General Practitioner

Paul wanted to be everything to everybody so he could lead them to the One for all.

SJF • Epiphany 5b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.+

When I was in college, I worked on a play by German author Bertolt Brecht. You may know the hit song, “Mack the Knife,” from his musical Threepenny Opera, which had a successful run on Broadway years ago, and was made into a film. The play I worked on, The Measures Taken, will never appear on Broadway, however, because it is about a group of communist agitators working in China prior to the communist revolution. It concerns a young agitator who doesn’t grasp the purpose of the Communist mission. In each scene, whether a factory where the workers are beaten, or by a canal by which the workers slip in the mud as they try to pull barges, the young agitator tries to help individuals: individual factory workers or individual barge-pullers; he binds the wounds of the wounded factory workers, and puts rocks in the mud so the barge-pullers can gain traction. He soon discovers he cannot bind up all of the individual wounds, and that he can’t move enough rocks to give all the barge-pullers a solid footing, and eventually the workers and barge-pullers turn on him and expose him as an agitator. His efforts are misguided from the standpoint of the communist party — they are interested in class warfare, not individual welfare; and this leads to his undoing.

What surprised me most about this was the way the play was received. I mean, this was a touchy stuff in the 60s! But because it is such an honest portrayal of the nature of the communist movement — that in the communist theory the good of the whole is more important than the good of the individual — people who favored socialism could look at the play and say, “See how noble it is!” while those who were opposed to it could say, “See how terrible communism is” — because the play told the truth. You can tell when something is challenging and true, because it often gets angry people from both sides. It is also fairly true about the dilemma that we all face about of how do we do good in the world.

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For there is a tension between works of charity — feeding the hungry, clothing the naked — and the works of justice — seeking to transform society by reforming the causes of hunger and poverty. The one thing of which I am certain is that this is a “both / and” situation. We are called to help those who come across our path: with food, clothing, and care — as did the Good Samaritan. But we are also called to work for the good of the whole society in which we live, to help fight the causes of hunger and poverty.

This is not an original approach, of course. Jesus, in his own ministry, does both — he heals those who come before him, but also — on the cross, and through his blood — heals and saves the whole world.

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Our gospel today is a good example. Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law. Word spreads and the sick gather at the doorstep come sundown, and he cures many of them. Even Peter sees Jesus as a great healer, and chases after him when he leaves in the early morning, to bring him back to the village to continue working.

What Peter fails to understand is that Jesus does not see himself primarily as a healer of the sick, but as the proclamation of a message. Jesus does do the exhausting work of healing in response to the crowds who seek his touch, and we know it was exhausting from that story of the woman with the hemorrhage: You remember that. She secretly touched the hem of his garment and was healed. But as she did so, Jesus felt the power drain out of him. So we know that healing these many people crowded about the door, must have been exhausting.

When morning comes he slips away in the pre-dawn darkness, he does so so he can rest and collect himself, and most importantly, pray. And when Peter comes after him, to drag him back because “everyone is searching” for him, Jesus tells him it is time to move on to other towns, time to move on to proclaim the message, for that is what he came to do.

Jesus did not come to earth to set up a clinic as a Galilean country doctor, but to spread the good news of salvation — which is the healing of the whole person, body and soul, from the deadly effects of this fallen world of ours. He came to save that world itself. He is not a general practitioner, but the universal healer for the life of the world. Jesus came to reveal himself not as everything to everybody but as One for all. He is even more than the bearer of a message — he the message itself: he is the Word of God. Jesus only had to be himself to be the living presence of God — the Word of God made flesh — for that is what he was. After all, there were dozens of preachers and teachers and healers in first century Israel. But there was only one Son of God.

Ultimately, the Gospel of Christ isn’t about all his good deeds as teacher or healer, but about who he was, and who he is: the Son of God, the savior of the world. This is the heart of the gospel truth.

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Saint Paul, on the other hand, knew very well that he was not the message, he was not the Word of God, but a messenger charged to deliver the Word of God. Preaching the gospel was no source of pride or boasting, it was his duty. In his preaching Paul worked every angle, taking every opportunity to make the gospel reach as many different people as he could, to win them to Christ, to bring them to salvation.

Because Paul was the messenger, he knew how important it was that his message be understood. And so he took on many roles to reach many people, to meet people “where they were” and to speak to them in a language they could understand. To his fellow Jews Paul emphasized his own background in Judaism, as a disciple of Rabbi Gamaliel, whose teachings are recorded in the Talmud and studied by rabbinical students to this day. Paul would argue the Torah with the best of them, as well as making use of different traditions within Judaism.

To Gentiles outside the Jewish covenant, Paul moved with ease and liberty as a Roman citizen of no mean city, a man acquainted with the latest trends in Greek philosophy, able to quote pagan poets to Greeks and Romans as well as he was to quote Moses to fellow Jews. Paul did want to be everything to everybody, but only so that he could lead them to the One for all, Jesus Christ.

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So where does the church find itself today? Are we everything to everybody? One for all? Some experts on church growth point to the huge megachurches of the South and the West. These are huge building complexes with worship auditoriums ranged with rows of reclining padded seats. Instead of hymnals and prayer books, the texts are projected on giant screens, accompanied by orchestras, and you won’t find a child in the congregation, because the have full nursery service in a separate space; breakfast and lunch are served before and after worship, there’s a Starbucks in the lobby, you can pay your pledge with a credit card, and during the week you can attend not just Bible Study but weight-loss classes and aerobics. These are the churches of one-stop-shopping; and if Saint James Fordham is a boutique, they are Walmart; and they appear at first glance to be very successful. But you know what — the Crystal Cathedral had to close its doors a few years ago, and be sold. The question is, is this the gospel: do they have members or customers? What has happened to the gospel that Paul wanted to make “free of charge.” In the effort to be everything to everybody, is proclaiming the gospel taking second place to targeting a consumer market?

Saint Paul always had a very clear sense about why he was so flexible in accommodating those he met — so that he might by all means save some. “By all means” — in whatever way he could: the goal was to save: to proclaim the gospel.

Certainly a church needs to be willing to be open and flexible, ready to welcome all regardless of nationality or background, their culture or class. And the church also does cost money to maintain: I wish I could say, “The church is free of charge.” But we all know what it is to pay insurance, and electric bills, and snow removal, and all of the other things that come in our own lives - and the church is no different. The church also is charged to provide, out of what people give. Not just to be a place where people can gather but to be a place that can serve human need. I think we do a good job of that here at Saint James, and I trust we will do even better in months to come, as the Elijah Project grows and expands, and we welcome Kairos gatherings, as we welcome members of our families, and our friends, and our co-workers, to come here.

But we are called to be more than welcoming. We are called to provide those we welcome with the Gospel, not just with comfortable seats and nice music, with child care or yoga classes — even with food and clothing itself — but with the message that doesn’t just reassure but challenges; not something that merely entertains, but transforms.

We can learn from Paul and his willingness to be everything to everybody, learn to be open and welcoming, and flexible and ready to adapt to the needs of a changing world. But we can also learn from Paul and from our Lord how important it is to concentrate on the message of salvation offered in Jesus Christ.

Jesus healed, but then he moved on to proclaim the message, and finally to Jerusalem and Calvary, to the cross and the tomb, and then on to glory. The church gathers here to meet that same Jesus, the Jesus who healed, but also the Jesus who died for us and rose again; the Jesus who shed his blood upon the cross for our salvation: which is not merely the healing of our bodies but of our souls and spirits — he is the “One for all” to whom all of our “everything to everybody” evangelism leads.

May we never tire of the daily tasks of charity, but also let us not be wearied that we fail in the tasks of justice. May we welcome all, to guide them to the One. May we be strengthened to remain true to the commission we share with Saint Paul, to proclaim the gospel, so that by all means — in every way we can — we might save some.+

Faith in the Gospel

This is the gospel; this is grace, and this is glory...

Proper 4c • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
If we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed!

Starting today and for the next five weeks we will read portions of the Letter of Saint Paul to the Galatians. Over these weeks Bill and I are going to take advantage of this semi-continuous reading, to walk with you through this Letter, and to reflect on what it tells us about both Saint Paul and those to whom he wrote it; what it meant for them, and what it still means for us today. And after our worship, we’ll continue our reflections down in the study room, for anyone who wants to continue the discussion in Bible study.

The first thing to notice is that Saint Paul is mad — so mad that he barely finishes writing his return address at the start of the letter before he has launched into a defense and an attack. This is especially striking if you compare the opening verses of this letter with those of his other letters: he usually observes the standard form of first identifying himself, and then briefly stating to whom the letter is addressed, followed by a short prayer or a blessing. But here, just after identifying who the letter is from as “Paul, an apostle” — and before getting to the address and the greeting, he adds a quick parenthetical note in self-defense to assert his authority: that he is an apostle, and moreover one sent neither by human commission or from human authorities, but directly from God; I’m tempted to add, “so there!”

Right from the start, this Letter tells us something about Paul and something about the Galatians. Somebody in Galatia is challenging Paul’s authority; some are saying something along the lines of, “Who is this Paul anyway? Where does he come off calling himself an apostle? He wasn’t one of the twelve, was he? And didn’t he persecute Christians, arresting them and sending them to prison, and even taking part in their execution?”

So right from the start Paul is asserting that he is indeed an apostle and that he is moreover and apostle whose authority comes from God through supernatural agency — and he will tell his story in the passage that we will hear next week about just how this came to be.

But for now, he wants to get right to the point: someone has challenged him, and more importantly, challenged his gospel. Someone or ones are preaching a different gospel contrary to what Paul has been preaching. He will get to the details of this false gospel soon, but right here he sets the stage: there is no other true gospel than the one he has preached, and he even summarizes it in these first verses. Just as he included his self-defense of his apostolic status in his return address, when he comes to the address to the Galatians and the greeting, he says, “To the churches of Galatia: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ...” but then he rushes right from that into a summary form of the gospel that he has preached: “...the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.” (So there! again you might well say.)

This is Paul’s gospel, which he will expand upon later in the letter: that everyone, Jew or Greek, slave or free, man or woman, is saved through the sacrifice of Christ who gave himself for our sins even to death on the cross. This is the gospel he has been preaching throughout his ministry, about which his other letters bear testimony: we are not saved by ourselves, we are saved from ourselves, by God in Christ, by grace, through faith in him who died and was raised.

So why had this become a particular problem for the people of Galatia. Well, many if not most of them were Gentiles by ancestry. Someone had been telling them — and we will get the details later in the letter— that it wasn’t enough to accept Jesus Christ as your Savior, and to put your whole trust in his grace through faith; but that one had to earn salvation through the works of the law, in particular the law of Moses, which for men included circumcision.

As I say, we will get more details on this later in the epistle, but for now I want to highlight the fact that for Paul this entirely misses the point of grace, and it squarely contradicts his gospel, the gospel he has been preaching all that time. Salvation comes to us from God, and all we need do is turn to God in faith to receive it.

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We are helped to understand this by the other Scripture readings appointed for this day. We have a portion of King Solomon’s prayer to dedicate the temple he has constructed as a dwelling place for God in Jerusalem. This portion of the prayer asks for God’s grace upon all foreigners — all Gentiles — who turn their eyes and hearts and minds towards God and his dwelling and put their trust and faith in him, that God will hear their prayer, even though they are not followers of the Jewish law. Solomon understood God to be the God of the whole world, the Lord of everyone in it — King of kings and Lord of lords. And he beseeches God to hear the prayers of any foreigner, any Gentile, who turns towards God, and to answer that prayer with blessing.

Then, in the gospel, we hear the beautiful story of the faithful centurion — again, not a Jew but a Gentile, a Roman; one who has done much good for the Jewish community but who has not himself undergone the rite of circumcision required for any Gentile male to become a Jew. Here we have a specific example of a foreigner who has turned towards God — and in this case he has turned to God incarnate, Jesus Christ himself — making an appeal, not for himself, but for the sake of his sick servant, and doing so on the basis of trust and faith that the prayer will be answered, the request will be fulfilled. He recognizes his own unworthiness, but still he is not afraid to ask in faith, and knowing that Jesus has the power to grant his petition. Jesus gives the verdict on this astonishing case, “Not even in Israel have I seen such faith.”

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Such texts as these should have warmed the hearts of the Galatians — most of them Gentiles and foreigners to the Jewish way of life. These were a part of the promise that it is in turning towards God that they are saved, not by the works of the law. As will see in the coming weeks, a different gospel has been circulating among them, and people have been trying to undercut Paul’s authority by questioning both his pedigree and his gospel. But he will continue to press his case, both reasserting his authority and reaffirming the truth of the message that he has preached to the Galatians and will continue to preach throughout his ministry: that all are saved by grace through faith, by Christ who died and was raised — and not by the works of the law.

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And what about us? We who are, after all, all of us, Gentiles? We are here because we too have placed our trust and our faith in Jesus Christ our Lord, our Lord and our God. It is he who has saved us and not we ourselves. We too are assailed by “different” gospels — though they may not call themselves that. We are assailed by those who tell us that we will find happiness in the right car, the right video-game console, the right deodorant, the right restaurant, the right smart-phone, the right political party. We are told that we can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, lose weight with the right pill, learn a new language with the right computer program, get luscious hair with the right shampoo; we can even increase our testosterone if it’s gotten too low — all of these instrumentalities and products, combined with our own initiative, will make us happier people. Such is the gospel promise of today’s secular evangelists.

But in the long run these are as contrary to Paul’s gospel as that preached by those Galatian troublemakers. All these various things may occupy our time, but they will never make us better people. They may bring passing relief, but cannot heal the wound of division that separates us from God. Only one is capable of doing that, and all we need do is accept him. For he has done it for us already, two thousand years ago. He has, indeed, given us a commandment, most importantly that new commandment that we should love each other as he has loved us. But that commandment isn’t what saves us; what saves us is him: Jesus Christ, his death on the cross, and his rising to life again.

He has invited us to turn towards him, as the foreigners of old turned towards the temple in Jerusalem, as the centurion turned toward Jesus in his need and sent to bid healing for his servant. Jesus invites us to turn towards him, to stretch out our hands and to receive his body and blood, to take and eat, to take and drink. And we could do worse than recall those words, first spoken by the centurion, as we do so, words said in devotion even as we take that bread and take that cup: “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but speak the word only and my soul shall be healed.” This is the gospel; this is grace, and this is glory.+

Letting Go

St Paul catalogues his virtues and then throws the catalogue away! --- sermon for Proper 22a

SJF • Proper 22a • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.

There was once a very successful Turkish prize-fighter, named Ismail Yousouf. He traveled the world offering to fight anyone who would contest his strength, and he always won. In addition to his physical prowess, he also had a deep distrust of banks and bankers. Because of that, he kept his winnings in the form of gold coins that he carried with him at all times in a money belt around his waist. I suppose he might have re-written the Scriptural saying to read, “Where your treasure is, there will your stomach also be!” This decision, to keep his wealth as close to him as his skin, led to tragedy, however, when he had the misfortune to be sailing on the passenger liner La Bourgogne in the summer of 1898, when it collided with another vessel off the coast of Nova Scotia and sank. A few of the passengers escaped the disaster, but Yousouf was not among them: in spite of his physical strength, his gold money-belt weighed him down, and he sank into the depths like a stone. Perhaps after all the old saying isn’t quite true, and you can take it with you! But is it worth the trip?

Yousouf’s story is not unique — even on that ship on that day, in which fewer than a quarter of the passengers were saved, there must have been others who might have been saved had they resisted the temptation to turn back for some valued item — a necklace or a briefcase or a wallet — and waste valuable time and add to their burden in reaching the lifeboats.

