are called upon to do and to carry out as Christians, whether it is in the form of duty to others, or in that cross we are called to take up day by day.

This Sunday gives us a moment to rest and reflect before we take up our burdens once again and continue walking that path of discipleship through the rest of Lent, and on through Holy Week. Today, in the gospel, Jesus tells the people to sit themselves down, to rest themselves for a bit, even it they are out in the middle of nowhere in a deserted place. And he prepares food for them, working with what seems at first to be an unpromising amount of ingredients, and yet feeding thousands and satisfying their hunger, giving them the strength to continue. It is a wonderful story and I’ve preached about it before.

However, rather than repeat myself I’d like to focus a bit on Saint Paul’s message this morning. “By grace you have been saved” — such an important message that Paul repeats it twice in that short passage. “By grace you have been saved.” There, now I’ve gone and done the same thing. But it is so well worth repeating — this simple phrase, by grace you have been saved — because as I have said before people often want to turn being saved into something that we think we do, rather than to accept it as something that God in Christ does for us.

And that is odd, because no one would him or herself take credit for being “saved from drowning.” Isn’t the whole point of being saved that it’s something that someone does for you, something you were not able to do yourself? There are times, of course, when you can save yourself — for instance, by heeding the fire alarm or the smoke alarm and rushing out of the building before the fire gets to you. But most of the time we hear of people being saved; it isn’t about them saving themselves but about other people saving them.

And in this case, we’re talking about being saved unto eternal life — Paul is reminding us that we have no power in ourselves to save ourselves. Turning back from our more refreshing language to what Paul said last week: you remember how he said, basically, “I can’t help it! The good I want to do, I cannot do; but the evil I do not want is what I do!”? And you will also recall his plaintive exclamation, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” and his subsequent good news in response: “Thanks be to God in Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Just as he wrote those words to the Romans so too he repeats the same sentiment to the Ephesians: this is about being rescued, being saved from something from which you can’t save yourself. This isn’t about smoke alarms or fire alarms; it’s about being carried unconscious from a burning building, or hauled by a helicopter from the tree into which you’ve climbed to escape the flood, even as the water rises around you.

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Now, you also know that the worst thing you can do when someone is trying to save you is to struggle with them — perhaps you’ve seen the films or TV shows where someone is trying to rescue a foundering swimmer from drowning and the drowning person struggles so much that the rescuer has to punch them in the jaw to get them to stop so that they can be saved.

And sometimes we too fight and struggle against being saved. Saint Paul knew something about that — remember how, when he still went by the name Saul, he started out as a zealous persecutor of the church, determined to wipe it out. You will also recall how Jesus appeared to him on that road to Damascus and literally knocked him down, and said to him, pityingly, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me; it is hard for you to kick against the goads.”Acts 26:14

The fact is, we sometimes make it harder than it is — and of course it will be hard if we think it is something we have to do for ourselves rather than something we allow God to do for us, to continue to do for us.

I’ve said before — I think I may have said it last week — how what God asks of us is so simple that it’s hard: loving God and our neighbors. And it’s the same with salvation. How does the old saying put it, “Let go and let God!” We often want to make it more complicated and harder than it is, as we kick against the goads in our own way.

Years ago, one of the big food companies — it might’ve been Betty Crocker, I’m not sure — came up with a packaged cake mix that was going to be revolutionary. Everything was complete in the box; all you had to do, literally, was add water. Well, it was a flop — people didn’t buy it because they simply couldn’t believe that everything was somehow
reduced to that powder in the box, and all you had to do was add water. So after a period of dismal sales the company adjusted the formula, took out a few of the ingredients, and then re-marketed the product with new instructions: in order to bake the cake, in addition to the water, you had to add one egg. And everybody was happy.

And so, because I know all of you — and I myself — want to be more active participants in our own salvation, even as we know and understand that we are not saving ourselves, but are saved by Christ — still, we want to do something; and the continued good news is that God gives us some things to do.

