General Practitioner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God of Always More

Not Julia Child, but I Love Lucy

Proper 12a 2014 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?

Many things can be said, and many things have been said about God. God is good; God is loving; God is our creator, our redeemer and our sanctifier. But one thing is certain: however much we may say about God, however much we may believe about God, we will always be left at the end of our speech, falling speechless before the indescribable majesty of the greatness and glory of God. And what is true of God’s incomprehensible being is also true of God’s generous giving and doing. Just as we cannot describe all that God is, so to we can never come to the end of the goodness that God has done for us. Our God is the God of Always More. As Saint Paul so beautifully put it in his letter to the Ephesians, “God can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.” Such is the overflow of God’s richness, the generosity of God’s outpoured love for us and for all that God has made.

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I want to turn this morning from our focus on the story of the patriarchs that has formed our readings from Genesis over the last weeks. I’m not entirely sure how edifying to our theme would be the tale of Laban’s “bait and switch” with his daughters Leah and Rachel — and the fourteen years that Jacob had to work in order to win his beloved, and her sister and their maids into the bargain! Surely this fits in with the theme of abundance, but not quite in the way I’d like to address it, so we’ll let the story of Four Brides for One Brother rest for another time!

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So let’s turn to Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Paul is someone who knows the amazing power and the extent of God’s grace, and he speaks of it often. Today’s passage is no exception. Not only does God answer our prayers, but God sends his Spirit to help us to pray! How amazing is that! God, through the Spirit, prays for us! When we have worn out our voices with singing and reached the end of our praise, when sorrow has wounded our hearts, when pain, disappointment and doubt have blunted the edge of our faith, God himself, through the Spirit, reaches out to us and into us, penetrating the depths of our hearts and interceding there with sighs too deep for words. For our God is the God of Always More, and even in prayer God does what we in our unworthiness dare not, or in our blindness cannot ask. God prays for us when we can not or dare not pray to him, for our God is the God of Abundance, the God of Always More.

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There is no way around it! That is, technically, what “incomprehensible” means — God is too big to encompass, to grasp, to contain. And our Gospel today brings this message home, in the five parables that form the reading. Both the image of the pearl that is worth as much as the jeweler’s whole stock in trade, and of the catch of fish so full that the fishermen can afford to be picky about the ones they want to keep and throw the other ones away, both of those capture this notion of abundance. But I’d like to focus on the other two parables, leaving in the middle that one about the treasure hidden in the field. I want to turn to the other from those mercantile parables — to the ones in which Jesus likens the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed and to leaven.

Let me note that these two parables are among the most widely misunderstood of all of Jesus’ sayings. So let me, as Ricky Ricardo would say to Lucy, “’Splain them.” The problem is that people want to trim these astounding images down; they want to find rational explanations for them. They don’t want to face that these parables are not just about the growth of the kingdom under the power of God, but the truly stupendous and amazing growth of the kingdom of God to exceed all expectations— God is the God of Always More.

First, let’s look at that mustard seed. Now I can guarantee you, you can plant mustard seeds as much as you want, but they are never going to grow into trees that birds can build nests in. The average mustard bush grows to be about three feet tall. Unless a bird has very low ambitions, you are not going to find birds building nests two feet off the ground. Jesus knows that, and so do the people to whom he tells this parable. The problem is, most of us don’t. We don’t grow mustard, we buy it in little jars. If he were simply talking about how an ordinary plant grows and spreads, and wanted to talk about one that starts small and grows big he would talk about the cedars of Lebanon, much as we might talk about little acorns growing into mighty oak trees. As they used to say when I was in grade school, Even the mighty oak was once a nut like you!

But Jesus isn’t talking about something little becoming big naturally; he isn’t talking about natural growth at all, for instance, how an acorn becomes a mighty oak: he is talking about supernatural growth, a miracle. Hear — if you have ears to hear — hear it the way Jesus meant it: The kingdom of God is as if a man took a tiny mustard seed, knowing it to be a mustard seed, planting it expecting it to grow into a mustard bush about three feet high; and instead, up popped a tree as tall as a house, a mighty tree that birds could nest in. Jesus wants us to know that we are not in the world of ordinary agriculture, but a miraculous world, the world of God’s Always More — this is more like Jack and the Beanstalk than it is about Coleman’s Mustard; Jesus wants us to be surprised. God is the God of always more.

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The same is true with that yeast and flour. Now, this passage is so badly misunderstood that the translators of the Bible that we use in worship have even changed the language to suit their misunderstanding. They talk about this as if it is just ordinary baking, and say that the woman “mixed” the yeast in with three measures of flour: and so, the picture in your mind is of a woman with three cups of flour making bread. But what Matthew’s Gospel actually says is that the woman “hid” the yeast in the flour — just like that other parable, the hidden treasure in the field. She hid the yeast in the flour. The Greek word is related to our modern word “encrypt” — she “encrypted” the yeast — this is yeast that, for whatever reason, the woman wanted to hide! Perhaps some nosey neighbor had been sneaking into her kitchen and she was just protecting her property — who knows? But this is not about ordinary household baking.

And the reason we know this is even clearer when we realize that a “measure” of flour isn’t the measure that you might use to bake a loaf of bread. The “measures” in this passage — the three measures — aren’t cups, — three of which might go to make a loaf of bread. This is the ancient Hebrew seah, three of which make an ephah. You know how in your Bibles in the front how they always have those tables of measures so you can see, like we have of how many cups make a quart — well three seahs make an ephah. And what’s an ephah? A bushel! This is forty-three pounds of flour that this woman hides her yeast in. This is not an ordinary scene of a woman at her kitchen table making Johnnycake — even enough for a parish supper; this is not a tame and homely message about how yeast just works its way through an ordinary loaf. No, what we have here is the story of a woman who for some reason decides to hide her yeast — but she chooses to hide it in the flour-bin: the worst possible place where you could possibly think of hiding your yeast! In short, this is not a scene from “Julia Child” — this is a scene from “I Love Lucy”! This is not about baking a loaf of bread, this is about coming home into your kitchen to discover that the pantry door has exploded and there is a giant mass of dough pouring out and filling the entire kitchen! This is a message about how the kingdom of God spreads — it is that the kingdom of God bursts forth, even if you try to hide it. The Word of God will not be suppressed, because our God is the God of Always More.

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As we prayed in our collect at the beginning of this liturgy, we asked God to increase and multiply his mercy upon us. We need have no doubts that God will. Our God is the God of increase and multiplication. Our God is the God who gives not only wisdom but life and abundance and victory. Our God is not only the God to whom we pray, but who prays for us and with us, who does infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Our God is not simply the ruler of a kingdom that spreads and grows, but of a kingdom that cannot be contained, that will not be limited, that will reach to the ends of space and time, bursting through all boundaries built up by fear or hate, or selfishness, by despair or lack of imagination. Our God is the God of Always More, and we will never know the end of his greatness, his might, his majesty, power and dominion, henceforth and for ever more.