In a similar vein Mark Twain wrote of his visit to the ruins of Pompeii where he saw the remains of a man who was caught in the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius just outside a door to a passage that might have protected him — now an ash-coated skeleton with a key to the door in one hand and ten gold coins in the other. Twain reflected, that had he not stopped to gather up the gold, he might have made it to the door.

The reality of someone dying because they won’t let go of some particular thing is so much a part of human culture that it has become what’s called a “trope” — which is a sort of fancy literary word for a cliché. How many movies have you seen where a character perishes for that very reason — failing to let go of some precious item. I’m sure you can think of many, and I won’t even start to list them,
but that word “precious” and the mention of volcanos can hardly pass without acknowledging poor Gollum and his obsession with the Ring of Power that ultimately leads him to his incinerated end at Mount Doom.

The moral of all of this is that some things are best let go of — and your life may depend on letting go. I reminded us last week of Jack Benny’s response to the challenge, “Your money or your life!” — “I’m thinking, I’m thinking!” — which is comical precisely because we recognize that tension in our own lives — that tension between what seems to be of value and what really is of ultimate value; and our recognition that some people really do choose money over life, dying because they won’t let go — or maybe living, but not really having much of a life.

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In our reading from Philippians last week we heard about how Jesus Christ let go — let go of everything — not to save his own life but to save the lives of all who would turn to him in faith. Though he was the Son of God, he did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped at or held on to, but rather emptied himself, taking on our human nature so as to live and die as one of us — for our sake and for our salvation.

In the continuation of Philippians we heard this morning, Saint Paul does a similar thing. He begins by cataloguing all of the things he could be proud of if he wished: his being an observant Jew, a scholar and a teacher, in zeal and devotion a leader of his people, a man rich in his own acquired righteousness under the law. But then he shows that he is willing to toss that glossy illustrated catalogue onto the rubbish heap. He will not allow all of these inheritances and accomplishments, these native qualities and acquired skills, to hold him back — as indeed they had held him back — from Christ and his resurrection. Ultimately Paul knows that he must let go of the things that were most precious to him in his life before he came to know Christ. For since knowing Christ, all of these things, however valuable and good they might be, are of no comparison to the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

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Think for a moment about your own life — what are the things that might hold you back? Is it pride in your family or your education? Is it consciousness of your skills or satisfaction with the uprightness of your life? None of these are bad things, mind — that’s the point. These are things worth valuing. They only become a problem when we hang on to them instead of letting go in order fully to grasp what is much more valuable than any such earthly good: to grasp our Lord, clinging to the hem of his garment, as if our life depended on it.

Because our life does depend on it. If anything — however good — impedes your ability to grasp Jesus and trust in his goodness in his righteousness; if your hands are full of anything else at all, however good or valuable they might be, trust in God and let go of it. Forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead, toward the goal of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. All else will be added unto you, if you put your whole trust in him who is the source of all good.

Let us pray. Lord Jesus Christ, you let go of everything for our sake, leaving the Father’s side to be with us as one of us, to save us from our sins. Help us to find the will and the way to strip off the money belt of reputation and rise from the ocean depths of materialism; to scatter the golden coins of pride, and place the key in the lock of the door that opens to salvation; to forsake the ring of power and prestige and accept the yoke of humble service; that we may at the last find our eternal home with you, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit live and reign for ever and ever.

To Be or Not To Be

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Pleasing Some People

The curse of the double-minded judge, and the freedom of the children of God.

SJF • Proper 9a 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
To what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.”
Some while ago I spoke about the fact that different people will find the same foods either enjoyable or awful. The same dish may be treated as a delicacy by some, and a culinary disaster by others — evoking delight or grimaces depending on the taste-buds of the diner.

It also appears to be true that some people are by nature “fault-finders” who will not be pleased whatever the dish set before them. Their noses are permanently upturned, and their manners ungrateful. Unlike the fussy Goldilocks — who at least found a bowl of porridge, and a chair, and a bed to her liking, and was at least satisfied a third of the time — there are folks who are just so picky that nothing completely pleases them. There is always something wrong for those who are impossible to please.

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Jesus confronted such people in the passage we heard from Matthew’s gospel. They’ve been offered two very different “dishes” — to continue my dining analogy. John the Baptist was what is called an ascetic: one who lived an austere life of fasting and privation. He lived in the desert wilderness, dressed in a camel’s hair mantle bound with a leather belt, and ate nothing but locusts and honey. And whether the “locusts” in question are the insects or the beans of the locust tree, it is a diet few, then or now, would be willing to duplicate. And what did these unpleasable people think of him? They thought he was crazy!
Then along comes Jesus, who, after his own relatively short but intense time of asceticism, during that forty days he spent in the wilderness fasting, returns to civilization and accepts the dinner invitations of well-to-do bourgeois tax-collectors, and passes his time in the company of women who, as the old euphemism has it, “are no better than they should be.” And what do these unpleasable people think of him? A glutton and a drunkard and a friend of sinners!

There is just no pleasing some people. If you don’t eat they condemn you as an overly scrupulous killjoy, and if you do eat they condemn you as a self-indulgent pleasure-seeking hedonist. And this condemnation — this refined ability not to be pleased with what is offered, this judgmental snobbery that wrinkles its nose towards whatever is presented to it — is held up as a kind of sophisticated wisdom.

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Jesus contrasts this snobbishness, this thing that passes for intelligence and wisdom, with the eager acceptance that infants will show for something that pleases them. How many times have I seen a child’s face light up at the first taste of a droplet of the sacred wine from the tip of my pinky finger on the day of that child’s baptism! Yet a connoisseur of fine wines would likely turn up his nose at the far from vintage port that we use as our communion wine — bought by the case from a liquor store in Yonkers with the distinctly déclassé name of Liquorfellers. Truly a certain kind of innocent ignorance is bliss!

But at a deeper level, this all points to the profound difference between judgment and enjoyment. One of the reasons that Jesus speaks so strongly and so often against judgment is that it actually is the biggest kill-joy of them all. It is very hard for a critic to enjoy whatever he or she is experiencing. A critic or a snob is always double-minded — of a double mind — because rather than simply enjoying what they are experiencing, a part of their mind is always standing back, comparing it, criticizing it, judging it. Off to the one side from the one enjoying and the thing enjoyed, is this analytical observer, this killjoy, the critic and the judge who tells you that you can’t really enjoy such a common or low-class thing.

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I don’t know how many of you may be familiar with “Keeping Up Appearances,” the television program featuring Hyacinth Bucket, who imagines her name ought to be pronounced Bouquet. She is a woman who has narrowed her own life, and that of her poor husband Richard, to the point where they can hardly enjoy anything any more. She is deeply embarrassed by all of her family members — except her sister Violet who married a well-off bookie, or as she says, a “turf accountant,” and who lives in a home with a Jacuzzi and a Mercedes and room for a pony. Hyacinth envies that one sister but she dreads encounters with the other two. She lives in terror that her only friend and neighbor will damage her hand-painted Royal Doulton tea-cups when she comes by for the obligatory visit. She spends so much of her life judging everything as not up to her standards, and in keeping up appearances, that she has little or no share in the raucous pleasures of her sisters Daisy and Rose. I’m sure that had she been around to hear the prophet Zechariah’s call to daughter Zion, to rejoice greatly at the coming of her king in humility riding on a donkey rather than in a chariot, she would have cringed said, “Really, Richard, a donkey!?”
This would be a tragedy if it were not for the fact that every once and a while Hyacinth is exposed — even to herself — for who she really is, and reluctantly lets her hair down and discovers she can in fact have a good time.

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Closer to our biblical texts, Saint Paul struggled inwardly with that spirit of judgment that kept him from living into the freedom of God’s love, the simple enjoyment of God’s forgiveness and grace. What he called “the law of sin” was at work in him at the very deepest level — that slavery to the law that is the fate of all who devote themselves to judgment rather than accepting the blessed liberty of the children of God. And Paul realized that the only way out of that double-mindedness was single-mindedly to throw himself, as one weary of carrying the heavy burden of the “body of death,” into the arms of Jesus, the source of rescue and rest, redemption and release.

Jesus offers himself, to all who are weary of the need to be in charge, to be displeased at others or themselves, and to accept him as the end of all of their burdens. We are free, like those in the crowds who simply would not be pleased, secure in their own sense of judgment and critique, to reject the offer of rescue and relief. But how much better to accept the offer of peace and joy as a child who reaches out for the sweet reward that is offered by a loving Father.

We have such a Father, made known to us in the Son of God himself, who with that Father and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever.+

What's Missing?

SJF • Proper 11c 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
In my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.

This morning’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Colossians includes one of the more difficult passages in Scripture. Paul declares that he himself is “completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” It sounds as if Paul is saying that Christ’s sufferings were somehow insufficient — as if his death on the cross was somehow not a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice of himself once offered, for us and for our salvation. Could it possibly be that Paul, the great defender of salvation through Christ alone, the great champion of the saving cross of Christ, could be suggesting that Christ’s sufferings were themselves “lacking”?

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In several of my sermons over the years I have used the image of a gift: a birthday or Christmas or some other present. Usually such gifts are beautifully wrapped. Often they come with a card. But as I have asked once before, would any of you receive such a present, such a beautifully wrapped gift, but leave it wrapped and unopened? If you did so, you might say that you have the gift even if you haven’t opened the package and don’t even know what the gift is. But in truth you don’t really have the gift until both of these things are accomplished: until that wrapping comes off, the box is opened, and you see what the gift is. Unless you are one of those who believe you can “have your cake and eat it too” — I think you will agree that there is more to really having a gift than just holding it in your hands.

Or think of it this way: there were once two good friends, Jim and Tom, who were always engaging in little friendly wagers with each other. Jim normally won the bets, so often so that on one occasion when Tom bet Jim ten dollars on whose memory of a baseball score was right, and won — Tom proudly said he would frame the ten dollar bill and never spend it. Whereupon Jim said, “In that case, can I write you a check?”

We all know that an uncashed check is something like an unopened gift. You may wave the check in the air and say that you’ve got the $10; but until you cash that check, or deposit it in your own account and wait for it to clear, that $10 is still really resting in someone else’s account — and if you never cash he check or deposit it, that’s where it will stay, in someone else’s bank. A check isn’t money, but a promise of money. And if there is nothing to back up that promise, it is worthless. It’s no good saying, “My account can’t be overdrawn; I still have checks left!” If you don’t have money in the bank, in your account, any check you write will be just a piece of paper, with nothing to back it up. For a check really to be of any value you need to have something on deposit in your account.

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The crucial word in all of this is that simple little two-letter word in. What Paul is saying is that the package has been presented and is being unwrapped — the mystery that had been hidden throughout the ages and generations — the contents of the package, what’s in it — is in the process of being revealed — but not only in the death of Christ on the cross, but also in the flesh of believers, his flesh, Paul’s that is, and the flesh of the people of Colossae, Corinth, Ephesus and wherever the church has spread the Gospel. And what that mystery is — the contents of the package, — is the mystery of the Church itself, the body of Christ: the whole company of all the faithful who are in Christ as Christ is in them. As Paul says, the mystery of God is “Christ in you.”

Thus, when the church suffers, Christ suffers. When the church suffers, Christ’s sufferings are added to. And this isn’t just a crazy idea that Paul came up with on his own. He learned it from personal experience from the Lord Jesus Christ himself. For when Paul, or as he was known in those days, Saul, was himself busily persecuting the church, rounding up Christians, members of the Body of Christ, and sending them off to prison or punishment or torture or death — when the Lord Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus what did he say? “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Persecute me!” That’s what Jesus said to Saul the persecutor of the church. Jesus was saying to Saul, “When you persecute and hurt the church, you persecute and hurt me.” For the church is the body of Christ, it is his body, that Paul, or Saul, was persecuting. This was a hard lesson for Saul to learn, but learn it he did: The suffering of the church is the suffering of Christ himself.

Now, there is nothing new in this — after all, Jesus had said, in his preaching on the end days, in that powerful passage from the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, “Whatever you have done to the least of these who believe in me you have done it to me.” Whenever and wherever the church is persecuted, perhaps most especially when one part of the church persecutes another — member against member, one part of the body against another part of the body — whenever the church suffers, Christ suffers, for the church is his body and each of us are individually members of it. As Paul also reminds us, when one member suffers all suffer — we are truly all in this together, and how we treat each other is how we treat Jesus — for he is in us as we are in him.

Which is why the sufferings of Christ are not yet complete. The package has not been completely unwrapped — the check has been deposited but it has not yet cleared. Until the last great day when all is swallowed up in that final victory, suffering continues: our suffering for and with each other, our suffering due to our own failings and sins and the sins of the world, and the suffering that we inflict on others in our ignorance and imperfection: all of this will continue to contribute to the suffering of Christ in his body the church. And all of this suffering is taken up by Christ not as a surplus added to what took place on Calvary, but rather as a working out in us of what was accomplished once for all by him — the full revelation of his gift to all of us, which is the gift of the cross that was presented for all the world on that spring afternoon during Passover-time in Jerusalem of old — but whose impact is felt in each of us as we take up our own cross day by day. This is nothing less than the full negotiation of that promissory note — the fulfillment of salvation — a check that will not clear for good and all until the last great day. It continues as long as this earthly life shall last — for there are many who yet will be saved who have not yet even been born!

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As each of us suffers, our sufferings are taken up by Christ. Paul suffers with Christ “in his flesh” — as he also said to the Galatians: “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ living in me; and the life I live in the flesh is the life of faith in the son of God.” As each of us, too, takes up our cross day by day, we participate in the sufferings of Christ.

For Christ’s work is finished but not ended — there are still many in the world who hold him in contempt, or who are ignorant of his good will and purpose for them. And as I said before, there are many yet who will come to believe who have not even been born. The mystery of the kingdom of God is in some ways like those gift boxes that you open only to find another smaller box inside, and then another inside that, and then another. We will only come to the end, an end to all suffering — both Christ’s and our own — when he comes in power and great glory to rule the world. And what a day that will be! And so we pray, Come Lord Jesus, come. +

Where Love Abides

SJF • Easter 6b 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.+

For as long as I can remember, at least since I was four or five years old, I have had a great love for dinosaurs. I know I am not alone in this, and there are probably more than a few people here who as children staged dinosaur combats with diminutive molded plastic figures of those ancient giants. One of my earliest church memories — I couldn’t have been much older than six — is about arguing with the Sunday School teacher about which day of creation God made the dinosaurs. (I could be a very annoying child!) There was a time I could rattle off the names, terrible-sounding polysyllables worthy of these mysterious monsters from the dawn of time. I’ve forgotten most of the names I knew, and they’ve added so many new ones as discoveries continue, that I can’t keep up. But my fascination and interest still remains.

So a few years ago, when I first saw the previews for the Disney film called simply Dinosaur, I knew I would have to see it. Well, it lived up to all of my expectations, as well of those of a theater full of attentive viewers, most of whom were much, much younger than me!

And lest you find it odd that I am talking about a dinosaur movie in the context of a sermon, I do so because a major theme of the film — and actually a major theme of just about every movie Disney or his successors ever made — is also a major theme of our Scripture readings today. For the primary message of the film is the difference between conflict and cooperation.

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This theme is echoed in our readings as the difference between self-giving love and self-centered fear. We are called to love one another, and even more, we are commanded to love one another by our Lord Jesus Christ. The fact that we are called and commanded reveals a simple truth: love is not natural, it is something we have to be reminded to do, called to do, commanded to do. If love came naturally, the world would be a very different place, and people wouldn’t be singing about “what the world needs now” — because we’d already have it without having to sing for it.