The normal thing to do, first of all, when someone rescues you and saves your life, at the very least, is to say, “Thank you.” And surely that is what we do here every Sunday in our worship — when we give thanks to God for all that he has done. In fact, you may be surprised to hear that the word Eucharist, the name for our celebration, means “giving thanks” — so thanks-giving is at the heart of our worship; not just on that Thursday in November, but every Sunday.

But if someone saves your life, you will probably want to do more than just thank them. And that is precisely and appropriately where those works come in, that Paul mentioned. Saint Paul is careful to note that our works do not save us — it is grace alone that saves us; as he says, “a gift of God, not the results of works, so that no one may boast.” But he goes on to say, “we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” Our works have not saved us — God has — but primarily in order to put us to work! God, having saved us, has prepared good works for us to do — and God expects us to do them.

Doing good — loving God and our neighbor — is not the cause of our salvation but it’s result. We are able to do these good things because God has saved us; not merely as a way of giving thanks to God — although it is that — but as a way to spread the word to others that they really don’t need to add that egg to the recipe — that the box meant what it said: all that was needed was water, in which we are all baptized; salvation is freely offered to all, once and for all, through Jesus Christ.

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And that refreshing news is meant to empower us to take up our work once again — work not to earn salvation, but made possible because of salvation. It is as if every person rescued from drowning were to become a life-guard. For that is what we are; for that is what we are called to do, to assist in the work of saving others, by bringing them the good news that salvation has come. Salvation empowers us to get to work to spread the life-saving message that there is no need to go hungry in a world where a few pieces of bread and fish can be multiplied by a gracious God, to feed thousands. Salvation empowers us to spread the message that we need not despair when we feel discouraged or defeated; we need not struggle and fight against the rescuer who is carrying us on his shoulder gently laid, and brought home — where we can truly rejoice. We are empowered, all of us, to tell others that in the midst of trouble there is refreshment — there is a flowing fountain that rises in the middle of the desert, the source of a stream on whose banks grow trees whose leaves shall be for the healing of the nations.

We have been saved, brothers and sisters, saved and rescued, and refreshed. So come, let us worship; and then let us get to work.+

Presence to Share

SJF • 1 Epiphany 2009 • Tobias Haller BSG
See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.+

It’s now two weeks since Christmas. Epiphany is over: the wise men have come and gone, the Holy Family has bundled the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh into the saddlebag, and have wended their way to Egypt, to await the news of when it will be safe to return to Galilee. By now we too have no doubt had a chance to sort through our Christmas gifts. There may well have been fewer of them this year, and some of them may not have been exactly what we had in mind, were they? The economic situation has led to some rather more practical items under the tree than the kind of more frivolous gifts we might have wanted. I even wonder, given the cost of heating oil and natural gas, if some people might not have wished for the item reserved for naughty children: a sock full of coal! And I’ll tell you quite honestly, that this icy morning I would have been happy for an extra bag of salt!

Of course, whenever we receive a gift that isn’t something we wanted, we put a good face on it. We are, after all, Anglicans, and have been brought up with that British heritage of politeness that would never insult the giver of an unwanted gift. Rather, the less desirable gifts have been discreetly returned to the department store, or consigned to the attic, or that shelf at the top of the closet, or some similar resting-place for other people’s good intentions.

Sometimes as we stow away some unwanted present we come upon a previous year’s gift, and realize with a start and surprise that we need it after all — the curtains that seemed so dark last year are now just right to go with the new armchair. That paperweight I had no room for will now be just right on my new desk. New times can make the old seem new again.

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On the other hand, sometimes we receive gifts we know at once to be “just what we wanted.” They are so personal, they so reveal another’s love for us and knowledge of us, that we keep them to ourselves as special, private gifts.

They may be very simple and unassuming: a single flower, a made-in-China ceramic frog, or a pink, plastic flamingo— the language of love has a strange but eloquent vocabulary. We don’t talk about these gifts to those outside our circle of intimacy — how could we explain? I know a woman who does actually collect anything that looks like a frog — ceramic, metal, wood — her house is full of them — but I doubt she could explain why they’re there.

