Heavenly Architecture

We are still on the Way, not quite ready for the Truth and the Life, until polished and dressed as living stones for the heavenly dwelling.

SJF • Easter 5a 2014 • Tobias S Haller BSG
Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

It is difficult for us, living in a nominally Christian country, to imagine what it was like for the earliest believers in Christ. They were a tiny minority wherever they went in the Jewish or the Roman world. Among the Jews, themselves a minority in the Empire, the Christians were an even smaller sub-group, put upon and persecuted from the very first. In today’s passage from Acts we witness the end that befell one of them, Stephen, a young Christian whose death was partly the doing of another young man, Saul. This Saul, this persecutor of the church, would later undergo a powerful conversion, and change more than his name, becoming one of its greatest champions, but also a victim of the persecutions against it.

Christians in those early days got it from both sides: opposition from many of the Jewish leaders, but from the Gentile pagans as well. Compared with the Empire’s pagan religions — from worship of the Emperor to worship of the ancient deities of Rome and Greece and Egypt, to the emerging mystery religions — the Christians were a pitiful few and far between. To get a sense today of what it was like to be Christian in those days, you would have to go to someplace like Saudi Arabia or Iran or Northeast Nigeria, where Christians are not only a minority, but are restricted and in some cases persecuted or killed.

The other thing it is hard for us to understand is based on the fact that in our culture being a Christian is respectable. Politicians today can wear their religion on their sleeve — or on their lapel — without fear. I am old enough to remember when John F Kennedy had to make up excuses for his being a Roman Catholic; but the issue barely came up with John Kerry — remember him? And the Mormon religion only came up as a footnote with Mitt Romney — remember him?

People today can be public about their faith, but in the early days of the church it was clearly not so, as our readings from Acts and First Peter show. As far as the majority — pagan or Jewish — was concerned, the Christians were a dangerous minority, a cult with strange ideas that went against everything that society held in high esteem. Many of the Jews of the Greek and Roman cities were upstanding citizens, many of them were leaders of commerce, and the Greek and Roman leaders of the territories wanted above all to keep the peace, and the wheels of commerce turning. These Christians, their opponents would say, were turning the world upside down. “They say that the poor should be treated as well as the rich — even that it is blessèd to be poor. What an idea! They claim that God came among us in the person of a convicted felon, a trouble-maker — a man who was executed for treason against the Emperor; and what’s more, they claim that this disreputable traitor, this rebel against all that is decent and civil was raised from the dead! I mean, really! What will they be telling us next? that we should join them?!” And so these pious upright citizens hounded the apostles from town to town, stirring up opposition against them, those people, those weird, strange cult-like people who were turning their world upside down.

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It is to address exactly this situation that Peter writes his first letter, offering good advice for those who are being persecuted for their beliefs. He tells the Christian believers to turn to Jesus — and to do so with the innocence and purity and naturalness of a newborn child reaching for its mother’s breast, to be held, protected, rocked and nourished. Don’t worry about being rejected — those who reject you now rejected Jesus before: and look! He, the stone rejected by the builders, has become the cornerstone of a new spiritual house, into which you are being incorporated like living stones. Yes, it’s true you were once no people — you were nobodies — but now you are God’s own people, and that makes you somebody!

The simple truth of all of this is that God has indeed turned the world upside down — and inside out! As Jesus’ own mother had sung at the beginning, when she heard the word of his Incarnation, “God has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly and meek. ”

And what could be more upside down and inside out than the resurrection itself? God has brought his own beloved Son out of the darkness of death and into the marvelous light of new life, rolling away the stone and turning the tomb that held him inside out. So too each Christian, is blessed and baptized and forgiven and freed from the death of sin. And no matter how lowly your estate before, you have become a member of a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. No wonder the civic leaders of the status quo were worried about this new religion; no wonder the authorities wanted to clamp down on this new faith; the Gospel is nothing less than revolutionary!

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And the revolution continues for each Christian believer, if not at the scale of the worldly society, then at least for each and every one of us as we engage in our own struggles with the pressures each of us faces. For Christ turns each and every one of us, and our own personal worlds, upside down and inside out.

God, it seems, puts his people through a good bit of a tumble in this life. And we might well ask, Why? If Jesus loves us so much; if, as he says in today’s Gospel that he is going to prepare a place for us, and he will come and get us, why doesn’t he just do so and take us now? In a rapture — all of us, right now! Why the wait? Why do we go through this earthly life at all if what we are really meant for is heaven?

Well, Peter has already given us the answer. We are like newborns in the faith — our eyes closed and happily nursing on the spiritual milk of Mother Church, provided to us, and helping us to grow; but we are still in the process of growth into salvation, as Peter calls it. Only God knows when we will be ready for him to come to take us to our everlasting home. Sometimes indeed God seems to take people too soon, while there are others for whom, it seems, God holds back. But preparation is needed, and God is the preparer.

This is why Peter uses the image of a building: the stones for the building — which is to say, us — have to be cut and polished and fit into the places that God the heavenly Architect intends for them. And such preparation and such building takes time.

On the twenty-eighth will be the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the laying of the cornerstone for this church. This church didn’t just plop down fully made, unpacked out of a cardboard box and set up; it had to be built; a foundation had to be dug; stones had to be laid to hold up the rest of the building.

There’s a TV show on the Science Channel called “Strip the City” — I don’t know if any of you have seen it. But they make use of computer animation to peel away the outsides of buildings, and even of the streets — rolling them back like carpet to show the subways, and the plumbing, and the sewers and everything the lies underneath. It’s amazing: cities aren’t just from the ground up; they go down, down, down. And in fact it’s the stuff below that nourishes the city: that’s where the water comes from, that’s where the electricity comes from; that’s where people travel to and from their work. There’s a whole lot there, underneath — the foundation.

And for us something else is in that foundation. For us, that foundation is Jesus Christ; who was buried — remember — he was buried, he was put below, he descended into Hell, so that he could hold up a whole new world. Imagine the great building that this new world is: those who have gone before rest on that firm foundation of Jesus Christ, and other stones laid down rank by rank, like the Apostles. They rest on Christ, and then the next generation and the next, building and building this spiritual temple — into which we too will be added when our time comes, God’s time — not ours. He is the architect, we are the stones. God will take us when he knows that we have been tumbled enough through life to have our edges smoothed, our rough spots worn down, when we have been cut to shape and formed for the purpose God has for us.

But we are not quite ready yet. You may recall that famous line from a movie a few years back, when Jack Nicholson confronts Tom Cruise, who says he wants to know the truth. Nicholson snarls, “Truth! You can’t handle the truth!” Well, we face an even greater Truth; the one who is the Truth, and the Way, and the Life. And we know that that is true. But we are not yet quite ready to face the Living God in all his majesty and awe; we are still in our spiritual infancy, still incompletely formed and polished.

It is not that Jesus is not ready for us, but that we are not ready for him. We are still in the process of being shaped and formed for the proper fit in his temple on high. All our life is part of that preparation — a school of hard knocks sometimes, but also the school of God’s mercy. All our life is preparation. And when the time comes — God’s time, not ours — as that wonderful old hymn puts it, after “many a blow and biting sculpture” has “polished well those stones elect” we will find ourselves — one day — “in our places now compacted by the heavenly Architect.”

The time will come, beloved, when we close our eyes one last time on this earth, and Christ takes us by the hand to lead us to be with him where he is. The time will come when the pains and sorrows and challenges of being chiseled and battered and polished will be well worth it. When the heavenly Architect slips us into place in his temple in the heavenly city, we will see just why he has shaped us in the way he did, so that we could be all that he intends us to be: living stones for his spiritual temple — for ever. And in Jerusalem the golden, with milk and honey blest, we will bask forever in the radiancy of glory, and the bliss beyond compare.+

Over My Dead Body!

The shepherd and the gate...

SJF • Easter 4a 2014 • Tobias S Haller BSG

Peter wrote, He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

We continue our Easter exploration of the teaching of the apostle Peter this week as he takes up an image with which he had heard Jesus describe himself: the Good Shepherd. This is one of the most popular images of Jesus — literally: there are hundreds of stained glass windows and statues and paintings of Jesus portrayed as the Good Shepherd. I can’t even remember the last time I was in a church that didn’t have at least one image of the Good Shepherd. And we have one here at St. James — you may not see it very often because it is around the corner in the transept; but take a moment, perhaps later after worship, to come around the side and see our picture of Jesus the Good Shepherd in stained glass. The oldest known image of Jesus, in fact, is an image of Jesus painted on the walls of one of the ancient catacombs, showing him as a young man with a lamb over his shoulders, gently bearing it home — one of the oldest images.

We tend to think of the shepherd’s life in just this way: spending the lonely days and nights chasing after fluffy lambs, sitting on the hillside in a sunny afternoon as the sheep graze contentedly, playing on a pipe and drowsing as the bees buzz and hum around the flowers: just the kind of job where snoozing the day away seems just about right: a low-stress job!

What gets lost in this imagery, however, is the reality of just how hard and dangerous it is to be a shepherd. Not only are there thieves and bandits to contend with (as our Gospel text this morning reminds us) but also wolves and lions and bears and other wild beasts who would snatch up a young sheep for a tasty meal.

We sang David’s shepherd song today, in a musical version of that belovèd Twenty-third Psalm. You may recall that when King Saul told David that he was just a boy and no match for the Philistine giant Goliath, young David answered, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it. Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, for he has defied the armies of the living God.” Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

So David knew just what was involved in being a shepherd. Above all he knew that it was no easy-peasy, lazy-hazy, laid-back way of life. It was hard; it was dangerous. If we look closely at David’s beloved Psalm 23, we find it filled with danger and strife. In fact, it is because of all the danger and strife that the comforting parts of the Psalm are there — for who needs to be comforted when he’s already comfortable? Look at the perils described in this Psalm: the valley of the shadow of death, the enemies before whom the table is set, the rod and staff which aren’t just for show, but for striking down the foe and giving strength to the weak, and even that wounded head anointed with oil.

So being a shepherd is no easy task; it rates high on the scale of hazardous work — something which Peter the fisherman would also have appreciated. For fishing is also not just sitting dozing by a stream with a can of worms at one’s side and the line tied around your toe to wake you up when there’s a nibble. Commercial fishing — for that is what Peter and James and John and Andrew were involved in — commercial fishing is one of the most dangerous professions in the world. There was a TV show about it, that they had to amend the filming of because two of the fishermen were killed in the course of doing the series. Fishing has always been one of the most dangerous jobs you could undertake — on the stormy sea of Galilee in Peter’s day or the stormy North Atlantic today. Peter knew perfectly well that a fisherman might lose his life when a storm swamped his boat and swept him overboard. He also knew that he might risk his life to catch fish, but no fisherman would lay down his life for the sake of the fish themselves! He wasn’t there to save them; he was there to catch them! But on the other hand, a shepherd might well be called upon to lay down his life for the sheep — to lose life and limb to protect them by fighting the thieves, the bandits, the lions or wolves or bears, or whoever might seek the life of that flock.