The history of life on earth, including the dinosaurs — and this is where the Disney movie departs from reality and heads off for fantasy land — life without the call and command of God is not loving. Life without the call and command of God is survival of the fittest, every man — or dinosaur — for himself, and the devil — or the Tyrannosaurus — take the hindmost. Nature without love is, as Tennyson observed, “red in tooth and claw” and natural life — as Thomas Hobbes put it — is “nasty, brutish, and short,” though Hobbes thought the answer was good government rather than the love of God.

But to get back to Disney’s fable: in the real world of the Jurassic age there was no enlightened dinosaur to teach that cooperation is better than competition, that the way to survival is not to be found through victory over the weak, but through charity. Real dinosaurs are not charitable! Love does not come natural, and love does not come easy

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Yet love does come. Even more important, love did come. Love came down in the person of Jesus Christ, the only Son of the God, God who is love — in person. God is the love that fills the universe with his desire for unity and wholeness, love that draws together things that are flying apart by spreading out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross, to draw it all back together again, love that lifts up things that have been cast down, by stooping to the very depths to get under the weight of a fallen world and hoist it up on his shoulders.

Love came down to us in the person of Jesus Christ, and love called us and gave us a commandment: “Love one another; abide in my love.” This is the love that is greater than any other, the love that lays down its own life for the sake of the beloved; the love that puts others ahead of itself.

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This is the love we are called to; this is the love we are commanded to have for one another. This love is not just affection or warm feelings, but the gift of your very self for the sake of the ones you love. This is the love that marked the first Christian communities, such as the one that Barnabas gathered in Antioch, to which he called Saul, and in which those who believed in Jesus Christ were first called “Christians.” They must have been a particularly loving community — after all, they are one of the few to which Saint Paul did not have to write a letter of admonishment!

Somehow it seems they got it right, and the Scripture witnesses to their generosity and love in response to the prophetic warning that a world-wide famine was coming. Instead of hoarding their own resources, as well they might have done in the face of the terrible news, instead of looking out for themselves they took up a relief collection and sent it to Judea at the hands of Barnabas and Saul.

Think about that for a moment. For the ancient Christians of Antioch it wasn’t “every man for himself” but everyone for somebody else. The Christians of Antioch, were filled with the Holy Spirit, which is the Spirit of love. They didn’t fear for their own survival but risked all they could, to take up a collection to help the faithful three hundred miles away. God’s love, at work in their hearts, cast out the fear that urged them towards self-preservation, the fear that would have them concentrate on their own survival. God’s love transformed them into generous and memorable souls who were the first to be worthy of that old hymn refrain, “They will know we are Christians by our love.” And so it was in Antioch, that the believers were for the first time known by the name “Christian.”

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And this is still true. People will know we are Christians by our love. We will gain that name, that identity, not because we’ve got it printed on I.D. cards in our pockets, or name-tags round our necks; not because there’s a sign on the door or a cross on the roof. Anybody can get an I.D. card these days; anybody can put a sign on their door or a cross on their roof. Anybody can plaster a bumper sticker on their car, proudly asking you to honk if you love Jesus. Well, I can tell you, Jesus did not command us to honk; he commanded us to love each other as he has loved us! Anybody can slap a WWJD bracelet on their wrist — you know, the one that asks What Would Jesus Do? Well in response to WWJD, I say H C Y D W J W D I Y D K W H D: How Can You Do What Jesus Would Do If You Don’t Know What He Did? There are plenty of folks who call Jesus their Lord without the least interest in doing what he did, or even in doing what he said. What Jesus said is, “Love one another, Abide in my love,” and what he did was to lay down his life for his friends.

Jesus commanded us to love one another because he knew it takes a divine commandment to override the built-in natural drive to self-preservation that all of God’s creatures have carried in their brains and bodies from before the dinosaurs to today. Love is unnatural: natural selection is based on the survival of the fittest, not the love of the most generous. “Love comes from God,” as John the Beloved Disciple wrote, “We love because he first loved us.”

Love comes from God, for God is love. Love isn’t something we thought up, it is something God gives us. The love of God is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit that is given to us. It takes the grace of God to turn away from the biological imperative to preserve oneself, to favor oneself, it takes the grace of God to embrace the call of God to sacrifice oneself for others, to place others first. It takes God’s call and command to think first about the misfortune and need of another before you tend to yourself; to take up the collection for people you’ve never met when you hear they are facing famine, even when you yourself may not know where your next meal is coming from.

But this is what our loving God through Christ commands us to do, and this is what loving God through the Spirit empowers us to do. And when we do, we too will be known to be Christians as were the first believers in Antioch. We too will be known to be Christians by our love. Not because of the sign on the door, or the cross on the roof, the i.d. card in our pocket, the name-tag round our necks, the bumper sticker on our cars, or the bracelet on our wrist. But because the love of God dwells in our hearts, through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us, in Jesus Christ our Lord.+

Everything to Everybody

SJF • Epiphany 5b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.+

At the retreat I attended the week before last, the gathering reflected on the tension between the works of charity — feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, and so on — and the works of justice — seeking to transform society by getting down to the roots of what causes hunger, poverty, and an inefficient health care system. One thing with which I came away from this discussion was how, for the church, it is a “both / and” situation. We are called to help the individuals who come across our path with food, clothing, and care — like the Good Samaritan. But we are also called to work for the good of the whole society in which we live, to help fight the causes of hunger and poverty. I also noted that Jesus, in his own ministry, takes part of both aspects — immediate charity and systemic change — he heals those who come before him, but also — on the cross, and through his blood — heals and saves the whole world.

Many who have no belief in God, even a few atheists down through history, have said that while they can accept Jesus as a good and wise man, even if they don’t accept him as the Son of God; they can see he taught good things, did good things, even healed the sick — though they ascribe his ability to heal to his persuasive personality acting on suggestible individuals, rather than to supernatural power acting on disease and demons.

And it is easy to see how a shallow reading of the Gospel might lead to this assessment. Jesus does spend a good deal of his time preaching and teaching and especially healing.

Our gospel today is a good example. Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law. Word spreads and the sick and possessed of Capernaum gather at the doorstep come sundown, and he cures many of them. Even Peter sees Jesus in this light, as a great healer, and chases after him when he leaves in the early morning, to bring him back to the village to continue the healing work.

What Peter fails to understand, and what the non-believers are even further from understanding, is that Jesus does not see himself primarily as a healer of the sick, but as the bearer of a message. Jesus does do the exhausting work of healing in response to the crowds who seek his touch, and we know it was exhausting from the story of the woman with the hemorrhage; you recall, she crept up behind Jesus and said, if I only touch the hem of his garment, I’ll be healed. And she did so, and what did Jesus feel? He felt the power drain out of him, as that healing took place. So we know it was exhausting to him.

So when morning comes he slips away in the pre-dawn darkness so he can have a little rest and to collect himself, and most importantly, to pray. And when Peter comes after him, to drag him back because “everyone is searching” for him, Jesus tells him that it is time to move on to other towns, time to move on to proclaim the message, for that is what he came to do.

Jesus did not come to earth to set up a clinic, to settle down as a Galilean country doctor, but to spread the good news of salvation — which is the healing of the whole person, body and soul, from the deadly effects of living in this fallen world of ours. He came to save that world itself, from the effects of its fallenness.

Jesus did not want to be everything to everybody, a jack of all trades but master of none! Jesus came to reveal himself not as everything to everybody but as One for all, the master of God’s household, come to set that house in order. He is even more than the bearer of a message — he the message itself: he is the Word of God.

Jesus came to earth not simply to heal a few Palestinian Israelites of their maladies, but to heal all of fallen humanity from its enslavement to sin. Jesus came to earth not simply to teach some basic principles of good behavior, justice and fairness, but to be the source of light and life for the world. Jesus did not come to earth simply to spread the good news, this gospel: he was the good news. Jesus only had to be himself to be the living presence of God — the Word of God made flesh — for that is what he was. After all, there were dozens of preachers and teachers and healers in first century Israel. But there was only one Son of God.

Ultimately, the Gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t about all his good deeds as teacher or healer, but about who he was, and who he is: the Son of God, the savior of the world. This is the heart of the gospel truth.

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Saint Paul, on the other hand, knew very well that he was not the message, he was not the Word of God, but the messenger, one who delivered the Word of God. Preaching the gospel was no source of pride or boasting, it was an obligation, a commission, a duty. In his preaching Paul worked every angle, taking every opportunity to make the gospel accessible to as many different sorts and conditions of people as he could, always with that goal of winning them to Christ, always with the goal of bringing them to salvation.

Because Paul was the messenger, he knew how important it was that his message be understood. And so he took on many roles to reach many people, to meet people “where they were” and to speak to them in a language they could understand, so that the precious message wouldn’t pass them by. To his fellow Jews Paul emphasized his own background in Judaism, as a disciple of the great Rabbi Gamaliel, whose teachings are recorded in the Talmud and studied by pious Jews even to this day. Paul would argue the Torah with the best of them, as well as making use of the different traditions withing Judaism, between the Sadducees from Pharisees, for instance.

To Gentiles outside the Jewish covenant, Paul moved with the ease and liberty of a Roman citizen of no mean city, a man acquainted with the latest trends in Greek philosophy, and able to quote the classical poets to Greeks and Romans as well as he was to quote Moses to his fellow Jews.

Paul did want to be everything to everybody, but only so that he could lead them to the One for all, Jesus Christ.

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So where does the church today find itself? Are we everything to everybody? One for all? Some of the leading experts on church growth point to the booming megachurches of the South and the West. These are huge building complexes with worship auditoriums ranged with rows of reclining padded seats. Instead of hymnals and prayer books, the texts are projected on giant screens during services. And those services are accompanied by orchestras, and you won’t find a child in the congregation, because the have full nursery service in a separate space; breakfast and lunch are served before and after worship, there’s a Starbucks in the lobby, you can pay your pledge with a credit card, and during the week you can attend classes not just in Bible Study but weight-loss and aerobics. These are the churches of one-stop-shopping; and if Saint James Church is a boutique, they must be the Mall of America; and they appear at first glance to be very successful. The question is, do they have members or customers?

What has happened to the gospel that Paul wanted to make “free of charge.” In the effort to be everything to everybody, is proclaiming the gospel taking second place to meet the carefully targeted needs of a consumer market?

Saint Paul always had a very clear sense about why he was being so flexible and accommodating to those he met — so that he might by all means save some. “By all means” — in whatever way he could: the goal was to save. Certainly a church needs to be willing to be open and flexible, ready to welcome all regardless of nationality or background, their culture or class. The church also is charged to provide for basic human needs. And I think we do a good job of that here at Saint James, with our efforts to help the Carpenters’ Kids; and I trust we will do even better when we complete our work on restoring the parish hall, and now that the basement office is brand-spanking new, and when we move our financial operations into that space, we will be able to start up our food pantry and thrift shop.

We are called to be more than welcoming and accommodating. We are called to provide those we welcome and accommodate with the Gospel, not just with comfortable seats and nice music, with child care and yoga classes — even with food and clothing itself — but with that message that doesn’t just reassure but challenges; not something that merely entertains, but transforms.

We can learn from Paul and his willingness to be everything to everybody, learn to be open and welcoming, and flexible and ready to adapt to the needs of a changing world. But we can also learn from Paul and from our Lord how important it is to concentrate on the message of salvation revealed in Jesus Christ.

Jesus healed, but then he moved on to proclaim the message, and finally to Jerusalem and Calvary, to the cross and the tomb, and then on to glory. The church gathers here and everywhere it gathers to meet that same Jesus, the Jesus who healed, but also the Jesus who died for us and rose again; the Jesus who shed his blood upon the cross for our salvation: which is not merely the healing of our bodies but of our souls and spirits — he is the “One for all” to whom all of our “everything to everybody” evangelism leads.

May we never tire of the daily tasks of charity, but also be not so wearied that we fail in the tasks of justice. May we welcome all, to guide them to the One. May we be strengthened to remain true to the obligation and commission that we share with Saint Paul, to proclaim the gospel, so that by all means — in every way we can — we might save some.+

Knowing and Loving

SJF • Epiphany 4b 2009 • Tobias Haller BSG
Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge, but anyone who loves God is known by him.+

Alexander Pope, the English poet of the eighteenth century, wrote that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” Sometimes, Saint Paul assures us, too much knowledge — or rather thinking you know more than you do — can be dangerous as well. Ignorance can get you into trouble, but so can thinking that you know something about which you are mistaken.

This is where we get into the world of known unknowns — things you know that you do not know, and unknown unknowns — things you don’t even know that you don’t know. For instance, I know that I don’t know how much the moon weighs — though I could find out by looking it up. That’s a known unknown. But in the days before Galileo discovered them, no one would have wondered how much the moons of Jupiter weighed, because no one even imagined that Jupiter had any moons. That was, at that time, an unknown unknown.

But what is even more dangerous is to have in your head something you think is a known known — something you are sure you know — but about which you are mistaken. Someone who thinks the moon is made of green cheese, for example, may also know that the moon exists and how much it weighs, but be entirely mistaken about the material from which it is made. And dare I remind us that the man who brought up all these distinctions in recent years, between known unknowns and unknown unknowns, Donald Rumsfeld, was himself a victim of his own partial and incorrect knowledge — his belief in the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq — when there weren’t any there. When a little knowledge, partial knowledge, puffs you up to the point where you think you know more than you actually do, trouble is sure to happen.

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One day a rushed businessman had a few moments between connecting flights at an airport, and he decided to go to the crowded café for a snack. He bought a newspaper at the newsstand, then got a paper cup of coffee at the counter, along with a very tempting bag of Famous Amos cookies. Juggling his shoulderbag and his newspaper, his coffee and cookies, his hat, coat and gloves, he found his way to the tables in the food court. In the midst of the crowd he was pleased to find an empty table, where he settled all his belongings, sat down and began reading the paper. A few moments later, a stranger’s voice attracted his attention, and peering over the top of his paper asked if he might share the table. The man gave a curt and businesslike nod and went back to reading.

Another few moments passed as he perused the news on the latest declines and crises, when he heard, coming from the other side of the newspaper wall he had erected, the distinct crinkle of a Famous Amos cookie bag being opened. Lowering the paper, he saw that the man sitting opposite him had opened his bag of cookies, which he’d left lying on the table between them, and smiling at him all the while with a look of guilty pleasure, the stranger took one out and ate it. Well, the man was speechless; but he reached over, took a cookie out of the bag, and with a somewhat defiant crunch ate it. The stranger smiled again, and took another cookie from the bag, after which the man, glaring at him, also took another himself and munched it even more defiantly. This went on for a bit, until the stranger reached into the bag and came up with the last cookie. Smiling, he broke it in half, popped half in his mouth and handed the other half to the still-astonished businessman. Shaking his head in disbelief at this audacity, he nonetheless took the half-cookie and ate it even more aggressively, as if by crunching fiercely he might finally convict his opponent of his incredible presumption.

Just as he had worked himself up to the point of saying what he thought of this unbelievable behavior, a voice came over the PA system to announce his connecting flight was boarding. He hastily gathered up his shoulderbag, coat and gloves and newspaper, and made his way through the bustling crowds to the gate. As he approached the desk, he reached into the side-flap of his shoulder-bag to get the ticket for the connecting flight, and there, next to the ticket, neatly nestled, his fingers encountered his unopened bag of Famous Amos cookies.