Still other presents are such that the joy in receiving them grows by spreading them around and sharing them with others. The first impulse on receiving the DVD of our favorite film is to find someone to watch it with. And it’s as much fun to watch the movie with another fan as with someone who’s never seen it before.

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What do these presents have to do with us here and now, gathered in church on an icy January morning? The world has received the most wonderful gift in Christ Jesus. That’s why we give gifts at Christmas, after all: to remind ourselves of the greatest gift. This morning we are reminded of this Christmas present in a special way, for all of us together will remember and renew our baptismal covenant, by which we first received the gift of Christ into our lives.

We receive this great gift, this greatest gift, much as we do other gifts. Most of us can’t accept, at least at first, all that Jesus asks of us when first he comes into our lives. We may nod politely and say, “How nice,” but we’re already thinking about how to fit this ungainly package into our spiritual attic.

Then one day we come upon the Presence we’ve tried to forget — that’s presence with a “C” — and realize that what is asked of us is what we want to do after all, and what we’ve been given the skills to do, to do all that Jesus asks. The stone that the builders rejected is later found to fit exactly in the most crucial spot, and becomes the cornerstone of the building.

At other times Jesus comes to us in that more intimate and personal way so that we may feel shy about sharing that relationship with others. But that is simply how Jesus is: don’t be shy — that is how he is — although he comes for all of humanity, still he calls us each by name, treats us each as if we were the sole object of his love. And he does this because that is how his heavenly father treated him. At his own baptism, as we heard in our gospel today, the heavens were torn apart, and God’s Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove, and a voice spoke to him, a voice from heaven declaring, “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” God speaks the same to all of us and each of us, his children by adoption.

In baptism, God’s Spirit descends upon us and makes us heirs through faith — our own faith if we are old enough to possess it, and the faith of our parents and godparents if we are not yet old enough to possess a faith of our own. This wonderful gift is always new in each person, but it is also always a hand-me-down, it is a gift that is given through others, though it comes from God, given and received. Much as a new tree can only grow from a seed from an old tree, the new life in Christ through baptism always comes through those who are already baptized — the members of the church, which is the body of Christ at work in the world. This new life is a gift that is always given through those who have received it before.

And it becomes ours — a part of ourselves, a part of who we are as children of God who have a personal relationship with God, whom we can now call “our Father in heaven.” The love of God for each and all of us begins and grows in that special and holy relationship.

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We can relish and enjoy that relationship, but we can also share it with others, indeed we are called and commanded to share it with others, in the knowledge that Jesus shares himself with others too. As we share that gift, that present, conscious of how precious is the gift of salvation, we might at first be tempted to remain within the circle of those who already know Jesus: the church. We relish our common joy, talking to each other about our favorite parts of the story, like a family that every year gathers around the TV to watch the Wizard of Oz or Dickens’ Christmas Carol.

As wonderful as that kind of sharing is — and it is wonderful to gather week by week in the church, as the church, to celebrate and review and share the story of salvation — but the gift of God is too great to keep just among ourselves.

As the Apostle Peter said, the saving message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee, but spreading far beyond it. And as we know, that same gospel has spread to the far corners of the world. The saving grace of God has been poured out for all to receive.

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Right here in this church, every time we perform a baptism — and I’ve officiated at 159 baptisms since I first came to be Vicar here — every time we perform a baptism that gift is given and received, most often by a child brought here by loving parents and godparents. They are sharing a gift that they received when they were young themselves. Someday before too long, the child is old enough to understand the gift that has been given, realizes that the present is a Presence, the presence of God within his or her heart, and then that child joins in telling the timeless story to those who have never heard it, bringing the gift of grace to those who don’t yet know Jesus.