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!

Cloud of Witnesses

Testimony is natural, supernatural, human and divine, and bears witness to the transformation of the world...

Easter 7c • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
“It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches.”

I want to begin my sermon today with a question: Have any of you here this morning ever had to testify in a civil or criminal matter, either in court or by deposition? I won’t ask you for details, but I will volunteer that I have been in that position in a few civil cases, including that long, drawn-out lawsuit with the former day care operator who stopped paying her rent, in addition to other violations of the lease. The less said about that the better!

But if you have ever given testimony — or if you’ve seen it being done on TV or in the movies, or as a member of a jury, and whether fictional or for real — you know what it amounts to: affirming or swearing to something that you know to be true, usually as a witness or a party to an event or action of some kind.

Witnesses come in all shapes and sizes. I was struck a few weeks ago, after that terrible bombing in Boston, by the fact that some of the “witnesses” aren’t even aware that they are witnesses at the time at all. Much of the evidence that led to identifying the bombers came from cell-phone pictures or snapshots taken of the crowd, or from surveillance cameras and monitors, without any specific intention to photograph the particular bombers. It was only after the fact that the investigators went back to review those thousands of images to piece together the evidence that led to identifying the bombers, and sealed their fate.

I raise this issue testifying because this morning’s readings all address testimony of one sort or another. Some of it appears to be almost as unexpected as the cell-phone snapshots taken by the bystanders enjoying the Boston Marathon — before those terrible explosions went off. Some of the testimony is true as far as it goes, but entirely misses the point. And some of the testimony is important enough to be memorialized for thousands of years since the events themselves.

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First comes perhaps the strangest testimony of all, and the unusual reactions to it. This is the testimony of the demon who possessed the Philippian slave-girl. That young woman had long been held captive by a demon and by those who made use of the prophetic power it bestowed. That also rings a bell in current news, doesn’t it! But unlike the women held captive in Cleveland, this young Philippian was allowed out on the streets, though she bore her demon captor with her wherever she went. She followed Paul and the other disciples through the streets of that Roman colony calling out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” It’s always interested me that Saint Paul, rather than welcoming this free advertising, is annoyed by it, and he performs a quick exorcism casting out the demon, and setting the girl free from that possession, but also rendering her of no more use to her owners, since she can no longer be a sooth-sayer. This ought to remind us of those strange incidents in the Gospels where demons proclaim Jesus to be the Son of God, and Jesus tells them to be silent and casts them out. It seems that some testimony, even if true, is not welcome from certain witnesses! God does not need devils to bear witness to him.

We then quickly see a change of scene and a real court-house testimony, as the owners of the slave-girl drag the apostles before the magistrate and offer their accusation: “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and they are advocating customs that are not lawful for us Romans to adopt or observe.” Now, as much as we might not like to admit it, this testimony is also true, as far as it goes. From the perspective of the pagans of that colony, these Christians are upsetting their world — as will be said in the next chapter of Acts, when Paul and his companions have moved on to Thessalonica, where they are accused of turning the whole world upside-down.

Finally, this chapter of Acts treats us to one last bit of testimony: after the earthquake that shakes the prison open, and loosens the chains of the prisoners, Paul and Silas proclaim the Gospel in its fulness, bringing salvation even to the jailer who had kept them locked up, and freeing him as well from his own bonds of ignorance. They were locked up because they had upset the people of the colony with their un-Roman ways; but they proclaimed something universal and powerful that is beyond Jew or Gentile: the salvation that comes through Christ. And here at last the entire household rejoices in being baptized and becoming believers in that which earlier they had earlier condemned and despised. Such is the power of testimony: it liberates from captivity of all sorts — from demons, from prison, from darkness and despair.

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But there is more, one more entirely faithful and truthful witness, one who is the Truth itself, one who bears witness not only to himself, but to his heavenly Father, as the Father also bears witness to him, for they are one: for whoever has seen the Son has seen the Father too. And this witness, this Jesus, commissions and sends other witnesses to testify to his coming, and to his mission. In John’s vision, the one who is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, Jesus, testifies that he has sent his angel to John, with his testimony for the churches, that he is who he claims to be: the root and descendant of David, the bright morning star of salvation.

And in the Gospel Jesus prays for those who will witness to him, who will testify to him, and also for all of those who will come to believe in him through their word, through their testimony. Jesus makes himself and his heavenly Father known to his disciples, so that they can in turn make this saving truth known to the world, the world that needs to be turned upside-down, the world that as yet does not know the truth of this testimony. Jesus prays for those who will believe through the testimony of the Apostles.

And that, my friends, is us. We have not the privilege to be eyewitnesses to the events that happened some eighty generations ago. We rely on the word passed down to us by former witnesses in their testimony, by disciples who actually heard and saw the Lord, and who passed that word down through the generations to those who had no first hand experience of the Gospel events, and on and on to us. We are called do our part too, passing along the words of that old, old story, telling it to those who know the tale already, who know it best, but also to those who have never heard it. This is our testimony, a testimony not at first hand, but a testimony of what we have heard and of what we have believed, of the fulfillment of the words spoken through the prophets, handed down to us through all those generations. We have heard the story retold to those who know it best, and to all the rest of us who hear it for the first time.

It is a story told to the farthest reaches of the universe, to all creatures, natural and supernatural — from the angels above, sent by God to proclaim the word in visions, to the devils who know the truth in their pit of damnation, and who tremble in terror because of it. This is the testimony, and the one who testifies has told us, “Surely I am coming soon.” And let all the people say, Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!+

The Secret Jesus

The ironical evangelist Mark once again says one thing while seeming to say the opposite 2014 a sermon for Proper 18b.

Proper 18b • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.

The longest running musical in theater history is a little play called The Fantasticks. It ran for forty-two years in its original Off-Broadway run in New York, and it has been revived and performed in other venues thousands of times since. In it, two fathers hatch a plot to get their children to do what they want them to do. That in itself is not so unusual; parents have been trying to get their children to act as they want — often without success — from the days of Cain and Abel. What is unusual lies in how these two fathers plot to accomplish their scheme. For they realize they stand the best chance of success by telling their children to do the opposite of what they want them to do.

The wisdom of their plan is based on their observation that children often do the opposite of what is asked of them. In one of the show’s songs, “Never Say No,” they document, among other things, that children put beans in their ears precisely because they are told not to beans in their ears. So the crafty fathers realize they can put this contrariness to work, as they also sing, “Your daughter brings a young man in, / says, ‘Do you like him, Pa?’ / Just say that he’s a fool / and then you’ve got a son-in-law!” And so they plot to get their children to fall in love by telling them that they must never, never, see or speak with each other.