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Knowledge puffs up, especially too little knowledge, while love, even a little bit of love, can build up. The Corinthians, about whom we heard last week, and about whom we will hear more as we move towards Lent, the Corinthians thought of themselves as particularly knowledgeable and sophisticated. Corinth was, after all, a cultural center of ancient Greece, a cosmopolitan city. What Paul was attempting to teach them, in an unusually gentle way for him, was that maybe they didn’t know quite as much as they thought, or know about what really mattered. The Corinthians’ knowledge told them that as there is only one true God, that idols are mere nothings, and not worth worrying about, so eating food offered to them was permissible, since in their sophistication they knew that such an offering was meaningless. But like the man who thought the stranger was taking his cookies, they were only seeing things from their side, from their perspective.

Paul tried to show them the other side, what their knowledge might do, what results it might have, if some Christian believer less sophisticated than they were to see them eating food in a pagan temple. “Take care,” Paul said, “that this liberty of yours does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” So Paul urged them to temper their knowledge with love and consideration for their weaker brothers and sisters, who might take offense at their sophisticated liberty. He urged them to be more like the stranger in our airport story, who though he could have been indignant with this man for taking half of what really were his cookies, smiled tolerantly and even shared the last half-cookie with him. His knowledge, the generous man’s, while complete, was tempered with charity. He would not, as Paul said, allow food to become a cause of someone’s fall.

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A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. And much knowledge, untempered by love, can be a very dangerous thing. For knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Knowledge in itself is morally neutral, like a shovel. Use a shovel to dig a ditch, or plant a garden, and you accomplish something useful. But use a shovel to whack someone over the head and you have turned it into a weapon.

Knowledge, by itself, does not always lead to virtue, and knowledge without love can be cold, empty and vicious. As we see from our Gospel this morning, the demon recognized Jesus immediately, before many of the disciples, even, and said, “I know who you are.” You’d better believe the demons know who Jesus is, and as Saint James famously said, they tremble in that knowledge. Their knowledge does them no good, because they rejected God at the very beginning, choosing to take their own course rather than rejoicing in the one God had intended for them.

So Jesus doesn’t engage the demon in a debate concerning the facts. The facts are as the demon states them. No, Jesus simply orders the demon to shut up and get out, to leave God’s human creature, God’s human child, alone! As the old Appalachian folk song says, “Get your finger out of it, it don’t belong to you!”

Yes, knowledge in itself, without love, is worthless, even dangerous; it puffs up; it gives those who possess it an inflated estimation of themselves; while love, which is so often expressed in humility and charity, is blessed, and it builds up.

The Corinthians didn’t heed Paul’s warning, and continued bickering for decades more before their church finally fell apart. That is a warning to us all not to place our trust in our knowledge, however extensive we may think it is, but to put our trust in God’s love. Knowledge always has limits, and can never be perfect until that final day when all is revealed. In the meantime, let us take care with one another, loving first rather than leaping to judgment on the basis of uncertain knowledge. For in all that we do with each other, can we really be sure we know whose cookies we’re eating?

Let us pray, as we do in the final blessing, for the peace of God that passes all understanding, that we may be kept safe and secure in the knowledge, but more importantly, in the love, of Jesus Christ our Lord.+

The Fire Alarm

SJF • Epiphany 3b 2009 • Tobias Haller BSG
And immediately they left their nets and followed him.+

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, once said that the Constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech does not give one the right to yell “Fire” in a crowded theater. He was assuming, of course, that there was no fire. It would indeed be a dangerous prank to shout “Fire” in any crowded place — when there is no fire. People could be seriously injured, maybe even killed, in the panic.

But what if there is a fire? What if there is some imminent danger and you see it? What do the signs in the subway warn us? “Si ves algo, di algo — if you see something, say something.” Surely it is incumbent upon you to do something to warn those around you of danger they — and you — are in, and shouting might just be the best way to do it. This is part of our understanding of civic duty — the responsibility we bear for one another. And it is no accident that the ancient rabbis taught that one of the principle failings of the wicked city of Sodom was precisely that people there did not look after one another, did not look out for others. It was said that the people of that wicked town were the sort who if they saw both your and their house on fire, would fight the fire at their own house but leave yours to burn.

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In today’s Gospel Jesus bursts upon the scene fresh from his baptism and temptation in the wilderness, which in the headlong style of Mark’s Gospel have taken up only the first thirteen verses. We are hardly off the first page, and yet the story presses on. The story has hardly begun and here is Jesus storming in and crying out, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” And immediately, to use one of Mark’s favorite words, immediately he calls those four disciples — Simon, Andrew, our own patron James and his brother John — and immediately they follow him, leaving behind their nets, their boats, and in the case of the two sons of Zebedee, their bewildered father and the hired servants. It is as if Jesus has burst into the crowded theater and shouted, “Fire!” and the audience has jumped up and run for the exits, tossing buckets of popcorn in the air and leaving their coats and handbags behind in the rush to escape the disaster.

That is the immediacy with which Jesus delivered his message, and the immediacy with which the received it — at least by some of those who heard it. And let us recall what “immediate” means — with nothing in between, no intermission, no transition or connection. Those who follow Jesus will leave behind all the connections to their former lives: their nets, their boats, even their families. They will be transformed into disciples, and given a new task, to fish for people. And it happens all at once, without preparation or warning or transition. Jesus calls; they follow; no questions asked — immediately.

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It seems strange then to turn to our reading from Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. In contrast with the panicked immediacy of Mark’s gospel it is as if Saint Paul is saying, “Not so fast!” He says, “Let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned,” and later, “Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called.” Could it be, after Jesus calls out, “Fire!” that Paul should counter, “Sorry folks; false alarm”? Of course not, and if we look more closely at what Paul is saying, we can learn that far from contradicting Jesus’ gospel, Paul’s warning is — in its own way — a realization of it.

Paul is not saying, ignore the call of Christ: on the contrary Paul is saying that Christ is calling at least some of the Corinthians to do what they are already doing, because that is what God wants. Let each of you lead the life, he says, that the Lord assigned, and the state in which God has called you.

While Jesus did and does call some to leave their nets and boats and families behind to follow him as disciples on the road, Paul assures the Corinthians that Jesus also calls some people — in fact most people — to stay right where they are, right as they are, to “bloom where they are planted” as the old saying goes. Paul assures us that God calls some to stay put and do the work God has given them to do with singleness of heart, and to do that work with the newly discovered commission that it is God’s work, and that the kingdom needs those who toil at home as much as it needs those who toil on the road. And what could be more immediate than continuation? Continuing to do God’s work without intermission, being assured at last that this is the task the Lord has assigned? Discipleship takes many forms: for some it means totally changing their lives, for others, a deeper commitment to the life they already lead.

For what matters ultimately is how one’s heart stands with God, how well one’s heart is attuned to God’s will for each and every one of us. The Corinthian congregation was being split apart by some troublemakers who were insisting that in order for Gentile men to become Christian they had to be circumcised. Others felt that anyone who had given in to that teaching had betrayed the faith, and should seek to remove the marks of circumcision. It is hard for us to imagine the church being torn apart over such matters, though we have been through many similar debates in recent years, which centuries or decades from now may seem just as absurd as the circumcision argument did to Saint Paul. “Circumcision is nothing, uncircumcision is nothing,” Paul affirms, “but obeying the commandments of God is everything. Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called.” The problem, of course, as I’m sure some of the Corinthians must have said to Paul, is that the Scripture was clear. The Scripture demanded circumcision of any Gentile male who wanted to be part of the holy people, anyone who wanted to eat of the Passover. But as Paul would also say to the Corinthians, “That was then; this is now. Since Christ has come, he is our Passover who has been sacrificed for us. Things have changed, and Paul is trying to get the Corinthians to hear God’s call to them in the blood of Jesus, over the noise of their squabbles — and they squabbled over just about everything, spending their time in useless controversies instead of building up the church for which Christ died and rose again, and to whom he gave his body and his blood. That is the thing Paul keeps trying to call them back to again and again — the significance of that holy meal, the Holy Eucharist. But, of course, they even argued about that!

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This is a powerful lesson for us. This is a lesson for us as a congregation, and a lesson for all Christian congregations, a warning not to act like the Corinthians and let the church fall apart over matters about which God doesn’t give a hoot.

But there is also a lesson for us as individuals. Some of us will be called to life-changing tasks, like the fishermen by the sea-side, called to follow Jesus by leaving behind the nets of entanglement with the old life, abandoning the boats that provided security and livelihood, and even forsaking the comfort and support of family and home. Other of us, and if we can judge from Paul it will be the majority, will be called to follow Jesus by finding his commandments for us in our hearts, by discovering, like little Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” that there’s no place like home, and that we can be most effective blooming where we’re planted, bearing fruit in season and flourishing with leaves that do not wither.

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Downstairs in my office is a picture of a liturgy in this church from about 1985, and I can see myself in it, and I’m sitting right there. Father Basil Law is opposite on the other side, as Bishop Paul Moore preaches in the aisle. I had no idea at the time that God would call me one day to follow him on a path that would lead me to seminary and to priesthood, and a parish up in Yonkers; but then by his grace to be planted right back here just a few feet from where I was almost 25 years ago!

But that is how the call of God works sometimes. Sometimes when God yells out “Fire” you will discover that the fire is in your own heart, and it is a fire God doesn’t want you to put out, but to share, and God will help you find the place to share it best, if you will let him. That is what Paul tried to tell the difficult Corinthians, that by squabbling over the gift they were destroying it, like peevish children who fight over a toy and end up breaking it beyond repair, and neither of them can enjoy it. God calls us, all of us and each of us, sometimes to journey, sometimes to remain, but always to be his. God calls us each by name as I said two weeks ago, and gives us each a task as I said last week. He knows our going out and our coming in, our rising up to follow on the road, or our sitting down to work where we are. May we — each of us and all of us — answer his call, be faithful to our task, and ever conscious of his presence, the burning of the Holy Spirit, the fire of his love in our hearts; to whom we give — as Father Basil Law was always wont to say from this pulpit — as is most justly due, all might, majesty, power and dominion, henceforth and forever more.+

A Weeding Lesson

Saint James Fordham • Proper 11a • Tobias Haller BSG
The householder said, “In gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest...”

Today’s Gospel is the second in a series of three parables about seeds. Last week, we heard about the seeds that were broadcast on all sorts and conditions of soil, and how they fared — growing or withering. And next week we’ll hear about that famous mustard seed of faith.

Today, we have what appears to be a story of early agricultural terrorism — an enemy’s plot to infect a wholesome field of wheat with weed-seed; and we also hear about the wise farmer’s response. As with all parables, this story has a symbolic message, and in today’s Gospel Jesus explains the symbol and the message it bears. And the message, for us today as for his original hearers, is “Be Patient,” or more specifically, “Don’t rush to judgment!”

Now all of us here know about impatience. We live in New York City, after all, renowned for its hectic pace, its hurrying and scurrying life style. From time to time we all experience the urge to rush things along, to hasten and hustle and bustle when we should perhaps step back and take a look before we leap.

But impatience is not a quality restricted to modern times and modern places. There is plenty of evidence of impatience in our Scriptures. Look at those hasty household servants, ready to rush in and pull up the weeds with a vengeance, only to destroy the good wheat as well. Thank goodness for the wise householder!

On the other hand, Saint Paul, who would not normally be held up as an example of patience, today picks up that same theme, the eager but long wait of the whole creation, hoping and waiting in patience for its liberation.

We might well note, however, that patience is not characteristic of Saint Paul! Always so sure he is on the right track even when he is terribly wrong — as when he persecutes Christians and thinks he is doing God a favor. And even after his conversion from time to time he displays that same old impatience. Even in today’s reading, where he talks about waiting with patience, it is a very impatient kind of patience, in which he portrays creation waiting in eager longing, groaning and crying out like a woman in labor, longing for delivery. I pity the poor husband who tells his wife, while she’s experiencing a contraction, “Just be patient, dear...” A woman in labor doesn’t want to be patient — she wants it to be over! So perhaps Saint Paul did not understand patience all that well.

The farmworkers in our parable today echo this anxious impatience. “Let’s get those weeds!” is their motto. But the voice of the Master, the voice of Jesus, says, “No, for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest.” At harvest time, the Master assures us, the sorting out will take place, and the weeds will burn while the grain is gathered in.

Now, as I said, this parable isn’t about agriculture: it was a a warning to the early church, and it is the same warning to our church today. It would have been a warning to Saint Paul, had he been around to hear it. Before his conversion, while he was still known as Saul, he thought it was his job, he even thought he had a divine commission, to go about sorting the weeds from the wheat — to separate the blasphemous new sect, the followers of that renegade rabble-rouser Jesus, from the true pious Jews. He rushed to judgment, and sent many to prison and to death because they believed in Christ. The Scripture vividly describes him standing by as the people murdered Saint Stephen, helping the crowd in their sweaty work by holding their overcoats, like a towel-boy at a sports event, straining on tiptoe to see the action, as that Christian rabble-rouser was battered to death with stones. Saul wasn’t content to wait and see, and leave the matter in God’s hands. Saul thought he knew best, and persecuted the church to within an inch of its life.

Then one fateful day on the road to Damascus, Jesus himself confronted Saul and told him just how wrong he was, and the persecutor became a champion of what he once had cursed.

But did the church learn from this? Did it learn from Jesus’ parable? If it did, it soon forgot its lesson. Throughout Christian history there arose those who thought they could do God’s harvest work for him. Impatient for the judgment of God to show itself, they pushed God aside, and started ripping up what they thought were weeds. And how they damaged the wheat in the process! And how many young stalks of wheat were ripped up with the weeds! And how often has wheat been mistaken for weeds down through the years!

It is a sad history. The followers of Saint John the Beloved Disciple thought of themselves as the children of light, and cursed and condemned everyone else as the children of darkness. The church of the east and the church of the west excommunicated each other. The inquisition saw to the torture and murder of thousands it considered heretics. The Protestant reformers beheaded Roman Catholics, and the Roman Catholics burned Protestants at the stake.

So many weeds amidst so little wheat! And everyone thinking they knew best how to do God’s will, rushing to judgment when what God said was, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”

It is a sad history, and it isn’t over. Even today, in spite of our Lord’s command in the Gospel, there are countless busy workers attempting to purify the church, ripping up what they think are weeds, and weakening the church instead of strengthening it. They may have appointed themselves the guardians of the “Global Anglican Future” but they are repeating the mistakes of a sorry past!

But thanks be to God that this is not our task here at Saint James Church, or in the real live Anglican Communion — you know, the one meets with the Archbishop of Canterbury instead of gathering separately against him! Our task is to remain faithful to our Lord in the knowledge that judgment rests with God, not us. Our task is to welcome all, not to determine who’s a weed and who’s a stalk of wheat. Our task is to grow and flourish, not concerned about whether our neighbor is of the wheat or weed persuasion — for who knows what they might think of us! It is our task to grow, and to bear fruit, and to leave the sorting at harvest time to God.

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There is an old story in Jewish tradition about the patriarch Abraham. He was, as you know, renowned for his hospitality. One evening as he was sitting by his tent, a very old man came walking down the road. Abraham immediately jumped up and invited him into his tent. He washed his feet and gave him wine and bread and meat. Abraham noticed that rather than saying the traditional blessing before eating, the old man started in right away, chewing the bread with his few good teeth and glugging the wine right down. Abraham was astonished, and asked him, “Don’t you give thanks to God before you eat?”

The old man answered, “Oh, I don’t believe in God. I’m a fire-worshiper.” This was too much for the pious patriarch Abraham, and he grabbed the old pagan fire-worshiper by both shoulders, hustled him out of his tent and pushed him off down the road. The old fire-worshiper shrugged and went on his way, still chewing the last mouthful of bread, as Abraham looked after him shaking his head and his fist, and clucking his tongue in disgust.