The Scripture that is fulfilled in our hearing, the Good News we hear today, is for each of us and all of us, for “all people that on earth do dwell,” and we are the ministers of this message of salvation — young and old. We have a wonderful gift to share. Spreading this good news, this good news that we are loved and redeemed by God, is the heart of evangelism, sharing the gift of salvation to the ends of the earth.

Ultimately, evangelism is the good stewardship of the Gospel: sharing that greatest gift, that wonderful presence. It is a gift we would never think of returning to the store, or stowing in the attic. It is a gift so wonderful, so perfect for each of us, the only gift of which it can truly be said, “one size fits all,” the gift that is older than time itself and yet is always new. It is the gift of salvation. God be praised, that we have, each and every one of us, such a wonderful gift to share, through Jesus Christ our Lord.+

God's Choice and Ours

Saint James Fordham • Proper 24a • Tobias Haller BSG
For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you.+

I have spoken before about God’s attributes: the characteristics of God; God’s wisdom and power, and God’s love; you know, I’ll never get tired of preaching of God’s love, and I hope you never tire of hearing me do so! But another characteristic of God, a thing that God does, time and again, is this: God chooses.

This power to make choices is such an important part of God’s nature, that we enshrine it in our Catechism, in our definition of what it means to be made in the image of God. The Catechism asks, What does it mean to be created in the image of God? And it answers (on page 845 of your Prayer Book), “It means that we are free to make choices: to love, to create, to reason, and to live in harmony with creation and with God.”

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So the freedom to choose is an important quality of God as God, and of us children of God, made in God’s image. And what I’d like to examine this morning is the nature of the choices God, and we, make. How does God choose? Well, first of all, although we share this capacity, we are assured that God does not choose as people do. God plays no favorites, as alluded to in that passage from Thessalonians: God is impartial. So it is that God often chooses what we would not expect to choose if we were in God’s place.

Of all the nations of the earth from which God could have chosen, from the great tribal kingdoms of Africa, the powerful rulers of Asia and Mesopotamia, of Egypt so old they were into double digit dynasties two thousand years before the birth of Christ — of all of these, God chose not a single one, but little Israel: wanderers and nomads with little more than their tents, herds and flocks. And God chose to journey with them in the wilderness, dwelling amongst them in a tent, just like them.

Later, God chose little David: the youngest son, the shepherd boy, not an impressive grown-up like his brothers, but a boy no more than 14, to be the king of Israel. Centuries later, that same chosen people Israel prayed for deliverance from captivity in Babylon. And God chose as his messiah, his anointed one, not a descendent of David, but Cyrus, the gentile. Cyrus, king of Media and Persia, was chosen to end the proud rule of Babylon and send the captives home.

Then came perhaps the most unlikely choice of all. For his own coming among us, God chose to be born, not in the royal palace, but in the barn behind the inn in the suburb of Jerusalem called Bethlehem. It is as if the visiting dignitary came for a state visit — not to the United Nations, not to City Hall, not to Manhattan even, but to a borough on the edges — dare we say it: maybe even to the Bronx?

Yes, my brothers and sisters, God has chosen us! The royal visitor is here with us, as he promised he would be where two or three are gathered in his name. As with the people of Thessalonica, and of all the gentiles, God has chosen to be with the unlikely. Yes, beloved, God has chosen us, and that means we are among what is called “the elect.”

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Now, election is a difficult doctrine. It caused a whole lot of trouble back during the Reformation. It seems exclusive and prideful at first glance, as if to say, “we’re God’s favorites and you aren’t.” But that is to miss the wonder of God’s choice. It isn’t that we should place ourselves in the position to judge others, to look down on those we might think God has not chosen (for until God chose us we were not chosen either, and who knows what God may do tomorrow — remember, God shows no partiality, and is patient and generous, and the latecomers at the harvest get the same pay as the early ones who worked all day). Rather we should take comfort — spiritual strength — from this knowledge, without looking down on anyone else, or doubting their call from God.