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Being a shepherd, then, is a risky business, a rough line of work. And our Gospel reading this morning shows us just how rough and risky with another surprising image. Note that in the second half of the gospel passage, Jesus doesn’t describe himself as a shepherd but as “I am the gate,” he says. “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” This is odd, isn’t it? If you think so, you aren’t the only one. We’re used to seeing Jesus portrayed as a shepherd, but not as the gate of the sheepfold. Years ago pastor George Adam Smith was on a tour of the holy land. This was quite an extensive tour, and it hit all the backwater spots not usually visited today. One afternoon he stopped at a shady oasis, rarely visited by outsiders. Off to one side was a perfect Near Eastern sheepfold, such as has existed for thousands of years: it’s a low enclosure about so high, square, with an opening on one side — but no gate. The sheep were all in the fold, resting in the heat of the afternoon, and there was an ancient Arab shepherd sitting outside by the opening. Smith called for the tour interpreter and said, “Ask him where the gate for the sheepfold is.” The interpreter asked the question, and the old shepherd looked up at the curious visitors, and then smiled a knowing smile — revealing that he had more wrinkles than teeth. He spoke a few words in the local dialect, and smiled again, as the interpreter translated. He said, “I am the gate for the sheep. When I have brought them in, I sit here, and watch that none goes out. At night I sleep in the doorway, so if a sheep tries to go out it must pass over me, and if a wolf tries to get in it must pass over my body. I am the gate.” And Pastor Smith learned a lesson he would long remember.

For Jesus is the gate of our sheepfold. He watches over us day and night, protecting us from harm and preventing us from wandering. He will not allow a thief or a bandit to get past him, nor a wolf or lion or bear. He will block their way, and say, “You’ll get to my sheep over my dead body!” And that’s not a threat, it’s a promise!

For Jesus did lay down his life for us — for you, for me. He bore our sins, as Peter said, bore them in his body on the cross, so that, we, free from sins, might live for righteousness. We were gone astray like silly sheep, wandering off in search of greener pastures but finding ourselves lost in the middle of the desert — and he found us laid us on his shoulder and gently brought us home. He put us in our sheepfold, and laid himself down in the opening, to keep us safe within, and to keep out the thieves and the bandits. And when the wild beasts of sin and fear and despair came stalking by that gate, he set himself between them and us. His rod and his staff took the form of a cross on that hill outside the city gates, a rod and a staff set crosswise, upon which he suffered and died in the presence of his enemies, upon which he entered into the valley of the shadow of death — for us, for us, my beloved brothers and sisters. He set that table before us on the night before he died, in the presence of his enemies, and ours — which for us was our own sin and waywardness.

And not for us alone. For there where he was lifted high upon the cross he could call the whole world to himself — he, the gate of the sheepfold. He, the way out of the valley of the shadow and into the pasture of the beautiful sunlight of God; He, the way out of the desert of sin and into the fields beside which the waters gently flow, the still waters whose still surface is as clear as glass. He is the gate of the sheep, of all the sheep who hear his voice and come to him, raised high upon the cross in all of his woundedness so that all might see him from afar, and come, and be healed by his wounds, and then enter the sheepfold. Jesus came that we might have life, and have it abundantly — and he gave his life for us, for our sake, placing himself between us and our sins.

We enter into life because of his death and resurrection; they stand between us and the thieving banditry of sin, the wild beasts of fear and wrong, and the foolishness of our own wandering. He is the gate, he is the shepherd.

So let us, beloved, this Eastertide and always, give thanks for our Good Shepherd, who calls us to him, each by name, and leads us in and out of pasture; who laid down his life for us; who rose again from the dead and who now lives in us, and we in him, the shepherd and guardian of our souls, forever and ever.

Witness Protection Plan

God offers a protection plan for those who witness in the power of the Spirit...

SJF • Easter 2a 2014 • Tobias S Haller BSG
These are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Happy Easter! I say that because Easter is not just a single day, but a whole season, and we are now on the Second Sunday of that Easter Season. This season is a time to celebrate something that is too good just to commemorate with a single day — the resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It is something to celebrate for a whole 50 days, right up to Pentecost. And beyond! For I hope I don’t surprise you further by reminding you that every Sunday is a “little Easter,” a celebration of the resurrection. Even the Sundays that fall during Lent are called “Sundays in Lent” but not “of Lent” — that’s a little liturgical footnote.

Eastertide — those fifty days — is a special season that speaks to us eloquently, because it coincides with the awakening of the world to springtime glory. I often wonder what it must feel like to be celebrating Easter in the Southern Hemisphere, where it is the beginning of fall — that must give it a different feeling. But here we are lucky enough to have Easter coincide with all of those beautiful flowers coming up outside; some of which we owe to our dear friend Monica. After the winter we had, believe me, spring is most welcome. As is Easter.

This is also a time to hear passages of Scripture that describe the birthday of the church and its very beginnings, that emergence of the body of the faithful believers in Jesus as they shared with each other in their experiences of the Risen Lord. The seed that had been planted by Jesus himself began to blossom and to bear fruit, in those days after his resurrection. For the church this was new life in a new world: the world’s spring.

Primary among these believers is Saint Peter. In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we hear the first part of Peter’s very first sermon — the one that he preached on the day of Pentecost — and we also hear a brief passage from his First Letter. We will hear more from this sermon next week, and more from that letter over the coming weeks of this Easter season. And I want to spend some time today and in the coming weeks exploring the teaching Peter develops about what it means to be a Christian, what it means to be the church in this world’s springtime.

Peter’s sermon to the crowds on Pentecost was more than a sermon, of course. It was testimony, and that is the element I want to highlight today. Like any religious Jew of his day, Peter knew his Scriptures well, and also like any pious believer then or since, he always tried to bring his own experience into relation with Scripture, to place his own experience into the history of salvation to which the Scriptures bear witness.

So Peter does some scriptural exegesis — which is just a fancy word for exploring and explaining what Scripture means. He quotes from the Psalms of David, Psalms that point to eternal life, and the promise that God’s Holy One would not suffer corruption. And Peter has the guts to say to the gathered assembly, “Well guess what, folks. David died! Not only that, but he suffered corruption — he was put in a tomb, and his tomb is right down the street and you can go and see it if you want. So David wasn’t talking about himself, but about one of his descendants. It is this Messiah that David is talking about when he says that he “will not be abandoned to Hades or experience corruption.” Then Peter pulls this historic analysis — all well in and of itself — right into the present: He tells the people there, “It has happened, right here in Jerusalem and not so long ago: this descendant of David, this Jesus — the man in whose crucifixion you all played a part by getting the Romans to execute him — God has raised him from the dead, and of that we are all witnesses!”

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Now, recall the situation. Just fifty-two days earlier, this same Peter was huddled by the fire outside the court where Jesus was on trial. When people recognized him and accused him of being one of the disciples, he denied it three times before the rooster crowed; and it all ended in tears. Peter, too, you see, had played his own part in the crucifixion of Jesus. Yet here — now, fifty-two days later — is this same man now boldly proclaiming to the whole community not only that they are guilty of complicity in a terrible crime — the execution of an innocent man — but that this man was and is the Messiah, whom God has raised from the dead, and that he and the other apostles are eyewitnesses to this raising. The former coward and traitor has been transformed by his own personal experience and the coming of God’s Spirit into one willing to testify to the truth, even at the risk of his own life — for remember who he is talking to: he knows that those who had worked to bring down Jesus may well still be there among that crowd, and they might do to Peter and his colleagues the same things, to bring them down — as indeed some of them would soon do — and we’ll be hearing more about that in the coming weeks!

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So there are two parts to this phenomenon: Peter’s actual experience of being a witness to something, and then the action of testifying to that experience. Has anyone here ever served as a witness in a trial or a hearing? (I won’t ask for a show of hands, but if you did you’ll know what I mean, that there are two parts to the experience. Not only have you had personal experience of some event, but you are willing to testify to that event. It means having and sharing first-hand knowledge, being able to deliver your testimony. It isn’t enough to have hearsay — somebody told me this happened — no, it means being able to say, “I was there, and I saw what happened.” And it isn’t enough just to have seen what happened — you have to be willing to be sworn in and to testify to your memories of what you saw. You have to tell your story — a story that happened.

Peter lacked the courage to testify that he knew Jesus on the night that Jesus was betrayed, but in between that and the testimony we heard this morning, two great events took place: Jesus was raised from the dead, and the Spirit descended on the apostles. These two events changed Peter and made him willing to take a risk he had been unwilling to take just weeks before.

For there is a risk in offering testimony. As I said, Peter, in that sermon was testifying to the same people who, as he said, got the Romans to crucify Jesus. Sometimes the risk is so great that people who testify, in a modern setting, have to be offered special protection; sometimes even a whole new identity, a whole new life in a different place. They call it a “witness protection plan.” God had such a plan for Peter, and it too had two parts. First came his own personal experience of the risen Christ, the Easter experience of a new life raised from the dead. But even more powerful was the descent of the Holy Spirit that came on him and the other apostles on the feast of Pentecost — which is when he spoke the words of this bold first sermon to the people. These two events gave Peter a new identity, and equipped him with what Paul would later call “the armor of God” but which Peter refers to as “protection” — a depth of trust and conviction that converted him from fear to faith. And they gave him a new life in a new place — the church that was born on the day of Pentecost, as we’ll hear again in a few weeks. He could boldly preach Christ and him crucified, but also risen from the dead, and he did so in the witness protection plan of God’s Holy Spirit.

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In addition to our sermon from Peter, today’s gospel passage gives us another story of a witness, the patron saint of witnesses: Doubting Thomas. Thomas is a skeptic — perhaps by nature. John reminds us that Thomas had a nickname; he was called “the Twin.” Now, we don’t know if he was an actual twin, or if he just looked so much like someone that they called him that. But he had probably had to argue many times with people who tell him, “But I saw you at the shop yesterday,” when what they saw was his brother or someone who looked like him. Even people who aren’t twins suffer from mistaken identity often enough — perhaps our twins can testify; have you ever been mistaken for someone else? or each other? I’m sure you have; I know I have! Or have you ever mistaken someone else for someone else; gone up to someone on the street and started to say “hello” and they look at you like, “Who are you?” And then you realize, “Sorry, I thought you were someone else.”