Later that evening God appeared to Abraham in a dream, and said to him, “Abraham.” Abraham answered, as always, “Here am I, Lord.” And God asked him, (knowing the answer of course), “Where is the old man who came to your tent this evening?” And Abraham said, “I sent him on his way because he does not worship you, O Holy One.” And God said softly, “I have put up with him for over eighty years. Could you not put up with him for one night?”

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God, we can be assured, knows weeds from wheat, and at harvest time will deal with both as he sees fit. Until then, let us be content to grow and flourish under his watchful eye, giving thanks for the opportunity he gives us to grow.+

All Things Come of Thee

Saint James Fordham • Proper 13c • Tobias Haller BSG
Above all clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

The late Methodist Bishop Edwin Hughes once delivered a rousing sermon on the subject of “God’s Ownership” of all that we think of as ours. It went over very well, except in the eyes of one particular member of the congregation. This man was one of the wealthiest in town, and the sermon simply didn’t sit right with him. So, rather than merely button-holing the bishop in the narthex or at the church door, he invited him to lunch at his estate. He was sure he could set the bishop straight. After the luncheon, he took the bishop on a tour of his lands, showing off his gardens, woodlands, and farm. Finally, he confronted the bishop, and said, “Now, are you still going to tell me that all of this land does not belong to me?” The bishop paused, and then with a gentle smile asked, “Will you be able to ask me the same question in a hundred years?”

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The wisdom of the bishop’s response is evident. If you’ve ever watched the TV shows about the great mansions and estates of the financiers and hotel magnates, the oil barons and stockbrokers, you know that with very few exceptions these great properties are now no longer held by the original owners, nor even their descendants. Whether Boldt Castle in the Saint Lawrence River, or Gillette Castle in Connecticut, San Simeon in California or Wave Hill right up in Riverdale, all but a few are now owned and operated by — guess who — the government, serving as parks or museums. Right here in the Bronx, Saint James Church is among the four oldest landmark buildings still in use for their original purpose — and all four of those buildings are churches — which may well give you a hint of where I’m heading with this sermon! For the church of God endures, while human possessions crumble and fade. All of the old private homes are now museums or parts of public institutions, whether the Van Cortlandt estate just a couple of miles north of us; or Gustav Schwab’s mansion — the only one even still standing from the founders of Saint James Church (he was the man who gave us the wonderful stained glass in our sanctuary) — but his own home is now a part of the Bronx Community College campus. or take another example connected with Saint James’ history: Peter Valentine’s house up in Bedford.

Our connection with it testifies to the transitory nature of personal property: Saint James Church is built on part of the farmland that once belonged to Peter Valentine, farmland that went from where Fordham Road is now all the way up into Bedford Park and from University Avenue all the way down to Webster Avenue, at the edge of Fordham University. Over the years, starting with his son, the land was divided up into smaller parcels, until there is no Peter Valentine estate left, and not a single farm (unless you count Ms. Stewart’s garden out behind the church!) and even Valentine’s home, on it’s little plot of ground, smaller than our front yard, is now the site of the Bronx Historical Society.

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Today’s Scripture readings address the same issue: the temporary nature of the relationship we have with possessions, with what we like to think of as “ours.” Both wise old Solomon and our Lord himself tell us that whatever we have, whatever we own, is ours only temporarily. Vain efforts such as that of the woman who was buried in her Cadillac only go to prove the truth of the old saying, “You can’t take it with you.” I mean, really, you can’t! Whatever we have of worldly goods are just that: of this world, and destined to stay in this world when we have left it.

Now this fact might fill you with pessimism and something very close to despair, as it did old Solomon; or you might react with horror, as the man in Jesus’ parable no doubt reacted when God’s sentence fell thundering upon him. Solomon sought joy in his wealth and power; he built a great empire, and gathered many possessions. Yet in the end he was left with bitterness; his gathered wealth could only slip through his aging fingers. He knew that he would have to leave it all to someone who would come after him, who might well be unable to appreciate it. He had built up Israel’s kingdom to the largest size it ever attained, and yet what use was it, since he knew that those who would follow him would be unworthy — and indeed, shortly after his death the division and loss began. Solomon was like a wine connoisseur who has amassed a cellar of vintage wines, but who knows he will have to leave it to his drunk of a nephew who couldn’t tell a priceless vintage port from a pint bottle of Thunderbird!

The rich man in Jesus’ parable, less wise than Solomon, can’t see what’s coming until God calls him up short. He gathers and gathers his goods, tears down small barns to build bigger ones, stores up his riches, and is just ready to begin enjoying them when God snatches his very life away.

In neither case do the owners actually enjoy their possessions: Solomon’s present joy is overcome in fretting about the future; and the rich man, who has taken no time to enjoy his goods but deferred his enjoyment in great plans for the future, suddenly finds he has no future left.

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So where is the good news? Is despair or horror the only answer to this dilemma, the fix of finitude and finality in which we find ourselves if we misunderstand the relationship between our selves and our possessions? Is there a way out of Solomon’s self-centered despair, that couldn’t bear the thought that someone less worthy than he might enjoy his wealth? Is there a way out of the selfishness of the rich man, who was so short-sighted he didn’t even consider his own mortality?

Of course there is, and Saint Paul outlines the key to liberation in his Letter to the Colossians. The way away from selfishness lies in discovering the new self, the new self that takes no delight in mere wealth, the new self that does not depend on things for its identity, but finds a new identity in the image of its creator.

The things from which this new creation liberates us aren’t just external possessions — though that is where liberation starts. Saint Paul begins by urging us to set aside such external things as the objects of greed, but then he also bids us set aside more internal matters of the heart, such as anger, wrath, and malice. It’s hard sometimes to set these things aside — you know that. Have you ever been angry with someone, so angry with them that even after they apologized you wanted to be angry with them just a little more, not able to let go of that anger because you’d gotten so comfy in it, so warmly and self-righteously indignant? But you know, sisters and brothers, that letting go of that anger is so much better, that joy and love is so much more pleasurable than even the most justified revenge.

Yet still it is hard to let go of these negative feelings, sometimes, and if that is hard, how much harder to let go of the other things from which Saint Paul goes on to offer liberation. In a bold move that must have astonished his hearers, Paul goes beyond the negative and hurtful things that we can put aside with God’s help, and assures us that in the new self we can even set aside aspects of our selves so intimate that most of us can’t help but see them as intrinsic to our identity. We are so used to hear talk of our “ethnic identity” — something as close to us as our skin. How many wars have been fought, how many lives have been ruined or lost because of the amount of pigment in our skins! How much wrongheaded pride, how much slavery, how much spiteful and irrational hatred has been focused on the color of human skin, down through our sorry history?

Yet Paul assures us that even our troublesome skin can be stripped off like a piece of worn-out clothing, whether white or pink or yellow, black or brown. There is no more Jew nor Greek, barbarian nor Scythian, slave or free, Saint Paul assures us, but only Christ. We can strip off this old worldly identity, and clothe ourselves anew in him, and assume a costume that reflects our true identity as his children. We can put on the new clothes of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. We can, above all, clothe ourselves with the new skin of love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And this new clothing, this imperishable identity, will never wear out, never fade, never be taken from us.

Unlike the fields that go to seed, the barns that moulder and collapse as year leads into year; unlike the stately homes, surviving for a while as museums of what was; unlike the old clothes that shrink or wear out; unlike the pride of place or rank or race, of status or of station, which must be left behind before we can stand before the judgment seat of God; unlike all of these transitory things, the seal of our new self in Christ will last for ever.

When we have put on the imperishable garment, the new skin of the robe of the newly baptized self, the gracious renewal of our selves in Christ, we will be prepared for eternity, properly dressed for the heavenly banquet. When we are clothed in Christ — in compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience, and above all when we are clothed in love — when we are clothed as we have never been, we will be clothed as we shall ever be.+

The New Life

SJF • Proper 5c • Tobias Haller BSG
God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles.
Many of us here, at different points of our lives, have probably had the experience of starting over. Whether you call it turning over a new leaf, or starting a new life, I’m sure I am not the only one here who, after having had a career in one line of work, went back to college (or seminary, in my case) and took a new direction in a different field of endeavor. I know a number of you who have charted a new course in mid-life: who went back to school to get a master’s in social work, or in nursing, or to study some new emerging medical technology. Some of you left the land of your birth to come to this country in search of new possibilities in a new life. You began a new direction in your life — perhaps even such a different direction that you could call it a new life.


All of our scripture readings today describe new life. The Old Testament reading and the Gospel talk about new life literally — in both cases someone who has died is restored to life, two sons raised from the dead and returned to their mothers. These two readings form a kind of a golden setting for the gem of the central reading, in which Saint Paul tells the people of Galatia about his conversion, his new life which was such a departure from his earlier life in Judaism. The two outer readings, describing a literal new life, form as it were a “Saint Paul sandwich” — as that central reading from his letter to the Galatians tells of his figurative new life. And it is on the filling in this sandwich that I want to focus my attention.


Unlike some of us who’ve changed our course of life in middle age because we were dissatisfied with how our lives were going, or felt a call to do something different with our lives than we were doing — Saint Paul was perfectly happy with his earlier life. Make no mistake about it, he was a star! As he says, he advanced beyond many among his people of the same age, and was far more zealous for the traditions of his heritage than they. We know from other accounts that he studied at the feet of one of the greatest rabbis of all time, Gamaliel the Great — who himself appears in the New Testament when he advises the Jewish leaders not to take a violent approach towards this new way called Christianity, lest they find themselves in the position of opposing God’s will.

It is ironic, though, that however good a student Paul was, he didn’t pick up on his teacher Gamaliel’s cautious generosity towards new things. No, Saint Paul was what we would call today — and what he called himself then — “a traditionalist.” He wanted things to be the way they always were, and he didn’t like change, particularly change that challenged things near and dear to this heart. While his teacher Gamaliel would call for toleration, Paul was zealous in his intolerance, and proud of it. He was not just politely advising people not to pay any attention to the Christians, to leave them alone and let this strange movement sputter and die out. No, Paul was busily seeking out Christian believers, arresting them, and seeing to it that the harshest penalty possible was carried out against them: he saw to it that Christians were put to death. He was not just a sympathizer in the anti-Christian cause, he was a zealot, a ringleader. And he became famous for it: so famous that he could assume that the people in far-off Galatia have heard, no doubt, of his earlier life in Judaism — before his new life began.

The reason Paul has to explain all this, of course, is because of that change of direction he took, that new life he began to live after his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. It required explanation because it was such a complete turnaround, such a change — as the Christians in Judea heard, “the one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.” This was not just a course correction: it was a 180-degree turn. It was a whole new life. It was like being raised from the dead. It was like being born again.

We hear stories of such amazing changes from time to time; many of them involving an encounter with Christ, perhaps not quite as literally as Paul’s encounter on that road to Damascus, but nonetheless real in its effect. I’m sure many of you here know about John Newton — the slave trader who began his conversion in the midst of a storm at sea, when the slave ship of which he was captain was in danger of sinking. There is an old saying that there are no atheists in foxholes, and the same goes for sinking ships! The thing is that John Newton followed up on his hasty intentions in the midst of a storm at sea, and eventually became an Anglican priest. He is remembered to us today chiefly because of his hymns, including what is considered the most popular hymn of all time, “Amazing Grace.”

But it is important to recognize that with John Newton, as with Saint Paul, the moment of conversion, the beginning of the new life, was followed up by, well, life. There was much, much more to Paul’s life and Newton’s life than simply the moment of conversion. In fact, conversion was an ongoing process throughout their lives. Throughout his ministry, Paul had his moments of intolerance, when his old impatient ways would come to the fore — just look at the later chapters of his Letter to the Galatians! — and he learned the hard lesson of patience in adversity.

And John Newton had to grow into his conversion, too. He did not, for example, immediately give up the slave trade after that stormy night and hasty conversion. It took a number of years for the light to break through completely, and for him to realize the error of his ways. He had a long way to go, and much more to experience, before he would join in the abolition movement with William Wilberforce, and help end the slave trade. And ironically, he did that in part by convincing Wilberforce not to enter the ministry, that is, not to change his course in life, but to remain as a member of Parliament, where he could work for decades to change the law of the land and eventually bring an end to the slave trade in 1807 — two hundred years ago last March.

But there was a long space of time between the stormy night of 1748 and Newton’s joining the abolitionists! Although something in Newton had changed in 1748 in the midst of that storm, although he had been born again that night, still there was much more to come as his new life took shape. He would later say that even after his conversion, “I was greatly deficient in many respects... I cannot consider myself to have been a believer (in the full sense of the word) till a considerable time afterwards.” Like any newborn, one who is born again has to grow into his or her new life, to come to maturity in that new life. It took years for him to realize that slavery itself was wrong, as Newton slowly learned the moral ABCs of his new faith, step by step, first crawling, then toddling, and finally walking tall and proud, in the full stature of Christ.

As Newton would put it, “I am not what I might be, I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I wish to be, I am not what I hope to be. But I thank God I am not what I once was, and I can say with the great apostle, ‘By the grace of God I am what I am.’” It is that amazing grace that not only starts us off on our new life in Christ, but teaches us the responsibilities that new life requires, and enables us to continue that life, a life that is lived, and lived out, in performing the actions of love and service that God commends — and commands.


All of us here have been born again in Christ — some a long time ago, some more recently. All of us are living a new life, far newer than just a different career or line of work, but a life that is new at its very core. And we are all of us still growing in that new life, still learning, still finding new opportunities to love and serve God and our neighbors. Few of us will make such a turnaround as John Newton, from slave trader to abolitionist. Few of us will have the impact on the world that Saint Paul or William Wilberforce did. Yet each of us has been given a gift, a precious gift of new life.

What will we make of it, this new life? The good news is that what we make of it need not be our own doing any more than the new start was our own doing. The grace of God in Christ is at work in us every day, not just the day we first encountered him in our hearts. After all, as Saint Paul affirmed, God set us apart before we were born the first time, and is surely with us after we have been born again in his name! He is there to work with us, and to strengthen us to do his will — always and everywhere. He is not just a life preserver to be called on when the boat is sinking! He preserves our life every moment of every day, our new life — the life he gave us when we were born again in his name.

The new life is a life to be lived, my friends. Our rescue was only the beginning, and life lies before us in a path that not only leads us to God, but upon which God is with us every step of the way. So let us live life to the full, and say in full assurance, John Newton’s powerful words, “The Lord has promis’d good to me, His word my hope secures; He will my shield and portion be, As long as life endures.”

In-Between Sunday

SJF • Easter 7c • Tobias Haller BSG

O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit.
As you know, many Sundays of the year have nicknames: Stir-Up Sunday (because the collect for the day begins, “Stir up, O Lord”), or Mothering Sunday (because on that day we remember, as the hymn says, “Jerusalem our mother dear”). Today is a Sunday without an official nickname, so I would like to suggest an appropriate one: In-Between Sunday. And I do that because, as our collect for the day suggests, this is the Sunday that falls in between our observance of the Ascension of our Lord this past Thursday, and the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, which we celebrate next Sunday. So this Sunday is a commemoration of that in-between time of long-ago: between the Ascension of Jesus, when he was taken away from the Apostles, and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon them.