But how do we know we are among the elect? What is election, anyway? Well, first of all let’s remember that election is not something we have done, it is something God has done: as I said, God chooses; God elects. That word election is, of course, very much in our minds at this season — in a very different context. But what does it mean in the context of the church? Our English word election derives from a Greek word which means “chosen, summoned, called together.” It is the source of the word ecclesia — the assembly chosen and called together by God, the church. You hear a modern form of it in the word eclectic. In home decorating that describes decor with all sorts of styles mixed up together — and if that isn’t the church I don't know what is! If you have any doubt just look around at this place and the people in it — from the stained glass windows to the people in the pews, we are an eclectic bunch, gathered here literally from the corners of the world.

So being elect means being part of the church, this odd assortment of all sorts and conditions, brought together in one place, to worship one Lord through one faith. And the way we enter that fellowship of one faith in the one Lord is through the one baptism — the same the world over. Whether our baptism is an adult choice, or (as in most cases) a choice made by parents and godparents, baptism is election to salvation and eternal life.

Now, down through the history of the church — as I said, back at the Reformation — some have said: isn’t my choice involved? There are and have been denominations that insist on what they call “believer baptism” — only adults are to be baptized, and only when they’ve asked for it. This led to conflict among 19th century Anglicans, and led to the departure of those who felt that baptism somehow didn’t really “take” on infants and children.

The problem with this view of baptism is that it calls God’s grace into question; it puts the burden on the individual, and leaves nothing with God — or the church, through which God continues to act. For the church in its apostolic faith teaches that God’s grace acts as much on a week-old child as it does on me, just as Jesus Christ was God Almighty even when he was an infant in the manger!

Yes, our choice is involved, in living a good and righteous life and walking in God’s ways once we’re old enough to walk, but only after God has made the first move, acting through the church in its many members, working as Christ’s Body on earth. God chooses us through the church, and then it is for to us to live up to that responsibility in the church. We who bear God’s image belong to God — no less than the coin with Caesar’s likeness belonged to Caesar — much good it did him.

We belong to God who saves us, with our will, without out will, even sometimes against our will. Many of us were brought to the font literally kicking and screaming. I’ve wrestled with a few right over there! But anyone who’s ever rescued a drowning swimmer knows by the way they sometimes struggle you’d think they didn’t want to be saved. But God’s grace, and God’s choice, is stronger than human panic and fear, whether we are three weeks, three months, three years, three decades or three score year and ten years old. God has chosen us and saved us.

How do we know? Because we are here. We are justified by faith and cleansed in Baptism, clothed anew with that wedding garment I spoke about last week. And... where does that leave us? Are we all dressed up with no place to go? Not at all. Baptism is the beginning, God’s choice of us. What are we to do in return? What is our choice?

People down through history have wanted to make it harder than it is: they want to impose fasts and long faces, austere disciplines and sacrifices. But we are assured again and again that God desires mercy, not sacrifice. How do we “render to God the things that belong to God”? There’s no secret here, my friends; we’ve been given the answer in advance. “Love the Lord with all your heart and mind and soul and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.” Certainly hard enough to do sometimes! We are often tempted to anger, to lack of charity, to impatience. I said we were chosen, not perfect!

But if we trust God, he will make up for our lack of charity. The God who chose us is the same God who will fill us with his love, and help us to love others. How do we know we are on the way to God? Because God has promised it, and because we want it. We really want it — for who would want to choose death when life was within their grasp. We belong to God, and God will never turn away that which belongs to him.

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Sir Thomas More was the chancellor of England back at the time of the Reformation I referred to a moment ago. He tangled with Henry the Eighth when he wouldn’t give in and accept Henry’s divorce and remarriage. Whether we agree with his reasoning, we can honor his courage and his commitment to the promises he had made. In spite of Henry’s and his own family’s pleas, he stuck with what his conscience told him he must do, refusing to be a “man for all seasons” who would go which way the wind was blowing, and for that he came to the headsman’s block. You may remember the scene from the movie, Man For All Seasons. In accordance with the custom, the man who was about to chop off his head knelt before him to ask his forgiveness. And Sir Thomas said to him, “Fear not, you send me to God.” The Archbishop, standing by, asked “Are you so sure?” And Sir Thomas responded with heartfelt words, “God will not refuse one who is so blithe to go to him.”