So Thomas probably had that kind of experience for much of his life. And when you’ve lived with that long enough you can become very skeptical about the eyewitness reports you hear about others. You’ve been there; you know how wrong people can be.

So when the other disciples assure Thomas that they have seen the Lord, he is not persuaded by their testimony. His first thought is that they’ve seen someone who looks like Jesus. Even their eyewitness testimony is not enough to convince him. He won’t accept their word: he needs to see for himself.

So, when Thomas finally does see for himself, he is practically speechless; he is only able to say a few words — how many times have you repeated them yourselves as you knelt at this altar to receive Christ present in the Eucharist — that simple phrase, “My Lord and my God!”

And Jesus does not rebuke him: he merely reminds him that being an eyewitness is not possible for everyone. It is the task of faith to believe those who are witnesses to the truth. We are challenged to test everything, yes, but to we are also called, as Jesus tells Thomas, to give credence when we see the greatest good; to believe not only the testimony, but the good faith of those who testify, who, in their lives and in their works as well as in their words show forth the fruits of God’s Holy Spirit at work in them. That is putting the power of faith to work: not just seeing, but believing, and testifying and bearing witness in one’s life, so that others may see and believe in the power of God, and have the courage to have faith.

This is how the power of God’s witness protection plan works for us. It gives us a different kind of courage — but through the same Spirit that gave courage to Peter. This is the courage to believe that of which we are not eyewitnesses — the resurrection of Christ — yet hold fast to the testimony of those who are witnesses — and to allow that experience of God to work in our lives.

We are not eyewitnesses to the resurrection — but we do have the testimony of those first eyewitnesses, passed down to other believers, and then on to the next generation of those who believe, and who receive the courage of faith through the Spirit, to act on their own belief to do the work God gives them — gives us — to do. And the power of this testimony, handed down through the ages, can still change the world. Our own “witness protection plan” is not based on having seen, but having believed, as Jesus promised Thomas would be the case. This gives us our new identity and our new dwelling place — as members of the church, Christ’s body on earth, and with that new identity, “Christian.” This testimony is as fresh as the day it was first delivered, blooming up out of the soil of cowardice and fear into the light of faith. It comes alive, alive like the springtime, like Easter itself in its continued rebirth, every time that testimony is offered, every time you speak a word of faith to someone who does not yet believe, you help that seed to blossom into life. It is the power of God at work for good in the world that God created, the world God redeemed, and the world God fills with his Holy Spirit.

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This is the promise and the fulfillment of Easter: the season of resurrection, of new beginnings and new possibilities, when life comes to the dead, cowards become courageous, doubters become believers, and even those who have not seen dare to speak out, dare to stand firm and to stand forth against all that works against the human spirit or God’s Spirit, to testify that they are saved and redeemed by the blood of Christ: witnesses protected by God!

This is our faith; this is our testimony; this is our courageous proclamation in the Spirit; this is our story, this is our song! beloved sisters and brothers in Christ. We may not have seen him rise, but we know he lives.

Alleluia, Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

WIthout a Doubt

How to certify a birth in the kingdom of heaven? Faith and doubt are sisters... A Sermon for Easter 2

SJF • Easter 2a 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.

Any of you here with young children or younger siblings are no doubt familiar with the phenomenon of triangular conversation. This is what happens when you are trying to have a conversation with a person of your own age in the presence of those much younger than you are. It is a skill somewhat more difficult than the more primitive spelling-out of words that you don’t want the child to hear; which always risks the embarrassment of a wise child saying, “Mommy, I know how to S-P-E-L-L!” But for those who have mastered the art of triangular conversation, it can save many a headache, and a good deal of time. Once you have the system down, you may appear to be speaking to the child, but your message, what you want your spouse or friend to understand, gets across. When successful, the child feels included in the conversation but doesn’t understand the significance of what you are saying to the mature person.

The Gospel according to Saint John is in large part just such a triangular conversation. Although it is written as a series of encounters between Jesus and his disciples, much of it — if not most of it — is written for the benefit of those who will read it — including us. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is often speaking to us over the heads of the disciples.

This is perhaps nowhere so clear as in those closing verses of our Gospel reading today. The ones who “are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” aren’t the disciples, but are the members of the church who hear this gospel proclaimed to them — and that includes us at a remove of nearly 2000 years. Jesus may appear to be speaking to Thomas and the other disciples, but the message is for the church at large — for the many generations of believers who have come to believe not because of what they had seen but through what they have heard: the proclamation of this very gospel. As the last verse proclaims, this Gospel had a purpose, and is “written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah.”

The whole incident preceding John’s conclusion leads up to it with a kind of inexorable logic. Remember that this is Jesus’s first appearance to the gathering of the disciples — prior to this he has only appeared to Mary Magdalene, and though she has told the disciples about it, they are still cowering in fear behind locked doors. Suddenly — and as I said last week, magically — Jesus appears in the locked room and reveals himself to the disciples minus one. Thomas the twin isn’t there. Why? The Gospel doesn’t say. But it would be fair to note that Thomas may not have been quite so fearful as the rest of them — perhaps the only one courageous enough to be out and about in a city grown threatening, truly now a stranger in a strange land indeed.

For whatever reason, Thomas misses out on the resurrection appearance, and expresses his doubt in no uncertain terms. Or perhaps it would be better to say, in uncertain terms. He expresses his uncertainty, his doubt, not denial. He does not affirm something that he knows, but something that he does not know. He confesses he does not know that Christ is risen — but he doesn’t declare that Christ is not risen. That would not be doubt, but denial. He does not say, “He is not risen,” but rather, “Show me the proof and then I will believe.” And once the proof is given, so he does.

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People sometimes wrongly say that doubt is the enemy of faith; but that is not really true. Doubt and faith are sisters; and whether you say “I don’t believe it” or “I do believe it” you are speaking primarily about your own state of mind and not about the ultimate reality or unreality of some objective fact. Facts, after all, are just facts. People don’t believe facts, they know facts. So knowledge is not the same thing as faith, nor is ignorance the same thing as denial. No one would say, “I believe that one plus one is two.” You would say, “I know that one plus one is two” — or, as I said before, “I know how to S-P-E-L-L.” Nor does my saying, “I don’t know how to do differential calculus or speak Chinese” mean that differential calculus or the Chinese language don’t exist. Ultimately, one does not need to have faith in, or belief in, something which you know to exist. Faith only is needed where doubt is possible.

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When Christ appeared to the other disciples they did not gain faith in him — in fact they had been just as faithless as Thomas. They had not believed the testimony of Mary, who had seen Jesus. What they gained when Christ appeared to them was not faith but knowledge. And Thomas seeks the same thing: he says he will not believe, but he demands knowledge — he literally demands hands-on experience — but faith is belief in the absence of hands-on experience , in the absence of certain knowledge.

And this is precisely why Jesus, and John as author of this Gospel, speak to us over the heads of the disciples including Thomas, in saying, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” We do not have direct knowledge of the living Christ, in the same way the disciples in that room did. But we do have their testimony. And as Peter also affirms — writing to a congregation long ago but who just as well might be writing to this congregation gathered here today, “Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and you rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”

None of us has seen the risen Lord with the eyes of the flesh, or heard his voice with our earthly ears — but we have seen him with the eyes of our heart and heard him speaking to us through the Spirit. He speaks to us through the Scripture over the heads of the doubting world. But more than that, we see him through the acts of sacrifice and service, to the wounded, the captive, the hungry, and the sick. We believe, and believing, have life in his name.

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Doubt and faith are sisters. Doubt will not harm you unless it hardens into denial, unless it demands physical proof, and incontestable evidence.

In his first novel, A Separate Peace, John Knowles portrays two privileged young men at a posh New Hampshire private boarding school in the midst of World War II. The two boys have engineered a fantasy in which they have come to deny the reality of the war itself — like some modern day conspiracy theorists, they think the war is just an elaborate hoax. They have made, as the title of the novel suggests, a separate peace; and it ends in tragedy. Denial catches up with them in the end.

And you might well say, how foolish not to know what is going on around you, not to believe the evidence of one’s senses, even after the seeing the newsreels and press reports. Or, in a more recent context, how foolish not to believe even when the much-demanded long-form birth certificate has been produced. Yes, there are still some who will continue to live in denial!

But is our disbelieving world any better for not seeing the signs of the presence of God in the hearts and hands of faithful people everywhere? That is our task, my friends. Not just to believe for ourselves, but to put our belief into action so that others may see what we have seen — not the risen Christ himself, or his wounded hands or side, but the hands and arms and shoulders of fellow Christians reaching out to lift and carry the weak, to comfort and heal the sick, to feed the hungry and console the orphan and widow. These are a certification of a birth far more important than a merely earthly one. They are the signs of the birth of the spirit in our hearts, and they certify our citizenship in the kingdom of God.

It is not for us to hear words from the lips of Jesus himself like those gathered on the mountainside, but to hear that message carried forth as testimony by many messengers — and to become messengers ourselves — apostles each and every one of us — sent to the far corners of the earth to bring the message of salvation and new birth, shouting out the Gospel over the heads of a disbelieving and unbelieving world, which, like a wise child, may realize there is more to the conversation than they know — so that all people everywhere might come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God, and that through believing they might have life in his name.+

The Net Effect

SJF • Epiphany 5c 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, “Put out into the deep water and let out your nets for a catch.”+

In spite of being the son of a carpenter, and perhaps being a carpenter himself, our Gospel reading this morning shows us that Jesus was quite a fisherman as well. This story involves another fisherman named Simon bar Jonah — a disappointed fisherman at that. He’s spent the whole night for nothing, and now faces the tedious task of washing and stowing the nets that let him down the night before even as he pulled them up — empty. Talk about adding insult to injury! But Jesus pays no mind to the grumbling Simon. No, Jesus just goes on preaching and teaching, sitting there in the front of the boat as Peter grumbles and fumbles in the stern. And this is how Jesus shows himself to be a master fisherman — for he too fishes for people.

Now, there are all kinds of fishermen in the world. You may have seen the sports fishermen who catch huge swordfish from the stern of powerboats — the fisherman’s equivalent of wrestling or in keeping with today, football. But there are also trout-fishers, the fishing world equivalent of archery — whose work is marked by the delicacy with which they cast the line, the gentleness with which the fly is twitched floating on the surface of the current, making it seem a natural treat to tempt a trout.

Jesus is a trout-fisher as opposed to a sports fisher. And the fish he’s after in this Gospel passage isn’t among the crowds on the shore — they’ll get caught in the big net later on, tended by someone else. No, the fish Jesus is after is right there in the boat with him. It’s Simon himself, Simon son of Jonah, no less. How’s that for a coincidence?