This was a difficult time for the Apostles, a week and a half without a sensible presence of God, a presence they could feel and know: Jesus was gone, and the Holy Spirit had not yet come. Waiting can be a difficult experience, especially when what you’re waiting for is something you desire with all your heart and soul. I can remember as a child learning the strange relativity of time — how some time could pass so quickly, and other time could seem to go so slowly. Am I the only one here who as a child experienced the night before Christmas as the longest night in the year? — and not just because it was literally dark longer than most nights, but because of the anticipation of Christmas morning, when I knew that the red wagon I wanted so much would be there waiting for me — waiting for me much more patiently than I waited for it! Oh, for a child, the night before Christmas can be a long dark night of the soul!

And part of what makes this kind of expectant waiting so powerful, for a child waiting for Christmas morning or for the Apostles waiting for the Holy Spirit, is the heightened awareness and sensitivity — the alertness that makes you feel every second ticking by. There is a heightened awareness of the passage of time because we know something is coming, and we want it very badly. We are not simply waiting; we are waiting for.

Let me give you an example of this from the world of music. All of us here are familiar with the major scale — made perhaps more famous through that song from The Sound of Music. “Do re mi fa so la ti do.” It is a series of notes elegant in its predictability. “Do re mi fa so la ti do.” But what if I don’t follow through on the prediction; at least not immediately? What kind of tension does this produce? “Do re mi fa so la ti...” Do you feel it? You want that final note to resolve the tension that the series has created. You know how the scale is supposed to end and you want to round it out, to balance it off with that final note.

There is a story about a famous composer who lived downstairs from a family whose young son was taking piano lessons. One day the child was practicing scales as the composer was sitting in his study reading. The child was playing the scale over and over again. Then, for whatever reason, the child was interrupted before completing the scale — just as I did before. The composer, sitting downstairs, jerked his head, listening for that note. It didn’t come. He started fretting, not so much wondering what happened to the child, but what had happened to the note! As minutes passed, he became more and more irritated by this missing note. Finally, unable to bear it any longer, he jumped up, went out into the hall, ran up the stairs, pounded on the door of the apartment, and when he was finally let in by the startled mother, rushed over to the piano and without a word played the final note!

Is that something like how the apostles felt? Earnestly desiring the coming of the Holy Spirit? Certainly so, though more so as the Spirit is so much more important than the simple resolution of the musical scale. And so our collect today says, “You have exalted your only son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: do not leave us comfortless but send us your Holy Spirit.”

But wait a minute. Hasn’t the Holy Spirit already been sent? Didn’t the Holy Spirit come on Pentecost some 1,970 years ago? Have the authors of this collect gotten so caught up with our annual re-enactment of the events of Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost that they are suggesting we pray for something that has already happened?

For we believe that the Holy Spirit is with us to strengthen us — even if we have not yet been exalted to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before. But the Spirit has come to us, and blessed us, and revealed signs of his presence among us: in the preaching of the Gospel, in the joy of the knowledge of the love of God, and the powerful comfort that we feel in our hearts as we gather here to worship our Lord and our God and in our work in service to the world beyond these doors.

Sometimes the Church forgets this, forgets the presence of the Holy Spirit — when it begins to doubt and becomes obsessed with the busyness of life. We look at the divisions in the church — and between the churches — and wonder if we ever will be one as Jesus prayed that we would be. We look at conflicts and disagreements among Christians and wonder what has become of the spirit of unity, and the unity of spirit that should bind us all up in one.

At times, it seems, we are a bit like the jailer in the reading from Acts. He’s got the apostles in jail, securely locked up in the pokey after probably the strangest example of exorcism in all of Scripture: when Paul drove a spirit out of a young woman who kept following the apostles around shouting that they were servants of God proclaiming salvation. Sounds like free advertising to me! But as I said last week, these pagans could get on Saint Paul’s nerves! As the Scripture today says, “he was much annoyed”! So he drove out the spirit, and the slave girl lost her skill as a fortune teller, much to her owners’ distress; and Paul and Silas got thrown in jail.

Suddenly, there was an earthquake, and all the chains fell from the prisoners, and the jail doors flew open. And the poor jailer, thinking the prisoners must have all run off, was ready to kill himself when Paul called out, “We’re still here.” And he believed and was saved, and was baptized, along with his whole household.

Is the church forgetful like that sometimes — startled by the earthquakes of life, thinking our world has fallen apart — but forgetting that the apostles and their successors are still there; that the Spirit is still there; that Christ himself has promised to be with us wherever two or three are gathered together, and comes to us to be with us as our guest, in bread and wine each week?

We will celebrate Pentecost next Sunday. But this is a celebration of a remembrance — a commemoration of something that has happened. God’s Holy Spirit has come down, and is with us still. If we are at all living in the in-between, is not in between Christ’s departure and the Spirit’s arrival; but in between the Spirit’s coming and Christ’s return. And return he will, in power and great glory. We are not the only ones waiting, we the Bride of Christ awaiting the bridegroom at the altar rail, the Spirit standing close at hand and ready to give us away to our spouse when he comes.

“The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who hears it say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. The one who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”+

Miracles Great and Small

SJF • Easter 6c • Tobias Haller BSG
When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!”
There is no doubt about it; it was some miracle! This man in the town of Lystra could not only not use his feet, but he had never walked. From his birth on he had been carried here and there, and when he got old enough to do so, he had dragged or hobbled himself from place to place. And it just so happened that one day he managed to be in the right place at the right time, and he heard the preaching of the apostles Paul and Barnabas — and he would never be the same again. Paul would look him in the eyes and see something — some earnest hope, some as-yet-unrealized faith — something that convinced him that this man could be healed.

So Paul shouted out, “Stand upright on your feet!” And not only did the man stand up, but he sprang up and began to walk — this man who had never taken a step in his life. So as I say, no doubt about it: this was some miracle. It was a miracle not unlike the one that Jesus performed when he healed the man who had been blind from birth. This was not just about someone being restored to health, but rather someone being given health who had never possessed it, never in his life. Born blind or unable to walk, these two men experienced the power of God to do something completely new in their lives. It was some miracle.

This no doubt explains the wild reaction on the part of the people in that town. Paul and Barnabas were more than good physicians — more even than your average miracle worker. They must, these pagan folks believed, be the gods Zeus and Hermes themselves come down to earth — an event no less likely than if their planetary namesakes Mercury and Jupiter (to use the Latin names) were to start from the sky and pay us a call in the northwest Bronx. The pagans were sure this was the work of their gods, and were all set to worship the apostles then and there.

Now, I don’t have to tell you how irritable Saint Paul could get with pagans! It was bad enough just being in a town with a big pagan temple and idols on every street corner — and, apparently, no synagogue. Lystra was not a big important place, but it was one of those places in the midst of things, and so had been controlled by Persians, Greeks and Romans over the years — and you can be sure it had accumulated its share of street-corner shrines to supplement the big temple of Zeus just outside the city — definitely not the kind of place Saint Paul would have found to his liking! We’ll see some more of this next week when Paul gets to Ephesus. And when he got to Athens we would see Saint Paul in is his most irritable form, and he would be as tough on Athenian idols as Simon Cowell is on would-be American idols! And believe me, you don’t want to get Saint Paul irritable.

But in Lystra we have insult added to the proverbial injury. Bad enough to have to put up with idols on every street corner — but to be treated as if he were himself one of the pagan gods — that must have just pulled Saint Paul’s last nerve. I suspect that the historian Luke may have played down Saint Paul’s reaction when the townsfolk and the pagan priest approached to offer a sacrifice to the apostles!

Fortunately, as outraged as he no doubt was (he tore his clothes, after all!) Saint Paul was also smart enough to realize that this was what they call “a teaching moment” — an opportunity to make use of a misunderstanding to teach an important lesson. And the lesson was not just that they — Paul and Barnabas — were mortals like the citizens of that town, but that the miracle they had performed had to be understood in the context of the great work of the one true God — the one who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them; the one who reveals goodness not just in spectacular miracles such as healing palsied limbs and making the broken whole, but in those daily miracles — the gift of rain from heaven, and of fruit from the trees, the gifts of nourishment and joy that illuminate our daily life and make it livable.

In the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Flower Drum Song, the main character sings a song about the hundred million miracles happening every day. And the examples of miracles she gives in the song are rather like those that Paul and Barnabas described: the beauty of the sky, the wonder of the rain and the flowers that bloom; and in one verse something more relevant to our reading from the Acts of the Apostles: “A little girl... just thirty inches tall, decides that she will try to walk and nearly doesn't fall! A hundred million miracles!”

What Paul and Barnabas told the people in Lystra in their preaching, what Oscar Hammerstein was telling Broadway audiences in his lyric, and what I’m telling you today in this sermon, is that while it may not be as spectacular as a man walking who has never walked, there is something miraculous in a child taking her first steps — I mean, she’s never walked before either! And the same God is at work in that child as the God who made heaven and earth, the seas and all that are in them, and who was at work in Paul and Barnabas, and in the man they healed that day so long ago.

And that same God is at work today — in you, in me, and in the trees that grow, and in the winds that blow, and the rains that fall and water the earth and bring forth life abundantly. A hundred million miracles are happening every day; and as the song goes on to say, “And those who say they don’t agree Are those who do not hear or see.”

And that brings me to one last thing I want to note about this incident from the Acts of the Apostles. It’s just a phrase, so it can pass by almost unnoticed — though I did mention it at the beginning of this sermon. Saint Paul looked at that man who had never walked, and saw someone“who had the faith to be healed.” Paul didn’t just pass him by the way the people of that town must have passed him by day after day, a man who may have lived his whole life out on that particular corner, maybe even leaning against the pedestal of some idol; probably begging for coins — although the Scripture doesn’t say that. But in any case he was someone upon whom the people of that town looked as a hopeless case; like the blind man in the Gospel this was someone who had been that way all his life and he just wasn’t going to change. The people looked at him and all they saw was his disability.

But Paul saw more: he saw, first of all, not a problem but an opportunity; not a disability, but a possibility, not an illness, but a child of God. He saw the possibility for the miracle before it happened: and that is the substance of faith — the man’s faith, and Paul’s faith. It was faith built on the knowledge that even to be is a miracle; to be born, an even greater one. Paul and Barnabas knew that God is the giver of every gift, the beginning of our life and, as even the pagans in Athens would agree, the One in whom we live and move and have our being. And the apostles saw something in that man that day, perhaps his perseverance in being there at all, rather than just having given up years before, perhaps the way he turned his head as he heard the gospel proclaimed for the first time. He was there, with a spark in his eyes and a hope in his heart, his faith kindled into life as he listened to Paul preaching the gospel — and Paul, looking at him intently, saw that faith, and in a flash that miracle happened.

What does the song say? “And those who say they don’t agree Are those who do not hear or see.” Those who do not hear the voice of God speaking through the Gospel; those who do not see the power of God at work in the world, and in the hearts of those who believe — it’s true they will not agree that a hundred million miracles are happening every day: miracles great and small — but they are happening, my friends, they are happening: all of them gifts from the hand of a loving God, who made heaven and earth, the seas and all that is in them, and to whom we now ascribe as is most justly due, all might, majesty, power and dominion, henceforth and forever more. +

Then I Saw...

SJF • Easter 3C • Tobias Haller BSG
Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered…
Then I saw… then I looked... then I heard. That is the blessed refrain that runs through today’s second reading. Then I saw... then I looked... then I heard. Such is the language that confronts us in the passage from the Revelation to Saint John. Needless to say, revelation is only half of the story: and today’s passage emphasizes the other half — perception. As the title of the Bible’s last book suggests, revelation is always revelation to. God’s word is meant to bear fruit, and no matter how important the revelation or the one who gives it, it will not bear fruit unless there is also someone willing to see, to look, and to hear. As Jesus would put it, the Word of God, as seed cast abroad, needs suitable soil if it is to take root, grow, and bear fruit. To make himself known — in broken bread or in any other way — requires that there must be someone able and willing to know. Revelation is always revelation to.

How often don’t we perceive what is addressed to us, what is right in front of us, and thus remain fruitless and barren in response? How often is something unknown because we refuse to know it? And why is that? Why is it that we seem unable to see what, as my grandmother used to say, “if it was a snake it would have bit you”? Why are we so often unable to hear the warning sirens that alert us to danger? This is bad enough when all you’re looking for is the stapler or the ironing board; or all you are trying to hear is the voice on the other end of a bad cell phone connection. But when it is life everlasting, the chance for salvation, how much more important, how much more vital that we see and hear, take, touch and embrace what is offered so freely by our Lord and God.

Today’s other readings from Scripture, offer a response to the attentive John of Revelation. They give us examples of people who couldn’t, for different reasons, perceive what was right there, in front of or all around them. Thankfully, the people we hear about this morning went through an experience that opened their eyes, and then, then, they saw. Something happened to them, something — or someone — reached out and acted on their lives to allow them to see what had escaped their vision up till then. Then… then they saw.

When we look at them and hear their stories, we can see reflections of ourselves, and learn how to keep our eyes open and fixed on the one who was and is, and is to come, Jesus, our Lord and savior. For it is he who opens the eyes of those who do not see because they think they see. It is he who opens the eyes of those who do not see because they don’t know how to look.

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First, there’s our old friend Saint Paul, or, as he was known before his conversion, Saul. What kept him from seeing the grace of God? Well, Saul’s problem was that he thought he knew it all — you couldn’t tell him anything.

One of the great mysteries of perception is that we see what we expect to see — not what is actually there. If your head is so full of preconceptions that there isn’t any room anymore, you won’t be able to perceive anything new, even when it’s right before your eyes.

And this isn’t just about ideas, but appears to be programmed into our brains, regarding even physical perception. I just saw an interesting news-brief in Scientific American Mind, in which they show how people’s brains are so used to seeing bananas as yellow, and strawberries as red, that when asked to adjust a color image of these fruits on a computer to be a neutral shade of gray, people will add more blue to the bananas and more green to the strawberries than is necessary to make them gray — the human brain wants to see bananas as yellow and strawberries are red so strongly that if there isn’t at least a hint of the opposite color, the brain will still insist on seeing a perfectly gray image of the fruits as slightly yellow or red. Our heads are full of such perceptions, such “settings” almost like the volume setting on your TV. And if you’ve ever walked into a room in which someone who is hard of hearing is watching TV, you know that your and their idea of “loud” is very different!

Saul the Pharisee’s brain was “set” if anybody’s was. He had studied at the feet of the greatest Rabbi of his day, Rabbi Gamaliel the Great, a Rabbi whose teachings are an important part of the Talmud even down to this day. Saul was a bright boy, an A-plus student, probably “teacher’s pet.” He was a true believer, fervent in prayer, surpassing all his classmates.

So when this new religion came along, this new faith called “the Way” he just said, “No way!” And with the fervor of a zealot he sought to smash the new faith, to crush it into the ground through whatever means necessary, including murder.

Yes, Saul thought he knew it all. And you might say, in Star Trek style, that his brain was set on kill, not stun! It took the grace of God stunning him — knocking him to the ground and even blinding him for a bit to finally open his eyes to see how seriously he had missed the point. His knowledge of Israel’s past, instead of leading him to see God’s new thing happening even in his day, had figuratively blinded him to the fulfillment of the promise that past foretold, the realization of all for which God’s careful guidance had prepared. He knew the story backwards and forwards, but he entirely missed the point; he knew the prophecies by heart, but failed to see them when they started to come true around him.

But thank God, then, he saw. After being figuratively blinded by his knowledge, God literally blinded him for a time, so that when Ananias laid his hands on him and baptized him, his eyes were opened with a new, fresh vision. Without him, the church as we know it would never have come to be, for it was to be Saul, renamed as Paul, who would bring the good news to the Gentiles.