God will not refuse us, who are so eager to go to him. He has chosen us already. We belong to him, marked with his image, and he has washed away our sins in baptism and so brightened and restored the image we had at our birth; he feeds us with his body and blood in the eucharist. We have been delivered from the bonds of death and the wrath that is coming. God has chosen us, and we belong to him. No one can take us from him. God will go before us and level the mountains, God will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut asunder the bars of iron — delivering us from the bondage to sin and death — God will give us the secret hidden treasure of eternal life, that we may know that it is God the Lord who has chosen us, and called us, each and every one, by name.+

Athirst for God

Saint James Fordham • Easter 6a • Tobias Haller BSG

For thee, my God, the living God,
my thirsty soul doth pine;
O when shall I behold thy face,
thou Majesty divine.

As many of you know, Jerome Reservoir a few blocks north of us is closely connected to the history of this church. It was built starting in the late nineteenth century as part of a new water supply system to meet the clamorous thirst of the growing metropolis just south of here: the New York City of which, in those days, the Bronx was not yet a part. (Back then we were still part of Westchester County.)

Jerome Avenue running past our doors is named for Leonard Jerome, the Wall Street wiz and horse-racing fan who lived just across the street, about where the Post Office now stands. (He was also Winston Churchill’s grandfather, and rumor has it, though the parish records don’t confirm it, that his daughter Jennie was baptized here.)

Mr. Jerome owned much of the property around here, and where Jerome Reservoir now stands he built Jerome Park, the racetrack where the first Belmont Stakes was run in 1867. When the thirsty throngs in Manhattan called for more water, that spot was singled out as of a perfect size and shape to convert into a reservoir, and so it was. Our additional parish connection is through two members of this parish, Hugh Camp and Mayor Franklin Edson, who appointed Camp to the team for the design of the new reservoir (at the time the largest in the world) and the new aqueduct system that would convey plentiful water to the people of New York City. The water came from the Croton system upstate, making a brief stop at the Jerome Reservoir before continuing on its way through the aqueduct underneath Aqueduct Avenue just up the hill from here.

And all of this in response to thirst — the thirst of people for clean, pure water. We all know from personal experience what ordinary thirst means; and we also know the effects that global warming has had on the supply of what you need to satisfy that thirst. If you pass by Jerome Reservoir with any frequency, you will note that unlike former days, it is now rarely more than half-full, and is often as dry as a proverbial bone.

Drought brought on by a lack of water can be a terrible thing — and we’re lucky that this past year broke the string of dry summers we’ve had for a while now.

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But there are worse things that a drought of water. Think for a moment how much worse would be a drought of God — the drying up of knowing God’s presence and grace, the receding and sinking of the pools of spiritual nourishment, drained away, lost and gone, replaced by the sandy desert or dry lake-beds of desolation. People have a built-in need for God, a thirst for God, in whom, as Saint Paul assures the Athenians, we live and move and have our being. Imagine what a drought of God would mean— to be cut of from life, motion, and ones very being, withering like a parched plant in a desert.

Saint Paul compliments the Athenians — a rare thing for this often grumpy saint — he praises them for their religious impulse, for their effort to search for God, even if they do not have a clear idea as to who God is and how to find, know, and love God. Still, Paul credits them with seeking and searching for God, groping for God, much as a persistent tree will send its roots out in search of life-giving water. The search for God is a universal human reality, Saint Paul assures us, as in our human thirst for the divine springs we seek, grope and explore to find the source of our being and life, like people roaming the fields with spiritual dowsing rods, or searching the empty sky for the sign of a cloud, seeking the signs of God’s presence, the quenching of our spiritual thirst with the living water of God’s being.