I’ve mentioned before that in Greek the first letters of the phrase “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior” spell out the Greek anagram IXΘYC, the Greek word for fish. People in the early church used the sign of the fish as a secret code for the fact that they were Christians. Some people still do the same with bumper stickers. So in our Gospel this morning we have Jesus, whose title spells out “fish” angling for Simon the fisherman who in this case is the fish Jesus is after, just as Simon’s father’s namesake, Jonah, once got caught by a fish, and later also became a fisher of men when he went preaching to Nineveh. This is some fish story! And before it is fully told, Simon will be sent, sent to fish for people all around the banks of the Mediterranean sea. He will have received a new calling.

And in today’s Gospel we see how Jesus places this important call. Jesus plays out his line, trailing the lure as he teaches and preaches. For while he speaks to the crowds on the sure, he is also targeting Simon, there in the boat with him. Simon seems to be a bystander, such is the craft of Jesus the fisher of souls. Simon doesn’t even know he’s being lured! He just sits there tending his nets, and the words of Jesus — what they were we’ll never know — they come to him second-hand, or so it seems.

Then, suddenly, the spell is broken. Jesus turns to Simon, and instead of asking to be rowed back to land, as we might expect at the end of the sermon, he tells the fisherman to put out to the deep and try for another catch.

You can well imagine what thoughts went through Simon’s head at that point. “A carpenter is going to tell me how to fish?” But something in Jesus’ command gets through, and out they go. Simon lets down the nets — nets he’s just finished cleaning — and suddenly grace breaks through, and there are so many fish he doesn’t know what to do with them, and the boats are almost swamped. And Peter, knowing now that he’s been caught, falls to his knees and appeals to Jesus to throw him back. But it’s too late. Jesus has caught his Big Fish who will become the Big Fisherman, and tells him not to be afraid, for he will now start his true calling, his calling to fish for people.

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Calling. That’s a simple English word for what sometimes gets called a vocation. Sometimes the “calling” is literal, and audible “calling out” in spoken words. Simon in our Gospel this morning gets an express verbal command; Gideon in our Old Testament gets the same; Paul on the road to Damascus got the same; Joan of Arc heard voices in the ringing of the church bells telling her to put on armor like a man and go to Orleans and tell the king to start acting like a king.

But most people in the history of the Christian faith don’t receive their calling in such a direct and literal and audible way. God whispers to our hearts more often than shouting in our ears. And just as Jesus appointed Simon to go out and fish for people, assigning him a task rather than doing it all himself, God continues to work through angels and ministers of grace, apostles and evangelists and preachers and teachers, members of our own families and friends we’ve known for years, and sometimes casual acquaintances we hardly know, or even a stranger — to gather in the people of God, to pull in the nets into his great ark of the church.

For as I’ve pointed out before, our church is a great ship, literally. Look up into the vaulting of the roof at those ribs. We’re a great upside down boat, and you are sitting in the nave. That’s why they call it “the nave.” We are on naval maneuvers! Our church is a boat turned upside down, a great boat that sails between heaven and earth. And there are nets cast out through the portals of this church that stretch off into the world, to bring in a catch.

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All of us here this morning have a calling, even if we are not entirely sure what it is or what it will be. Sometimes you have to listen very carefully to hear God’s voice speaking through the many messengers God sends out. Other times it may be as clear as a trumpet blast.

And we can’t be sure where the call will lead us. Simon Peter walked off and left the nets, the fish, the boats, and everything else. A man who thought he would spend his whole life long plying the nets by Galilee, ended his life in Rome crucified upside down, as upside down as his world had been turned, and as upside-down as he and the other Christians had turned the world— we Christians who sail the ship of the church upside down in the waters of heaven.

The call of God has “a net effect.” When we respond to God’s call it will make a difference in our lives; as Paul said in the epistle this morning, “I am what I am by God’s grace.” That grace, that call will make us be what we are, though it may change what we do: even if the calling is not to something new, but the rediscovery of something old. Sometimes God redirects a person’s skills say, from catching fish to catching people. And sometimes God opens our eyes to see God’s grace in the calling we’ve already got, the precious uniqueness of a skill we thought was common and ordinary. For there is nothing insignificant in God’s great world, and the net God casts is very fine, and doesn’t miss a single fish.

Of course, when we hear the word vocation we often think of vocation within the four walls of the church, an on-board ministry, so to speak. Not everyone, though, will be called to be a sailor, or a steward or purser — the world needs travel agents and tour guides and hotel managers too! And what I want to say to you this morning is that every calling of God is a holy calling, and every act done in the Name of Jesus is a work of the kingdom of heaven — on board the boat or out in the ports and harbors of our journey. The church is the ark of salvation, but some of us are also called to go out, out into the deep places of the world, where the Spirit of God moves where it wills, touching hearts that are hungry and thirsty for the Word from beyond the worlds, who made the world and everything in it, and who calls that whole world to himself.

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I mentioned Joan of Arc a moment ago, how she received a commission to go to the king and tell him to start acting like a king. Well, about a thousand years ago, King Henry the Third of Bavaria, thought he had a calling to become a monk. He’d been an effective monarch, but he also felt a strong sense that God wanted him to devote himself to a life of prayer. And so he went off to the local abbey, to meet with the wise old Prior. And right off, the Prior, who was very wise, said, “You know, your majesty, you’ve been a good king; but kings aren’t generally accustomed to accepting orders from other people, and here in the monastery, as you place yourself under obedience to me and the other senior monks, you may find the vow of obedience is much more difficult for you than the vows of poverty and chastity.” King Henry said he understood, but he persisted. “I know it will be difficult. But I wish to give my life to God. So I will obey you as you command.” “Will you, then, your Majesty, do as I tell you?” said the Prior. “I will,” he answered, “with all my heart.” And so the wise old Prior said, “Then go back to your throne and serve where God has put you.”

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Sometimes the call of God will send us off to the other end of the world, and sometimes the call of God will send us right back to where we’ve always been. But in any case, as we do God’s will for each of us, each of us being what we are through the grace of God alone; whether we see new things or see old things anew; the net effect is that our world will be changed, as we are empowered to change the world around us. God is calling each of us to be all that we can be, or to make new use of what we already have, for it all comes from God, after all, new or old. We may find ourselves, like Simon son of Jonah, leaving all that is familiar behind us on the beach. We may, like Henry of Bavaria, find ourselves returning to an old task with a new sense of purpose and commitment. In any case and in every case, God is calling us, and may all of our work in response, all of our calling and vocation, be to the glory of God alone, to whom we give thanks, and in whose Name we pray.+

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.+

Half-Way Saint

Saint James Fordham • Proper 14a • Tobias Haller BSG
When Peter noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”

Is anybody here afraid of heights? Well, having nearly fallen off the eleven-story roof of my grandmother’s apartment building when I was eleven years old, I confess I have ever since been a little nervous about being too close to the edge of an unprotected high space. I don’t know what I was thinking, but I just ran up to the edge of the roof, jumped up on the ledge and just teetered there, looking down 11 stories — one for each of my young years. Fortunately there was enough of me on the leeward side and the winds were mild, so I slipped back onto the roof of the building. I then crawled my way back to the stairway, gritting my teeth and fighting the urge to decorate the roof with some colorful regurgitation!

Ever since then, I’ve been uncomfortable on a ledge or open high space. I don’t mind being in a safely glassed-in area, or even on a balcony or viewing platform with a substantial guardrail. But low or non-existent guardrails make me uneasy.

And, of course, “low” is a relative term. When I last lived in Manhattan, almost thirty years ago, I was just as glad that my apartment on the 25th floor didn’t have a balcony. But I also remember being very apprehensive when I visited a friend in one of the apartments that did have a balcony. This guy was over 6-foot-five tall, and thin as a rail. I’d always get antsy when he would go out on the balcony and lean against the railing, which on him came to just below the waist! I was always dreading that he would just tip over!

Now, as I say, my fear of heights is moderate and has to do with the ledges being too low; I have no trouble with bridges or flying, and actually enjoy the window seat and am usually glued to the window admiring the scenery. But there are some people whose fear of heights can be overwhelming, so much so that if they get into certain situations they will just freeze up in panic, unable to move. When this panic strikes a driver on a long, high, suspension bridge, the fear of heights can be more than an embarrassing inconvenience — it can become a real danger. I was reminded of this when I heard on the radio today about a terrible accident on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in my own home state of Maryland.

Imagine, now, that you are a person with a fear of heights, and you’ve just heard this terrible news story about a tractor-trailer pushing several cars off the bridge and plummeting down itself — imagine yourself as someone with a fear of heights who has to drive across that same bridge. The long expanse stretches before you, slowly rising in the air. You begin to notice how very long the bridge is, and how very narrow, and how very much further you have to go. You can’t help but perceive how thin the cables are that hold the bridge up, how insubstantial the whole thing seems to be. It looks like a thread held up by a spiderweb, on which you are slowly inching your way across the dark and distant water far below.

As you continue your climb to the top of the arch your hands tighten on the steering wheel, and sweat begins to bead on your forehead. And as you reach the top of the arch the full panic hits you. It’s as if you’re on the top of a frozen Ferris wheel — Brother James can tell you about that, because that’s something that drives him batty — and in your panic you step on the brake as irresistible terror clutches your heart, helpless and hopeless, in the middle of the very thing that terrifies you most, unable to move.

This is no fantasy. Such panic attacks happen so often on America’s longest and highest bridges that most of them provide a free service: an attendant is available to drive terrified motorists across the bridge. The bridge authorities have found it is less expensive to keep a driver on staff than risk the tie-ups and accidents a panic attack can cause. For instance, attendants at that Chesapeake Bay Bridge — four miles long and 200 feet high — escort over a thousand fearful drivers across the bridge each year. You might think this wasteful, but think of the savings in avoiding two or three accidents or traffic jams every day!

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Matthew’s Gospel shows us Saint Peter in very much this situation. I like to think of Peter as the Patron Saint of Half-Way There. He gets out of the boat in answer to Jesus’ call, but a few steps along he notices the wind, becomes frightened, and starts to sink. I can’t help but be a little bit amused at Peter’s plight, when I realize how much he looks like one of those cartoon characters who rush straight out off the edge of a cliff, and only begin to fall when they realize what they’ve done! Peter is like Wiley Coyote or Yosemite Sam, half-way out in space without any visible means of support and suddenly realizing it. And it is only then, only when he realizes where he is, that he begins the plunge. So, what does Peter do? He yells for help, and reaches out to grab the outstretched hand of Jesus as he catches him.