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Then there’s Peter. Peter’s problem wasn’t that he knew too much, but that he seems only to have known one thing. Even though he was a witness to the Resurrection, he still didn’t seem to see the significance of that miraculous event. He’d been through the upper room experience, when Jesus had appeared. He’d was there when the Risen Lord, brought doubting Thomas to his knees.

He knew the Risen Lord. But what did he do as follow up? Did he start a great mission to evangelize the world, to spread the gospel of the Risen Christ? No. He went fishing.

Fishing was something he knew about. Unlike Saul, he wasn’t a rabbi, a learned man. He was a fisherman. That much he was sure of. He couldn’t quite grasp what all this resurrection was about. But fish, and fishing, he knew. Even though Jesus had said he’d fish for people, he was going to stick with fish.

The trouble is, now the fish weren’t cooperating. I can’t help but see the smile on Jesus’ lips when he called out over the water
to Peter and his friends, “Children, you have no fish,
have you?” And as he had said some years before, when he first met Peter (as Luke’s Gospel tells us), he said once more, “Try again.” And as it happened before, the nets were suddenly full of fish.

Then the disciple whom Jesus loved called out, “It is the Lord!” And Peter, dear, impetuous Peter, realizing his nakedness. quickly pulled on his clothes and jumped in the sea, swimming ashore to be with the Lord he now saw with newly opened eyes.

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How often are we like Paul and Peter? How often do we miss the abundant grace around us either because we know too much about too many things, or know too little by knowing only about one thing? How often do we rely on our accumulated expertise, resisting new and creative visions, new ways of working and thinking? How often do we fail to risk something untried, falling back on the same old same-old we know so well?

Sometimes it takes God’s grace to knock us into our senses, to blind us with the blazing accusation of how wrong we’ve been. Sometimes it takes the power of God to convert us and give us a new birth in order that we may open our eyes to see just how mistaken we have been. Paul thought he knew, and then, then he saw.

Other times it takes God’s gentle challenge to our tried-and-
true lives, our habitual and dreary return to familiar patterns, however unproductive, instead of risking the adventure God would set before us. Then God will call out to us, as we labor fruitlessly at the same old task, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” He said that once to Peter and Thomas, Nathanael and the sons of Zebedee one day by the shore of the sea, and then they saw.

May we be ready to receive that challenge, to hear that voice, to open our eyes to the startling reality of God’s presence where we thought it couldn’t be, or where we didn’t know it was, so that, one day we may join that other blessed seer, Saint John the Divine, to whom God revealed the secrets of heaven, and the glory of the world to come. May we, with all the saints and angels gathered round the throne, be able at last to say, Then I looked, then I heard, then I saw...+

The Feast of Memory

Maundy Thursday at Fordham Lutheran • Tobias Haller BSG
Jesus took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
Memory is a very important part of human life. Think of all the popular songs that feature it: from “Try to Remember that time in September” through “Memories are made of this,” and the rather directive “You must remember this” and on to that somewhat annoying and hard to get out of your head hit song from the musical Cats that goes by the simple name, “Memory.” Memory is not only important for the world of popular culture, however — it is an important element in all culture: for without memory, without the ability to pass along what we’ve learned and experienced, we would be no different from the creatures of the field that live only that day-by-day existence and then pass from the scene, gone and forgotten. Memory, and the ability to transmit it, is part of what makes us human, and certainly a key to the fact of human culture. But memory is not only important for culture in general, but especially for that part of it that we call “the faith” as well.

We began our Lenten journey on Ash Wednesday, when we heard those words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Then last Sunday we heard Luke’s version of the Passion, in which the thief on the cross cried out to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Finally, earlier this evening we took part in a recreation of the Jewish Passover Seder — we as Christians as guests at someone else’s meal: for the Seder is ultimately the Jewish people’s celebration of their corporate memory. That is why it follows a somewhat school-bookish or classroom approach — strange in what is essentially a celebration built around a family meal.

But maybe it isn’t so strange, after all. I mean, isn’t it true when your family gathers for a meal in the evening that you ask, What did you do today? For the Jews, the Passover meal is the chance to ask those questions, not just about the day that is past, but about the ancient times of this people, and the formative tale of their great deliverance by the hand of God himself — deliverance from Pharaoh’s bitter yoke, as they fled that cursed land riddled with ten plagues, and then passed on dry foot through the parted waters of the Red Sea. And the memory of that great event was passed down from year to year, to be recalled again and again, so that each person who heard the story could feel that it was as if he or she had been there to experience those mighty works.

As I say, earlier this evening we shared in the story of our spiritual ancestors, the children of Israel. And now that we have come up into this sacred space we begin to reflect on how we share in the story that is more properly ours — the story of the central mystery of the Christian faith, as we join in remembering Jesus’ own transformation of the Passover feast into the Holy Eucharist, the Holy Communion that he commanded his disciples to continue to celebrate, with bread and wine, in remembrance of him. Through baptism we have become a new people — as if we had passed through our own version of the Red Sea; and through this holy meal we are reconstituted into the Body of Christ, who is, as Saint Paul called him, our Passover. And we do this through the power of memory — and of the storytelling to which it gives rise.

How does memory do its amazing work — and what are the signs that it is working among us? The first sign of the power of memory is community, for as we share the story memory calls us together, or rather back together: re-collecting us and re-membering us so that we can remember God. Unlike rare souls such as the desert hermits, most of us will not find God in solitude on top of a pillar, but gathered in community. God does appear to isolated spiritual athletes like Moses or Elijah in a burning bush or a still small voice. But usually God seems to favor the public assembly over the private audience. The disciples were gathered with Jesus in that upper room when he committed his memory to their care. They were not pursuing personal holiness, but praying together — for and with each other — when Jesus issued those startling commands to break bread that had become his flesh, to drink wine that was his blood.

It is in community — from the most intimate community of a loving couple, to the community of the church — that memory is multiplied as one voice takes up the story after another, correcting, adding, expanding the memory and revealing Christ in our midst.

And in that gathering, Christ is revealed foremost as one who serves, who before his death washes the feet of his friends, and afterward responds to their betrayal and lack of belief with words of peace, who forgives so that they may forgive in turn. This service and forgiveness find their natural home in community — and grow out of the memory and the story that is shared. For while one can remember on ones own, to tell a story implies at the very least one other with whom to share it. Just as it takes two to tango, it takes at least two to tell the story, and two to serve, two to forgive. Service and forgiveness flow from community as naturally as the dance flows from the music, as naturally as the story-telling flows from the powerful memory. So the ministry of hospitality, which combines service and mercy, is a sign of the power of the memory and the truth of the story: “see how they love one another” is Christ’s identity badge for the church, and a sign that we’ve got the story right.

Hospitality takes many forms, in a supper such as the one we just shared, or in a hospital visit; in an act as simple as an outstretched hand to help someone to their seat in church, or as formal as baptism itself. We welcome each newly baptized person through their own miniature Red Sea — there it is right over there! — “into the household of God” — a dwelling place for memory and story-telling, whose building-stones are the church’s members. Do you remember the children’s game: here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors, and see all the little people? The outside of a church looks like a building, but when the doors are opened the living, human construction is revealed — as a community. So hospitality is the beginning of the community we call the church.


The wonderful thing about this growing community is that just as the memory and the story call the community together, the community then empowers further story-telling — for each person has his or her own story to tell. The children of Israel knew this, and were always telling their story to each other, not just at Passover! Their story sustained them through exile and captivity in Babylon; and through and beyond the destruction of the Second Temple. It sustained and sustains them even up to this day, through and beyond the Holocaust — the most terrible and single-minded effort to exterminate them. The church’s story is added to theirs, and each of us has a story, too, like footnotes and annotations expanding the history of salvation — so that the whole world could not contain the books that might be written.

If the world even cared! “The world” that confronts us today, is a world where community is shattered, a world that doesn’t know how to serve, a world that has forgotten its own story. I mean the world out there — right out on Walton Avenue — a world of noise without meaning, of sound and fury signifying nothing; chattering endlessly thanks to the ever-present cell phones — but isn’t it as if each user were locked in his or her own “cell” as they toddle through the streets proclaiming the details of their lives to the public? Endless talk, and no message, and the world will not stop talking long enough to hear the gracious possibility offered to it, to be reminded of its true story.

Well, the world needs a wake up call. And the responsibility to give that call falls on us, the members of the church, the Body of Christ: to tell the story of salvation to the world. If we in the church faithfully proclaim that story, the world may stop its chatter for a moment and hear what is truly important. People who have forgotten that they are God’s children, in the midst of this very city, might suddenly hear a voice speaking a language they haven’t heard for a long, long time, but which they recognize at once: a language from home, reminding them who, and whose, they are. And their story will enlarge our story,

Memory, then, reveals Jesus’ presence in community, and in the telling of the greatest story ever told. But memory also reveals Jesus to us through a sign unlike any other: in broken bread and a cup of wine. These are the means committed to us from his hand, to call us back together, to remind us who we are and who he is, and what we share. In this great work of memory, in the eucharistic feast the servant reveals himself as the bridegroom, and the story takes a classic turn: like Richard the Lionheart casting off his pilgrim’s cloak, revealing the king’s bright red cross on his chest to an astonished Robin Hood. And suddenly, everyone kneels. The King has returned. Suddenly, we are back in the upper room with him, sitting at the table as he breaks the bread and passes round the cup. Suddenly the Holy Spirit descends upon us and upon those gifts of bread and wine and we remember and are re-membered into the Body of Christ.

Once one Passover, Christ gathered the apostles together like a harvest of grain once scattered on the hillside. And after his rising again, he sent them forth, and together they served, and proclaimed, and feasted: in fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in prayer. We, their successors, can do no less. So let us hear once more the song of remembrance sung by the Spirit and the Lamb, addressed to us and to the forgetful world:

Remember, remember,
Come home, my scattered children!
Here's bread to break
and wine to drink.
Sit down and eat,
and I will wash your feet.

Remember, remember —
Sit still, my noisy children!
I'll speak the prayer
and sing the song
that tells of glory.
Listen to the story.

Remember, remember?
Look at my hands, my children,
Look at my side:
I am your friend
no longer dead
but known in broken bread.+

So What's New?

SJF • Lent 5c • Tobias Haller BSG

Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy. Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.
Some of you may have seen comedian Jeff Foxworthy on television. He comes from the poor white southern population of the US known disparagingly as rednecks — because the back of the neck is where white folks get a sunburn working out in the fields. Foxworthy has been using humor to take the edge off of this insulting epithet, and if you’ve ever seen his comedy act you will know how he has a whole catalog of things by which, if you do them, you would know that “You just might be a redneck” — besides having sunburn on your neck.

One of his lines is, “If you’ve got a new TV that works sitting on top of an old TV that doesn’t work, you just might be a redneck.”

Now, what struck me about this, is that I don’t think it applies only to rednecks. I have a feeling it may be more generational than regional, and more about attitude than income. And I say this because I’ve known many people over the years who have just these kinds of appliances in their homes — and I will confess to you that even as I speak, over at rectory there is a TV set that does not work very well, but is of an appropriate size and shape, that is being used more as an end table than as a television. In addition, there are at least two broken computers in the basement. But although I come from a family that is undeniably white, by most definitions poor, and from just south of the Mason Dixon line, the closest any of us ever came to agricultural work was mowing the lawn.

I know for a fact that I’m not the only person here at Saint James today who finds it hard to throw things away. I do not believe I am the only person here who has ever said, “Well, you’d never know when we might need it.” And if you don’t believe me, I invite you to take a tour of the church basement!

I said a moment ago that this may be a generational issue: those of us whose parents lived through the Great Depression and the Second World War were brought up — even in the relatively prosperous days following that War — with a kind of hyper-awareness about wastefulness, a memory of rationing and short supplies, of making do, of scrimping and saving. We were brought up to save things, to recycle things, and not to throw things away — in case we might need them some day.

So I think that perhaps many of us here can relate to those people in the Psalm this morning: those who sowed with tears; who went out weeping, carrying the seed. Why were they weeping? Well, these agricultural workers, these ancient Israelite rednecks, were living in a desert land, in the middle of a drought. They had a few grains of wheat — which they could grind into flour, and bake, and eat, and have nothing left; and then starve. Or they could plant those grains of wheat, even as they watered them with their tears, risking and hoping that the rains would come and the crop would grow. They would have to let go of the old — to give it up, literally to bury it in the ground as if dead — in order for the new crop, the new life, to come.

Our other scriptures today similarly talk about getting rid of what is old, but frankly in a much more dismissive way. Isaiah tells us, “Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” And he refers contemptuously to what has gone before as being “extinguished, quenched like a wick.” I want to refer you to a more recent quotation that I came across last week, from a wonderful speech by Abraham Lincoln, referring to those who through the 18th and 19th centuries worked so hard to preserve and protect the institution of slavery, even as more and more people were coming to realize it was time for it to end.

It is fitting to recall this today — the 200th anniversary of the British abolition of the slave trade. It took decades of work by people like William Wilberforce to achieve that goal, finally, in 1807. Fifty years later, Lincoln noted how Wilberforce’s was a name that lived in honored memory, while those who supported slavery were forgotten for the embarrassment they were. It may be that Lincoln was thinking of exactly this passage from Isaiah when he compared Wilberforce’s legacy with that of those who favored slavery: “Though they blazed, like tallow-candles for a century, at last they flickered in the socket, died out, stank in the dark for a brief season, and were remembered no more, even by thesmell.” Now that is dismissive of what has gone before, remembering it no more — even by the smell!

Then in his letter to the Philippians, Paul uses similarly dismissive language when he says that since he came to know Jesus Christ, he has come to regard everything from the past as so much rubbish — and I will say that “rubbish” is a rather polite translation; I invite you to check that verse in the King James Version! Paul presses forward to what lies ahead and forgets everything, and I mean everything, that lies behind.

But then, just as we are beginning to think that rejecting things is what we’re supposed to be doing, Jesus brings us up short with that challenging text, quoting from a different Psalm, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” That begins to sound more like the lessons my mother taught me; or my grandmother — who saved every last bit of string that came into the house, and would even go so far as to iron aluminum foil in order to get more use out of it: “You never know when you might need it. Waste not, want not. Don’t throw that away; it’s perfectly good.” And, since my grandmother was a seamstress, “We can roll that cuff and the jacket will be as good as new.” I will confess that through most of my young years, the sleeves of my jackets revealed several inches of shirt-cuff!

So what is the difference, my friends, the difference between the builders who reject that cornerstone, and Isaiah who throws out the old candle stub when it’s too short to reach above the socket, or the sowers who go out weeping to plant their seed?

The difference — and what a difference it makes — is that practical virtue of hope; knowing when there is reason to hope and taking that risk, and distinguishing it from false hope that is only a form of folly, or folly that doesn’t have the wisdom to see the real present use for a cornerstone that fits precisely where needed. A candle stub that is shorter than the socket it sits in really is of no use — it is not going to get any longer, and will only burn down into the socket and, as Abraham Lincoln said, stink! I can keep that broken computer in the basement for as long as I like — but it is not going to start working, and I’d be crazy to think it will.

But the seed that the sowers bear in hope, is not like these other things — these candle stubs and rubbish — because seeds have a possible future. If you grind them into flour to make bread their future will be short. But if you plant them in the ground in the hope that the rains will come they may bring forth 60 and a hundredfold. The harvest can indeed be plentiful, so that even those laborers who go out weeping, carrying the seed, can come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves. This is the proper way to lose hold of what is past, to give it up, sanctified by the hope that in giving it up you will receive an even greater blessing in return.