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In today’s Gospel, there are three references to Jesus trying to keep a secret — or so it seems. Remember, once again, that this is the Gospel of Mark, the shortest of the four Gospels, so if something is repeated three times in one short section you can be sure that the economical Mark wants us to take note of it! At the beginning of the passage Mark tells us that Jesus entered a house but did not want anyone to know that he was there. Then, after healing the child of the Gentile woman — again seeming to be reluctant to do so, but being persuaded by her insistence — he then travels out of the way into Gentile territory, and then is greeted by people who bring him a deaf man. In keeping with this theme of secrecy, rather than healing the man in their sight, Jesus once more takes him aside and works this healing miracle in private. And finally, after healing the man, Jesus orders the people to tell no one about the miracle.

The irony in all of this — and we can be sure that this is Mark’s point, because, after all, he brings it up three times — is stated clearly: “the more Jesus ordered them to keep silent, the more zealously they spread the word.” So, the question before us is, Did Jesus really want his presence to be kept secret, or was he, like the savvy fathers in The Fantasticks, relying on human nature to spread the word of his presence even as he kept telling them to keep his presence mum?

As I said a few weeks ago about Jesus’ claim to be the bread from heaven, we do not have many options here. But just consider this: Jesus did understand human nature better than any other human being who has ever walked this earth. So he must have known the simple truth that the fathers in that musical knew — that people will act contrary to instructions given them. And after all, as the Son of God he had witnessed the long history of his chosen people disobeying his Father in heaven!

Jesus surely also knew that the things he did would be perceived as fulfillment of those ancient prophecies about the coming of Messiah, the Son of God and Son of Man — and once perceived as such, the word would spread like wildfire. And here he is, fulfilling a prophecy such as we heard this morning in Isaiah, a prophecy fulfilled in this Gospel passage, as a man who cannot hear or speak clearly is freed from these impediments, his ears unstopped and his tongue untied. And in this act, though Jesus tells the people to keep quiet about it, we can be sure he meant the story to be told.

And why is that? Because this is not a healing of someone lame, or disabled, or blind. It is the healing of a man who could not speak. Why would Jesus untie someone’s tongue only to tell him and the crowd to keep silent? Why open his ears if not to fill them with the good news that he can then tell forth with his newly liberated tongue? Why come to this earth at all, incarnate as the Lord, as the Messiah long awaited, the Son of God and Son of Man, robed in flesh, our Great High Priest, if not to call all people to himself, and save them as they put their trust in him? Why keep secret the best news ever heard?

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And it seems to me that the answer to this is in fact the wisdom of Jesus to know that the word would be best spread by telling people not to spread it. He knew our failings — that we cannot keep good news from spreading; and, lets face it, nothing travels like gossip, either! People really just can’t manage to mind their tongues, so at least Jesus gives them something good to wag their tongues about — the Good News that salvation has come, that the day long promised by Isaiah and all of the prophets is upon us: “Be strong; do not fear. Here is your God, who has come to save you!” If even the dogs are going to be fed, how much more the children God that has called and adopted to be his own, through the coming of that very Son of God who is our brother, who through his brotherhood with us makes us children of his Father in heaven.

This is good news, my friends, and woe betide me if I were to tell you to keep it to yourselves, even if I thought that meant you would spread it more effectively. Rather let me say to those encouraging words: to spread the word — to tell it forth in the streets and the offices, in the shops and on the sidewalks of this great but terrible city, by the hospital bed of the dying and in the nursery where new life comes to birth. Publish, my friends, publish glad tidings of redemption and release, as our untied tongues proclaim the praise of the One who has freed us from our bondage to death, and brought us into his marvelous light, even Jesus Christ our Lord.

From Start To Finish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Good News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feeling Sheepish

The division of the nations, and God's threat and promise. A sermon for Christ the King, Year A.

SJF • Proper 29 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.

When I was a child, and behaved badly — at least the first time around — my mother and father would usually let me off the hook with a warning rather than a punishment. But they would always describe the punishment that would fall upon me the next time I behaved badly in the same way. And they would end that warning with a pointed reminder, “That’s not a threat; that’s a promise!”

Today’s passage from the Gospel according to Matthew is one of the greatest of the threats and promises made by Jesus Christ during his earthly ministry. It is a vision of the end of all time, when the Son of Man will return in glory with his angels to take up his place on the judgment seat, and judge the nations of the earth.

The passage portrays the king of heaven as a shepherd dividing sheep from goats, to one side and to the other. The sheep are told that they have done well even when they didn’t know they were doing so; and the goats are similarly told that they have done poorly, again even though they didn’t know what they were failing to do. And the doing or the not doing, whether by the sheep or by the goats, isn’t about how well or poorly they have treated their own kind, or about how the sheep have treated the goats or the goats the sheep. Rather it is about how they each and all have treated the members of the king’s family— and the least of them at that.

In other words, this vision of the final judgment contrasts with that portrayed in the book of the prophet Ezekiel. For the prophet, it is about the various members of the flock of sheep, and how the fat sheep have mistreated the lean sheep. The fat sheep have pushed and shoved and butted with their horns at the weaker animals and scattered them far and wide. And those pushy fat sheep are in for punishment when the shepherd judges between sheep and sheep.

So Jesus is using language similar to that of the prophet, but with a very different point. Obviously, as Ezekiel shows, it is wrong for the fat cats of this world to trod on the poor — the One Percent on the Ninety-Nine Percent — to take advantage of the weak, to push them out of the pleasant pasture to which all of the sheep are entitled.

But Jesus is making a rather different point — a more challenging point — and the threat and the promise are equally more demanding. It is not enough just to be good and fair to your fellow sheep and be content with your share of the pasture. It is not enough just not to butt with your horns or push with your flank and shoulder in taking advantage of the weaker sheep. The goats in Jesus’ parable suffer eternal punishment — and let’s be clear that that’s what Jesus is talking about here in his parable of the end of the world — they suffer this terrible punishment not because they’ve done bad things to the weak, whether sheep or goats, but because they haven’t done good things for those who needed good things done for them — and who those in need are, I’ll get to in a moment.

But first note that these goats are not punished because they’ve imprisoned people or stolen their food or stripped them of their clothing. They are punished because they haven’t visited those who were sick or imprisoned, or fed the hungry and given drink to the thirsty or clothing to the naked. They are not guilty of any great crime or tyranny, but of neglect.