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Isn’t that how we all are, so much of the time? We start off confidently in a new job, but soon find ourselves in the midst of problems, sometimes overwhelming ones. But if we’re people of faith — even a “little faith” — we call for help, assured that there will be a helping hand stretched out to rescue us. Peter was a man of faith, even if only “a little faith” — but it was enough for him to call out to Jesus, and to grasp that outstretched hand. As was once said, A person without faith is someone with no invisible means of support. But faith, that invisible support, is what you need when you’re walking on water, or even on what passes for solid ground amidst the changes and chances of this earthly life, these temporal things we pass through on our way to the eternal country.

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Peter is the Half-Way Saint, and there is another half to his story. Peter’s “little faith” wasn’t enough to let him walk on water, but it was big enough for him to reach out for help when he needed it. But his “little faith” was also big enough for him to reach out to others. At the Last Supper, Jesus told Peter, “Strengthen your brethren”; and after his resurrection, “Feed my sheep.”

And so Peter did. Peter was Half-Way, as all of us are, between being helped and helping, between being rescued and rescuing. And there is a profound and practical truth in this. I’d be willing to wager that a man with fear of heights wouldn’t stop half-way across a bridge in frozen panic if he were driving his pregnant wife or sick child to the hospital. You see, helping someone else can have the wonderful effect of putting your own problems and difficulties into perspective. That’s part of the reason so-called “self-help” groups, are so successful. It’s not just that you are reminded that you’re not in it alone — but that your participation, your presence, helps others to realize that they are not alone either. When you reach out your hand to help someone else, you find your own problems lessened. You help yourself by helping others. That is why most acts of heroism are performed by very ordinary people — people who forget their own fears in the midst of helping to save others.

The great psychiatrist Karl Menninger was once asked what you should do if you feel a nervous breakdown coming on. Should you go to a psychiatrist, find the nearest clinic? Menninger surprised the questioner by answering, “Leave you house, lock the door behind you, go across the railroad tracks, find somebody in need, and help that person.”

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All of us, like Peter, are potential Half-Way Saints, living in the midst of the storm-tossed sea of life, gifted with “a little faith” that is still a big-enough faith to call on Jesus and reach out our hand to grasp his. The miracle is that sometimes, perhaps most times, we will find that the outstretched hand we grasp is not that of a savior, someone who saves us, but the hand of someone we have been blessed to save. We are, all of us, joined in a chain of clasped hands that reaches from the lowest depths of despair up to the throne of glory. And all we need is that little bit of faith that keeps us hanging on. May that little faith still strengthen us, in the Name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.+

Chosen and Precious

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don't Tell It In The Valley

SJF • Last Epiphany A • Tobias Haller BSG
Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

Today is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, the season of “showing forth.” It was a very short season this year, only four Sundays counting Epiphany itself; yet some significant things have already been shown forth to us these few weeks. We have seen how God hides and reveals himself, and come to understand how utterly known to God all of us are — known through and through, and loved by the one who made us in his own image.

We have heard gospel readings describe Christ’s showing forth to the world. A dove settled on him at the river Jordan, showing John that Jesus was the one he waited for. John’s followers answered Jesus’ call to “come and see,” and Jesus himself went to the far reaches of Galilee of the Gentiles, and netted himself an assortment of fishermen, who left their nets and boats and families behind, to follow him. But on this last Sunday before Lent, Jesus is revealed in a different light, and delivers a paradoxical command to three of those fishermen.

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First, the revelation. Jesus is revealed for a moment in his full glory. He had promised his disciples, in the verse before our gospel for today begins, “There are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” Peter, James and John get a preview of Jesus’ divine majesty, a down-payment on the final fulfillment. No wonder Peter wants to stay on the mountain!

However, not only don’t they stay on the mountain, but Jesus issues a strange command as they are coming down from the heights. “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” And we wonder, Why reveal, then conceal? Why reveal the good news and then order them not to tell it? I spoke two weeks ago about how God plays hide and seek with us, and this may be yet another instance. But I think there is more to it in this case.

And the “more” begins in our Old Testament reading. Here too is a mountain on which God is revealed, though not in human flesh, but in cloud and majesty and awe, carving the Law in stone. God gives this written revelation to Moses, who brings it to the people. And we all know what happens. The people are not ready to receive God in the form of sublime and righteous laws. God is ready to meet them half-way, to enter into a covenant with them. But they don’t want to go half-way; they don’t want even to be near the mountain. They will reveal themselves to be happier with a god they’ve made themselves, a golden calf they can dance around, who won’t do anything for them— but who will ask nothing of them.

So God is faced with a dilemma. God loves humanity, and sends Moses with the Law, a covenant into which the people were invited, but which they reject before the ink is even dry, so to speak. So God sends the prophets, like Elijah, reminding the people of the promises, of the love, of the forgiveness that awaits them if only they will turn to God and forswear their foolish ways.

What happens to the prophets? Some are heeded—briefly. But others are beaten, some killed. So God decides to send his own dear Son — not a letter, not an ambassador, but one who shares his being, one who is God— one who is glimpsed in majesty on the mountaintop by three disciples, and will only later be revealed in the mighty act of resurrection from the dead.

This is why Jesus orders the disciples not to tell the people about what they have seen on this mountain... until after. The people already have Moses, for the Law is read week by week in the synagogue. The people already have Elijah and the other prophets, whose deeds and warnings are also recounted. Jesus knows that this is not enough— the Law and the Prophets alone cannot save. Following rules and hearing warnings will not save people — they don’t need another teacher or lawgiver: they are too hardheaded to be instructed. They don’t need to be taught, but rescued; not instructed, but saved! And that goes for us too. What is needed is for someone to rise from the dead, mighty in power and strong to save.

So what happens on the mountain is the preview, not the feature presentation! It is a private screening, to encourage the apostles — not for general release! And even what they see on the mountain is not enough — it is not salvation, but promise. Peter wants to stay on the mountain, to bask in the momentary glory, to live in the promise rather than the fulfillment.

But God has other plans: When Peter offers to build three shelters, God speaks, “This is my Son. Listen to him.” God is saying, The Law and the Prophets, Moses and Elijah, have had their day and did their part, but now you have the Son himself: listen, and do as he says. There is something better even than this to come.

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Saint Paul understood this difference well, a lesson learned at great personal cost. He had been a man of the Law and the Prophets, but he learned that, in the light of the resurrection, all his learning was just so much rubbish. Jesus is working along the same line when he tells the disciples to keep the vision secret until he has risen from the dead. Don’t give away the ending, he’s says, perhaps the first spoiler alert! The best part — the important part — is still to come— but not before suffering, pain and death. Jesus does not tarry on the mountain. He goes down to the challenges still waiting. For he knows that only through his death and resurrection can people finally be saved. The promise is not enough — there must as well be performance.

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We, too, have our mountaintop moments. Like Peter, we are tempted to remain in them, enjoying them, trying to make the experience last. But we too have challenges awaiting us. The parish church is one mountaintop for us. We come each week, hear the words of the Law and the Prophets, and of Jesus, and then go out on our way. Surely, it is good to be here. We feel restored, renewed, encouraged and comforted.

But all of these feelings are meant to impel us to action, not as ends in themselves. We receive the promise in order to equip us for performance, in God’s name. It would be easy to stay in the comfort of community, but we are challenged and equipped to go out to face a world in need.

It is good to be here, and we need a weekly return to our mountaintop: just as Christ himself went to hills to pray. But he also went back to the valley for ministry. We are fed by the Law, the Prophets, and the Gospel; but we know that the Law is without power to save on its own, that the prophecies will pass away, and that the gospel will perish if there is no one to preach it. So we are reminded today that we have a mission, a mission to all the world. We go back to our weekday lives equipped with gifts of the Spirit, as ambassadors of Christ.

Us? Ambassadors of Christ? Yes, us! We have been transformed, changed into messengers of Christ, so that what is unchanging may be revealed through us. The great news is the resurrection has happened — we are not bound like James and John and Peter, to keep it secret until it happened — for it has, praise God! We live in the time of “until after” — Christ is alive! That is the Gospel, the Good News. And so we’ve received the commission to tell it out, to tell abroad the Good News that salvation has come, and we are its heralds and ambassadors.

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Christ came down from the mountain to a valley that led towards Calvary. He didn’t stay on a mountaintop with three booths, but marched steadfastly on toward a little hill with three crosses. But there is more; do you see it? As we begin our Lenten pilgrimage, as we enter the valley of challenge before us, keep your eye on the mountain there ahead —— not the little hill called Golgotha, but the mountain that rises behind it, the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven like a bride adorned for her bridegroom. Though Lent is about to begin, we know the end of the story, the greatest story ever told, we know that Christ is alive, risen from the dead and powerful to save, and we — we servants of God — equipped with that knowledge and filled with the Holy Spirit, we can go forth from this place on our mission, empowered to tell that story and do great works in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.+

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...+

Voices of God

SJF • Last Epiphany C 2007 • Tobias Haller BSG

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
We come now to the end of the Epiphany season, and our Gospel reading ends on a note that resounds as an echo to the Gospel reading with which the season began. On that first Sunday after the Epiphany we celebrated the Baptism of Jesus — and commemorated our own. The Gospel for that day ended with the voice of God saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Today we commemorate Christ’s transfiguration on the mountain, where he reveals himself to his three closest chosen disciples. And again the voice of God speaks on the mountain, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.”

The commandment to “listen to him” is not just for Peter, James and John; it is given to us as well; we too are commanded to listen to the voice of Jesus the Son of God. And we obey this commandment in many ways in the church.

Most importantly, we listen for the voice of God in the Holy Scriptures, and we are most attentive to God and readiest to hear his voice as we experience the reading of the Bible week by week in church, in the context of our worship, where our voices blend together, not simply reading and hearing and listening, but singing, praying and celebrating as well.

There is much debate these days about Scripture and its meaning and interpretation and authority. Sad to say, some people seem to want to reduce the Bible to a kind of Berlitz phrase book where you can get all the answers — especially answers telling other people what to do! There are others who want to treat the Bible like a reference book you pull down off the shelf only when you need it, rather than as a constant companion on our daily pilgrimage. And I want to reflect today on how we best make use of the Bible — not as a stopgap — but as a guide for our lives, and a companion with us on our journey: a lamp unto our feet and a compass for our pilgrimage.

It is first of all important to note that while we call the Bible the Word of God, we do not call it the words of God. For unlike the Qur’an, which according to Muslim belief was written by one man as a single volume at the direct dictation of Allah, our Bible was recorded by many hands — human hands — over many centuries. And only the tablets from the mountaintop are said to have been written directly by the hand of God — all the rest comes to us from human hands. The scriptures were assembled over many years from the experiences of many people from the whispers God whispered in their ears, or the shouts God shouted from the hillsides, but also including and expressing their own reflections and history, their own thoughts, prayers, and opinions. Our Bible does not speak with just a single voice. It is even more than a dialogue between God and one faithful interpreter. It is rather a chorus of voices, some of which claim to speak for God, but many of which represent not God’s voice but a human response to God. In this mix of many voices we need to listen very carefully, and take care to distinguish between what is truly God’s word for us, and what may have been intended as God’s word for someone; or to discern what isn’t God’s word at all, but merely a human opinion.