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Yes, people need God and seek God. For without God we dry up, wither, fail, and die. Jesus uses the image of the Vine and the Branches to make this clear. Just as in the past weeks we’ve heard Jesus refer to himself as the “gate” for the sheep, and the “way” to the Father, so today he assures us that he is the “vine,” apart from which we branches are useless and fruitless, able to do nothing at all but wither and dry up, good for nothing but firewood.

Anyone who has done any gardening knows this well. If you cut off a branch, you cut off its life-support system. No branch can thrive on its own, whether a branch of a vine or a tree. Without the source of life, the connection to life, there is no life.

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And God is the source of our life. In him we live and move and have our being. He is the reservoir from which we draw the water of life, the vine from which our nourishment flows. Disconnected from God, we wither, fail, dry and die — just as if you cut off the aqueduct there will be no water in Manhattan. Without the source and without the means to transmit it, no water will get through to quench our thirst.

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Sometimes people will say they have no time or place for God in their lives. How wrong they are, for it isn’t that God isn’t in their lives — it is their lives that aren’t in God! They are cut off, wandering in a desert, and the oasis of earthly success is just a mirage. They struggle to reach that green and welcoming spot on the horizon, only to discover it is not an oasis, but just more dry and dusty sand, a tempting vision created by reflected heat. Meanwhile, their connection to the vine has been cut, and though they may not feel it yet, soon their leaves will begin to wilt and wither. Their hand-made idols will be of no help to them, and they will merely cling to them like the dead vines cling to a ruined and forsaken building.

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But the good news is that God the True Vine is merciful, even to those who think they can live apart from God, even those who think they can bear fruit without being connected to the vine, even those who worship the idols of their own making.

We’ve all known people who devote themselves so whole-heartedly to their careers that they have no time for anything or anyone else. They imagine that they are self-sufficient, not realizing how much depends on others, how much depends on God. Yet the merciful God does not forsake even these preoccupied, self-centered people. The merciful God allows some hardship to come their way, some drought, some thirst, some pain that recalls them to themselves, and recalls them to him. God overlooks human ignorance, and prompts the ignorant and thirsty heart to repent, to seek, to grope its way back, to turn to the true spring, to quench its desires in the cool water of grace, the cool water of baptism into Christ.

And when even we who are incorporated into Christ get so preoccupied with our work that we forget who we are part of, and who is the source of our life; when we begin to rely too much on our own gifts, become too proud of our own work and our own accomplishments, Jesus gently reminds us who he is and who we are. He is the True Vine; we are the branches.

Hugh Nesbitt Camp and Franklin Edson were both successful men of their generation. They were the cream of high society, risen to the very top. But they knew on whom their success — and not only their success, but their very living, moving and being — depended; someone far greater than themselves, someone apart from whom they could do nothing. If you cut off the flow, the water will stop. If you cut off the branch from the vine, it will dry up and die.

It is fitting that the man who assisted in the design of New York’s water supply system, is remembered here at Saint James Church in that stained glass window, The True Vine, here in the church where he worshiped the God he loved and served, the source of his ability to live and move, to love and serve his fellow citizens.

It is a reminder we can do nothing apart from God. Apart from him we will wilt, wither, dry, and end in the flames. But in him; ah, in him we draw the sweetest draft of satisfaction from the pure source of life itself. In him we branches are nourished and strengthened to bear much fruit. And if we get too confident of our fruitfulness, he will prune us back, and we will bear even more fruit — such is his care for us. So rejoice, sisters and brothers, that our Lord has recalled us to himself and to ourselves, reminding us who we are and whose we are. He is the end of our drought; he is the gentle rain upon our desert-weary hearts, the spring that appears in the midst of the wilderness to quench our thirst and satisfy our deepest needs; he is our reservoir and his cross is our aqueduct, bringing us new life; he is the true vine in whom we find our nourishment and shade, from whom we derive our life, our movement, our being — and our fruitfulness. Let us rejoice in that life, and bear much fruit, so that all may give glory to God, the source of all being, henceforth and for evermore.+