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And now the other matter: who are those towards whom the sheep and goats have done or failed to do good? First we might well ask who these sheep and goats are. And the text reveals they are “the nations.” These are those of whom Jesus will speak at the very end of Matthew’s Gospel — and we are almost to the end with this chapter — when he orders the disciples to “go and baptize all nations.” The sheep and the goats are the people of the nations — those on the receiving end of the ministry of evangelism — the ones to whom the evangelists will go to bring good news and baptize. So the ones towards whom the neglect of the goats and the generosity of the sheep is shown, is not each other, not the nations gathered for judgment — but rather the disciples themselves, the “members of Christ’s family” — those who are sent to baptize and bring good news to those nations.

This parable, then, is not simply a lesson for Christians to be good to one another — to visit the sick and those in prison, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked — those are things we ought to do anyway under the commandment of Jesus to love God and our neighbor.

This parable is offered as a threat and a promise: a comfort to the disciples themselves, who in their coming ministry in the early days of the church would be going out into the world to carry out the commandment to baptize and spread the good news out there — out among all those sheep and goats of the nations. It is offered as a warning to those who would treat the disciples well or badly in their hour of need. Though they were ignorant of the fact that in relation to the disciples — by visiting and feeding and clothing them — or not — they had the king himself with them, in the person of the members of the king’s own family: as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me.

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Now, before we breathe a sigh of relief that this parable may be more about how we as Christians are to be received in the world when we bring the good news of the Gospel, than about how we are to behave towards one another, let’s not lose sight of the fact that we stand in relationship to one another much as the world stands in relationship to us. How we treat each other does matter — and it matters eternally — and that’s not a threat, that’s a promise. For if it is so vitally important that people treat strangers well, how much more important is it that we treat the members of our own family well. For all — all — strangers and family and friends — are under the rule of the great Shepherd of the Sheep. He is Lord of all. How we treat the members of the family to which we all belong is a judgment upon us — whether we know it or not. So the safest course is to do good to all, to visit and comfort those who are sick or in prison, to feed all of those who hunger and give drink to all who thirst, to welcome all strangers as well as all of our friends; and to clothe all who are naked.

As the beautiful prayer attributed to Saint Francis reminds us, “It is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.” Where else are we to comfort the sick than at the bedside of the sick? Where else are we to comfort those in prison except in prison? Whom are we to feed except those who are hungry? To whom shall we give drink but to those who thirst? And whom shall we welcome if not the stranger or the homeless who seek us out? These may well be members of the family of the king whom we do not yet know, long-lost relations or distant cousins who have wandered far from home — and we can welcome them back, and treat them as we ought. God help us if we fail to serve the king in the person of those who are least among the members of his family. And God bless us when we do. He has not only threatened; he has promised!+

Witness Protection Plan

Dare we think that Jesus' prayer his disciples would be protected in the Divine Name was unanswered? A sermon for Easter 7a 2011

SJF • Easter 7a 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus prayer to his Father, “Protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

If you’ve watched any films or TV shows about modern crime dramas, you will be familiar with what is called the “witness protection plan.” It is no surprise that witnesses willing to testify against crime, particularly organized crime, put themselves and their families in danger by their willingness to come forward. Although the crime-boss may be in jail awaiting trial, there are plenty of henchmen out and about willing to see to it that the testimony is not delivered. And the vendetta may not stop with the conviction: even after the criminal is found guilty and sentenced, and put safely away in prison, the powerful urge for revenge against one who “turned state’s evidence” or merely told the truth will put the life of the witness in permanent danger of revenge.

So it is that police and state and federal investigators have taken special care of such witnesses — whether they are criminals who have turned on their former colleagues in crime, or virtuous citizens merely doing their duty in spite of the danger. The authorities have developed witness protection plans to safeguard the lives and livelihoods of these witnesses, both before and after they have given their testimony. Some such plans give the witnesses and their families whole new identities, a fresh start with a new name in a new city or a new state, far from the vengeful tentacles of organized crime, or the retribution of a fallen criminal.

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Last Thursday was Ascension Day, and this morning we heard Luke’s account of the events of that day from the opening chapter of his record of the Acts of the Apostles. Since Jesus is about to depart into heaven, the passage begins with the apostles’ understandable question about whether or not it is now the time for the restoration of the Kingdom of Israel. And Jesus tells them that it is not for them to know the time for such things. (And I note in passing that since we are all still here, and the Rapture didn’t happen on the Saturday before last, it was not for Rev. Harold Camping to know the time for such things either! Of course, now he says it will be in December; but in the inimitable words of our former President, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, well, you just can’t fool me twice!)

Jesus does tell his followers two things: first, they will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them, and secondly, they will be witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

I spoke last week about just how far the Apostles carried that message, as witnesses of Christ. What I didn’t mention was the fact that this cost most of them their lives in that process. In this church’s large stained-glass rose window, there on the west end behind you, the outer circle shows 12 roundels with the emblems of the 12 Apostles — and in seven out of ten the emblems reveal the means by which the Apostles died! In case you ever wondered why we have a stained-glass window portraying clubs, saws, spears, hatchets or knives, that’s why.

Clearly, the Apostles were witnesses in need of a witness protection plan! And you might at first be tempted to observe that whatever it was, it didn’t provide much protection! Not only the Apostles, but many of the Christians who heard and heeded their preaching and accepted their testimony, suffered persecution in those early days of the church’s life, and the persecution have continued still, even to this day. Peter himself, represented in our window at about four o’clock with a set of crossed keys, ended his life crucified upside-down. He wrote to the believers in his care concerning the“fiery ordeal that is taking place among you,” to assure them that there is nothing strange in this. Jesus had already warned that those who spread the Gospel would not always be welcomed with open arms, and that persecution lay before them. Peter acknowledged this, this sharing in Christ’s sufferings, persecution experienced not only by those to whom he wrote, but, as he assured them, the common experience of their brothers and sisters in all the world who were undergoing the same kinds of suffering.

Such was the fate of many who witnessed to the Gospel. So what happened to that witness protection plan? What happened to the prayer that Jesus offered to his Father, “Protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” Dare we think that Jesus’ prayer would go unanswered. Dare we think that God would abandon his faithful witnesses to the prowling devil seeking someone to devour?

God forbid we should think such a thing! Nor should we think such a thing if we rightly remember that Jesus never promised his disciples, as the old song says, “a rose garden.” Their life in ministry would you not be a bed of roses, but a path of suffering and martyrdom. They would be reviled and tested and suffer, just as their leader, Christ himself, was reviled and tested and suffered. As Peter puts it, “If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the spirit of God, is resting on you.”

It was not from temporal suffering that Jesus prayed to protect his witnesses — on the contrary their proclamation as witnesses would definitely bring them temporal pain and suffering. That wasn’t a threat, it was a promise! What Jesus prayed to protect his witnesses from was not temporal suffering but eternal death. His prayer was to protect them from the evil one who destroys both body and soul in hell, to protect them from the devil, who Peter told them “prowls around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour” —
— and it is the armor of faith that would protect them from the devouring power of eternal death and hell.