Sometimes the Scripture writers themselves make it relatively easy for us to tell the difference. When the prophets say, “Thus says the Lord,” we ignore them at our peril. Other times it is equally clear that the scripture is not recording God’s words, but human words, words spoken in response to God. Often the scripture is plain historical record, as in the books of the Kings and Chronicles; often the writer of the particular passage is offering us his or her own wisdom or prayer, as in Proverbs or the Psalms. When David says, “I called to the Lord in my distress,” it is clearly David who is distressed, and David who is speaking — not God. Similarly, Saint Paul often lets us in on his thoughts, and in a few cases, as in 1 Corinthians chapter 7, he is takes great pains to note the difference between God’s commandments and his own opinion. He wrties, “I say — I and not the Lord” as he gives his opinion on what Christians married to nonbelievers should or shouldn’t do. Saint Paul would no doubt be scandalized to hear people claiming — as some do today — that everything he wrote or said should be treated as if it was “the Word of God.” He had the humility to confess that he often spoke with the “tongues of mortals” and was more often a clanging gong than he wished he was!

And this is where the difficulties arise. For often, discerning God’s voice among the many voices that speak to us in Scripture is not so simple. Most texts to not come with handy labels saying, “Thus says the Lord,” on the one had or “Peter said, ‘Let us make three dwellings’” on the other — and Scripture attests that Peter didn’t know what he was saying! And even when the prophet does say, “Thus says the Lord,” how can we be sure that what the prophet speaks is truly God’s word. Scripture records at least one incident in 1 Kings chapter 22, when the prophets all speak wrongly — 400 of them promise victory to the king, claiming, “Thus says the Lord.” And when one lone prophet warns that their promises are mistaken, they turn on him and literally slap him upside the face and have him put in jail!

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So a large part of the church’s task is to help its many members with how best to understand and act upon the saving message the Scripture holds for us. This is why the Bible, in which God speaks to us through many voices, is best heard and understood in the church, the gathered assembly which is the body of Christ, and of which we are individual members.

This is not to say that we should not also do our own personal reading of the Bible — and I hope all of you have this discipline as part of your Christian walk; and if not, may I recommend it would be an excellent thing to take up during Lent, which is about to begin this Wednesday!

But private reading of the Scripture is never enough by itself: it is in the interchange that takes place in the church, the ability of each member to say, “I think this is what it means” that we come to better understandings than we could come to on our own — for the Scripture is not a matter of any one individual’s interpretation, but rather the gathered wisdom of the members of the church comparing notes, as we seek together to grasp at God’s meaning. It is in the church, which is to say, in Christ, that as Saint Paul said, the veil is lifted from our minds so that we can together understand the Scripture.

Still, it is obvious to anyone who reads the papers there are still disagreements as to what Scripture says, what it means, and what it means for us. It has often been said that if the Scripture were plain and clear there wouldn’t be so much division and dissension among Christians! There is scarcely a verse of Scripture that has not been disputed at some time or another — even something as seemingly straightforward as “Thou shalt not kill” has been debated in causes as remote as capital punishment and a “just” war.

However, within our Anglican tradition, we have been given a rare opportunity to continue to discuss the meaning of Scripture for us, for we Anglicans — exceptionally among Christian bodies — take very seriously Saint Paul’s words: we know only in part; we do not claim certainty; or infallibility, as I mentioned last week: and we have proclaimed from the Reformation on that we believe the Scriptures to be “sufficient unto salvation” — that is, not that the Scripture is infallible or inerrant, but that the Scripture, as the Prayer Book says on page 868, “containeth all things necessary to salvation.” We have the faith and hope that even though we make mistakes, God will lift the veil to help us understand his will for us, sufficiently to the end which he intends: which is our salvation.

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But even with the veil thus partially removed by faith and hope, we still have at hand the difficult task of understanding as best we can what God means for the church and the world, to find the voice of God among the many voices both in Scripture and in the church itself. Richard Hooker, the sixteenth century theologian and single most important architect of what we now call Anglicanism, often referred to this process as “sifting” the Scripture. And this is a useful analogy for the task.

Some years ago a friend of composer John Cage sent him and his collaborator David Tudor: a box each of assorted Indian spices. Upon opening the packages, they found the lids had come off the spice-jars, and the spices were all mixed together. Cage simply put the whole mess in a corner of his apartment and tried to forget about it, but Tudor set about assembling a selection of sieves of varying sizes, from coarse to extremely fine, and over several weeks sifted through the mixture of spices until he had separated each and every grain back to its original jar. He then went to John Cage and said, “Whevever you’re ready to start on yours, so am I.”

The Scriptures are like those mixed up spices. We have, for example, two creation stories in chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis; two accounts of the flood woven together; there are four Gospels that disagree on a number of points — and these are just a few examples of the jumble. Agnostics and atheists look at the jumble and decide they don’t want to bother with it. At the other extreme, Biblical fundamentalists imagine we’re not dealing with various spices at all, just a particularly unusual blended curry. But we Anglicans hold that Scripture is a mixture of many different ingredients, that we can come to understand better as we sift and separate them.

In doing this we have at our disposal a number of “sieves.” I’ve already mentioned the importance of the community of the church, and its faith and hope. Also important is the study of the ancient languages in which the Scriptures were first written. So too is the knowledge of history and culture, to understand that a given turn of phrase may mean something very different in different times and places. Then since we are dealing in all cases with very ancient manuscripts, many of which are damaged, all of which are copies of copies of copies of now lost originals, we look to the study of how manuscripts are edited, and the kinds of mistakes people make when they copy things by hand. Then too the study of the many literary forms in which the Scripture is written can help us understand them better: from the short, sharp wisdom of a proverb, to the extended meditation of a psalm, from the historical narratives to the challenging symbolism of the apocalyptic books like Daniel and Revelation.

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But ultimately there is one final sieve that we will employ if we are truly to understand God’s meaning for us. All the other tools of human wit and wisdom will do no good in passing on God’s message, even the divine gifts of faith and hope will be of no avail, without the most important tool at our disposal. Saint Paul said it best, in words that have challenged the church for nearly two thousand years: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”

Love is the finest sieve that separates out all the harshness, all of the roughness from the Scripture to leave the pure gold of the Word of God. It smooths the rude accents of anger and self-righteousness with which some of the biblical speakers speak, and it shapes our understanding too as we read the text not to find a weapon against someone with whom we disagree, but an opening for grace and love to thrive and grow.

Remember, beloved, that love is the purpose for which God’s written word came to us. And even more importantly love is the reason God’s Incarnate Word, God’s own beloved Son, came to us to be with us. For just as God gives us the Scripture to guide us, so too God loved the world so much that he gave us his only Son to the end that we should not perish, but have everlasting life. Love is God’s sufficient purpose for us; love is also thesufficient means by which God comes to us in word and in person, and love is the means by which we can begin to come to God, and to some understanding of God’s will for us.

In all of our reading, marking, learning and inwardly digesting the Scripture, let our minds be seasoned with the knowledge of God’s love: for it is only in his love that we will understand God and his loving purposes for us. The law has come to an end in Christ. As for prophecies, they will come to an end as well. Only love never ends, the greatest of God’s gifts, incarnate in his own beloved Son, his Chosen one: let us, beloved, do as God commands, and listen to him.+

The Puzzle and the Plan

SJF • Transfiguration 2006 • Tobias S Haller BSG
Saint Peter wrote, We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain. So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed.
I’m sure many of us here have spent at least some of our leisure time working on a jigsaw puzzle. Often this is a team effort, and members of the family or friends join in to get the puzzle to match the picture on the box in which the puzzle came. However, a few years ago I learned of a particularly challenging version of jigsaw puzzles — the Cadillac of jigsaw puzzles. These are special hand-crafted jigsaw puzzles, made by a company that only produces a few each year. They cost as much as four thousand dollars! And they are very difficult, designed for the true jigsaw puzzle expert — or addict! One of their puzzles is so hard that the makers offer a $10,000 prize to anyone who succeeds — and after many attempts no one has succeeded.

However, perhaps the most unusual thing about these jigsaw puzzles is that unlike the kind with which most of us are familiar, the kind you or I might purchase at Toys R Us, these puzzles don’t have a picture on the box to show you what the puzzle is supposed to look like when it’s finished. And that is part of the reason they are so hard to finish! These puzzles just come in a plain blue box and it is up to you to figure out what you are putting together just from the pieces alone. Is it the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, or the Bronx Botanical Garden? Is it a lunar landscape, or a sailing ship on the high sea? Most of us would find such puzzles overwhelming, puzzles without a hint as to what the answer is, puzzles without the guiding picture to show us what we are working toward.

I said in my sermon last week that while God wants us to grow to full maturity, and lets us go from time to time to learn to walk on our own, God still remains close by, the Holy Spirit remaining as close as our next breath always ready to come to our aid when we stumble or fall. In other words,while God does give us puzzles to work through, God does not leave us helpless with no picture on the box, without a friend or family member to help us in our puzzling. We have not been left clueless. And on this solemn feast of the Transfiguration, we are reminded of three kinds of help that God has provided us with as we work through the puzzles of our lives.

The first of these helpers is displayed in our Old Testament reading, as Moses comes down Mount Sinai bearing the two tablets in his hands. These are the second set of tablets, mind you, the replacements for the ones Moses broke in pieces when he came down the mountain the first time to find the people worshiping a golden calf. This is the second edition — the carbon copy — though who remembers carbon copies any more! — of what had previously been broken all to pieces harder to reassemble than the hardest jigsaw puzzle. Instead of leaving his people desolate with puzzling fragments and shards of stone, the results of their disobedience and Moses’ short fuse, God has issued the law a second time, and given the people a second chance to see, in that perfect law, a vision of what he wants them to be. We all know the Ten Commandments from our Sunday School days.

At least I hope we do. Just last week I saw an embarrassing TV interview with a politician who had introduced a resolution to require the display of the 10 Commandments in the US House and Senate in Washington. Well, Stephen Colbert, host of a Comedy Channel “fake news” show had the nerve to ask a question that so-called “serious journalists” didn’t dare to pose. He simply said, “What are the Ten Commandments?” And after the immediate shock and awe, the deeply embarrassed congressman said, “What, all of them?!” and then could only remember three out of the ten! Maybe he does need to have them up on the walls of the House of Representatives. And if by any chance you have forgotten them you will find the Ten Commandments on page 350 of the Prayer Book!