Those who cling to the past or to the present, who can only value what they have obtained, or what they see before their eyes, are like the foolish tenants in the parable: they imagine that by wiping out the future — killing the one who has the right of inheritance — they will be able to take permanent control and possession of something for which they were only employed as temporary custodians. This is madness, surely — as mad in its own way but at a greater scale — as storing up rubbish or accumulating candle stubs or hoarding your seed and never planting it — even as you starve.

We are called, beloved, to fix our hope on better things — to fix our hope in Christ Jesus our Lord. In comparison to him all other things are worthless. As the hymn says so well, “My hope is built on nothing less, than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” He is the stone that the builders rejected — and woe to us if we reject him too! Rather, we are called to open our eyes to see how perfectly he fits, how completely he can satisfy our deepest longings, our deepest needs, our deepest hunger. Let us not err like the builders who rejected that perfect cornerstone, but let us embrace him as the cornerstone of our lives, forgetting all the rest of the stuff the world clamors for us to substitute in his place. Let us set aside what is old and worthless, set it out on the street to be collected for the rubbish that it is. Let us plant our seeds in hope, knowing in hope that a rich harvest awaits; let us cling to the rock of salvation, who though rejected by others shall be the foundation for our lives, and for our lives to come.

He is a solid rock, a cornerstone secure, a sure and certain hope upon which our souls can take their stand.

“On Christ the solid rock I stand;
all other ground is sinking sand,
all other ground is sinking sand.”

The Flame of Love

SJF • Lent 3c • Tobias Haller BSG

The bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.

For the last two weeks we have been exploring the great virtues, beginning with faith and hope. Today brings us to greatest of the virtues, the enduring and eternal virtue, the one that lasts for ever: the virtue of Love — completing the circle that began on the Sunday before Lent began, when we heard those beautiful words from Saint Paul: Love never ends.

Love is eternal, Saint Paul told the Corinthians. And love is eternal because it is reborn in every instant. Love is always now. Faith looks to the past, and gives thanks for all that God has done. Hope looks to the future and trusts in God to provide. But love lives in the present, if it lives at all.

It is no good telling someone you loved them once, or that you’ll love them some day — who wants to hear that? And even hearing someone say, “I have always loved you” or “I will always love you” wouldn’t mean anything unless the one saying it loves you now. Love, true love, is eternal because it is alive in every moment. Love is like a fire that burns, but does not consume.

Moses confronted that love one day while he was keeping his father-in-law’s sheep, living as a stranger in a strange land. God appeared to him as a flame that burned but did not consume, burning eternally on holy ground.

The God of love chose to reveal himself to Moses for one reason: he had heard the cry of his people in Egypt, and would deliver them, because he loved them, because they were his. The eternal love of God became, in that particular time and place, (as it always becomes in every time and place) the present love of God in action. The God of the faith that was past, Abraham and Isaac and Jacob’s faith in God, the God of the hope of the future, who would visit and deliver his people, here on the mountain reveals himself as God Who Is Who He Is, or even better (as one translation — a Jewish one, I might add, the Koren Jerusalem Bible — puts it) the God who Is now what he always will Be. This is the God of the eternal and everlasting Now, the God who is love, burning but not consuming; giving life, not taking it, the God of love, present to forgive, to rescue and to redeem; the one who was, and who is to come — but who is always Love. As Saint John would affirm many centuries later, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”

Some of the theologians have focused on this story of the burning bush, and the Name God tells Moses to call him by, as a way of emphasizing God as pure Being, He Who Is, or “Being itself.” I would like to suggest that Saint John’s description is more apt — rather than get involved in debates about the nature of being, and like the former President parsing what is is, and simply declare that God is love. And that when we love we are most like God.

My brother in Christ Thomas Bushnell made a fine observation not too long ago. He pointed out that while we are called to have faith, hope and love, there is a reason for love being the greatest. We have faith, but God does not need to have faith — God is the object of our faith. We have hope, but God doesn’t need hope; God knows what is to come better than we do! Faith and hope relate us to God, because we have faith in God and hope for God’s plans for us; but love is the means by which we reflect God’s own being, as mirrors or likenesses of God, made in God’s image; and this responding love joins us to God; for God not only has love, but as Saint John says, God is Love.

After all, as Paul assured us, Love believes all things and hopes all things — it embraces both faith and hope — and it endures because it is embodied in the eternal nature of God, and it is through love that we are joined with God. That love of God that Is God, is eternal — it burns forever, and never consumes the source of its flame.

Most of you have probably seen the famous photograph taken in 1972 at the height of the Vietnam War, a disturbing photograph of a nine-year-old girl, running, burning and naked, from a napalm attack. It is a picture most of us probably find it hard tolook at for very long.

But there’s someone who for years found it even harder. His name is also John. He is the man responsible for bombing the village from which that horribly wounded, burning young girl is running. He had been assured by reconnaissance that there were no civilians in the area — twice. Yet after the bombing was over and done with, there was the photograph. The photograph was documentary evidence of the faultiness of military intelligence.

After the war, that photograph haunted John, appearing again and again in newspapers and magazines, in film clips and television programs, one of the most-reproduced wartime photographs ever taken. Think of that: think of the worst thing you’ve ever done turning up on the History Channel, featured in newspaper articles, even reprinted in your children’s high school history books. How’s that for a Lenten exercise? The worst thing you’d ever done plastered everywhere for all the world to see. For John, it was a constant reminder, a constant pain, not just for Lent, but his whole life.

And there was nothing he could do about it. He wanted to tell the girl in the picture he was sorry. He wanted to say it wasn’t his fault, that he’d been told there were no civilians in the village. But there was the picture, with its own pain fixed for ever, the open-mouthed face with its silent scream, the skinny, burned, naked figure running with arms waving in pain, a silent agony in black and white.

Then, in June of 1996, John learned that the young woman in the picture not only had survived, but was still alive. Her name was Kim. He also learned the story of how the photograph had been taken, the moving story of the pain he’d only known as a still image on a page. On that day in 1972, Kim and her family had been hiding in a building when it was hit. They ran into the street, where the napalm from a second bomber hit them. As the young woman ran, she tore off her burning clothing; two of her young cousins were killed. The photographer, seconds after snapping that horrible picture, was joined by other journalists, pouring what water they had in their canteens on her burns, doing what they could before she was rushed to a hospital.

John heard that Kim was going to speak at the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington, and he knew that he had to try to see her. As he stood with the thousands gathered there, he heard her say that if she ever met the man responsible for her suffering, she would tell him she forgave him. They could not change the past, but they could work for a better future.

John found a way to get a note to her, a note telling her that the man she spoke of was there. He wrote later of their meeting, “She saw my grief, my pain, my sorrow. She held out her arms to me and embraced me. All I could say was, ‘I’m sorry; I’m so sorry; I’m sorry,’ over and over again. At the same time she was saying, ‘It’s all right; it’s all right; I forgive, I forgive.’”

The flame of charity burns, but it does not consume. The fire of love is fierce, but it does not destroy; on the contrary, it builds up and bears fruit — and it endures. Whether a burning bush, or the generous heart of a young girl who could forgive great pain, or the twisted figure on a cross crying out, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do”: Love burns, oh how it burns — but it does not consume. And it will keep on burning, persistent and earnest until it warms the coldest hearts into responding love.

Compared to God’s eternal love, our love may seem lukewarm. We aren’t burning bushes aglow with the love of God. Sometimes we may be more like fruitless fig trees in need of loving care and a second chance, or even a third, some cultivation and probably a good load of fertilizer! We can be a pretty sorry sight, sometimes. But it’s all right, it’s all right, God assures us again and again. God forgives us, he forgives us. And he loves us. As Leighton Ford so aptly put it, “God loves us as we are, but God loves us too much to leave us as we are.” God sends us gardeners to tend us, to cultivate and nourish us, loving us year by year into fruitfulness, And God sends the fire of his love, the flame of charity, to transform us and to warm us. God will keepon loving us, persistently warming us with the flame of the Holy Spirit until we glow with the love that burns but does not consume — the everlasting flame of the love of God. +

The story of the Vietnam photograph is based on a press release from Evangelical Press News Service.

Hope Grows Like a Forest

SJF • Lent 2c • Tobias Haller BSG
Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there we are expecting a savior... +
Last week we began our Lenten exploration of the great, enduring virtues by looking at Faith. Today we turn our attention to the second virtue, Hope. I said last week that Faith looks both to the past and to the future. Hope, however, by definition, looks to the future alone. The problem is, when things aren’t going well, a miserable present can make the future look grim, especially if one has not cultivated this particular virtue.

We can learn something about the nature of hope by looking at those who are hopeful. Take Abraham in this morning’s reading from Genesis. God promises Abraham a rich reward. And at first, Abraham makes use of that wonderful freedom to talk back to God, to “give God a hard time” in the way I referred to a few weeks ago. He makes ample use of his freedom to speak up, and to speak out: a freedom nourished through an intimate relationship with God, that peculiar Jewish virtue called chutzpah, which is clearly related to hope — for who argues if he has no hope of winning the argument? When God tells Abraham that he will receive a very great reward, Abraham doesn’t just give thanks — because he’s got a bone to pick with God. So he puts God on the spot by saying, “What will you give me, for I continue childless. You have given me no offspring, so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” He’s saying, essentially, “What good can you do for me if it is only for me — if it is not something I can pass on to the future. Whatever good you give me will be bitter if I know that only a slave will inherit it, and not my own flesh and blood.”

So God shows Abraham the stars of heaven, and assures him that not only will he have a child, but his descendants will be more numerous than the number of those stars. And then, having sweetened the hope for the future — that is, a host of descendants to whom to pass along the blessing — God names the blessing itself, and promises Abraham the land from Egypt to Assyria, for him, and more importantly, for his descendants for ever.

Abraham’s story tells us two things about Hope. Hope is a flower that blooms in the desert, about believing in a promise yet to be fulfilled. It is about a promised future, not a present reality. It comes to be in the midst of awareness of what is lacked, of what is needed. It is those who thirst who hope for water, those who hungerwho hope for bread. In this case, it is the childless man who hopes for descendants. We hope for what we do not have: As Saint Paul wrote to the Romans, “Who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”

It is precisely when things look bad that hope springs up to rescue our hearts from falling into desolation. Those who are “hopeless” have nothing to live for. Just as memory for God’s generosity in the past gives rise to thanksgiving and faith, so anticipation of God’s goodness for the future is the gift of hope. Hope rings in the voice of God telling a childless man that he will have more descendants than there are stars in the heavens. Hope is God’s promise to a homeless man wandering in a land far from the place of his birth, that this strange land will be his children’s and his children’s children’s home. So it is that hope is most needed precisely when things look their worst; the promise is most dear when things look most unpromising.

The second thing Abraham’s story tells us about hope is that it embraces others. Hope is about sharing. The reward God gives to Abraham is not just for Abraham, but for his descendants: to enjoy the land the Lord has given them. Hope is not just for yourself. Faith is something you have for yourself — you may have faith in someone else, but you don’t have faith for someone else; though your faith may encourage others to find their own faith. But hope, at its most hopeful, goes beyond your own hopes, to include others — and you can have hopes for others, even when they have no hopes of their own, when they have given up; and you can have hopes for others even when you defer realizing your hopes for yourself. How many parents work extra hard to raise money - not to make themselves rich, but to provide for their children’s education? Their hope is not for themselves, but for their children. And so it is with Abraham’s hope, nourished by God’s promise, for the generations and generations to come: life in a promised land.

Hope is shown in the ability to postpone an immediate reward for the sake of a greater one down the road. Some years ago a study was done with young children, to examine just this question. Each child sat at a table with a plate and a single cookie. The researcher would say the cookie was theirs, and they could eat it now, but if they would wait for five minutes until the researcher came back, they could have twocookies. Each child would then be left alone for five minutes, with the hidden cameras rolling. You can guess what happened: some of the children took the cookie right away, and others waited, some unable to overcome their impatience giving in and taking the cookie after a struggle — and for those that endured to the end, that wait of five minutes seemed an eternity. But that wasn’t the end of the study. I don’t think anyone would be surprised at these results. The researchers kept track of those children for ten years, to see what happened to them. And it seems that the children who deferred eating one cookie in the hopes of getting two generally did better at school and in life than the ones who gobbled the cookie as soon as the researcher left the room. I can’t tell you how many of them became investment bankers; but on average they did well for themselves. Hope that looks to the future, the ability to defer in patience, can help equip one for a hopeful and productive life.

Let me tell you the story of another kind of hope, the kind of patient hope that looks to the future. French author Jean Giono was hiking in the Alps in 1913. Due to the growth in industry, the whole region had been deforested, and the barren landscape, dry streambeds and abandoned villages bore testimony to the wastefulness of going for short term profits. Industrialization had eaten the cookie, so to speak. Giono met an old shepherd who invited him to share his hut for the night. After a humble dinner, he watched the old man carefully sort through a pile of acorns, casting aside the ones that were cracked or moldy, until he had 100 perfect uncracked acorns. Giono asked what the acorns were for. The shepherd told him that in his travels over the last three years, he had planted 100,000 trees, poking holes in the ground with his shepherds staff as he walked along, and dropping in an acorn here and there, and of those he reckoned that a fifth had sprouted. Of the sprouts, he expected about half to survive the weather. But even with a return of only ten percent — a tithe, I might add! — he would go on planting.

Some years later, after the Great War ended, Giono returned to the region, and discovered how far the forest had grown. And with the forest had come renewal to the streams, the beginnings of meadows. After the Second World War Giono, himself now an old man, visited the area again, and found it aglow with prosperity. He wrote, “On the site of the ruins I had seen in 1913 now stand neat farms... The old streams...are flowing again. The villages have been rebuilt... People have moved in, bringing youth, motion, the spirit of adventure.” The old shepherd who planted acorns in 1913 knewthat the forest that was yet to come was not for him to enjoy. He not only deferred the one cookie, but decided that the double portion, when it came, would be for others to enjoy. He did not live to see the forest, but in his heart he walked every day through a forest of hope.

Hope is not about individual good fortune, but about shared joy, joy that is a gift to others.

In today’s Gospel we see Jesus standing between the two realities of hope, the promise and the sharing. Jesus confronts the unpromising reality of the earthly Jerusalem. Here is a city that murders the prophets, a city that is like an obstinate child who refuses the comforting embrace of its mother, who would rather be miserable and sulk than be held and fed; who grabs the cookie even before the researcher has left the room! But Jesus can see, even in that unpromising town, the glimmer of a future heavenly banquet, at which people will come from east and west, from north and south, to join Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets sharing in the great feast in the kingdom of God, in the new Jerusalem. Jesus can look at the empty plot of land, or the devastated wreck of a ruined town, and see a forest. He can look at Jerusalem in all its imperfection and see the promise of what it can be, of what it will be. He can look at Jerusalem in all its obstinate self-will, its murderous ingratitude, its selfish grasping, and see the sharing of the heavenly banquet. Jesus has hope, hope in the promise that is shared.

We too live between the two Jerusalems, the spoiled and unpromising Jerusalem of much of our daily life, and the hopeful joy of the Jerusalem in which the Lord’s table is set, and in which our true citizenship lies, a citizenship shared with the multitudes who gather for the banquet. May we, as our Lenten pilgrimage continues, learn to see the promise and the sharing and the hope, even when things seem unpromising, when people prove selfish, and hope seems impractical. May we learn to hope in God’s promise for generations to come who will worship in this place, setting aside that dedicated portion of our treasure, that tithe out of all that God has given us, to preserve and protect and rebuild this place. May we sit in patience, not gobbling our resources for immediate needs and pleasures, as we wait for the realization of a better promise. May we learn to plant acorns; even as we hope for the forest that will be.+