The Spirit of God, whose descent upon the Apostles we will celebrate next Sunday on Pentecost, was a witness protection plan that would save them, not from suffering but to eternal life: to the unity of God himself, the Son with the Father, that they might be one as God is one. And it’s a good reminder for us that at the center of that rose window is the symbol of God the One-in-Three. This witness protection plan would change them, not just in their names, but in their very selves — and they would be given new lives in a new country where they would be free finally and at last from sufferings, all the sufferings they had undergone, and most importantly from the ultimate suffering of eternal death.

This is the protection, that all of God’s faithful witnesses are promised. As we witness to the work of God in us, as we do the work that God has committed to our care, we will not always find favor with the world — in fact we will rarely find favor with the world! We will be thought mad for not heaping up wealth for our own pleasure and comfort; we will be thought mad for sharing with the poor and the needy, for giving food to the hungry, and for bearing with the abuse of those for whom power is the only sign of their worth. Truly they have received their reward.

But our hope is for a better and more lasting reward, a better and more eternal salvation, in the unity of the Son with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Those who remain faithful in their witness to the Gospel will be protected through the fiery ordeal of this world, and then restored, supported, strengthened and established as God’s own for ever. To God the Father be the glory, in the power of the Spirit, through Jesus Christ our Lord.+

That None May Be Lost

Going to the furthest reaches of time and space — "to infinity and beyond"— with the Gospel! A sermon for Easter 6a.
SJF • Easter 6a • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSGWhile God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness...

Some of you may remember the old Bible quizzes that contained questions such as, “What is the shortest verse in the Bible?” The answer, at least as far as the King James version has it, is — how many know? — “Jesus wept.” — You all score! Very good. That is surely the shortest Bible verse, but not the one best known. For there is a verse of Scripture so popular that it is known by its number: John 3:16. But how many who know the number really know or understand the verse?

They may be like the man who was sentenced to jail and on his first night in the lockup was confused when one of the other inmates yelled out “37” and all the other prisoners laughed. Another prisoner whispered, “248” and that brought a round of chuckles. Yet another then said, “22” and raucous belly-laughs echoed down the corridor. Finally the prisoner asked his cellmate what was going on, and he explained that the prisoners had told the same jokes for so long and over and over that they had assigned them numbers to save time. The next night the new prisoner thought he’d give it a try and in the midst of the amusement he yelled out “147” —— only instead of laughter there was dead silence. His cellmate leaned over the edge of the bunk and said, “You just don’t know how to tell a joke.”

Well, I wonder how well people who hold up those John 3:16 reference on posters at football games, really know how to tell the Gospel. Do they understand the message they blazon, or do they think the passage will get through to the throngs of people who may have no idea what that famous verse says, and may not have a Bible at hand or in their home to look it up —— if they even know it is a Bible verse? Such is the state of things in a world that has grown as ignorant of God’s word and God’s message as were the Athenians to whom Paul made his exposition of the faith in front of the Areopagus.

You, of course, know the verse very likely by heart, and probably from the King James Version: “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” The next verse, number 17, is perhaps a bit less well known, which is a pity, as it completes the thought: “For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.” And, as I mentioned a few weeks ago, where the English says “world” the original language speaks of the cosmos. The point is that God did not love just the planet earth, or just the people living on it, or even just the Jews, or just the Christians, but the whole universe, and intends salvation, as Paul told the Athenians, for everybody everywhere. This is a message of cosmic hope and the possibility of literally universal salvation. For God wants nothing to be lost.

In our reading from Acts —— Paul’s address to the people of Athens —— and in the passage from the 1st Letter of Peter, we see the extent to which God will go to see that no one misses out on the message of salvation, that none is lost due to failure to hear the word of hope and salvation. God has a work in mind —— to combat human ignorance.

Now, ignorance is a word likely to be misunderstood. People will sometimes use it for someone who is foolish or stupid, but ignorance is not the same as these(though it always accompanies them.)Ignorance is the state of not knowing something. Even the smartest person on earth is ignorant to some extent —— for no one knows everything. The opposite of ignorant is not smart but informed.

Paul informs the Athenians that God has overlooked their former ignorance, the fact that they did not now God in Christ —— after all, how could they know about Jesus Christ until someone came and told them about him, filled them in, informed them? He even gives them credit for having an altar in honor of “an unknown god.” Until they were informed, they could not know the unknown God, the one who made heaven and earth and everything in them, the one who formed the entire cosmos, the who is the great King of the universe in whom all things live and move and have their being —— and they certainly could not know that God had just paid a visit to this particular planet, incarnate in human flesh that was put to death in the provincial outpost of Judea across the Mediterranean Sea, and most importantly by the hand and power of God raised from the dead. But once Paul tells them, the Athenians are no longer ignorant of these things —— they are hereby informed.

Our reading today stops short of recording their reaction. But the text goes on to say that on hearing of the resurrection of Jesus, some of them just say, “Whoa!” and others, perhaps intrigued, say, “Let’s hear more about this at another time,” and a very few are moved to join the Christian community. But many or few, convinced or intrigued or perplexed or even amused, they can no longer claim ignorance: they have heard the preaching of the Gospel of the resurrection, and they have been given a chance to accept it. No one is too far away not to be given the chance to hear God’s word of salvation.

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Nor is anyone too far away in time, at least according to Peter. Just as Paul traveled all over the Mediterranean spreading the Gospel, Peter says that Jesus, in the Spirit, even went to proclaim the Gospel to the generations who in former times did not obey. This has traditionally been understood as a reference to what Jesus was up to between his death and resurrection, and that is one possible understanding of what was incorporated in the Apostles’ Creed as “he descended into hell.”

But that is not likely what Peter actually means. Peter says that Jesus did this proclamation when he was “made alive in the spirit” — which is exactly what happened at his resurrection, not before it. So this preaching to the prisoners likely refers to a time after Jesus was raised from the dead, made alive in the Spirit. During that time you may recall he spends very little time with the disciples —— dropping in on them through barred and locked doors —— and similarly he may well have been making other rounds to other even more secure prisons —— such as hell itself, where the disobedient of the former generations had been so long imprisoned. They too are given a chance.

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The point of this is that salvation brought about by Jesus is cosmic —— as John 3:16-17 says. It is not bound by time or space. It reaches not only to the ends of the earth, but ripples out in time. This is partly the work of evangelists such as Peter and Paul —— who began spreading the word of salvation from Jerusalem through Greece and to Rome and beyond. It was also the work of the other apostles and evangelists: Thomas is said to have brought the gospel to India; Phillip, the Scripture records, passed the word along to an Ethiopian who no doubt brought the word back to the first Christian church in Africa; The later evangelists sent and brought that word to Europe —— Gregory the Great and Augustine sent from Rome to set up shop in Canterbury; Boniface who went to Germany and Anskar to Scandinavia; Cyril and Methodius who spread the word in Eastern Europe. And let us not forget those who in more modern times brought the gospel to China and Japan, and the South Pacific; and the evangelists who ventured to Africa and the Americas. Truly the word has gone forth around the globe —— not always well received, in fact sometimes not all that well presented: for the Bible sometimes came along with the sword and the rifle; some people just don’t know how to tell the Gospel!