In these commandments God gives us a picture of the righteous life, the good life. We are not left without a clue as to what God wants of us. In these Ten Commandments God shows us the kind of life he wants us to live: a life that honors God alone — and nothing in God’s place — that takes God seriously, and takes the time to spend time in God’s presence on the Sabbath; a life that honors those who gave us life; a life that has respect for others’ lives, relationships, and property’ a life that values truth and generosity. Now there’s a picture to help bring a troubled world into order! There’s a picture to help us get the puzzles of our lives at least sorted out to the point where we’ve decided which pieces are edges and which go in the middle, which ones are part of the ship, and which are sea and sky.

The wonderful thing, of course, is that God didn’t stop with the Law. God also gave his people the prophets. They are like a helpful friend or family member who gives us a hand with the puzzle. When someone stands over your shoulder and says, “Don’t you think that piece really belongs over here?” and you move the piece from where you were trying to fit it — even though it really didn’t quite fit there — to the place your friend suggests, suddenly a whole new section of the puzzle falls into place and you see a pattern where before there was a jumble. Saint Peter says that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation — we need helpful friends standing over our shoulder to point out when we’ve got a piece in the wrong place, when we’re trying to squeeze a piece into a place where it doesn’t really fit. And in this case the helpful friends are the many people who make up the church, led and supported by the Holy Spirit. The prophecies of Scripture come together in a meaningful way through the church’s careful and inspired teaching, just as the prophets of old instructed and inspired the people of Israel to seek after God, and in seeking, to find.

Finally, God provides us with one last help in addressing the puzzles of our lives. And this last one is special. This last one is unique. This last one is none other than Jesus Christ himself, the perfect likeness and image of God, showing us in his own person what it is a perfect human being looks like, how the pieces of a human life should fit together. And just to be sure that we don’t miss the point that Jesus is the culmination and summation of all that has gone before, when he reveals himself in his transfigured glory, shining in light that gives a preview of his resurrection, he appears to his trusted disciples on the mountain-top along with Moses and Elijah, exemplars of the Law and the Prophets. Note that as these leaders of the past fade from sight, leaving only Jesus, that Peter tries to hold on and not let them go, and offers to build dwellings for them to stay in. In response, the voice of God speaks from the cloud and says, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.”

For Jesus is the perfect picture, the perfect helper, who answers all our questions, and shows us just where every piece should go. Jesus is the picture that is clearer than the Law; Jesus is the friend who is more helpful than any prophet; Jesus is the Son, the Chosen one, the one God wants us to listen to and follow and to model our lives after. Jesus is the picture on the puzzle box of our lives, who when we model our lives upon him, loving God and our neighbors as ourselves, leads us into his majestic glory as the King in his beauty, in whom the prophetic message is fully confirmed. To him, through the power of the Holy Spirit, be all honor and glory ascribed to our God, who dwells in light inaccessible from before time and for ever.+

New Moses, New Commandment

SJF • Easter 2B • Tobias S Haller BSG
Moses said, The Lord you God will raise up for you from your own people a prophet like me. You must listen to whatever he tells you.
For as long as there has been a Christian church there has been an underlying tension woven into the fabric of that church; almost like the elastic woven through the cotton of a waistband. And this tension has chafed and irritated, bound and discomforted the church from the very beginning. It is the tension between Law and Grace. I have spoken of it before, and I will have occasion again, my friends, for it seems we Christians never seem to be able quite to set aside those corsets and girdles, however uncomfortable, and put on the new garments God wants us to wear, the ones that fit without binding and chafing; the ones that, in accordance with the Law itself, are not made of two materials woven together, but which, even though one size fits all, fit us to a T as if custom tailored for each of us.

The Scriptures bear witness to this historic conflict between Law and Grace, between slavish bondage under the law and the freedom of the children of God living by grace. In the weeks leading up to Good Friday we reviewed the controversy as it was played out in the ministry of Jesus himself, and in his confrontations with the Pharisees and scribes, the lawyers and the legal authorities both sacred and secular — culminating in his Passion, as he confronted Caiaphas and Pilate, the symbolic but also very real representatives of religious and civil law. The Pharisees and scribes thought the law was what God wanted — after all, he had given it to their ancestors, through Moses. They had missed the point that the law was intended as a temporary measure. The Law was like the training wheels on a child’s first two-wheel bicycle — useful to the end intended, but meant to be set aside when training was done. The law had become, for the Pharisees and scribes, an end in itself, not a means to a greater end — as if people were made for the law rather than the law for the good of the people.

That’s why Jesus had so much trouble with them when he healed on the sabbath, or when his disciples ate without washing, or when Jesus allowed himself to be seen — horror of horrors — with sinners. The self-appointed protectors of the law couldn’t understand that grace had come among them in the flesh, and that the law and the prophets were being fulfilled even in their day— the very thing they had hoped for was happening,and they didn’t see it. They were a bit like folks who spend hours and hours planning for a holiday, collecting and studying the brochures, planning their itinerary, but then missing the boat when it comes time to sail.

That’s not as unlikely as it sounds. Some years ago James and I were going to visit my sister and her husband for a holiday in Germany, where she was stationed with the Judge Advocate General’s department. She and I share in a tendency to want to be careful to dot every “I” and cross every “T” — and that is an important part of her livelihood as a lawyer — in the military, no less. Well, the first portion of our trip was an overnight train-ride from Frankfort to Berlin. The train was to depart a few minutes after midnight, so after supper we packed up our bags and headed to the train station. We boarded the train, ready to be shown to our cabins, but were stopped short when the conductor, after examining the tickets, gave us a disapproving look — and if anybody can give you a disapproving look it’s a German train conductor — and said that the tickets were no good.

“What’s wrong?” we asked. “These are for yesterday’s train; you see the date — well it is now past midnight and the date is now a day later.” We were, in fact, exactly 24 hours late for our train trip. Fortunately, there were some empty cabins, and after a great many more disapproving looks and head-shakings, we were settled in. So in spite of all of our efforts to obey the rules, it was the conductor’s decision to be gracious that allowed us to complete our trip. Grace wins out over law all the time!

But as we know from Holy Week and Easter, this victory of grace over law isn’t easy. Jesus did not receive such a gracious response. The protectors of the law stuck by the law as they understood it, and they handed over and rejected Jesus, the holy and righteous one, and, as Saint Peter reminded them, asked to have a murderer given to them instead.

And as our reading from Acts shows us, the conflict between Law and Grace didn’t stop when the author of life — done to death by the authorities — was raised from the dead by God. No, the struggle continued in the tensions between the first followers of Christ and their Jewish brethren.

And I wish I could say that the struggle found an end when the church finally came into its own. But sadly, the church itself has struggled time and again within itself, as factions and divisionshave torn the body of Christ; as new self-appointed church police have decided it was their task to separate the wheat from the chaff, or the sinners from the righteous — forgetting that all have sinned, all have fallen short, that there is none righteous, not one, and that it is only by grace that any of us dare stand before our Lord.

Now, the church surely knows that. So why is it that it so often reverts to law instead of grace? What is the source of this impulse to resort to Law in response to the reality of human sin? Well, what do you do when people simply won’t behave? Law is a natural response to bad behavior: it constrains the wrongdoer by force, contains the wrongdoer by putting him in jail. The law can even impose the ultimate penalty, death, the one that utterly removes the wrongdoer from the picture.

Law can stop criminals — it can also stop crime. It sets up its boundaries of walls and razor-wire; it establishes limits by age and speed — you must be so many years old to get a driver’s license, and the law will then tell you how fast you can drive.

But what law cannot do is change the human heart: it can constrain or punish wrongdoing, but it cannot erase the impulse to do wrong — it cannot free the human heart from its bondage to sin, its desire to possess and control, it’s seeking of its own advantage at the expense of others. It can get you to the station, but it can’t turn the clock back 24 hours and make your expired tickets good. That requires something else. It requires a conductor with a softened heart, and a willingness to understand and forgive, and what’s more provide a place for you.

The law that Moses brought, the law the Pharisees and scribes knew so well, and tried so hard to follow, was the same law that Christ at his coming fulfilled, in accordance with the promises given through the prophets. As Saint Peter told the crowds, Moses had promised that another would arise like him, by whom the people would receive new instruction; and Moses charged the people to heed him when he came. And in fulfillment of this promise, Christ arose and gave a new law, a new commandment.

This new commandment was not like the old: a commandment that could only prohibit or punish. This new commandment would not be based on bondage to restrictions or fear of punishment. This newlaw would not be like the old law that brought imprisonment and death. No, the new commandment would work by changing the very source of the problem: the sin-wearied human heart that did wrong because it was unable to do right, the fearful, selfish heart that sought only its own advantage at the other’s expense.

For this new commandment was the commandment to love, even as Christ has loved us: with the love that gives itself completely for the sake and salvation of the those who are loved, the love of God given in Christ to undo all selfishness, the love of Christ to imbue all grace.

For who of us does wrong to those we truly love? Yes, we do sometimes act in keeping with the old song, and “always hurt the ones we love” — but surely those hurts and harms represent our failures to love, not our successful loving.

No, love under grace does no harm; love, under grace, doesn’t just shake its head and say, “Your ticket is expired.” Love changes us in the place we most need to be changed, to be transformed, in the heart that if left on its own becomes a receptacle for all that is worst in us, but which, if cleansed by the power of God, emptied by repentance and compunction, sanctified by God’s presence and filled with God’s grace and forgiveness, can become a storehouse and a treasury upon which we can draw for ever.

God has committed this treasury of forgiveness and grace to his people: he has told the church that its mission is not to enforce the old law, but to proclaim the new commandment: to love even as Christ loved us, to forgive those who sin against us even as we have been forgiven. Christ greeted his Apostles — all but one of whom had abandoned him in his hour of need — with the greeting of peace. He strengthened them to receive the Holy Spirit, and committed the treasury of grace and forgiveness into their care when he said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.” And he assured us in the prayer we say each day, that it is in forgiving that we are forgiven.

So beloved sisters and brothers in Christ, let us rejoice as the disciples did when they saw the Lord, when he said to them, “Peace be with you.” He accepted their day-old tickets and let them on the train to his kingdom, the “kingdom come” where his will is done, where we are no longer constrained by the bondage of the old law, but may rejoice forever in the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Tidings of Comfort and Joy

SJF • Advent 2b 2005 • Tobias S Haller BSG

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
Comfort is one of those words that has unfortunately, over time, almost completely lost its original meaning. When we hear the word comfort the first thing that is likely to come to mind is an overstuffed sofa or one of those space-age mattresses we keep seeing in the commercials on TV — you know the ones: where people can balance wine glasses or drop bowling balls next to you, but you can just go right on sleeping because the bed is so, well, comfortable.

But that’s not the original meaning of the word comfort. The original meaning of comfort is “to make strong” — to fortify. It is about taking heart and being encouraged, being strengthened with resolve and given hope that there is better to come. Comfort is not about feeling warm and cozy, it is about facing the future with trust in God and hope in one’s heart, no matter how bad things might have been in the past, or how they might appear at the present. It is a call to be prepared and strong for the good of the days to come.

Let me give you an example of what I regard as a proper use of the word comfort in this old-fashioned sense. When Bloody Mary came to the throne of England in 1553, and reestablished Roman Catholicism as the state religion, the Anglican bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley knew that they would not be long for this world. Sure enough the two of them were burned at the stake on October 16, 1555. As they were about to die that terrible death, Bishop Latimer spoke his famous last words, “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace in England as (I trust) shall never be put out.” Clearly comfort is not about being cozy but about being courageous even in the face of such a terrible end, to “be of good comfort” in the knowledge that the flames of present suffering will pass, and the glorious hope of the future awaits.

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So it is that when God commands Isaiah to speak words of comfort to Jerusalem and its people, it is not to say, “Make yourselves at home.” On the contrary, the prophet here is telling the people that the day of liberation has come — they need no longer make themselves at home in Babylon, as once they did. Rather, in these tidings of comfort and joy they are being recalled to their own homeland. God will prepare a way for them in the wilderness, leveling every mountain and filling in every valley, evening out the uneven spots, and planing down the rough ones, to make a broad, clear highway for his people. And God himself will be their shepherd, leading them in his might, and even carrying the lambs close to his breast. These are words of great comfort to people in captivity, words not just to make them feel good, but to live in hope and strength for a better time.

Saint Peter offers similar encouragement in our Epistle today: explaining that the Lord’s delay is not neglect, but patience; He doesn’t want anyone to have any excuse for not being part of the great procession into the new creation, the new heaven and new earth. This world — this Babylon, if you will — is set to expire, and it will dissolve in a flash of fire. So this time of God’s patience is for all of us to be prepared, to be ready, to be courageous, to be comforted with the knowledge of God’s redeeming love for us, and the salvation given in Jesus Christ.

John the Baptist greets us with such words of strong comfort as well: quoting Isaiah and thereby reminding the people of that ancient comforting promise of liberation — not right now, he tells them; not yet — but soon! John is speaking to Jews suffering under the heel of a foreign occupying power: the might of the Roman Imperium with itslegions and fleets. John offers words of comfort to a people ground down by the kind of corrupt government that such a colonial system is apt to promote: the soldiers who abuse, the tax collectors who gouge, the politicians who connive and the judges who turn a blind eye to the poor and favor the rich.

John offers comfort to those on the receiving end of these various injustices, and a warning and a call to repentance to those who practice them. He preaches the word that Paul would take up later: God is patient, but do not presume on his patience. Be strong either to endure or repent: and take comfort in the coming of the Lord.

John appears as a prophet and advance man for the big show that is coming to town — and we’ll hear more about that next week. There is much to hope for, much more to come, much more that will be revealed — so, John is telling the people, take comfort and be prepared.

So it is that all our scripture today speaks to us in the same accents: take comfort — be strong. Be prepared for the Lord who redeems you, and who will come to liberate you from all captivity, who will make the way clear before you, so that you too might be led on your way to the new heavens and new earth, and be at home at last in that place of righteousness.

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Let me close with a story about another great Anglican, Charles Simeon, who was one of the founders of the Church Missionary Society. He could be called a “theologian of comfort,” from the one end of his life in the church to the other. At the beginning of his adult life in the faith, he had much difficulty in preparing himself to receive the Holy Communion, Back then Communion was something you might receive only a few times each year, and much was made about being in a proper frame of mind — perhaps we’ve lost something of that sense of the importance of preparation to receive Communion. There were many devotional guides, little booklets to help with the individual Christian in preparing for “this awful mystery” — and unfortunately for Simeon the devotional guide he used put all of its weight on law, humiliation, unworthiness and obedience as the ways rightly to approach that holy sacrament. This did little but make Simeon feel miserable. Fortunately he came across another devotional guide that took an entirely different approach, a truly evangelical approach in the sense of bringing him tidings of comfort and joy, the good news of the gospel. This book stressed the fundamental truth that the law cannot make one righteous, but that it is only through Christ, and the sacrifice he made of himself once offered upon the cross for our salvation, that we are washed from sin and prepared to welcome him, and be welcomed by him. We don’t have to become worthy — indeed we cannot: it is Christ who makes us worthy! This comforting assurance liberated Simeon, and inspired and strengthened him not only to make his Communion, but to become one of the great evangelists of the Christian faith, spreading the truly good news that, as Isaiah said, we have served our term, and our penalty is paid, and that our Lord has redeemed us.

The end of Charles Simeon’s life reflected this same strong consciousness of comfort. As he lay dying, he greeted the people gathered around his bedside with a bright smile and cheerful sense of comfort and joy. He asked the gathered friends and family, “What do you think especially gives me comfort at this time?” As they did not wish to hazard a guess, he cried out, “God’s creation! For I ask myself, Did God create the world or did I? And I must answer, He did! Now if he made the world and all the rolling spheres of the universe, he certainly can take care of me. Into Jesus’ hands I can safely commit my spirit!”

It is this consciousness of comfort, this acceptance of the tidings of comfort and joy, that God calls us to this Advent time, and on through Christmas, and on through into the rest of the life God gives us, until we too find our way to get ourselves up the high mountain, hearing the voice of theherald of good tidings lifted up, not fearing, in the knowledge of comfort, and hope in God’s promise, and ready to take our place in the new heavens and the new earth, where righteousness is at home, and where we too at last shall be at rest with our Lord and our God, to whom all praise be given, henceforth and for evermore.

Finding Your Brother

SJF • Epiphany 2a 2005 • Tobias S Haller BSG
One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah.”

This second Sunday after Epiphany is also a special Sunday for Saint James Church: this is our first “Hospitality Sunday” — a special dedication of the third Sunday in each month as a time to be intentional about inviting a friend, a co-worker, or a family member to join you in church. I won’t ask for a show of hands, but I do note a few unfamiliar faces from my vantage point here in the pulpit: so welcome to Saint James Church, one and all.

There could hardly be a better gospel text for this Hospitality Sunday than the one we heard this morning. For at the end of that scripture passage we hear an example of the very thing we hope to do. One of John the Baptist’s followers, Andrew, upon receiving Christ’s invitation himself, doesn’t keep it to himself, but goes off to find his brother Simon Peter. So it is that Andrew becomes the patron saint of evangelism: spreading the good news and not just keeping it to himself. He finds his brother, and brings him the word of salvation.

How people react to good news will tell you a lot about what kind of people they are. Think of the folks who win the lottery. Some of them will first thing call an accountant, ditch their cell phone, get an unlisted number, and disappear to the Bahamas. The other sort will throw a party, invite all their friends and buy them lavish gifts, like the woman in the Gospel who was so happy to have found her lost coin that she spent it to throw a celebration! And this same difference between the worldly-wise stinginess of the tight and mean, and the open generosity of the caring and sharing, can be found in the faith. There are some folks who want their churches to remain small and select.

No, I’m not kidding! There are some people in some parishes who let it be known right up front that they want things to stay just how they are, and just who they are, and let visitors or newcomers know, in no uncertain terms, that they aren’t welcome. There was a member of my first parish who would actually mutter insults under her breath whenever someone new came to the parish — fortunately she moved away and went to a new parish herself, where I hope the welcome she received was warmer than the one she gave!

Of course, this un-welcome is not always intentional, and not even always obvious. It can take the form of “not noticing” the outstretched hand that wants to shake yours; the turn of the head that avoids eye contact; the subtle “dis-invitation” that speaks louder than words.

Fortunately, Saint James is not such a place, and is doing its best to welcome and reach out — but these are always factors to be aware of, since it is always easier to relate to the familiar than to the new. May we always be open to the new person who will enrich our common life, and strengthen our church.

I want to say one last thing about Andrew before I close, because there is more to this welcome than simple sociability. It is, in fact, at the heart of a much more important gospel truth.

We don’t hear much more of Andrew in the Gospel. He pops up once or twice, but is nowhere near so prominent as the brother he went to find. Simon Peter moves right to the head of the class, so to speak, and becomes the leader of the church, part of the inner circle with James and John, while Andrew fades into the background.

So finding my brother may mean more than simply welcoming him into the fellowship: it may mean giving up my own place and privilege to let him use his gifts and talents to God’s glory — gifts and talents that he might have that I lack, or that overshadow mine in excellence or depth. There is no place for pride of place in this place, the church. Though I may be an agent of God’s call, I am not in charge of that call, nor of its results. If I am to be truly generous with the Gospel message, that means accepting the results of that Gospel message: to let it work in the hearts of those who hear it, that they might bear fruit and bear it abundantly, perhaps producing more than I could ever ask or imagine to the glory of God. It is not for me to say of my brother, “Who does he think he is?” but rather, “Look at how well my brother does!” and glorify God with him.

Andrew, as a disciple of John the Baptist, had a good instructor in this generous work. John, knowing himself not to be the Messiah but only his forerunner, said of Jesus, “This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me...’” When Jesus came, John stepped aside to let Jesus enter the spotlight of history. Andrew did the same with Peter.

And there is one more person of whom I want to make mention today who did the same. He spent his life working to help his brothers and sisters, reaching out and spreading the word, not only the word of the gospel but the word of liberation, the word of justice and equality. He not only found his brothers and sisters, but he worked tirelessly to raise them up. And while towards the end of his short life he knew that forces were at work that would soon remove him from the scene, yet he persisted in proclaiming the message. He kept calling his brothers and sisters, spreading the word.

For rumor was abroad: they were after him and would make an attempt on his life. Yet on the night before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King Jr gave a great speech, filled with hope. And this is the conclusion of that speech, a speech delivered in the spirit of John the Baptist, a speech delivered in the spirit of Saint Andrew, showing concern not for himself, but for his brothers and sisters, and showing as well his trust in the promise. He said:

I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

May we always, my sisters and brothers in Christ, always be people of welcome and hospitality like Andrew the Apostle, spreading the word to our own sisters and brothers, and bringing them into an ever-growing, ever-changing fellowship of faith. May we be like John the Baptist, stepping aside when the time comes to let the gospel happen in all its surprising glory. And may we be like Martin Luther King Jr in setting nothing in the place of the vision of God’s good kingdom, God’s promised land, in which all people will one day rejoice together in unity and liberty for ever.