And yet the Gospel, the Good News, was and is told —— the message gets through even though the messengers are sometimes not all they could or should be. And this is in the end a likely evidence that the message has a power and a truth of its own, for even when badly delivered, even through the static or the mispronunciation, even in spite of the cruelty or injustice that sometimes wrongfully accompanied it, the Word of God, the message of God through the Spirit of truth, is proclaimed. God so loved the world that he sent his son to save it, to the end that all who believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. That is the Gospel preached to the folks in Athens and to the ends of the earth, in the prison of hell where the departed spirits huddled in darkness, and to the end of time, and beyond. It is a message that we are called, each and every one of us, to preach to the ignorant of our present world, and to do so by more than merely holding up a sign with a Bible verse reference on it. Rather let us, as Jesus said, keep his commandment to love one another as he loved us, and then the world will see and know that our love is a gift which they too can share, as the Spirit of God abides with us, until Christ comes again in glory. It is that love we share, my friends, that shows the gospel most clearly. May we, in the power of God’s Spirit, proclaim with lips and lives the Father and the Son, who lives and reigns now and for ever.+

Independent for What?

SJF • Proper 9C • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
For thus says the Lord: “I will extend prosperity to her like a river, and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you shall nurse and be carried on her arm, and dandled on her knee. As a mother comforts her child so I will comfort you.”

Today is Independence Day, but you may have noticed that the Scripture readings we heard were not those appointed for the Fourth of July, but the regular readings from Proper 9 in Year C, for the Sunday closest to July 6. Part of my reason for choosing the regular Sunday readings rather than those celebrating the holiday is exactly that: celebration.

What exactly are we celebrating on the Fourth of July? Obviously we are celebrating independence — the independence of the United States — or as they were at that time the several colonies — from the British crown. It was on the Fourth of July in 1776 that the Declaration of Independence was adopted and signed. So it is abundantly clear that independence that day in Philadelphia was independence from.

My question today is what is independence for. And that is why I chose to use the readings for the regular Sunday rather than the readings appointed for Independence Day. For although that first reading from Isaiah starts out with plenty of good news to celebrate — all of that language about prosperity flowing like a river, and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream; and being breast-fed at the glorious bosom of Jerusalem — after all that upbeat language comes that threat of the Lord’s indignation, when the Lord will come in fire with chariots like a whirlwind to pay back his anger in fury and his rebuke in flames of fire: “for by fire will the Lord execute judgment, and by his sword, on all flesh!” Does that sound like something to celebrate?

There is also sobering language in Jesus’s instructions to the disciples as he sends them out — empty-handed and like lambs among wolves. They are to beg for their food and wish peace to those who give it to them, but to pronounce an awful curse upon any who are inhospitable towards them, and who refuse to receive the good news they bear. And even when they return, excited and proud that they have been able to triumph even over demons, Jesus reminds them not to rejoice in their victory over spirits, but rather to give thanks that their names are written in heaven.

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And so, even as we rightly celebrate the fact that the United States freed itself from the dominion of the British 234 years ago — it is good to recall that even that declaration of liberty was followed by several years of hard warfare. It is also good and right and important for us to take stock of where we are now.

Is prosperity flowing like a river and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream? Most of the overflowing we’ve been hearing about over the last few months is not the wealth of nations but the waste of industry, a glutting spout of oil polluting the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, and perhaps even the Atlantic shore, depending on how the waters flow and the winds blow. And the wealth of nations seems more like the wealth of notions, as any sense of value to anything seems geared not to consumable or practical things like goods and services, but rather to the relative values of the various national currencies, and of money itself; and even credit, which is merely the ghost of money, has become a commodity and object of speculation; and that latter speculation has brought about near total collapse in a financial world based on promises instead of performance.

And as for peace, is there peace to this house and to the world — or is the world as torn by strife and battle as always: druglords and criminals in the Bronx, in Jamaica and Mexico; our own seemingly unending battle against terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq, with further threats in Pakistan and Iran and North Korea — surely our world is more like that world of fire and whirlwind, rebuke and the sword coming upon all flesh, than like the vision of peaceable Jerusalem. And Jerusalem itself — and Gaza and the West Bank — is this the peace of God?

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Yet in the midst of all this we still see Jesus — the perfectly innocent man who was crucified, who suffered death for crimes he did not commit, for sins of which he was not guilty. We hear the voice of the apostle Paul raised in affirmation that he dare not boast of anything except the cross, the cross of Christ by which the world has been crucified to him and he to the world. He does not boast of his successes; he does not glory in his own accomplishments; he takes no stock of those who follow the law or of those who disregard the law — for neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything, but only the new creation, the new life in Christ.

Jesus himself, when, as I said, the disciples returned like excited schoolboys flush with their latest victory on the pitch, reminded them not to place their joy in this passing victory, but rather to plant the banner of their joy in the firm and secure knowledge of salvation — salvation won not by them but for them — by him, when from before the foundation of the world he saw Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. It is that cosmic independence — liberation from eternal death and for eternal life — that we are called to celebrate, with names written in heaven brighter and more lasting than any earthly fireworks.

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Today is Independence Day. But my brothers and sisters, it is not only a day to celebrate our independence from the domination of foreign powers — whether from the merely human foreign power of the British crown, or from the power of terrorists and militants ranged against us both at home and abroad, or even from the natural power of a hurt and wounded world lashing back at us for the damage inflicted upon it, or even freedom from the supernatural domination of the devil. We are, it is true, free and independent of all these things when we place our trust in Jesus Christ our Lord.

But there is more: because we are not only independent from, but independent for. God has a purpose for us — not only to be dandled like children on the knees of our mother Jerusalem; but for us to take our stand as adult men and women, disciples called to serve, and sent to serve. The harvest still is plentiful and the laborers willing to do their labor far too few. We may be sent forth — on this fourth of July — with limited resources. We may — no, we will — face rejection from some even as we offer them God’s peace and a kingdom word of good news.

But let us not lose heart, and let us not allow anyone to make trouble for us — for we too carry the marks of Jesus branded on our bodies. Those marks were made when we were baptized in water and the Holy Spirit, and the sign of Christ’s cross was made upon our foreheads. God help us, if we glory in anything other than that, if we rejoice in anything but the fact that we have been saved, that our names are written above, and that we have been called and commissioned to serve this wounded world. Let us make this the Forth of July — the day we march forth from this place in the power of Christ and of his Holy Spirit, to the service and the glory of God the Almighty.+

That is My Name

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Real Refreshment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.+

The Scattered Word

SJF • Proper 10a • Tobias Haller BSG

Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path... other seeds fell on rocky ground... other seeds fell among thorns... other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain.

This Sunday we hear the first in a series of gospel lessons about seeds, parables in which Jesus uses agricultural imagery. Jesus, though a carpenter, must have been well familiar with the farming and gardening that went on in the lands in which he lived and traveled — as were the people of those lands. So he often made use of these images in his teaching.

Today’s parable shows someone sowing seed by the method that goes by the name “broadcasting” — and it may come as a surprise to hear that this term has been around a lot longer than radio or television. It consists of walking through the field and tossing the seed every which way, scattering and casting it abroad. You may have seen the logo of the book publisher Simon and Shuster, that shows a little man walking along with a sack of seed, his head tilted up, not even particularly looking where he’s going, just tossing the seed behind and around him. That’s the original “broadcasting.”

Jesus tells his disciples that the seed in his parable stands for the word, so it is not at all strange that a book publisher should use this same symbol as a logo. After all, a publisher’s business is to spread the word too, in the form of books — the written word printed on paper and distributed abroad. And this is true as surely as Jesus intended it to refer to the Word we know as the Gospel, the written word of God, the word of the kingdom scattered and spread to the four corners of the earth.

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Now, it may seem at first that broadcasting the seed is wasteful and extravagant. Why not just choose where the seed is to go, choose only the most fertile soil, prepare it, plow it and till it, and only plant the seed in the furrows. Well, to pick up our publishing analogy, you might just as well say, why publish a book? Why not find out just who wants to know what is in the book and send it directly to them. But, of course, that’s not a book — it’s a letter! That’s not publishing, but correspondence.

Publishing requires a wider reach, a greater spread, a more adventuresome approach. There is a risk of some loss in publishing just as there is in scattering your seed by broadcasting it. You may think you understand your audience, and do a lot of research about targeting a particular group for your publication, but once a book is printed and distributed, you never know for certain what will become of it. It might be a best-seller, or instead languish on the shelves only to be “remaindered” and sold at a huge discount so as not to be a total loss.

But on the plus side, you never know how many hands a book may pass through in its lifetime; one book can have many, many readers: the public library is a testimony to that fact. But the same is true of our own personal libraries. As you know, Father Forsyth, who in his retirement was a member of this parish, had served as a priest for well over half a century — and accumulated many books along the way. At his death, those books came to the rectory, where they still are. And every time I consult one of them when I’m working on a sermon or an essay, I’m reminded of Father Forsyth, because his name is written in neat little letters on the inside cover of each of them. So I benefit from them, and learn from them, as he did — and who knows how many others will do the same in the years and decades to come, and gain from what they read, and bring forth fruit, thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold?

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The thing about books is that the message they contain is for people who may not even know they need to hear it. And so it is with the Scripture itself, the written Word of God, that “book of books” we call the Bible. The message of salvation it conveys is most needed by the people who have yet to hear it, the people who don’t even know about it. Now, that doesn’t mean it will bear fruit in all of them — there are some who receive it eagerly but will not profit from it: like rocky soil where the seed can’t put down roots. Some may well receive the word, and have it taken from them by others, like birds who snatch up the seed from the path. Some may embrace the word but find that other cares and concerns stifle it out, like thorns that choke the seed.

But others, ah those others, who are like good soil, not only receive the word but do something with it, understanding it and bringing forth — what? Why, more seed! They bear fruit and multiply the seed and become broadcasters themselves, eager to share the Word they have understood and put into practice.

And this is what God desires, that the word that goes forth from his mouth shall not return to him empty, but accomplish that which God has purposed, and succeed in the thing for which God sent it. God, who broadcasts the Word, does so in order to maximize the opportunities for growth and productivity — and even unlikely soil gets the chance to be productive. Who knows, maybe that crack in the sidewalk holds enough soil to sprout at least a little. Who knows, maybe the rocky soil will give a bit when the rains come and water the earth, so that the seed might have a chance; or the thorns not be so tenacious and obstructive; or the birds might even find a tasty worm to add variety to their diet, and choose it instead of the seed!

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We are, of course, called to be the good soil — receptive to the word but also productive: to bring forth a harvest of the word, and to take up the task as sowers who continue to spread it. As our collect today puts it, we are called not only to know and understand what things we ought to do, but to pray to have the grace and power faithfully to accomplish them. We are, in short, to be fruitful and multiply the word of God.

And there is none so weak or small but may find service here. The word that a Christian proclaims need not be as eloquent as a sermon or a testimony. As the old song says, even those of us who cannot preach like Peter, or cannot preach like Paul, can still “tell the love of Jesus and say he died for all.” Even a young child, filled with the love of God and the Spirit of God, can cry out, “Abba! Father!” That Spirit is planted in our hearts through the grace and gift of God, and dwells within us, taking root and bringing forth fruit, as we — all of us adopted children — join our voices together and cry out to our Abba, our Father, our God.

And others, hearing that word, will take it in as well, as it takes root within them. The word shall go forth and shall not return empty, but accomplish that which God purposes, and succeed in the thing for which God sent it: the word of salvation, broadcast and published to the furthest extent of the world. So let us join in the task, dear friends, let us bring forth abundantly, and equipped with the word to spread, and the spirit to spread it, “publish glad tidings, tidings of peace, tidings of Jesus, redemption and release!”+

Surprised by Grace

Saint James Fordham • Lent 3a • Tobias Haller BSG
God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. - Romans 5:5

Grace is amazing — as amazing as water in the desert. Today’s readings show us two acts of amazing grace, two desert oases in our Lenten pilgrimage, as we examine the dry patches in our lives and discover some surprising water-springs.

The children of Israel received water from rock— the last place anyone would have looked. They had looked in empty river-beds, where they thought it should have been, rather than in the rock, where they were sure it couldn’t be. What was their problem (and do we share it)? Why don’t we find what we are looking for?

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First: we can look for the right thing in the wrong place. There’s an old joke about man crawling about under a lamppost late one night. A passing cop asks, “What’s all this then?” The man explains he’s looking for his watch. After helping him for a few minutes, the cop asks, “Are you sure you lost it here?” He answers, “No; I lost it up the street.” “Then why in thunder are you looking for it here?” Said the man, “Well, the light’s much better here.”

Are we that foolish? Do you remember the old song about looking “for love in all the wrong places”? How often do we do things we think will make us popular or well liked, rather than the things we really enjoy? How many people start drinking or smoking or using drugs so that they can be in the “right” crowd? It is good to be loved, but there are healthy ways and unhealthy ways to seek it.

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Second: we can possess the gift and not know it, or even reject it. Have you ever walked around looking and looking for something only to discover that it’s right in your pocket. Or even worse, have you ever been sorting out your mail and accidentally thrown away an important letter that got mixed up with the junk mail or the empty envelopes? It is possible to have all you could possibly need and yet not know it, or even lose it, through carelessness or lack of awareness.

God was never quite good enough for the wandering Israelites. They treated him like one of those envelopes from Publishers Clearing House — you know, the ones that tell you you’vepossibly won a million dollars, and you get all excited, but then you open it and find out it is about magazine subscriptions, and you throw it away. The treated the wedding invitation as if it were junk mail. They were never satisfied: When God gave them water from the rock, they asked for bread. When they received bread from heaven they complained there was no meat to go with it.

Are we that foolish, that ungrateful? How often, when blessed with life, health, reasonable success, and so on, do we hunger for more? There is a chilling judgment on this kind of selfishness in Psalm 106: “God gave them what they asked, but he sent leanness into their souls.” Leanness of soul, hunger that can never be satisfied but always craves more, is what keeps people looking for the right thing in the wrong place, and not knowing or accepting the gifts they’ve received, or even throwing them away.

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Let’s turn now, though, to some good news, to look at a figure from the Gospel. She’s an unlikely character who found grace in an unlikely way. She shows the same tendencies to look in the wrong place, or for the wrong thing, but she accepts the gift with enthusiasm. We don’t know her name, only that she was a woman of Samaria.

Jesus asks her for water. This is natural: he has no bucket, and he is thirsty. The surprise is that Jesus has living water for the woman, even though he asks her for well water.

Her response to the surprise is to try to “trim the mystery down to size” as all of us do, when confronted with the amazing. We human beings can turn the most beautiful poetry into prose at the drop of a hat. When offered the best things in the world we often try to tame and limit them. We like to put easy handles on big ungainly ideas like “Love” and “Peace” and then think we understand them because we’ve given them those short little one-syllable names. Well, love and peace are hard work, as a look at our lives or the world will tell us, and just because you can say the words doesn’t mean you can put them into practice; just because you can talk the talk doesn’t mean you can walk the walk.

When Jesus offers the woman living water, she asks “How can you offer me living water? You don’t have a bucket!” Then, when Jesus brings up the subject of her husband, she adopts another standard strategy to avoid taking a hard look at her life — she starts to talk “religion.” Here she is, a Samaritan woman, with a real live Jewish prophet cornered: what an opportunity to get a few quick answers.

Does this sound familiar? “Gee, Doc, I know this is a wedding party, but I’ve been having these funny pains in my left elbow for a while now...” Well, here’s the Samaritan woman’s opportunity to get some questions answered by an expert — and to avoid the uncomfortable look at her own life that Jesus has brought up. And, if you’re going to change the subject, there’s never been a more popular subject to change it to than religion!

Yet her question is superficial, as is so much talk about religion. “Where is the right place to worship?” — that’s the question she wants settled. Christ answers that the “where” isn’t important, but the “how” — true worshipers worship in Spirit. This answer about the Spirit confuses her, much as poor old Nicodemus was confused in our Gospel reading last week when he was told he needed to be born into the Spirit that moves where it wills, to be born again, born from above. The Samaritan woman too doesn’t understand, and says, “Messiah will make it clear.”

Then comes the climax, the turning point of the story, of her story and ours: Jesus says, “I am He.” He is Messiah, talking to her right there! That moment is portrayed in one of our stained glass windows,

right over there, just as Jesus tells the woman that he is what she has been looking for. Now, we’ve got some lovely stained glass windows here at Saint James — and this isn’t one of them! This was an American window made by a well-meaning craftsman trying to imitate the kind of work you see in the German stained glass windows in the sanctuary. The architectural details in his effort end up looking more like bananas than pinnacles. Still, look at the Samaritan woman’s face, caught in the moment of recognition, as she looks up just as Jesus points to himself and says, “I am he.”

There is some real skill showing through the artist’s vision of that moment, isn’t there? And what a moment it was: “I am he, the one speaking to you right now.” He is the real fount of living water brimming up in the middle of the desert of her life.

And hers is the proper response — she goes off to the city to spread the word. She doesn’t stake a claim to the living water: she doesn’t try to cap the well, she goes off to tell the town the good news. She becomes the first non-Jewish evangelist, the first to spread the Good News to the outcast and despised people of Samaria, the Good News that the Messiah has come not just to the Jewish people, but to them as well, to a people despised on account of their ancestry and their beliefs. Like Andrew, whose first act was to find his brother, this woman spreads the good news throughout the town, and a whole thirsty community is enabled to drink in the living presence of the Messiah among them.

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This story shows us several things about grace, most importantly that grace is undeserved. It is a gift, not a wage. Neither we nor the Samaritan woman nor the children of Israel earn it — we sometimes even refuse it without knowing it — we often avoid it as if it were hurtful. We sometimes pass it by as if it were not there. Grace is a gift, not a wage. It takes us by surprise. We don’t earn it. The only thing we earn, our only wages in our sinful state — well, as we are reminded in this Lenten season — the wages of sin is death.

But as the everlasting good news of Eastertide reminds us: the gift of God is life, life in abundance, like water in the desert. God’s love was poured out for an unlikely woman with a questionable past by a well in Samaria. And God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

For the gift and giver are one and the same: the giver is the gift. Jesus gave himself, gave his life for us, even while we were sinners. We’ve earned only death: we’ve worked hard for it — instead we are given a gift of life. And that is the wonderful and amazing surprise of grace: it’s what grace means — not getting what you deserve for your failings, but being forgiven in spite of them.

Christ continues to pour these gracious gifts upon us, through word and sacraments. We receive that grace, mediated through outward and visible signs. And the first of these, the one by which we first come into unity with Christ and the church, is the water of baptism, which flows into the desert of our lives.

We are the vessels for that water, vessels of clay made by the potter’s hand, ready to be filled to the brim with grace. The woman at the well said that Jesus had no bucket for the living water. But he had her: she would be a receptacle of grace, and carry it carefully back to her city, not spilling a drop, to quench the thirst of other yearning people, to invite them to the well of living water that is Jesus Christ.

The water of baptism is the same living water that burst from the rock to quench the thirst of the wandering children of Israel, the same living water that Jesus promised to a lonely woman by a well in the Samaritan outback, the same water in which you and I were baptized, and in which children and men and women will continue to be baptized until sacraments shall cease and we are one in Spirit and in Truth.

As we continue our Lenten pilgrimage, think on the gift of grace we have been given: how it is unexpected; how it is undeserved; how amazing grace is, that through word and sacraments we have come to know the One who is “indeed the savior of the world.”+